February 28, 2017

Dear Liberty,

     As a conservative Lutheran, I’ve gone to Wednesday night Lenten services since I was born.  Yet, not all Christian denominations observe Lent. In fact, not even all Lutheran churches recognize the season.  To be honest, most Christians don’t even know what Lent is.  That being said, almost everyone is aware of Mardi Gras, the celebration that developed out of preparation for the Lenten Season.  

     As with most Christian traditions, the secular world invaded and destroyed the religious roots of a church custom.  The same can be said with the celebration of Mardi Gras.  To follow how Mardi Gras came about, you first need to understand Lent.

     Recently, our pastor defined repentance as a change of mind towards God and our sin.  Accepting that you are a sinner and in need of a savior is crucial to understanding Christ.  Hence, the Lenten Season.

     As denominations broke from the Catholic Church, they dropped such ceremonies as Lent. Since it is not specified in the Bible, it is not a requirement.  Yet, the formation for the season is completely Biblically based.

     The 6-week period before Easter, Lent was designed as a time of fasting, prayer, self-examination, penitence and spiritual growth.  God did not directly command the festival as he did Passover, the Feast of Weeks (Pentecost), the Day of Atonement (Yom Kippur), and others.  However, church leaders used these festivals as a guideline.  

     God encourages fasting.  Abstaining from food, one instead spends that time reflecting, praying and repenting. Yom Kippur, along with atoning for sins, is a day just for that.  Lent parallels the Day of Atonement, just over an extended period of time.  

"Then he (Aaron) is to take the two goats and present them before the Lord at the entrance to the tent of meeting. He is to cast lots for the two goats—one lot for the Lord and the other for the scapegoat." (Leviticus 16:8-9)

     On Yom Kippur, Aaron transfers the wickedness and sinfulness of the Israelites onto the scapegoat, which is then released into the wild.  Their sins are entirely placed on a substitute and removed from them.  The other goat is sacrificed as a sin offering, giving its life as payment for the sins of the Israelites.  Yet God did not institute this yearly ceremony as the final means of atonement.  It is a prophesy of Christ.  On Good Friday, Christ becomes our scapegoat, taking on our sins.  (see What's So Good About Good Friday?)  Sinless himself, He was then sacrificed in our place on the cross for those sins.  However, Christ did not succumb to death, He conquered it and rose on Sunday morning.

     Resurrection Sunday, or Easter, is why Christ came down to earth.  His whole purpose was to live a perfect life, yet take our place in satisfying God’s demand for a sin sacrifice.  The early Christian church wanted parishioners to truly understand the depth and meaning of Christ’s sacrifice.  To honestly appreciate it, one must accept his/her own sinfulness, which leads to the need for a savior.  That is the purpose of the Lenten Season.  

     At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry, he fasted 40 days and 40 nights before being tempted by Satan.  Because of this, the church starts Lent 40 days before Easter.  However, Sundays are not included in the count as they represent Christ’s resurrection.  Fasting on those days is not appropriate.  Some Orthodox denominations do include Sundays to adhere to a strict 40 days.

     Since Lent is meant to reflect, contemplate and repent of our sins, the season starts with another Biblical practice.  Throughout the Bible, Israelites used ashes to express grief, as well as penitence and sorrow.  

Esther 4:1 - When Mordecai learned of all that had been done, he tore his clothes, put on sackcloth and ashes, and went out into the city, wailing loudly and bitterly.

Daniel 9:3 - So I turned to the Lord God and pleaded with him in prayer and petition, in fasting, and in sackcloth and ashes.

     So, Lent begins with a similar tradition known as Ash Wednesday or "Day of Ashes".  The previous year’s Palm Sunday branches are burned to make the ashes.  During a worship service, the minister either marks a cross on the worshipper’s forehead with the ashes or he sprinkles them over their head.  Regardless, they remind the worshippers of their mortality and sinfulness, prompting the need to repent.

     Originally, the words God spoke to Adam and Eve, "Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return," (Genesis 3:19) were spoken while administering the ashes.  Over the years, Jesus’ instruction of "Repent and believe in the Gospel," (Mark 1:15) has been added.

     This brings us to Mardi Gras, which occurs the day before Ash Wednesday.  Parishioners originally prepared for Lent by confessing the sins they would repent for.  The Tuesday before Lent became known as Shrove Tuesday, derived from “shrive” meaning “confess”.  People would visit the church and confess to the priest.

     To fast, people refrained from food such as flour, sugar and pastries as well as animal products like meat, milk, butter, eggs, and animal fat.  Some cultures used the time before Lent to celebrate “Carnavale,” which means "to take away meat" or "farewell to meat.”  Others refer to it as “Pancake Day” because people spent the day eating the items made from the ingredients they would be denying themselves until Easter.  Eventually, festivals and feasts took over Shrove Tuesday.  A solemn day of confessing became a day of indulgence.  Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras, quickly replaced Shrove Tuesday as people basically stopped confession because they were too busy eating.  They convinced themselves they could repent on Ash Wednesday and during Lent, so all would be forgiven.  Except, they also stopped observing Lent.

     Over time, the festivals grew. Galas and masked balls were held which included drinking and sexually immorality.  Even the time period was extended in many cultures.  They celebrated from Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, which included festivities of indulgence leading up to Lent.  As with Christmas, secular culture again overtook a religious season.  (see Yes, Liberty, There Is A Santa Claus)  This time making it into a time of free sinning.  Here in America, millions converge on New Orleans every year to participate in huge Mardi Gras celebrations.  Uncontrolled drinking and celebrating occurs.  Women willingly baring their breasts just for a cheap beaded necklace.  Participants scour the streets, praying for that "one night stand" experience they can brag about and relive the rest of their lives.

     Paul warned us to reject all of that behavior and stay pure to Christ.  He states in Romans 13:13­-14, “Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature.”

     Liberty, Satan is fighting very hard to steal your soul away from God.  His methods are sly and extremely tempting to our sinful nature.  He appeals to the basis of humanity, sex and self-gratification.  Our sinful nature does not want to spend weeks denying ourselves our favorite foods while instead spending time in repentance and prayer.  We don’t want to admit, even to ourselves, that we are sinful beings full of wickedness.  No, we want to celebrate.  We want to eat and drink and explore our sexuality.  We want to indulge in whatever makes us feel good.

     So, Liberty, as you go through life, you need to be extremely vigilant of Satan’s traps.  They are everywhere and very hard to resist.  The good news is that even if you do slip and get caught in one, Christ has already set you free.  That being said, you must not adopt the mindset that you can do whatever you want.  Christ set us free from sin, not free to sin.

     As Paul explains in Hebrews 10:26-27, “If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.”

     Many Catholics still refrain from meat during Lent, though most Christians who participate give up sweets, pop, coffee, chocolate or other such favorite items without doing a full fast.  Whether you give up something or not, Liberty, I pray you use the opportunity to truly appreciate what Christ has done for you.  

     Have a blessed Lenten Season.

     That’s my 2 cents.