Giving Up Lent for Lent?

It’s the first day of Lent today, that season in the church calendar that leads up to Easter.

Which also means it’s the day we all get to hear what particular vice people are giving up for Lent—usually coffee, chocolate, or social media, it seems.

I don’t want to sound cynical. I really don’t.

road-to-the-crossThere is something admirable about giving up a personal pleasure for a time. It can even be a truly good thing to do. That’s especially so if that pleasure is verging on an addiction that is doing damage to your physical or psychological wellbeing or your relationships. By all means, give it up for a time. Give it up forever, if need be. But sometimes that 40 days is just what’s needed, gaining some perspective on what really matters before taking up the particular pleasure once again.

But I do have some problems with the “giving up for Lent” trend.

Sometimes it seems the things we give up are not the things we should really be giving up. Our Lenten fasts can be a smokescreen of sorts, making us think we’re doing something good and sacrificial while the bigger problems, our real vices, go unexamined.

Vices like greed, lived out in our comfortable lifestyles with more than a few of our favourite things.

Vices like bigotry, manifested in our locker room talk and our coffee shop conversation.

Vices like idolatry, seen in all those ways we look for providers or saviours instead of God.

Vices like pride, evident in our look-what-we’ve-done arrogance and our look-down-on-them derision.

These things and more need to be given up—and not just for 40 days. We need to scour our souls regularly for these deeper vices, these more damaging of sins, and strive to give them up all 365 days a year.

Another thing: sometimes it seems this “giving things up for Lent” is being confused for true religion. We may be tempted to think that by doing this we are better Christians, or truly spiritual, or more religious. (See “pride,” above.)

True religion, as the Epistle of James reminds us, “is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.” In other words, true religious piety is not about giving up pleasures for a time. It’s about loving others in the way of Jesus, especially the most vulnerable among us, and sticking to Jesus’ narrow way of love no matter what the world around us says or thinks.

I’m not alone, of course, in thinking thoughts like this about “giving up things for Lent.” These are in fact the criticisms of Lent-keepers that many of my Anabaptist forebears have spoken.

However, I still observe the church calendar, including the season of Lent, and I encourage others to do the same—and my reason is thoroughly Anabaptist.

It’s because observing the seasons of the church year can help us to focus our attention on Jesus. The church calendar is, in its essence, an annual re-telling of the story of Jesus.

Here’s how I’ve described this previously:

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born!

At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

This is very much a northern-hemisphere-centric understanding, of course. You might say it’s a particularly Canadian Anabaptist way of thinking about things, with our peculiar Canadian love-hate relationship to winter. But forget the connection with the northern seasons—the simple mapping of the story of Jesus onto a recurring annual cycle provides a way of keeping Jesus and his life and teachings in the forefront of our consciousness.

Here’s how I put it in that earlier post:

Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

And that’s why this Anabaptist is not giving up Lent for Lent—because I need to be reminded regularly of the way of Jesus, the way of the cross, the way of self-giving love for the flourishing of all.

lent

An Anabaptist Does Advent

Advent wreathI don’t recall talking about Advent in the church in which I grew up, an Anabaptist church with a conservative evangelical bent. Certainly we didn’t mention Lent. And those other church days, with names like “Epiphany” and “Trinity Sunday” and “Feast of Christ the King”? Those weren’t even in my universe.

We celebrated the five “evangelical feasts,” as I later came to know them: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. And Ascension was optional. Well, so was Pentecost, though believers often got baptized then. What really mattered was the Christmas Eve Sunday school service with Christmas carols and candy bags, some sort of sombre Good Friday remembrance, and lots of joyful singing and sweet bread on Easter Sunday.

Anabaptists have been suspicious of the church calendar throughout most of our history. It’s in the same line as church creeds and seven sacraments, going back to the early Anabaptist conviction that “if it’s not in the Bible we shouldn’t do it.” Advent and Lent, let alone the likes of the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist, are not mentioned in Scripture, at least not directly. So they’re suspect.

Over the past twenty years or so, in fits and starts, I have gradually come round to observing the church year. At least in a general way—Advent through Christmas and Epiphany, Lent through Easter, the Ascension through Pentecost, and that wonderfully titled chunk of “Ordinary Time” culminating in Christ the King Sunday. And I’m not alone. Over that same twenty years or so, Mennonite churches have been moving more and more to the rhythms of the church year. (It’s about the only rhythm some of us move to. Mennonite joke.)

Why is this? I’d suggest there are some good, thoroughly Anabaptist reasons for observing Advent and Lent and all these seasons of the Christian church. Let me give two.

First, Anabaptists believe Jesus is central to all we do; observing the church calendar focuses us on the story of Jesus.

Every December in Advent we start by entering into ancient Israel’s deep longing for God to act, yearning for God’s kingdom to come. At Christmas, at the world’s darkest hour, we hear the angels and shepherds and Mary and Simeon and more: God has acted, the Messiah has come, Jesus is born! At Epiphany we watch as Jesus is revealed to the world at his birth and baptism (eastern and western churches differ on this, but in the west these bump together in the first couple weeks of January). Over the next several weeks, through winter’s chill, the days get longer and the light shines brighter as we see Jesus’ life and hear his teachings.

Then Lent arrives in February or March, just as winter’s death attempts its final assault, and we meditate on Jesus’ road to the cross, through Palm Sunday’s celebration of the humble Messiah, to Maundy Thursday’s participation in the Last Supper, to Good Friday’s holy grief and Holy Saturday’s dark vigil. But life conquers death, spring casts off winter’s cloak, and Easter Sunday dawns with joyful celebration: Jesus is risen!

Forty days later, Ascension Day: Jesus returns to the Father. Ten days later, Pentecost: the Spirit of Jesus comes among us as spring hits its stride, and the Church steps out in following Jesus to the ends of the earth. And then we’re in ordinary time, nearly lulled to sleep through summer’s warmth and autumn’s bounty, prodding ourselves awake to watch and wait for the return of Jesus and the fullness of God’s kingdom at Christ the King Sunday, at the end of November.

And then it begins again.

I love this. Every year, year after year, our very sense of time is shaped around the birth and baptism, life and teachings, suffering and death, resurrection and return of Christ. In every season of the year, Sunday after resurrection Sunday, the story of Jesus is superimposed upon us, and we’re invited, with a healthy dose of holy imagination, to enter into the story of Jesus—and for it to enter us.

Anabaptists also believe Jesus calls us to live in community with his followers; observing the church calendar underscores a sense of community with all Jesus’ followers.

Sure, the Anabaptist emphasis in this has been on the local congregation, and rightly so. The capital-C, universal Church is meaningless apart from the local, small-c church. Each and every flesh-and-blood gathering of Jesus-followers is the touchstone of God’s sanctifying presence in the world, the ears and mouth and hands and feet of Christ’s body in the world, an outpost of God’s kingdom of peace and justice and joy in the world. The bottom line: we need each other, and we need each other in the daily grind of real life, hand in hand and shoulder to shoulder.

But Anabaptists have recognized the need for wider connection with God’s people. We Mennonites have created regional and national bodies to coordinate ministry efforts and encourage one another—even international bodies such as the Mennonite World Conference. In recent years we have even participated in broader ecumenical conversations, such as those with Roman Catholics and Lutherans.

It turns out that just as the universal Church is meaningless apart from the local church, so is the local church meaningless apart from the universal Church, historic and global. And we’ve discovered that the strong sense of community we cherish as Anabaptists in our local congregations can be nurtured and celebrated in ever-widening circles. As any good Mennonite can tell you, you can always fit more around the table; there’s always enough food to share.

And one of the ways we can expand the table and experience community with the wider Church is by following the rhythms of the church calendar. As we walk through Advent, yearning for God to come among us, we do so alongside most of the Church around the world.

So I invite you to join us this Advent, either physically with us at Morden Mennonite or spiritually with us in your own congregation. Join us, and all God’s people, in entering the all-compelling, life-giving story of Jesus.

After all, if an Anabaptist can observe Advent, you can too.

Note: Since this was first posted I’ve become aware how northern hemisphere-centric some of this perspective is. Christians in the southern hemisphere: take from this what is helpful, and feel free to ignore the rest! Cross-posted from http://www.mordenmennonitechurch.wordpress.com. © Michael W. Pahl.