Lent has begun, and we here at the B. H. Carroll Theological Institute are commemorating the occasion both in our private devotion to Jesus and in our life together as an academic community. But why? After all, Lent is nowhere prescribed for us in Scripture; in fact, Paul warns us about observing “days, months, seasons, and years” (Gal 4:10).
The Value of Ritual
I think that there are good reasons for us to participate in Lent, and they begin with the spiritual value of ritual. When I use the term ritual, I mean it as an indicator for the things that we do that, either through their symbolic nature or their repetition, exert influence on the nature and shape of our reality. Weddings are rituals (or, rather, complex collections of rituals). So are the prayers that most of us say before meals.
Low-church American Protestants tend to take a dim view of rituals. They value straightforward communication over symbolic representation, and they value spontaneity over discipline. I am a product of the low-church Protestant milieu, and I tend to share its values. But I think that we have a blind spot when it comes to the value of ritual. Sure, symbols are easy to misinterpret and even easier to ignore, but they also possess a communicative power that other forms of communication struggle to match. Likewise, repeated actions can lose their ability to impact our lives, but they can also teach us habits of thinking and doing that simply cannot be taught in any other way.
As a spiritual practice, Lent is full of potential. Sure, it can be a dead ritual devoid of meaning, but it can also be a deeply meaningful complex of symbols and habits. It can be an opportunity for us to re-evaluate our own spiritual condition and to refocus the attention of those around us on the saving work of Jesus Christ.
The Value of Reflection
Indeed, this is perhaps the chief benefit of celebrating Lent. It would be wonderful if we all focused like a laser on seeking God’s Kingdom and doing God’s will every day of our lives. Then, we would not need Lent.
The fact is, however, that most of us wax and wane in our commitment to our Lord. We need seasons like Lent to remind us of how we are supposed to be living throughout the year. Moreover, we need seasons like Lent to show us where we are falling short.
Some will object that we cannot schedule the activity of God in our lives, and it is true that we cannot expect God to always work on our timetable. But that is not what we are doing when we commemorate Lent (at least, it better not be what we are doing). Rather, we are being intentional about sacrificing our time and our energy for the good of God’s Kingdom and for our own spiritual well-being. We are making room in our lives for God’s activity, and we are substantively engaging the habits and symbols of Lent in order to provide God’s Spirit even more avenues to impact our lives.
The Value of Relationships
Lent is more than an opportunity for personal reflection. It is an opportunity for Christians from every place and of every confession to gather around the core of our faith and to demonstrate a unity of conviction that the world rarely sees in us. Moreover, it is an opportunity for Christians to build relationships with one another across denominational, racial, geographic, socioeconomic, and ideological lines. These relationships can lead to a greater understanding of why others differ from us and a greater appreciation for our own distinctive place within the Christian family.
Of course, relationships can be tricky. The more we get to know one another, the more we come into contact with those things that we do not like about each other. And, there is the quite serious question of whether we ought to have fellowship with people and groups that we believe have seriously distorted the message of Christ (cf. Gal. 1:6-10). Still, I think that we have an obligation to try and build relationships with one another, and Lent may be a way that we can do that.
Celebrate with Us
I hope that you and your church will celebrate Lent with us. The North American church has lots of problems, and celebrating Lent together won’t solve them. But it just might be a first step in helping you, your family, and your congregation grow in your commitment to Christ and in your love for His people. And that is a goal worth achieving.
The B.H. Carroll Theological Lenten Devotional free download is now available. Download this free devotional for you, your family, Bibke study groups, church staff and/or congregation. Celebrate the Good News that Jesus is Risen and texplore he weeks leading up to His death, burial & resurrection. Follow the link!