The Discipline of Lent


As we approach the beginning of Lent (Ash Wednesday is March 1st this year), I am beginning to mention the history of Lent and referring to it as a season of repentance, fasting, prayer, and works of love (almsgiving). I’m also starting to hear the old-saw response from some Lutherans. Here’s a note from Bill as an example:

This is in no way Lutheran!!!!!!!!! We are saved by God’s GRACE not WORKS of discipline. We cannot cleanse our own hearts.
I would like to know who is responsible for this error so that I can speak to them.
I’ll post my response to Bill as an open letter.
Dear Mr. Lindeman,
You are correct. Lent is not about our giving up something to somehow please God by our good work.  Lent is about what Jesus Christ gave up to pay the penalty for the sins of the world — His holy and innocent life. This is the message of the Gospel.
 
If during Lent Christians choose to give up something or rededicate themselves to helping those in need as a way to proclaim the salvation Christ has won for all by His suffering and death, then such activities are sacrifices that glorify God. Yet as you say in your note, nothing we do through discipline, self-denial, or good works can ever earn the Lord’s forgiveness or repay Him for what He accomplished for us.  We are saved by grace.
 
Though the Scriptures do not mention Lent, it has a longstanding tradition in the Church. Though we are not certain how it developed, by A.D. 350 the forty-day fast that we now have was already part of the Church’s practice in most places. Many identify the Second Festal letter of Athanasius in A.D. 330 as the earliest reference to a forty-day day fast leading up to Easter. 
 
For Christians living in the Fourth Century Lent had two major emphases: First, it was seen as a time of repentance and denial of self. All Christians were to examine their lives according to the Ten Commandments and other Christian ethical precepts and repent where necessary. They were to remember what it cost their Savior to save them, The second emphasis of Lent was as a time of instruction and preparation for those who wanted to become members of the Christian Church, i.e., the catechumens. During Lent they learned the Christian doctrine by studying the Creed. They were led step by step through prayer and special rites toward baptism. The instruction of the catechumen led to baptism and receiving the Lord’s Supper in the service on Easter.
 
At the time of the Reformation, some Christians wanted to eliminate Lent since Scripture didn’t command it. Luther, however, urged that it be kept, for he saw Lent as an opportunity for the strengthening of faith. “Lent, Palm Sunday, and Holy Week shall be retained, not to force anyone to fast, but to preserve the Passion history and the Gospels appointed for that season” (Luther’s Works AE, 53:90). Here Luther instructs that Lent should be preserved, in part, because it reminded Christians of the Passion (suffering and death) of Jesus and encouraged them to meditate upon it. However, no one should be forced to participate. It should be voluntary.
 
Lutherans retain Lent to this day, because we see it as a salutary outward discipline that gives Christians a wonderful opportunity for spiritual renewal. As Lent begins, we are invited to struggle against everything that leads us away from love of God and love of neighbor by exercising the discipline of Lent: repentance, fasting, prayer and works of love (almsgiving). These may become specific occasions and opportunities for spiritual renewal during this season of renewal as we come face to face with the sin that hinders our walk with Christ. Living out a discipline takes our Lord’s words about self-denial seriously (Matthew 16:24). In the Lenten discipline, we come face to face with the Gospel of Jesus Christ as we focus (or refocus) on His self-sacrificing passion, death and resurrection, which has brought us acceptance, forgiveness and redemption by God. Through that same discipline, we make a loving response to God who gives us the power to live anew.
Blessed Lent,
Pastor Scot Kinnaman
And to you too, dear blog reader, my prayer is that you have a blessed Lent and a joyous Easter celebration.

Solemn Feast: Ash Wednesday


Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. During the 40 days of Lent, God’s baptized people cleanse their hearts through the discipline of Lent: repentance, prayer, fasting, and alms giving. “The readings for the Sundays in Lent lead us in examining our life to discover attitudes, practices, and habits that are incongruous with the new life into which we have been born in the Holy Spirit. Lent is a time of penitence, of putting out of our lives all that remains of the old life or has crept in once more. It is a time of special prayer, for without the help of the Holy Spirit nothing will be accomplished in us.

“In speaking of Lent it is difficult to avoid the word “fasting,” which is misunderstood and regarded with disfavor by many. Yet it cannot be ignored or disregarded, for both the historic Epistle (Joel 2:12-19) and the Gospel (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-21) for Ash Wednesday speak of it, and Luther’s Small Catechism brings us face to face with the term (Sacrament of the Altar: Who receives this sacrament worthily?). Surely it is to be preferred to “keeping Lent.” For practical purposes fasting may be defined as the avoidance of anything that could interfere with, distract from, or disturb in the preparations for the new life with the risen Christ. This may call for a restriction in diet as excessive eating or drinking may cause dullness and apathy which are far from conducive to a searching self-examination and to resolute spiritual life. On the other hand, should the one who has determined to fast in such a way confine his dietary limitations to Lent and return to his old habits when at Easter he rises with Christ to a new life?

“A number of questions arise also regarding the fad of “keeping Lent.” Does such “keeper” of Lent smoke so heavily,” drink so heavily, consume excessive amounts of recreation, or work such lengthy hours, “that his or her indulgence interferes with the preparations for the new life in Christ? If so, is he or she to resume his or her excess when at Easter the new life begins? The same applies to” any of the excessive habits or our lives. “Whatever is done, or not done, in observance of Lent has value and purpose only if it serves to prepare and train for the newness of life, for the new life to be entered at Easter with the risen Christ.

“Lent is a time in which God’s people prepare with joy for the paschal feast (Easter). It is a time in which God renews His people’s zeal in faith and life. It is a time in which we pray that we may be given the fullness of grace that belongs to the children of God” (The Sermon and the Propers:Volume II, 45-46),

Dear Lord Jesus Christ, it is with humble and contrite hearts that we enter this day the holy season of Lent to meditate on Your bitter suffering and death that you, the innocent Lamb of God, endured for us. With deep sorrow we confess that also our sins, which justly anger God and call for our punishment. were the cause of Your suffering and dying. God chose to spare us by laying upon you the iniquity of us all.

Lord, have mercy.
Christ, have mercy.
Lord, have mercy.
Be gracious to us.
Spare us, good Lord. Amen.