This year Lent begins with Ash Wednesday, February 17 and ends on Saturday, April 4, the day before Easter. Lent is a traditional season of preparation, marked by intensified devotional reflection on the historical circumstances that led to the crucifixion of Jesus and the human condition that was resolved by his resurrection. These are deep mysteries which are not “answered” by study (as if to solve the mystery) but responded to with penance, piety and resolve. In some traditions fasting is undertaken to deepen the experience.
The Presbyterian Church is open-minded about Lent. Some congregations take this opportunity seriously but others doubt it is valid or helpful. Most congregations make some provision for observance by members who choose to do so. Lenten devotional materials are a popular contribution along with church-membership classes for those who are getting ready to join the church.
“Why do we have Lent?” one Presbyterian asked. “It has no basis in scripture.” She admitted that Jesus spent 40 days in the wilderness before beginning his ministry, but she thought that is scant justification for our current exercise.
Lent as we have it today cannot be accounted for without tracing its history.
Aside from the value of a season of devotion and attention to our spiritual development, “the reason for Lent” on the part of Protestant denominations is historical. Following John Calvin, Presbyterians were especially opposed to the superstitions they found embedded in Medieval Christian piety. The opposition came to a rather wild climax with the Puritan revolution led by Oliver Cromwell. All Presbyterianism was influenced by the move to simplify and purify worship. But the Puritan limitations neglected large areas of human nature. By the end of the 18th century a reaction against sterile intellectualism led to the emergence of Wesleyan Methodism, the Great Awakening revival movement, and a swing toward sentimentality (“I walked in the Garden Alone” etc.) of the Victorian Romantic Age. As that piety took over, a reaction against it began. The Oxford Movement started in the Episcopal Church in 1833, but spread into other traditions by the end of the 19th century. That movement sought to reclaim some of the rich heritage of the past, particularly in terms of worship and spirituality. Medieval hymns and chants were brought out in English, and so were the church seasons of Advent and Lent which precede Christmas and Easter.
During the first half of the 20th century the Presbyterian Church adopted historical and ecumenical ideals. Many (if not most) Presbyterian church buildings erected by the largest congregations between 1918 and 1929 were grandly neo-Gothic. The Presbyterian Church USA published The Hymnal (“the green hymnal”) in 1933, containing not only hymns of various eras but also liturgical choral responses and responsive readings – all meant to integrate the Presbyterian Church into the Church Universal and Apostolic.
By the mid-1960s the Presbyterian Church resolved to reclaim “reconciliation and community” which involved not only a new confession of faith included in a compilation of confessions, but a new hymnbook (“the red book”), folk songs accompanied by guitars, and churches in the round decorated with banners. Lent became a time of devotions and reflection, group study and fellowship, moving away from lofty chants and echoes from centuries gone by.
We predict that the Presbyterian Church is crossing an even newer threshold, hastened by the need to develop entirely new forms of worship and congregational life enabled by technology that is reconfiguring the world as we perceive it. Will Lent be a part of this new network connecting us to each other so we are rooted in history and nurtured into spiritual maturity? Probably Presbyterians will still be motivated for or against Lent by what else they are for or against. Some are “for” spiritual disciplines to refine faith. Others are “against” things that blur the divisions that keep us Presbyterian.
The Presbyterian Church, beginning with John Calvin, retains historical traditions to such an extent that you cannot tell by looking at the buildings whether a church is Presbyterian or some other Christian branch. What goes on inside is also diverse and wonderful.
“Why do we have Lent?” Because it is valuable.
Rev. Dr. Kenneth Dobson posts his weekly reflections on this blog.