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    Why All Christians Should Give Lent a Chance

    Feasting and fasting help us habituate our affections, help us to feel the truths of the gospel.

    By Benjamin Crosby

    March 18, 2024
    • M.

      The removal of the Catholic obligation to abstain from meat on Fridays and the replacement of this with a general discretionary ‘penance’ has led to many Catholics abandoning this habit. This suggests that without unity and agreement on when we will fast and stressing the importance of fasting, it becomes irrelevant to most people. Fasting is a communal exercise in most religions. People from households where some of the members do not commit to fasting will know that it makes personal adherence more difficult. The most Puritan country, America, has descended into the land of morbid obesity, freeways and McDonalds restaurants, the prosperity gospel, and the gluttonous and constant feeding of insatiable appetites. Is this a coincidence? Could we take this as evidence to suggest that the radical individualism and ‘choice’ implicit in the Protestant reading of scripture leads to widespread sin? The same problem is encountered repeatedly with Protestantism in that it seems one can sin as much as one desires with no consequences, even the need for a marked repentance, as long as one maintains personal faith. The age of abundance and prosperity has revealed the weakness of this position because it seems to have led millions of people into the misery of sin with no clear way out, something that may not have been easy for early Puritans to predict. As more generations of Christians become weakened by sin, whilst maintaining their faith and their belief in their own salvation, perhaps the hypocrisy of faithful Christians causes a greater number of people to question and lose their faith?

    • Edward Solecki

      You are right saying that "nowhere in Scripture is it commanded that the church hold a fast during Lent specifically" and that's why you are exploring opinions of elders of 16th century, spiritually immature church, to support your assumptions. But should we learn the Truth from the church history or from the Scripture? If we follow opinions of man, we are creating idols. If we follow opinion of God, we honor our Creator. But the root of your idolatry lays much deeper. With centuries at his disposal, Satan managed to deceive the church that "we are justified by faith alone". He also convinced bible translators to remove "faithfulness" from the meaning of Hebrew "emunah" and Greek word "pistis". To the extend that there is only one version, (that is NIV) that translates Habakkuk correctly; "the righteous person will live by his faithfulness" Hab.2;4 We also know that "faith by itself, if it is not accompanied by action, is dead." Jam.2;17 and that what faithfulness means - faith accompanied by action! So, NOT THE FAITH ALONE! The other reason of your idolatry is not understanding meaning of "worshiping Father in Spirit and in Truth" Jhn.4;23 "Neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem" Jhn.4;21 means not in any form of religion, or religious practice! And that includes, fasting, lent, tithing, circumcision, going to church on Saturday or Sunday, etc, etc! NOT IN THE LETTER, BUT IN THE SPIRIT,- IN THE INTENT OF THE LETTER!!!! Consequently "Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’(that is many "saved by faith alone" Christians) will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who DOES the will of my Father who is in heaven. Matt.7;21 If anyone can see the "faithfulness" here, then there is a chance of salvation for you. As we are too busy with our life's to take "working out our salvation" Phil.2;12 into our own hands (that is by acquiring God's nature through "epignosis" of God's Word" 2Ptr.1;3-4) so, we rely on the opinions of the so called"experts", who for the same reason rely on the opinions of their experts. And the result is the Christianity we have today; - who justify invading another country, - who justify injecting poison in our bodies - who justify introduction of sexual deviations and immorality to our children, - who justify existence of sin (greed, corruption and homosexuality) in the church, - who justify murder (abortion) - who justify putting in jail someone who exposes the crime instead someone who commits it. And instead of repentance we just do some fasting together. May God have mercy on us.

    • Michael Nacrelli

      I agree that liberty is the key. Fasting (lenten or otherwise) should be encouraged but never imposed.

    Can Protestants observe Lent? From the time of the Reformation, many Protestants have been nervous about the church’s pre-Easter time of fasting and penitence. The problem was not with fasting or penitence as such; sixteenth-century Protestants as much as their fellow Christians assumed, given Christ’s words and example, that fasting was a basic part of the Christian life. Rather, it was more specifically with some features of Lenten fast. Protestants, after all, emphasize the doctrine of justification by faith alone, that is, the idea that our salvation is wholly God’s work, to which we contribute nothing but which we simply receive as a free gift. Practices of fasting and penitence at set times might (depending on how they were taught) tempt Christians to see their own works of repentance as in some way contributing to or even earning one’s salvation, contravening this core commitment. Indeed, Protestants criticized the Roman Catholic view that the Lenten fast was meritorious on exactly this ground.

    What’s more, Protestants talk a lot about Christian liberty: the idea that where the Bible is silent – as in many matters of external religious practice – the believer’s conscience is free. They often argue that pre-Reformation Christianity erred in connecting our salvation to the performance of rites and ceremonies not specifically commanded in Scripture, and for many Protestants, the Lenten fast was a primary example of violating Christian liberty in this way. Even worse, detailed rules about which food could or could not be eaten on a given day seemed to many Protestant theologians to run afoul of Saint Paul’s injunction against making religious distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable food. The Augsburg Confession, the principal Lutheran confession of faith, cites Romans 14, Colossians 2, and 1 Timothy 4 on this point.

    Indeed, the breaking of the church’s rules for the Lenten fast plays an important role in Protestant memory: the reformation in Zurich – and thus the beginning of the Reformed strand of Protestantism – is generally dated to the 1522 “Affair of the Sausages,” in which a group of evangelicals had a meal of sausages during Lent after the priest Ulrich Zwingli preached against the church’s Lenten fasting rules. Small surprise, then, that many Protestant lands ceased keeping Lent altogether, and for those who maintained the season (largely Lutheran areas), practices of penitence or fasting were left up to individual conscience rather than determined by the church.

    detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent painting

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight between Carnival and Lent (detail), oil on panel, 1559.

    But not all Protestant lands did so. As British church historian Stephen Hampton has shown, England was unique in retaining not only the season of Lent, but the Lenten fast specifically. Legislation under King Edward VI and Queen Elizabeth I even maintained the traditional abstention from meat during Lent, and regular proclamations reminded the people of (in the words of the proclamation of 1560) the “ancient and laudable order for fasting.” The ability of the church to set public fasts was defined in confessional documents of the Church of England (see, for example, the “Homily of Good Works, and First of Fasting,” from the Second Book of Homilies, an authoritative collection of sermons). For those Protestants who were convinced that the Church of England had failed to sufficiently distinguish itself from Roman Catholicism – those we usually call “Puritans” – this was often seen as proof that further reform was needed. But there were other, equally staunch Protestants in England who believed that their Protestant commitments were already well-expressed in the life and structure of the English church. And some of them specifically wrote about Lent, and the value of keeping the season on Protestant grounds.

    One particularly important example of this line of argument was developed by Richard Hooker, a figure who is at the center of my academic research. His Protestant accounts of Lent are interesting as more than just a matter of historical trivia (although, as a historian of the English Reformation, historical trivia is my stock in trade). Rather, for Protestants today who are interested in exploring the church’s historic practices of fasting and penitence but might worry that observing the Lenten fast contravenes beliefs they hold dear, Hooker and other English Protestant defenders of Lent can provide some needed reassurance: yes, Protestants can observe Lent.

    Richard Hooker defends the Church of England’s Lenten observance in his most important work, Of the Lawes of Ecclesiasticall Politie, written late in the reign of Queen Elizabeth I. Hooker wrote this massive, eight-volume work to defend the Church of England against Puritan objections; he argued that the core Protestant beliefs that he and his Puritan interlocutors shared were better expressed through the Church of England as it was rather than through various reform schemes the Puritans sought to introduce. As part of this broader argument, Hooker rebutted specific Puritan objections to existing English Protestant religious practice – including the Lenten fast.

    The fundamental basis for feasting and fasting as Christian practices, Hooker writes, is that they teach us to rightly express the two central affections of Christian life, joy and grief. For us to grow in the Christian life, we need to practice the proper “framing of the one affection, and … the perfecting of the other.” Given the centrality of grief and joy to human existence, Christian maturity requires grieving and rejoicing in a Christian way. And this is exactly what feasting and fasting shows us how to do. The church, “the most absolute and perfect schoole of all vertue” teaches us in feasting to rightly orient our joy toward God, to make our “rejoicing to be in him whose mere undeserved mercie is the author of all happines.” In fasting, we have an opportunity to practice a holy grief combined with trust in God’s mercy when we recall that “our selves wee condemne as the onlie causes of our own miserie, and doe all acknowledge him [God] no lesse inclineable then able to save.” We learn, that is, to grieve rightly in recognizing that human sinfulness is the ultimate cause of all our various griefs and to throw ourselves on God’s wholly gratuitous, undeserved mercy towards us.

    Lent is about reckoning with our sins – and about acknowledging that, although we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the mess we have made of things, God is both able and willing to save.

    Another way to put this is that fasting and feasting are about forming our affections in accordance with what Protestants call law and gospel. Hooker does not explicitly use this language, but I think it is implicit in his writing. For Protestants, “law” and “gospel” are the two ways that God addresses us. The law is a matter of God’s commands, the way that God enjoins us to live with love towards God and neighbor. But  – good as these commands are – we cannot keep them, and so being confronted with them convicts us of our sinfulness and our incapacity to, by our own efforts, be acceptable to God. But God does not leave us in condemnation! The gospel, then, is about God’s free grace to us in Jesus Christ: because we cannot act rightly or come to God by our own efforts, the Father not only freely creates and sustains our earthly life but also freely saves us by sending the Son to live and die for us and counting as righteous all who trust in Jesus for salvation. In a sort of miraculous exchange which Martin Luther famously analogizes to the sharing of property in marriage, Jesus, our bridegroom, takes on the debt of all our sins and willingly bears it on the cross, while giving us the riches of his grace: forgiveness of sins, the renewal of our lives by the Holy Spirit’s power, and eternal life.

    And what does all this have to do with feasting and fasting? As we have seen, fasting for Hooker is a matter of training us to see our griefs as fundamentally stemming from sinfulness, so that we realize our sin and look to God for help. Put another way, it is about forming our human experience of grief in accord with the convicting function of the law; to rightly grieve is to realize exactly what the law shows us, namely, that we are sinners in need of God’s help. Feasting, then, teaches us to see all our joys as stemming from gospel, all the blessings of our lives as gifts from our gracious God related to his gift of himself in Christ Jesus. Feasting and fasting, for Hooker, help us habituate our affections in accordance with the truth that all our griefs relate to the sinfulness that the Law shows us and that all our joys relate to the free grace of God that the gospel proclaims. Feasting and fasting train us to feel the truths that Protestant theology proclaims.

    But why exactly does this necessitate regular, public fasting, such as during Lent? Given that the Roman Catholic Lenten fast seemed to threaten the cherished Protestant value of Christian liberty, couldn’t it be enough to invite Christians to fast on their own when they were so moved, as an act of humility before God, to restrain their appetites, or to prepare for a time of intense prayer? Especially if these were supplemented by occasional public fasts in times of national grief or disaster? This, essentially, was the Puritan position. But Hooker isn’t so sure. He supports these sorts of fasts but thinks that by themselves, they are likely to be insufficient. The problem is that we do not like to grieve our sins; we do not like to connect our own griefs to our sinfulness; we do not like to be convicted by the law. As he puts it, “wee are by sufficient experience taught how little it booteth to tell men of washinge away theire sinnes with teares of repentance and so to leave them altogether unto them selves.” Left to our own devices, we will find any number of excuses to avoid mourning our individual wrongdoings.

    detail of The Fight Between Carnival and Lent painting

    Pieter Bruegel the Elder, The Fight Between Carnival and Lent (detail)

    Further, Christians are also guilty of corporate sins, “common to the whole societie,” which ought to be grieved together “at some time in a solemn maner” just as they were committed together. For these reasons, Hooker believes, it is most appropriate for churches to set aside regular times of common fasting. God does not mandate that these fasts be at any particular time; nowhere in Scripture is it commanded that the church hold a fast during Lent specifically. And certainly, Hooker stresses, churches must not treat a certain pattern of fasting or abstention from certain foods as though it were required by God of all Christians or necessary for our salvation (indeed, Hooker seems to think that the English legislation requiring abstention from meat during Lent is properly civil, not religious – fasting for him consists not in abstaining from meat but as much as possible from food entirely).

    But just as the church has power to choose a particular liturgy for use in its worshiping life and then expect adherence to it (even if many other ways of ordering worship are in themselves also acceptable to God), so too can the church choose particular times for fasting and expect its members to keep these fasts. Hooker says elsewhere that the antiquity and universality of church practices suggest that they should probably be retained unless there is an evident problem with their retention. On these grounds, Lent seems to be a particularly appropriate time for the church to set aside for fasting, even if it is not required of the church to do so.

    What does this look at a sixteenth-century debate mean for us today, over four hundred years later? Should Protestants – or any Christians – keep Lent? Hooker’s logic indicates that churches today which do not observe a Lenten fast should not be condemned; it is not an essential part of Christian life because it is not commanded by God. But it also shows that keeping Lent not only does not contravene Protestant teaching but in fact is particularly in accordance with it. Understood rightly, the Lenten fast (or any other regular fast set by the church) does not trespass on Christian liberty or involve seeing some foods as uniquely unclean. It is not only not in contradiction to the Protestant stress on divine agency in salvation, but in fact underlines it. For the purpose of fasting and feasting is pedagogical: it teaches us to grieve and rejoice rightly, which for Hooker means relating all our griefs to human sinfulness and all our joys to God’s entirely undeserved mercy towards us. It helps us to feel in our affections the truths at the heart of the Protestant understanding of the gospel. According to Hooker, not only can Protestants keep Lent, but it is Protestants especially who have good reason to keep the fast.

    Whether or not you share the particular worries about Lent that so exercised Hooker’s Puritan adversaries, Hooker provides a helpful way of thinking about this season. He stresses that Lent is not about proving our holiness by feats of asceticism or punishing ourselves to earn divine favor, a statement with which Christians of all sorts can agree. No: Lent is about reckoning with and grieving the reality of our individual and corporate sins, taking stock of the ways that our failure to love God and neighbor have diminished and harmed our lives – and about acknowledging that, although we are incapable of rescuing ourselves from the mess we have made of things, God is both able and willing to save. Such an understanding might help us say, with that other great early Anglican George Herbert, “Welcome dear feast of Lent.”

    Contributed By BenjaminCrosby Benjamin Crosby

    Benjamin Crosby is a priest in the Episcopal Church serving in the Anglican Church of Canada and a doctoral student in ecclesiastical history at McGill University.

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