Overcoming Liturgical Wimpiness: A Lenten Reflection

Last weekend, I and some others were chatting with a new friend who happened to be Muslim. It came up that the Christian Church is currently in the season of Lent, and my new friend had never heard of it before. I and the other Christians in the room began to explain Lent as a season of prayer and fasting. We quickly made the analogy comparing Lent with Ramadan. The purpose of Lent became more clear to him, but he also began to ask questions. The conversation went something like this:

“So how long is Lent? A week?”

“No, it’s 4o days, not counting Sundays.”

“Christians fast for forty days?”

“Well… no. Some give up meat. Some will fast just on certain days. Some give up other things.”

“In Ramadan, we don’t eat at all during the day, and only eat after sundown. So in Lent, Christians just give up something?”

“Well… some Christians. Some don’t do anything.”

“Oh…”

By the end of the conversation. Lent was a thoroughly unimpressive season compared to Ramadan.

I admit that it’s probably not good to compare the two seasons too closely. They’re two different seasons, practiced by two different faiths, and have two different purposes behind them. But the practice of fasting, at least in theory, remains a common element.

Why is it that as Christians, we’re particularly bad at living into the meaning, purpose, and practices of Lent, or any other of our seasons and feast days? I’ve lived in Squirrel Hill now for nearly two years. The neighborhood is forty percent Jewish; there’s a synagogue practically on every block. Judaism is to this neighborhood what Presbyterianism is to the rest of Pittsburgh. In my time here, I’ve been struck by how visibly and noticeably my Jewish neighbors live into their seasons and holy days. Families wear costumes on Purim, light menorahs during Hanukkah, and build booths in their backyards at Sukkot. With Passover approaching, the bread aisle at the local Giant Eagle has been replaced with matzoh crackers and other Passover items. If you somehow lost track of the day of the week in Squirrel Hill, you can always tell if it’s Friday evening or Saturday morning; Jewish families will be heading to Shabbat services.

These are just a few of the more visible practices, and the practices of my Jewish neighbors is just one example. People who live in predominantly Muslim or Hindu areas, no doubt, have similar observations.

Why do Christians seem to be so much more  laxidasical in their observance of seasons and holy days? As our Western context becomes more and more pluralistic, our observance of our seasons and feasts may be one of our most opportune forms of witness.

We need to overcome our liturgical wimpiness. How many of us actually practice some form of fasting during Lent (or Advent, our other penitential season)? How many of us will celebrate Christmastide for a full 12 days, or Eastertide for a full 50 days? How many will take time to remember Christ’s crucifixion between noon and 3:00 on Good Friday? How many Christians will even notice that it’s the feast day of the Ascension on May 13 this year? And what about some of the less commercialized (and consequently lesser known) feast days, like Epiphany, the Baptism of the Lord, Transfiguration, All Saints Day, and countless saints days?

With all of these days, there are particular traditions that Christians in the past (and some in the present) have practiced as a way of remembering what God has done, and proclaiming it to the world around them. It’s time, I think, for the Church to reclaim this piece of its heritage.

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2 thoughts on “Overcoming Liturgical Wimpiness: A Lenten Reflection

  1. Mike, this is a really great post. I think a movement exhorting the more rigorous observance of Christian holy days/seasons would make for a much more robust form of the faith, particularly – as you put it – in our pluralistic society.

    It is intriguing, though, how modern (or post-modern) Christianity seems to have lost so much of its sense of observance. I have two theories as to why. First, I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with the particular form of Protestantism practiced by the early Americans (the Puritans), in its (as I recall) rejection of ornament and ceremony. It was an acsetic-type of faith, to be sure, but didn’t really recognize feats, fasts, or holy days the same way the Catholic faith did. In fact, isn’t Protestantism as a whole a rejection of that type of faith? I think this generally accounts for why we see so much more observance of feasting and fasting in Catholic strains of Christianity, and specifically why we see it even less in America.

    The other theory I have relates to my idea of modern American Christianity as a celebration of excess. Obviously, there are exceptions, but I think the general drift of evangelicalism is that of “receiving” rather than of “denying.” The message of the gospel is interpreted not as one that should be observed literally but symbolically; e.g., “Christ did this so I don’t have to.” Christ died so I don’t have to; Christ fasted so I don’t have to; Christ denied himself to I don’t have to; ad nauseum. This is reflected by the fact that the only sacraments most Protestants observe are baptism and communion, and often very watered down versions of those. (This relates back to Protestantism as a rejection of Catholicism.) There is basically no narrative in American Christianity that can really compete with the pervasive Prosperity Gospel and all its various forms. (And I would argue that even those mainstream Protestant demoninations and churches that reject the Prosperity Gospel still practice it in some form or another.)

    So… yeah. Those are my thoughts. It’s a fascinating subject to me, as the ritual and ceremonial elements of religion (that were either absent or diluted in my childhood and adolescent experiences) are often the most appealing.

    1. Lindsay – Thanks for some great comments. And sorry for taking so long to reply to them. I haven’t been on here much, and for some reason WordPress never sent an email notification that you posted this.

      At any rate, I agree that America’s Puritan influence has played a huge role in the loss of holy days and seasons, and it was largely out of rejection of Catholicism. On the one hand, I’m glad the Puritan tradition existed. I think it played a prophetic role in displaying the true heart of Christianity. That is, they demonstrated that the ornaments and calendar-keeping in Catholicism are not the heart of the gospel. On the other hand, I wonder if their prophetic voice created a movement that went too far in the opposite direction. I think it was Luther who compared the Church to a drunk man trying to ride a horse. The drunk man falls to one side, tries to get back up, and then falls to other. While many of the classic liturgical practices of the church bring a danger of superstition, legalism, and idolatry, they can also provide a context for spiritual growth and discipleship.

      And I think you’re right on about American Christianity and celebration of excess. In fact, I bet you could trace this back to the Puritans, too. Perhaps Puritan Christianity began by rejecting the ritual of Catholicism for a broader practice of asceticism, only to lead to a movement that both rejects ritual and forgets its ascetic roots?

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