Pieter Bruegel, Detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (1559), oil on wood, 46 in x 65 in, Kunsthistorisches Museum, Vienna
There are a lot of things Baptist aren’t supposed to do. Baptists don’t drink, dance, gamble, or chew. Most Baptists don’t do Lent either. Lent is the forty-day period from Ash Wednesday (this year it’s tomorrow, Feb. 22) to Easter Sunday (not counting the Sundays in between). The odd-sounding name comes from the Anglo-Saxon “lencten” meaning “spring.” The Latin name is “Quadragesima,” which means “fortieth.” It’s symbolic of Jesus’ forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness (Matt. 4:2).
So why don’t most Baptists do Lent? It’s a curious omission for an uptight group like ours that’s obsessed with avoiding sin. Maybe that’s part of the problem we have with Lent. If we set aside a particular period for fasting and self-denial, then it might be admitting that gorging and indulgence is OK the rest of the year. The programmed austerity of Lent might also give license to the frivolity of the pre-Lenten celebration of Carnival (aka Mardi Gras). Also, Lent is just too Catholic for most Baptists. In 1522, Protestant followers of the Zurich Reformer Ulrich Zwingli famously broke the Lenten fast by eating sausages as a symbol of their freedom in Christ. Lent is not found anywhere in the Bible, and Baptists generally follow the Zwinglian “regulative principle of worship” that says we should practice only what is explicitly commanded in the New Testament. Jesus even said something that seems to go directly against the tradition of Lent. Jesus said,
Whenever you fast, do not look dismal, like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces so as to show others that they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that your fasting may be seen not by others but by your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18)
Lent begins with Ash Wednesday when many Christians receive ashes on their forehead in the form of a cross as a sign of their penance and fasting. It seems to violate what Jesus said in the passage above.
Despite these important objections, there are some good reasons for Baptists to consider adding this somber season to our impoverished church calendar. Neither Christmas nor Easter is found in the Bible, yet these holy days are universally celebrated in Baptist churches. And Lent is even older than Christmas. The first historical mention of Lent was at the Council of Nicea in the year 325. Christmas was first mentioned in 354. It’s strange that many Baptist churches celebrate Advent in preparation for Christmas but have no corresponding preparatory season leading up to Easter. Maybe it’s time we change that.
For Baptists, Lent is a choice not an obligation. Freedom in Christ means we are free to choose to observe Lent or not. Observing Lent puts us in sync with the broader Christian community. Also, we cannot fully appreciate Jesus’ resurrection without spending time reflecting on his sufferings. We live in a privileged society where hardly anyone suffers for being a Christian. A little self-imposed hardship during Lent builds spiritual character and can deepen our understanding of our faith.
You can read more of my thoughts about Lent here.