Ambivalence about Lent

This post might be too personal or specific given your particular church tradition. I'm writing it mainly to try to sort out some of my feelings about Lent in my particular church setting.

I have a mixed religious history. I was raised in (and remain a part of) the Churches of Christ. This tradition is a low-church, non-liturgical, Protestant tradition. We do not, historically speaking, follow the liturgical calender. Thus, we don't celebrate Lent, Easter or Advent. We do celebrate these holidays--mainly Easter and Christmas--the way most people do in the world. We just don't recognize them in worship. In fact, sermons on Easter or Christmas might actually be an attack on religious observances of these "holy" days. The refrain you often hear in the Churches of Christ is "We don't celebrate Easter and Christmas on a particular day. We celebrate these events everyday."

On the other hand, I attended Catholic private schools from 6th grade through High School. Consequently, I attended a lot of Mass when the student body celebrated holy days. At the time I didn't enjoy this. I was, after all, a religious outsider observing (and judging) the proceedings. But liturgy affects you. Even if you are resisting it. And Lent was a particularly profound experience. Every Friday of Lent we would go to Mass and observe the Stations of the Cross, the Way of Sorrow:

1. Jesus is condemned to death
2. Jesus is given his cross
3. Jesus falls the first time
4. Jesus meets His Mother
5. Simon of Cyrene carries the cross
6. Veronica wipes the face of Jesus
7. Jesus falls the second time
8. Jesus meets the daughters of Jerusalem
9. Jesus falls the third time
10. Jesus is stripped of His garments
11. Crucifixion: Jesus is nailed to the cross
12. Jesus dies on the cross
13. Jesus' body is removed from the cross (Deposition or Lamentation)
14. Jesus is laid in the tomb and covered in incense.
These weekly observances resonated with the melancholic, pensive part of my soul. I've always had an inner sadness about life despite my upbeat temperament. And every week of Lent you left the church on this depressive note: Jesus is dead and lying in the tomb. Needless to say, by the time Easter arrived you are ready for some good news.

I didn't know how the Stations had affected me until I left for college. Suddenly that spring Easter Sunday was upon me and I felt, deep in my bones, this feeling like "Hey! It can't be Easter! I'm not ready!" It was the first time I "got" the power of liturgy. The way it shaped you, even as you resisted it.

So I lived this mixed life. Low-church and high-church. Pushing against Lent and embracing Lent.

Which brings me to today.

My church, the Highland Church of Christ, is a far cry from my upbringing in a more "traditional" Church of Christ. Highland, in light our our church tradition, is considered "liberal." One mark of that "liberality" is Highland's ecumenism, its thoughtful engagement and embrace of other Christian traditions. Highland's DNA is Church of Christ, but its ecumenical spirit has lead us to embrace a variety of liturgical practices. For example, we recite the Lord's Prayer every Sunday and we overtly embrace the celebration of the Advent and Lenten seasons. But by "celebration" I really mean a general recognition that we are moving through a holy season along with other churches, most outside our tradition. In short, this is less an observance than a recognition that Lent or Advent is going on "out there" in the liturgical world. For example, while we alert the church that "Today is the first Sunday of Advent" and Christmas trees are now in the assembly I wouldn't say Highland "observes" Advent. We recognize Advent more than observe it.

This brings me to Lent, Ash Wednesday in particular.

As a part of this liturgical recognition Highland uses our normal Wednesday evening bible study (one of the Church of Christ's own "liturgical" practices) to observe/recognize Ash Wednesday. During this service members can receive ashes on their foreheads as is done in Catholic Ash Wednesday services. So after church you have this odd sight of Church of Christ members leaving services with ashes on their heads. My mixed religious history has come back with a vengeance.

Anyway, Andrea, my graduate assistant, asked me the other day what I thought about all this. Did I like how Highland observes Ash Wednesday and uses ashes? My response was that I have mixed feelings about it all. And here, as best I can tell, is why I feel ambivalence about Lent.

I think my mixed religious history is both helping me and hurting me in all this. On the helping side, as I've noted, my experiences with Lent in the Catholic church profoundly affected me. Again, I miss the Stations of the Cross. So anything that helps me prepare for Easter is welcomed by me.

But on the other hand my experiences with the Catholic church causes me to back away from this nod within my church toward the liturgical tradition.


First, it seems to me that we are only "celebrating" Lent because of a lucky convergence. Ash Wednesday occurs, well, on a Wednesday, the day the Church of Christ meets for a mid-week bible study. So our Ash Wednesday is capitalizing upon this happy convergence between our tradition and the liturgical calender. This, it might seem, is a good thing. But I just can't shake the feeling that it's all too contingent and coincidental. That is, if Ash Wednesday were, let's say, really an Ash Thursday my church wouldn't gather to observe the start of Lent. Just like we don't gather to celebrate Good Friday. So it feels to me like we are "noticing" the start of Lent rather than observing it.

Second, the imposition of ashes is optional. You aren't expected to do it. Which makes sense. This isn't a ritual from within our own tradition. It's a ritual that is coming in from the "outside" as it were. So not everyone feels comfortable with it. So some opt in and others opt out.

And it's this voluntarism--opting in or opting out--that makes me ambivalent. The observance of Ash Wednesday at my church is an optional deal. And this, as I experience it, exacerbates one of the problems of contemporary Christianity: Its individualized nature. Ash Wednesday at my church isn't communal. It's an add-on feature. Which strikes the wrong note for me. What ends up happening in my church is that some individuals or small groups celebrate Lent and others don't. For example, some people or groups give up something for Lent like the Catholics do. Others don't. And it's this lack of being on the same page, a very different vibe than the one I experienced in the Catholic church, which leaves me cold. Of course, I could celebrate Lent. But I hate the fact that this is something that I, as an individual, choose to do (i.e., opting in). It's just the completely wrong vibe. I hate that autonomous choices sit at the center of the practice. I'm not celebrating Lent with my church.

Please note, this isn't a judgment in any way. Nor is it a recommendation for our church to jettison these practices. Again, I embrace them. But I also feel weird about them.

As I said, I'm ambivalent about Lent.

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9 thoughts on “Ambivalence about Lent”

  1. I really get what you are saying about communality in the church. We need more of it!

    Just wanted to also note that Catholics are not the only ones who observe Lent, or fast, or receive Ashes. Anglicans and Lutherans do, too. Methodists and Presbyterians also have some observances of Lent and can opt to fast or not, I believe.

    And let's not forget the Orthodox! They are some serious Lent observers. I think they make the Catholics look like amateurs. :)

  2. Dr. Beck,
    I also recently blogged about this subject. What I have noticed is that often my friends who are not part of traditions that celebrate Lent, people often celebrate it as an after thought. Lent originated as a time for Christians to prepare their hearts for Holy Week. However, sometimes it seems that people around here, myself included, sometimes turn Lent, a time which is intended to draw us near to God, into being all about us. We often choose to give up things for our own benefit, rather than out of our love for God. Furthermore, I think celbrating Lent has become a mark of pride around ACU, as it is not a requirement of most of our traditions. When I'm really honest with myself and I think about what Christ would really call me to give up for him, I have a funny feeling it wouldn't be chocolate, or fast food or soda. It probably something more like pride. Or approval. Or success. Or everything... God doesn't so much want our time, money, or works - He wants US. I think we lose sight of that when we treat Lent like an after thought rather than a communal sacrifice. Thanks for your post.

  3. I completely agree. I'm so glad that you said this. I'm a member of a Church of Christ but I frequent an Episcopal church in our area. I love participating in the liturgy, and I wish that I was a member of a liturgical church. But, it bothers me when there is this weird mix of "liturgical elements" (a Christmas program here, a special Easter service there, an imposition of ashes since we're already here on Wednesday). I love the liturgy, and I think that such an ambivalent attitude towards it strips it of it's true value and meaning. To be able to breathe with Jesus, walk with him step by step through his life, to witness his birth, acknowledge his deity, and go into the tomb and again out of it with him. This is the purpose of liturgy. I wish we would embrace a liturgical lifestyle.

    On the other hand, I guess that ANY ecumenical expression from a Church of Christ has some value given our history.

  4. Hi Kerry,
    Thanks. Yes, my focus on Catholicism was too narrow.

    Hi Shannon,
    I'm glad you brought that up. One part of the problem with the opt-in or opt-out method is that it divides the church up: Those who are ecumenical enough to embrace the ritual versus those who, what?, are too unenlightened to embrace liturgy? Too conservative?

    The point is, I don't know if Catholics feel pride in attending Ash Wednesday. Maybe they do when they get home and see someone they know who didn't go to Mass. But within the service itself going forward isn't a source of pride! It's just what you are supposed to do. No decision about it.

    But that's not the way it is in an opt-in/opt-out ritual. The ritual is now carving up the congregation into the "ecumenical" and "traditionalists." Instead of creating community the liturgy is, literally in this case, marking two groups. I worry about that.

  5. Ben,
    You said, "I guess that ANY ecumenical expression from a Church of Christ has some value given our history."

    Totally 100% agree. One worry I had in sharing these thoughts was that I would be taken as saying that these liturgical elements are bad. No, I love them! It's just that, if we are not careful and reflective, we might end up sending odd or mixed messages. See my comment to Shannon's above.

  6. I grew up in the Baptist Missionary Association as a preacher's kid until we switched to Southern Baptist when I was in high school and it wasn't until then that I had any awareness of Advent, let alone Lent. I think Lent came along when I started hanging out with Methodists in college... The whole thing STILL seems sort of weird to me; any liturgical aspect of a worship service, really. On the one hand I wish I had a connection to long-standing traditional practices like that, but on the other hand it all seems so...accessory, if that makes sense. Intellectually I understand why people continue with the traditions, but spiritually they simply don't resonate with my experience at all, though they do make me feel like I missed out on something socially meaningful with the larger corporate body of Christ.

    I absolutely get the mixed feelings :)

  7. Being an Episcopalian who spent some of my formative years in the Presbyterian church I would have to say that I relate to the overall gist of your post. Maybe I am missing the one point, but the statement: "We don't celebrate Easter and Christmas on a particular day. We celebrate these events everyday." sounds like a joke. We tell our kids that every day is kids day when they ask the classic "why" about the Fathers/Mothers day but no kids day thing. They know that this response is dodging the issue and yet they will say the same to their own kids.

    What I get from your post is that we have to be intentional about our faith traditions. I have grown to love and look forward to the changes that are seen and felt at different times of the year. There is a reason that we change the colors of the cloth on the alter and the priests vestments. We say different things at different times of the year and those difference can be jarring as well as uplifting. that's the whole point. To bring us back to a Christ centered view.

    When Fr. Jim placed the ash cross on my forehead two days ago he said these words: "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return."

    I mean. . . .it doesn't get any better than that if you are looking for one of those defining spiritual moments in liturgy. So the point is: observe the different days of the liturgical calendar or don't, but be convicted by it. Celebrate your faith and do it with purpose. Be in the moment.

    And by the way, doing it that way is hard and we constantly fail at it.

  8. Howdy,

    I am working through your archives but haven't run across a discussion of this yet. It may be there but I haven't stumbled into it.

    What you're describing is a symptom of something I see a lot with Christianity. Withing Christendom an enormous number of people use the same vocabulary to describe very different practices, dogma, doctrines, etc. The cumulative effect is that the word "Christian" means anything one wants it to, so it doesn't end up meaning anything at all.

    It's as if there is a nostalgia for the words that doesn't carry over to any ideas and practices. At least not consistently. This makes it hard to know just who you're talking to when someone says "I'm a Christian."

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