Many Christians today do not associate the celebration of Mardi Gras with any sort of religious observance. After all, the news footage of hordes of people in the streets in various levels of revelry doesn’t seem to depict holiness. For those of us who grew up in a Protestant denomination that did not observe Lent, the whole holiday may seem to be a worldly observance with no spiritual significance.
But in fact we can learn about the beautiful traditions of some of the other denominations. For Catholics and some Protestant denominations, Mardi Gras (literally translated “Fat Tuesday”) is the final day before the observance of Lent. Mardi Gras originated as a final opportunity to feast prior to the fasting of Lent. While Mardi Gras has gained a reputation for its hedonism, Lent is known as a time of prayer, repentance, and recommitment leading up to the celebration of Christ’s resurrection at Easter. Starting with Ash Wednesday, the day after Mardi Gras, and culminating 40 days later, Lent is a time of spiritual preparation for the most important religious holiday for believers.
We asked several local pastors and lay leaders about their observance of Lent, if at all. Greg Anderson, the Community Groups pastor at Calvary Chapel Fort Lauderdale, said that he had never particularly followed any Lenten traditions, either at the Myrtle Beach Community Church where his family attended along with mine, or at Calvary Chapel. Greg attended Catholic school in the Carolinas but never a Catholic church or formal Protestant denomination. He said he believes that the practices of the faithful are useful but can be observed throughout the year as one chooses.
Saul Perez, a lay leader and deacon in a local Spanish Christian and Missionary Alliance church had similar views. Although he is of Puerto Rican background, his family has mostly been Protestant and Lent has not been a big part of their cultural upbringing.
Traditionally, observers participated in Lent by abstaining from certain types of food (particularly meat, eggs and milk products). In some traditions, partial fasts were observed where participants would eat only one meal on certain days. Some Christians choose to abstain from a particular food or particular behavior (such as watching TV, for example) during Lent. The idea is to abstain from pleasurable activities and instead use the time and energy usually spent in those activities to focus on taking stock of one’s own spiritual condition and repenting for spiritual failures. This idea seems foreign even to many Christians in our culture of immediate gratification.
The 40 days of Lent are also a time of grief. All Christians celebrate the resurrection of Christ each Easter. Unfortunately, we often don’t spend much time grieving over our sins that caused the brutal execution of Christ. This tradition begins with the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Ashes are put on believers’ foreheads on Ash Wednesday as a sign of repentance. The practice of putting ashes on one’s head is an ancient sign of mourning that was often done at funerals or similarly sorrowful occasions. In this case, the ashes represent sorrow over our sins and the pain and death caused by sin.
Lent takes place during the six weeks prior to Easter. It is another purple season emphasizing preparation: self-examination and repentance, which help us to understand our total dependence upon God’s mercy. It is a solemn season; quite a contrast to the light and joy of the two preceding seasons and the Easter time to come. Its beginning in the depth of winter when the world is dormant only serves to underscore the mood. It is a time of waiting and a time for growth.
Lent is a time for simple decorations: a few candles on the table — either purple or red (symbolizing the blood of Christ’s humanity) and blue (symbolizing his heavenly nature). It is a simple season, a season to go back to the essentials. On Maundy Thursday some celebrate a Seder meal and a Tenebrae service with the Lord’s Supper.
Throughout centuries, Lent was mandatory. To punish oneself, through fasting or self-flagellation, was a way of identifying with Christ’s suffering. Marking the season of Lent enables us to find new and exciting ways to encounter God through the spiritual life. Sometimes, people give up something during Lent as a way to remind one ’s self what Lent is about. You could give up a meal during Lent and the extra money that would go to the meal could be given to a group, such as World Vision, which works to end hunger worldwide.
Sometime around the Reformation, practicing Lent and Ash Wednesday had fallen out of favor. During the Protestant Reformation, the practice of Ash Wednesday soon died out in Reformed churches, which suppressed the church year in general due to a desire not to see one day as holier than another and a concern that people commonly marked feast days with too much feasting and associated frivolities. (Even Easter and Christmas were seen as problematic for these reasons.)
Christians from all denominations, Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterians and Congregationalists have rediscovered the value that Lent and Ash Wednesday can provide. The liturgical worship movement is a movement of compassion, experiential and participatory worship, image based and connective community. Every church has a liturgy, no matter “high” or “low” the church is. A liturgy is a set order or worship, whether printed or unprinted. Following the liturgy seeks to bring the lay person and the minister in to equal action in worship.
Can Protestants observe Lent?
All Protestant congregations observe some sort of calendar in their worship. Though many may profess that they “judge all days to be alike,” in reality they do “judge one day to be better than another” (Rom. 14:5), as many expect certain days and seasons of the year to be recognized in worship services. Sure, Catholics do it, but that does not mean that we become Catholic if we receive ashes. There is nothing magical about the ashes. You are not any more holy for participating in Ash Wednesday, but it is just another way to experience the presence of God in our lives in a symbolic way.
These special days are valuable chiefly as a teaching opportunity. To be sure, every Lord’s Day is a celebration of Christ’s saving work. Paul allowed freedom to celebrate old covenant feasts but upbraided those who bound Christian consciences on the matter, especially with fasts and abstinence. An evangelical celebration of Lent affords an opportunity to reinforce rather than undermine the significance of Christ’s person and work.
Bob Woods is a senior project manager at AECOM Technical Services, as well as a published Christian author. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org