There’s good reason why many Christians know very little about the observance of the “Lenten Season.” Simply stated, the Bible nowhere speaks of a “Lenten Season,” making this observance entirely an ordinance of man.
But now here’s a question, “What’s so wrong with observing a man-made religious memorial if it is rooted in such biblical principles as prayer, fasting, and alms-giving?” Before answering that question, allow me to briefly explain what Lent is.
Lent is a period of 40 days of penance (which typically includes prayer, fasting, and alms-giving) in preparation for the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from the dead. Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of this 40-day-long Lenten period. On this day, participants in Lent have ashes placed on their foreheads in an effort to replicate the Old Testament practice of putting ashes on one’s head, which was an expression of repentance. During these 40 days of Lent, Ash Wednesday, and every Friday are to be a day of fasting.
So now, back to the question, ” “What’s so wrong with observing a man-made religious memorial if it is rooted in such biblical principles as prayer, fasting, and alms-giving?” Here’s my answer… This question assumes that the man-made religious ordinance of Lent is biblically rooted.
Consider the practice of placing ashes on the forehead which takes place on Ash Wednesday. Yes, I know that during Old Testament times, people would fast and put ashes on their head expressing their repentance through this outward display (e.g. Daniel 9:3). But does this practice follow the teaching of Jesus on this matter? Does Jesus want us to make a display and publicize our fasting? Allow him to speak to these questions:
“Moreover, when you fast, do not be like the hypocrites, with a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces that they may appear to men to be fasting. Assuredly, I say to you, they have their reward. But you, when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, so that you do not appear to men to be fasting, but to your Father who is in the secret place; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you openly” (Matthew 6:16-18).
Jesus commanded the exact opposite of what is practiced by the man-made observance of “Ash Wednesday.” According to the man-made memorial of Ash Wednesday, practitioners publicize their fasting and “dirty” their faces with ashes. On the contrary, Jesus says to fast privately, and wash your face.
Furthermore, according to those who instituted this practice of Lent, the fasting on Ash Wednesday and every Friday during the 40 days is a matter of obligation (Code of Canon Law, 1252). Grant it, authority to the conference of bishops to substitute another form of penance besides fasting (e.g. works of piety and charity) for the Friday abstinence rule is given, but there is still a requirement involved (Code of Canon Law, 1253).
Now consider the practice and teachings of Jesus. Jesus constantly shook up the religious establishment of his day by disregarding their man made ordinances (Matthew 12:1-8; Mark 3:1-6), and even exposing how they had actually elevated some of their traditions above the word of God (Mark 7:1-13). The gospel that Jesus taught was a gospel free from the heavy burdens of man-made ordinances (Matthew 23:4), and the legalism of man-made obligations (Colossians 2:20-22). Rather than submitting ourselves to man-made ordinances, the Lord, through the apostle Paul commanded us to “Stand fast in the liberty by which Christ has made us free, and do not be entangled again with a yoke of bondage” (Galatians 5:1).
So am I saying one shouldn’t give themselves to a period of fasting, prayer, and alms-giving? Of course not! Should Christians fast? Most certainly (Matthew 9:14-15). But their fasting should be in harmony with the teachings of Jesus and not the ordinances of men (Matthew 6:1-18). Should Christians pray? Definitely! “Without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17). Should Christians give alms to the poor? Without question (Galatians 6:10; James 1:27).
Bottom line: Christians should fast, pray, and give alms to the poor, but not under the auspices and strictures of “Lent,” a man-made ordinance that actually violates the teachings of Jesus. Instead, why not “give up Lent for Lent” and fast, pray, and give alms within the context and freedom of Christian liberty and the teachings of Jesus?