A few days ago I posted a little poem — one of my periodic forays into high art — about the affair of the sausages, as a result of which incident the Swiss Reformation began in earnest. It turns out that this poem and other related things generated some excitement on the Internet (and who does not believe that the Internet could always use a little more excitement?)
The poem was simply an application of some of the warnings contained in a joint statement that Christ Church and Trinity Reformed Church developed together. “We stand gratefully in the Reformation tradition which courageously freed the saints of God from those enslaving regulations related to saint days, penitential seasons, and superstititous fasting . . . [we] warn our people to likewise remember these lessons from the history of the church.” Emphasis added, and you can read more on all this both here and here.
Of course Lent can be observed without sinning, and without falling into gnosticism. It can also go the other way. But staying away from the central problems takes a particular kind of spiritual insight. Those who don’t observe Lent, as I don’t, don’t believe the game is worth the candle. Those who do believe it to be worthwhile are certainly free in Christ to have at it. But as they do, it is (I believe) essential for them to take great care that they not allow the traditions of men supplant the authority of Scripture (Matt. 15:3). In my view, this work is frequently not even attempted, which is why I kibitz about this subject from time to time. Let me give just a couple of very simple examples.
In the Bible, there certainly are times of fasting that may go public without any problem, as when an asteroid is going to land on Kansas City, and the president has asked us all to fast and pray. This is the kind of repentance that the inhabitants of Nineveh showed (Jonah 3:7). But whenever fasting is part of a cyclic, spiritual exercise, when it is an ongoing spiritual discipline, Jesus required that it be a secret between you and God.
“Moreover when ye fast, be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward. But thou, when thou fastest, anoint thine head, and wash thy face; That thou appear not unto men to fast, but unto thy Father which is in secret: and thy Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward thee openly” (Matt. 6:16-18).
In short, if everybody on Facebook knows what you are not doing for Lent, with fifteen minute updates, along with a snapshot of the burrito you are not eating, you already have your reward. Cultivating a right heart on this is fundamental to Christianity. Understanding this principle is basic. When people are running around yelling about the asteroid, religious showboating is not the great temptation. But if it involves praying the synagogue, giving alms with brass accompaniment, and fasting with a wan countenance and wry commentary, and so forth, Jesus told us very explicitly how we are not supposed to behave.
Incidentally, this is one of the reasons why those who are observing the fast ought not to despise those who aren’t — because the fellow who looks like a lentendud might be fasting just like you, only more obediently.
A second observation is this. If you are a member of that great and growing American regiment that is into high food finickiness, then you should understand that your temptation might be to use Lent to ramp up your natural inclinations, instead of mortifying them. Our nation has a long history of food weirdness, and this really must be taken into account. We have not done well with the Scripture’s indiscriminate blessing of processed corn, refined sugar, meat with dubious points of origin, wheat germ, and tofu (1 Tim. 4:4).
This means that a number of folks might need to be going the other way. C.S. Lewis once spoke of those who, when confronted with a flood, break out the fire extinguishers. If you want to use a penitential season to mortify something in your life, then you might ought to pay attention to what actually needs to be mortified. Otherwise, you will just be digging your own particular groove deeper.
Fasting ought not to be “more of what you usually do,” and if what you usually do is worry over food too much, then you need to take care. What I mean is this. Suppose you have a thing about really “healthy” bread, the kind with the Ponderosa bark still in it. Your natural inclinition will be to go into a penitential season resolved to operate within all your existing categories. But wouldn’t eating Wonder bread with Skippy peanut butter for forty days be perhaps more to the spiritual point?
There are of course other arguments and considerations — exegetical, historical, theological, and more — that could be brought into a discussion of Lent, but it is not necessary to go into everything. Scriptures do give us real liberty in such things. But we are not at liberty to be enslaved, and to disregard of some of the principles cited above is a fast track to such entanglement.
All that said, have a merry Lent.