As I've mentioned before, I like the liturgical calendar and the idea that there are various seasons of the church in which we focus on different areas of our faith life. Today is Ash Wednesday, the day that kicks off the liturgical season of Lent. After attending my church's midday Ash Wednesday service today, I realized that the manner in which many observe Lent is extremely disconnected from the purpose of the season.
Although most Evangebapticostal churches do not observe a liturgical calendar, most people I met in American Evangelical Culture do observe Lent. However, they do so in a manner that in my opinion is separate from the liturgical roots of the season. And even though I knew many who observed Lent, I met few that observed Ash Wednesday, which I find to be a essential part of Lent. It's the day that sets the entire tone for the season.
I'm sure we all know of people who give something up for Lent. Or perhaps we give something up ourselves. I've had many Evangelical friends who have given up TV, smoking, coffee, sweets, or (in recent years) Facebook for Lent. This is a practice that many in traditional liturgical traditions observe as well. (As evidenced in the Catholic practice of eating no meat on Fridays, which is the reason so many restaurants are heavily marketing fish sandwiches this time of year.) The difference I find in this practice and the liturgical tradition lies in the reason I hear people give for doing so. In American Evangelical Culture, the most common reasons I've heard given for giving something up are to spend more time with God and in prayer. These are not unworthy goals, but how is this different than any other period of fasting one might partake in?
In my liturgical Lutheran church, the pastor reminded us today that Lent is about humility, reflection, and repentance. The choice to give something up isn't merely about having more time to pray. It is an act of penitence and remorse. It is a time of year in which we remember how fragile and confess how sinful we are. The ashes that are imposed are a symbol of that fragility and a declaration of repentance. (In what I find to be a fitting metaphor, the ashes are made from the palms used in the observance of the Sunday of the Passion-aka Palm Sunday. If you'd like to read more about why ashes are used, the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America has a pretty good explanation of the process here.) But most importantly, Lent is a season in which we seek to truly learn what it means to forgive and be forgiven. If we give up our morning coffee or other indulgence, but neglect to learn the art of forgiveness, I don't think we can claim that we are truly observing Lent.