Summary: What is the value of Lenten Rituals to Protestants?
We could look to the time of Lent as traditional activities representing the death of Christ plus His resurrection, and return. This year, the 2018 Lenten Season began on February 14th – Valentines' day. For Lent that day is called Ash Wednesday and people, worldwide, gave up certain foods or habits to improve their health or demonstrate self-restraint to grow closer to God.
Lent, for many people, is a serious, earnestly religious observance. In the Christian liturgical calendar, Lent always begins on Ash Wednesday and ends some six weeks later just before Easter Sunday. The purpose of Lenten rituals are to prepare believers for a sincere celebration of Easter by initially placing the mark of Christ on their foreheads, then entering into a season of prayer, penance, mortifying the flesh, repentance of sins, almsgiving, and forms of self-denial exhibited by forgoing certain pleasures of foods, treats or alcoholic spirits.
Lent can seem mystifyingly strange to Christians and to the non-Christian. Some consider Lent as a time when all kinds of weird religious “stuff” happens while few understand or can explain the New Testament basis for Lent. Unless you are Anglican, Eastern Orthodox, Oriental Orthodox, Lutheran, Methodist, or Roman Catholic, Lent may be as much as an enigma to you as it is to the unsaved. The unschooled might consider all aspects of Lent nullified like some fanatical pagan rituals done way back in the Middle Ages?
In truth, Lent can be said to be representative of Jesus' sojourn in the wilderness where He fasted to be nearer to God. Fasting or giving something up during Lent is a Catholic custom but Protestants and non-believers also take part. Catholics, represent 61%, of the religious groups most likely to observe Lent, according to LifeWay’s survey. Protestants and those with evangelical beliefs observe Lent at 20 and 28 percent respectively. In general, 43% of those attending church at least once a month observe Lent.
It is certainly true that fasting is a biblical discipline that can be defended from both the Old and the New Testament books. Jesus himself was questioned about fasting. Matthew chapter 9, verses 14 and 15 tells us: Then the disciples of John came to Him, saying, “Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but Your disciples do not fast?” And Jesus said to them, “Can the friends of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them? But the days will come when the bridegroom will be taken away from them, and then they will fast.
Matthew chapter 6, verses 16 to 18, lets us know that fasting should not be a public declaration. Fasting is something to be done in private – without a lot of fanfare or boasting. Fasting is to be seen only by God. “Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. 17 But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly.”
Some claim the Ash Wednesday's practice of marking one's forehead with soot has biblical support as evidenced by many Old Testament Books. Granted, putting ashes on one's head was a common Old Testament embodiment and symbolic of being 'one with Christ'. By having the sign of the cross made with ashes on their foreheads, some Catholics, long with a lessor number of Protestants, mourn Christ's suffering on the cross and, somehow, equate this to their own sins.
But is that smudged marking necessary or even a correct practice to do today? You can decide yourself after hearing all the facts. Yes, most Catholics still mark their forehead on Ash Wednesday. Yes, it is often a rudimentary smudge resembling a cross – and not the Mark of the Beast as some atheists try to argue. However, do you think these Old Testament sanctioned markings are in keeping with the very words, directly spoken, from the lips of Jesus? No, I see no New Testament verse directing us to mark ourselves as such, or have any priest mark us up with soot or any other element. I would caution anyone against that particular practice of the Lenten season.
Abstinence from certain foods is also a Biblically based discipline. In Daniel 10:2-3 we read, "In those days I, Daniel, was mourning for three weeks. I ate no delicacies, no meat or wine entered my mouth, nor did I anoint myself at all, for the full three weeks." Catholics (and others) practice fasting and abstinence as a commemoration of Christ. On all Lenten Fridays, they are not to consume any meat except they are allowed to eat is fish. This seems more like rules rather than willing, independent, decisions of expressing faith. What say, you?