Today is Fat Tuesday, the day where you and I can get so much sin out of our lives that we can rightly prepare for Ash Wednesday and 40 days of preparation for Easter. While not getting into the questions surrounding why an individual should go overboard before a time of repentance, Mardi Gras/Fat Tuesday/Shrove Tuesday was originally begun to get in the last bit of rich food and celebration before the more somber time of fasting arrives on Ash Wednesday.
It seems like a lot of Protestant churches are now taking part in Ash Wednesday and remembering the Church Calendar period of Lent. Why, when I was a kid, Lent was just for Roman Catholics, not for Protestants of different stripes. But after my time in Church History classes in my undergrad education at Vanguard University and my time at Fuller Seminary, I have come to the conclusion that it is a helpful practice for the Church. There will be people who take part in the time with little thought, that will always happen, but the focus on sin, repentance, and the cross will make the victorious resurrection and vindication of Jesus that much sweeter on Easter.
If you feel called to give up something for 40 days, then that is great. But please, don’t go flaunting it around everywhere like a martyr. Fasting from something is meant to be between the individual and God, not a regular Facebook post about the desire to eat chocolate or drink coffee again. As Jesus said in Matthew 6:16-18,
“And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.”
Whether you do or do not begin the fast in the Lenten season, I hope you would at least commit to remembering God’s mercy through his action in Jesus. As I have said in a previous post years ago, “we should participate in Lent not out of superstition or thoughtless ritual. Lent ought to be a time of contemplative thought upon Christ and His salvific mercy.” While Christmas reminds us that God came to us, Lent and the Good Friday will remind us that God brought us back into the fold by bearing our sin.
And boy, am I thankful for that!
Have you visited the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels in Los Angeles? I visited it recently and was taken back at how majestic it is. The building, as expected, was grand and marvelous. It truly made you feel physically small, similar (but not quite) to the feeling you get when you walk into a European cathedral. The thing that stuck out to me the most was the sense of being surrounded by those who have gone before us. And several features demonstrate this, practically warning “lone ranger Christian” who goes on their own. I was reminded again that it’s not just me and Jesus. Instead, it’s we and Jesus.
There is a mausoleum under the floor that holds the remains of many departed saints. From priests to business people, many who have gone on before us will be found in those chambers. Ashes and bones and words of comfort all point to the coming reality when Christ will come again, restoring the saints to renewed life. The reality that he will come again in glory. Those remains serve as a reminder that we are all connected in the historical, catholic Church.
In the main sanctuary, there are tapestries that point out the great “cloud of witnesses” from Hebrews who also had faith in Christ. Our departed brothers and sisters are there to remind us that we are connected to each other. It is similar to looking at a family tree or a photo album. Those tapestries serve as a deliberate reminder that we are rooted in generations of fellow Christ followers and that we are not lone rangers. We are deeply connected to them and they all point us to Christ.
Augustine, Patrick, Catherine of Sienna, and Julian are side by side with Paul, Martha, and Andrew. Depictions of children and adults that represent the faithful (who are just as important in God’s eyes) are also there. While they might not have their names in biographies, they are also present on the walls. You see, we are surrounded by people who have gone on before us. These same people faced tough trials and now rest in the comfort of Jesus. One day I hope to join them. As I wrote about my grandfather last year: he is there, and one day I too will join him and see our Lord face to face. (1)
I hope we can all be there, as we await the bodily resurrection, the life that is to come, and the Kingdom without end.
Below is a passage I read in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer at a church service this afternoon. It offers an insightful passage that helps set the stage for a time of reflection on our frailty:
Dear People of God:
The first Christians observed with great devotion the days of our Lord’s passion and resurrection, and it became the custom of the Church to prepare for them by a season of penitence and fasting. This season of Lent provided a time in which converts to the faith were prepared for Holy Baptism. It was also a time when those who, because of notorious sins, had been separated from the body of the faithful were reconciled by penitence and forgiveness, and restored to the fellowship of the Church. Thereby, the whole congregation was put in mind of the message of pardon and absolution set forth in the Gospel of our Savior, and of the need which all Christians continually have to renew their repentance and faith.
I invite you, therefore, in the name of the Church, to the observance of a holy Lent, by self-examination and repentance; by prayer, fasting, and self-denial; and by reading and meditating on God’s holy Word. And, to make a right beginning of repentance, and as a mark of our mortal nature, let us now kneel before the Lord, our maker and redeemer.
More thoughts will come in tomorrow’s post on what it means to be a people shaped by the story of Jesus, the crucified and risen Lord. So for today, I invite you again to join the historic, catholic Church and walk in this special season.
The great political philosopher Machiavelli once reveled in the time he spent during his free evenings as a farmer. He said that he would stay in his room and surround himself with his books. While reading it would be as if he was conversing with departed intellectual giants. The same can be applied to working through the writings of the wise men and women who have gone before us in Church History (I would not just limit this principle to theology, but to all disciplines. It is absurd to discount the wisdom of thinkers from Socrates to Pope John Paul II). These brothers and sisters (departed saints, of course) can provide clarifications in the Biblical text. Of course they should never supersede the Bible, but they can also warn you if your interpretation is approaching dangerous grounds theologically. If I view Jesus as someone who was made, since He is the Son of God, and had a beginning, then Athanasius’ On The Incarnation will help correct this error. He will force you to go back to the text and reexamine it. If he says something that is false though then you will have to analyze it deeper. CS Lewis believed that old books were important to read because, while they might contain errors, those errors have been vetted through history and can be spotted quicker since they are from a different time. New books have errors in them that we are still steeped in and are more difficult to spot.
The heritage of the Reformation was that all people could read the Bible for themselves. Indeed while I entirely endorse this idea, we cannot simply be by ourselves. We must engage with other people in a time-transcending Bible study. That is why I endorse the reading of Scripture with other solid Christians, both in present and past (read: books) conversations. Doing so will correct our errors and potentially dangerous, heretical mistakes while also sharpening our minds and deepening our relationships with God who has revealed Himself in Scripture.
I was asked recently by a family member why they should read other writers than the biblical ones. After all, if I truly affirmed the Reformational idea of Sola Scriptura, what profit would it be to me to also consult with the likes of John Calvin, Augustine or Thomas Aquinas? Why can’t I sit in the comfort of my own home office and read the Bible by myself? Why can’t I just interpret it myself? After all, I am a Protestant who believes in the “Priesthood of all Believers!” While I certainly do believe in the necessity for every Christian to read the Bible, to do so completely by oneself is potentially hazardous to the individual.
GK Chesterton once noted that tradition was the democracy of the dead. Chesterton said this about the Nineteen Hundred years of the Church Triumphant (those who have died). While we have the ability to ask a theologian, pastor or lay-scholar a question in our various congregations and communities, this ability does not stop there. We have the capability to ask the host of brilliant Christians from the past about their opinions on Biblical concepts and passages. Influence does not stop at the grave.
We ask other people for help in interpreting passages, so why wouldn’t we ask the brilliant people of the past? It is helpful to read them because modern day people often read themselves into the text. Many American Evangelicals (of the more Dispensationalist types in this example) will view the Bible through the prism of current events or political philosophy.* All events point to the Antichrist and people bring proof-texts to serve their purpose. Exploring the thoughts of past Church Fathers and Mothers will help root us in our faith with clarity. While it might not alter a position, at the very least it will challenge the individual to think deeper about their faith. So those who believe in freewill, get into an argument with Calvin or Charles Hodge. For those who are Reformed, get into a sparring match with Wesley. So in short, read widely and broadly in order to read Scripture more deeply.
* Of course there will be issues with Reformed, Roman Catholic, Lutheran and other denominations. I use Dispensationalists because the example is very clear.