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Christian Living

Spiritual Life

Lent Mercies

I'm not sure I'd even heard of the word "Lent" 'till I was in my twenties. On one occasion thereafter, when I mentioned the season publicly, a member of my own denomination took me aside to explain the way of things. Lent, he said, was something that Catholics do. They deny themselves for a single season out of the year, but we now deny ourselves all the time.

I remember being unconvinced of our purported perpetual asceticism, not the least because my advisor had a thirty-nine-inch waistline. I was myself anything but a creature acquainted with self-denial.

On the other hand, I understand why my own faith tradition doesn't generally participate in this time of fasting, a reluctance that must be partially traced to the Puritan distrust of Lenten observance (those stalwarts actually referred to the custom as "idolatrous"). This rejection of a season of fasting and repentance might seem odd in a sect that H. L. Mencken described as smitten with "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy." But the Puritan branch of the Reformation objected to ceremonies that smacked of Roman Catholicism.

Latter-day John Bunyans still hold to the "regulative principle," which (simply put)entails eschewal of man-made worship traditions in favor of explicitly Biblical customs. I say, the "Puritan branch of the Reformation," because no less a Reformer than Luther loved the observances of the Christian Year.

To complicate things further, J. I. Packer, known as the "Last Puritan," treasures the Book of Common Prayer, in which may be found some of the most eloquent Lenten collects.

All that said, no branch of Christendom will object to the setting aside of forty days in the year to remember the Temptation and Passion of our Lord. A Puritan might ask (as a friend asked me once)why Lenten devotees choose this season in particular, but there are several good answers to that question.

More than one Christian thinker has pointed out that the joy of the Easter feast is significantly heightened by the somberness of the Lenten fast. My own denomination sometimes observes an Easter pancake breakfast, thereby ending Lent in the way other faith traditions begin it with a sort of "Johnny-come-lately Pancake Tuesday." In any case, a Paschal breakfast naturally means a great deal more to those who have fasted through Good Friday.

Also, it is fairly certain that in the early centuries of Christian history, converts to the faith were instructed in their newfound creed and eventually baptized during this season. To fast during Lent, therefore, might be thought of as a way to enjoy the communion of the saints -- both past and present -- a communion that many Christians honor in the Apostles' Creed. Furthermore, as Samuel Johnson declared (through his amanuensis Boswell), unless we set aside certain days for particular remembrances, we will probably fail to remember.

Finally, the word "Lent" comes from a Middle English word meaning "spring," and it's hard not to see a lovely correspondence between this time of the year and this part of the Christian calendar.

In one of the "Lake Woebegone" monologues, Garrison Keillor tells the tale of a Lutheran who resolved not to drink beer during Lent. This proved a too-daunting task, however, and the poor fellow had to go to church with a weight on his conscience -- and perhaps with something convicting on his breath as well. But the story closes, as I remember it, with the sinner-saint leaving the church service and stepping out into the warm mercy of a spring evening. For all of us, the lengthening of the days at this time of the year proves itself, as Keillor points out, a reminder of the grace of God.

Spring means that the sun shines longer and longer on the just and -- thank the sweet Christ -- on the unjust as well.

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