Maybe observing Lent is a matter of conscience falling under the prescription of Romans 14:5-12. I wouldn’t judge anyone’s salvation on their participation in it. I don’t have the means to evaluate their motives, which automatically disqualifies me from doing so.
Yet I have serious concerns regarding Lent. I’ve discussed some of those concerns here, here and here. So despite my desire to shrug Lent off as a matter of conscience, I believe it’s necessary to point out its various deviations from Scripture and ask Christians to consider whether or not the practice really honors the Lord.
Over the past few days, I’ve been thinking about the rather public ways many people approach the season of Lent. Faithful Catholics attend Mass on Ash Wednesday, where a priest will trace a cross of ashes on their foreheads to symbolize their mortality and consequent need for repentance. The ensuing 40-day fast visibly demonstrates this repentance. It’s very public, meant to be seen (and possibly applauded) by onlookers.
Of course, such pubic displays remind me of something Jesus said about fasting.
16 “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. 17 But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, 18 that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you. ~~Matthew 6:16-18 (ESV)
Jesus didn’t condemn fasting. In fact, this passage assumes that His disciples will fast. The issue in this passage revolves around making a show of fasting in order that others will notice your apparent self-denial and devotion to God. Ashes on the forehead seem all too similar to the way First Century Pharisees disfigured their faces and disheveled their robes to make sure everyone recognized their piety.
And yes, people, I know that Roman Catholic doctrine regards both Ash Wednesday and Lent as expressions of humility toward God. That may well have been the original intent, just as it was the original intent of fasting for the Jews. Sadly, our sinful natures all too subtly flip humility into pride. We’re humble, and proud of it!
Protestants who announce their observance of Lent may not literally wear ashes on their foreheads, but perhaps we should think seriously before writing Facebook posts telling the world what we’re giving up for the season. Are we fasting in order to be seen by others?
If you believe a Lenten fast is something the Lord wants you to observe, Scripture forbids me from judging you. But I strongly advise you to spend time measuring your motives against Matthew 6:16-18. A forehead full of ashes may denote a heart of self-righteousness.