Outside the UK and USA you probably didn’t know that Tuesday March 8 was “Shrove Tuesday”. Others might not even be aware that today, Wednesday March 9 is “Ash Wednesday”. What are these all about and what if anything might it benefit you and I to know this?
Ash Wednesday marks a 40 day count down to Palm Sunday. Palm Sunday is 1 week before East Sunday. Still fuzzy? If you weren’t raised in Church then these terms mean very little to you. To add to the confusion some groups say the 40 day count down doesn’t include Sundays so the end day is actually the Saturday before Easter. Ahh, “Easter” – there’s something a few people will understand. That’s when the Bunny visits to give chocolate eggs! Right? Perhaps not. Lets start with the end date with which some of us will be aware:
- Easter Sunday is the day that celebrates the Resurrection of Christ.
- Palm Sunday is the day that celebrates Jesus’ “triumphal entry to Jerusalem”. Riding on a colt or foal he entered Jerusalem and was received with celebration and singing. Those that welcomed him waved palm leaves as part of the traditional accolade afforded to a visiting dignitary. As an aside this event was an exact fulfillment of a prophecy in the Old Testament by Zechariah:
Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion!
Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem!
Behold, your king is coming to you;
righteous and having salvation is he,
humble and mounted on a donkey,
on a colt, the foal of a donkey. (Zechariah 9:9)
- Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Palm Sunday or 46 days before Easter Sunday.
Traditionally, mainly in Catholic, Anglican and some formal denominations, it marks the start of a period called “Lent”. There is a lot disagreement about the origin, meaning, significance and correct way to observe Lent. “Lent” is a transliteration of a term with Germanic and Latin roots that means “lengthen” and was synonymous with the Spring season, as in, ‘the days begin to lengthen in Spring’. Thus the name, “Lent”. That’s all well and good if you’re in the Northern hemisphere, if not, it’s just nonsense! What it has come to mean and is now practiced all over the world, is a period of sacrifice or partial fasting in the lead up to celebrating the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
Some go to all sorts of weird and wonderful extremes in drawing parallels with the various 40 day events mentioned throughout the Bible and try to draw some application. At best, that is clever numerology, at worst it is twisting and distorting scripture.
For those that observe Lent, it involves giving something up for the 40 day period. Sanctified weight loss programs exploit the vulnerable, as do anti-cigarette campaigners, alcohol prohibitionists seize the opportunity to get people to quit drinking and all manner of well meaning propaganda finds it’s way into our life. Yet for all the value of having a healthy body free of toxins and chemical addictions, this equates to promoting and exchanging physical health with spiritual well being. The basic message is, “If you stop smoking, you’ll be closer to God” or something similar. Last year, one Church leader tried the same angle with iPods. Exactly how not using your iPod for 40 days is going to make you closer to God or improve the planet is a bit foggy to me. But there you have it. Yet another external, superficial, “sacrifice” that is purported to help achieve self-improvement and salvation.
The inadequacy of Lent is amplified by it’s preceding “holy day”, Shrove Tuesday. This is also called, ‘Pancake Day’ or ‘Fat Tuesday’. The idea being that you have one last indulgence before commencing your fast. Which is an absurd perversion of the concept of biblical repentance. Imagine Jesus saying to the extortionist tax collectors of his day, “Before you follow me, go out and rip off as many people as possible for 24 hours, then come back and serve me”.
Martin Luther, has perhaps summarised the alternative to this in the 1st of his 95 Theses as follows:
When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said “Repent”, He called for the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.
When you repent, you abandon all self attempts at reform, improvement, and ultimately salvation with a realisation that God alone is the agent and author of our rescue. To acknowledge that, you first need to agree that you need such rescue. Giving up chocolate or iPods for a few days belies that you don’t consider yourself in need of anything at all. Instead you pit yourself as above and beyond all others and, in your arrogance, a model of virtue and perfection. Not all that different to the religious hierarchy of Jesus’ day. They were full of corruption, likened to white washed tombs full of dead men’s bones. Only a creator who brings life out of death as demonstrated in raising Jesus can resolve your condition, and mine.
Take a break from your iPod if you must, leave off the chocolate and lose a kilo or a belt notch. But don’t pretend that anything less than Jesus can save you, give you God’s forgiveness and assurance that your heavenly Father loves you enough to send his unique Son to die in your place. In 46 days when Christians celebrate Easter Sunday, it’s not because they get to eat chocolate again. It is because Jesus has put an end to Satan, sin and death and is our sovereign and almighty Lord.