A (Baptist) case for Lent

By The Rev. Alan Rudnick

That’s not Baptist! It’s a Catholic thing!” yelled a church member to me one Sunday morning, as I prepared to enter the sanctuary to introduce my congregation to the first Sunday of Lent.

I thought to myself, “What I have I done introducing Lent to this congregation? Have I unleashed heresy?”

Many Baptists question the usefulness of Lent. “It’s Catholic” or “It’s about punishment” are typical comments. While Christians for hundreds of years have made Lent into a spiritual journey, many Protestant Christians continue to ask, “Do I really need a structured way of preparing for Easter?

The answer is both yes and no. Yes, we do need structured ways to prepare ourselves for the most important celebration of Christian life: the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. However, many free-church Christians do not see a need to practice an ancient tradition that “forces” us to deprive ourselves of food or sweets. However, the primary focus of Lent is not deprivation but preparation.

Lent is a time in the Christian Church in which preparations are made in anticipation of Easter. Lent is a period of 40 days (not counting Sundays) before Easter. The word Lent comes from an Anglo-Saxon word meaning “spring,” referring to a season when days become longer. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of the season. To receive ashes on one’s forehead and hear the words, “You are dust, and to dust you shall return” can be a powerful reminder of our life and hope in Jesus Christ.

Baptists traditionally have held a rejectionist approach to anything in church life that is not found in the Bible. Ashes on foreheads, responsive prayers, a liturgical calendar and the like are things not prescribed in the Bible. Thus, Baptists often choose to make worship much more about a conversion event, rather than expressions of lament, sadness, contemplation, reconciliation and forgiveness. The marking of ashes is Biblical, a sign of mourning and repentance. The ashes are not magical. We do not become “more holy” for participating in Ash Wednesday or Lent. Participating is merely a symbolic way to experience the presence of God in our lives.

Jesus marked a period of preparation for 40 days in the wilderness in Luke 4:1–2:

Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, returned from the Jordan and was led by the Spirit in the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted by the devil. He ate nothing at all during those days, and when they were over, he was famished.

Jesus then faces three temptations from Satan. The temptations grow from hunger to power to commanding angels to save Jesus. The connections between this story and the period of Lent are striking. Lent is 40 days, and Jesus went into the wilderness for 40 days. Jesus fasted in the face of temptation, and many Christians fast in various ways during Lent. Jesus spent time in the wilderness during his testing by Satan (biblically, a place of growth or trial), and we, too, spend time during Lent contemplating how we are growing in faith.

In a world that is searching for tangible ways to connect with the divine, Lent can provide a connection. We all yearn for ways to authentically attach ourselves to God. Lent is a way to discover new opportunities to connect with God.

In his book “Soul Cravings” (Thomas Nelson publishing, 2008), Erwin McManus wrote: “We are all on the same quest. And our soul craving is to find something we can believe in. This thing that haunts you, that never seems satisfied, the cravings in your soul that you are unable to satiate through all the success that the world can bring — this is your soul screaming for God.”

Wow, how true! Our souls are craving for God. Satan tempted Jesus with a craving for food. Satan tried to end Jesus’ fast prematurely. Satan tried to tempt Jesus with political power by promising Jesus all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshiping Satan.

We crave attention. We crave power. We crave status. We crave so much. Sometimes, we mix our cravings by trying to gain attention, power or status in the church. We are tempted to believe that selfish things will satisfy our selfish cravings. In reality, Lent brings the focus off selfish cravings and makes us turn on our spiritual cravings. Satan tried to trick Jesus into thinking that Jesus craved to show off his Godly power, but Jesus showed Satan what we really should crave:

  • not living independently but on the word of God;
  • authentic, God-focused worship; and
  • God’s commands, not the world’s commands.

In a world in which institutional religion is losing ground, many Christians (including Baptist congregations) have turned back to ancient Christian practices. Why? Reading history, one begins to see that people’s faith has been shaken by the challenges of living in a world of war, political change, persecution, economic instability and bitter civil disputes. Sometimes the only thing that people had to live on was the hope that God, through his Son, could change the world.

Lent is a time of focus and longing as well as a time for contemplating fundamental values and priorities. It is not a time for self-punishment. Throughout Lent, we Baptists can look for new ways to reach out to others through service, worship, fellowship, devotion, spiritual discipline and study.

The Rev. Alan Rudnick is an American Baptist minister, author and Th.D. student at La Salle University, Philadelphia. He is a former member of the board of directors for American Baptist Home Mission Societies, Board of General Ministries and Mission Council of the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship.

The views expressed are those of the author and not necessarily those of American Baptist Home Mission Societies.