What is Lent?

Since becoming a Christian in college I have not attended a church that observed Lent (to my recollection), at least not while they were observing it.  I have been active primarily in non-mainline Presbyterian, Baptist, or Independent circles and I gather that these traditions generally do not practice Lent and its attendant days and rituals.  Even in seminary (I went to a non-denominational seminary, but most of the students were in the conservative arm of the Presbyterian church), I recall hearing very little about this season of the church calendar.

So when my church here in South Royalton began to talk about “Ash Wednesday” and Lent back in 2014, I had some homework to do.  Thankfully others in the church have helped.

It appears that the exact origin of the practice is unknown though some ancient documents suggest the practice goes back almost to the time of the apostles (if not all the way back to them).  Various writings from the 3rd and 4th century speak of a season of fasting prior to the celebration of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  Eusebius records a letter in his History of the Church from St. Irenaeus (d. 203) to Pope St. Victor I, commenting on the differences of Easter practice that existed between the Eastern and Western church.  Therein St. Irenaeus makes reference to the fact that a season of fasting had been celebrated in preparation for Easter since the time of “our forefathers” (making reference to the apostles).  1  Today this season of fasting and self-denial lasts forty days in most traditions where it is celebrated (for a long time there was actually a period of 63 days in which preparations for Easter were made beginning with what is called “Septuagesima Sunday“.

The choice of 40 days seems to have stemmed from the story told to us in the Gospels of Luke, Mark, and Matthew, where Jesus fasted for 40 days in the desert, being tempted by the Devil. Those who participated in Lent were to fast, as Jesus had, for 40 days, and then return to the community to celebrate the Easter feast and/or to be baptized. 2

Forty days are marked by Lent from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday.  Because Sundays have always been marked as occasions to celebrate the resurrection of Christ, we do not include Sundays in the 40 day count. The other days are days marked by special prayer, fasting, self discipline in striving against sin, and sacrificial giving. The Church has always prescribed the three-fold discipline of prayer, fasting and almsgiving (Matthew 6:1-24) as strong weapons in the fight against self-centeredness and indulgence.  Forty is a sacred number being made up of 4, the symbol of the earth, multiplied by 10, the symbol of the complete judgement of God. Forty days marked the deluge which cleansed the earth in the time of Noah; forty years the wandering of the Jews in the wilderness to purge their unbelief; forty days the fasting and warfare of Jesus in the wilderness against Satan. 3

If you want to learn a bit more about the Christian calendar and seasons like Lent, Pastor Josh wrote a brief article for the Christian Research Institute last Spring (2019) and did a Postmodern Realities Podcast with them as well, which you can listen to here.

  1. Fr. William Saunders, “History of Lent,” http://www.catholiceducation.org/articles/religion/re0527.html.  Accessed on 3/5/2014.
  2. Robert Pannier, “Catholics: History and Meaning of Ash Wednesday and Lent,” http://guardianlv.com/2014/03/catholics-history-and-meaning-of-ash-wednesday-and-lent/.  Accessed on 3/4/2014.
  3. I am indebted to Russell Rohloff of Bethel, Vermont, for the insights and wording in this last paragraph.

What is Advent?

Maybe the greatest challenge of the Advent and Christmas season is to keep its true meaning in front of us. What is Advent really about?  Why the trees and the presents and the caroling and the parties?  Why all the hullabaloo?

The word advent means “coming.”

What’s coming?  Who’s coming?

Well, when you come to the Bible, you find a lot of talk about future things, but one of the most common and prominent future coming things throughout the Scriptures is the promise of a coming figure who would defeat Satan and evil and bring peace and deliverance to His people.

In fact, we don’t have to wait very long after the creation story to find God already talking about this. All the way back in Genesis 3:15 we find the first place where promises are made and where people begin anticipating or waiting upon someone who is going to come. 

In Genesis 3:15 we have God saying that a future descendant of the woman will crush the head of the serpent, Satan, which lead man and woman into sin.  

Many theologians call this the “protoevangelium” which is a fancy way of saying, the first announcement of the gospel (the good news), that one is coming who would deliver man and woman from their sins.

So right off, in the Scriptures, we have a sense of anticipation—a sense of forward looking towards a future, great deliverer that is coming. 

Jesus, the Long Awaited Deliverer

Of course, over time God would make many more promises to His people and would add many layers to this promise.  We know that he would be one like Moses who delivered his people from captivity.  We know that he would be a son of King David.  We know that he would be born of a virgin.  We know that he would be a suffering servant, one who was crushed and afflicted; one whose own wounds bring about our healing.  We know that he will sight to the blind and set the prisoner free.  We know that he will pour out his spirit on young and old and men and women, slave and free.  All of this and much more, we know from later promises that were given in the time of the Old Testament prophets. 

All of this would take thousands of years to unfold, but finally he came in the person of Jesus Christ.  And the world has never been the same.

But things didn’t stop there, did they?  No!  History didn’t end.  God still has plans and is still doing many things.  With the coming of Jesus came new insights into the Old Testament prophets and also new prophecies about the future. 

So although the advent, or “coming” of the Messiah, the Christ figure of the Old Testament, is here, that does not mean we are done waiting. 

Christians Are Still Waiting Today

Christians are still waiting today.  What are we waiting for now?  Over and over again the New Testament talks about Jesus coming again.  One well known story is found in Acts chapter 1 verses 6 through 11:

Then they gathered around him and asked him, “Lord, are you at this time going to restore the kingdom to Israel?”

He said to them: “It is not for you to know the times or dates the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

After he said this, he was taken up before their very eyes, and a cloud hid him from their sight.

They were looking intently up into the sky as he was going, when suddenly two men dressed in white stood beside them. “Men of Galilee,” they said, “why do you stand here looking into the sky? This same Jesus, who has been taken from you into heaven, will come back in the same way you have seen him go into heaven.”

There it is.  This same Jesus, will come back, just as you’ve seen him go.  And in many other places similar things are said of Christ.

And Advent is a time for us to talk about that and express that reality in tangible ways.  Like today, for instance, we light the candle of hope.  There are two things about hope to realize.  First, hope points to a future reality.  Take Romans 8:24 and 25 for instance:

For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees? But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.

Hope points forward.  But secondly, hope also points to something wonderful.  We don’t hope in bad things.  We hope in good things.  So there are good things coming.  Romans 8 that same passage talks about how all creation groans as though it were in childbirth for the restoration of the earth and for the revealing of the sons of God.  Those are good things that have not happened yet, so we hope in them. 

So today we light the candle of hope to say, yes of course, Christ has come, he has fulfilled many prophesies, but not all is complete yet and we are still waiting for his final coming and for the complete and full restoration of all things.

The Second Advent of Christ

The church has picked up on this and that is why historically, Advent has been the time when Christians actively anticipate and prepare for the 2nd coming of Christ. 

The Latin word adventus (where we get the word Advent from) is the Latin translation of the Greek word Parousia (pe-ROO-zea), which is a word commonly used of Christ’s second coming.

Because of Christmas, which follows the season of Advent, and because of the huge commercialization of the holiday, it is easy to think only of Christ’s first coming or first advent during these four weeks, but that would be a mistake.  Because, as I’ve already said, we are still today, waiting upon Christ to come again.

Already and Not-Yet

We live in that already not-yet period of time that I’ve spoken of before. 

Christ has already come and brought fulfillment to many of the promises that we see in the Old Testament, but they are not yet completely fulfilled in some senses. 

For instance, God has promised that he will complete the work that he has started in us who believe (Phil. 1:6) .  In a sense that promise is already fulfilled.  We are complete in Christ and before God we are blameless and clean, right now.  However, we still live in this sinful flesh and we still sin and struggle every day.  So the full fulfillment of that promise will not happen until the day of Christ Jesus, when he returns again and we are changed in the twinkling of an eye and given our perfect, resurrection bodies.

So, in that sense we are already complete and not-yet complete.

This is what Advent is all about for us as Christians.  We live in that in between time—in between the two advents of Christ.

So even today, as Christians, we are still in a posture of waiting.  We are still anticipating.  God has been faithful to send the Deliverer once, and we know He will come again.

And that is what Advent is about.

End Notes

This blog is an excerpt from a recent message by Pastor Josh. Watch on YouTube here.

A Thanksgiving Proclamation

Today it’s commonly argued that our Constitution does not allow for any speak of God in our public life by the government or its officials; that God and government cannot and should not be mixed and that to do so is to violate our Constitution’s most sacred ideals (or not-so-sacred ideals).

For example, groups like the Freedom From Religion Foundation (FFRF) suggest that our nation is fundamentally a “secular” one.  Speaking of the phrase “In God We Trust” on our nation’s currency, they argue:

“‘In God We Trust’ is a religious phrase. It does not belong on the legal tender of our secular nation, the first nation to separate church and state with a godless constitution.”

The FFRF believes that the establishment clause contained within the First amendment grants them a constitutional right to be free from religion.

Interestingly, the founders of our nation didn’t feel that way.  In fact, the prayers and speeches of many of our nation’s earliest leaders suggest to us that whatever the meaning of the establishment clause, it most certainly was not to cut God off from our public life or to free people from religion.

Take this proclamation made by George Washington in New York City on October 3rd, 1789, when he first proposed that our nation have a national day of Thanksgiving:

“Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor– and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness.

Now therefore I do recommend and assign Thursday the 26th day of November next to be devoted by the People of these States to the service of that great and glorious Being, who is the beneficent Author of all the good that was, that is, or that will be– That we may then all unite in rendering unto him our sincere and humble thanks–for his kind care and protection of the People of this Country previous to their becoming a Nation–for the signal and manifold mercies, and the favorable interpositions of his Providence which we experienced in the course and conclusion of the late war–for the great degree of tranquility, union, and plenty, which we have since enjoyed–for the peaceable and rational manner, in which we have been enabled to establish constitutions of government for our safety and happiness, and particularly the national One now lately instituted–for the civil and religious liberty with which we are blessed; and the means we have of acquiring and diffusing useful knowledge; and in general for all the great and various favors which he hath been pleased to confer upon us.

And also that we may then unite in most humbly offering our prayers and supplications to the great Lord and Ruler of Nations and beseech him to pardon our national and other transgressions– to enable us all, whether in public or private stations, to perform our several and relative duties properly and punctually–to render our national government a blessing to all the people, by constantly being a Government of wise, just, and constitutional laws, discreetly and faithfully executed and obeyed–to protect and guide all Sovereigns and Nations (especially such as have shewn kindness unto us) and to bless them with good government, peace, and concord–To promote the knowledge and practice of true religion and virtue, and the increase of science among them and us–and generally to grant unto all Mankind such a degree of temporal prosperity as he alone knows to be best.” 1

Nearly 75 years later Abraham Lincoln would make Thanksgiving a Federal holiday.  I won’t post it here, but that proclamation as well makes it clear that despite the claims of so many today, the founders of our nation did not think that God and government were like oil and water.  The Federal holiday we know as Thanksgiving Day, a day that was set apart by our government itself, is a day for the offering up of praise, thanksgiving and prayer to our most beneficent Heavenly Father (in the words of Lincoln).  And this holiday stands as a monument to the fact that historically, our leaders have not interpreted our nation’s founding and governing documents in a godless fashion, but rather naturally saw it not only their prerogative to make religious proclamations while in office but also their duty and proper place to exhort the entire American populace to recognize the source of our many blessings in this once great nation as coming down as “gracious gifts from the Most HIgh God” (Lincoln’s words again).

Happy Thanksgiving everyone!

Image “We the People” by Stephen Nichols, CC BY-NC-SA 2.0.

  1. The text from this proclamation can be found at http://www.heritage.org/initiatives/first-principles/primary-sources/washingtons-thanksgiving-proclamation. Accessed on 11.26.15.

The Gift of Waiting: An Advent Reflection

Our refrigerator died again this week.  We saw the writing on the wall when it started making a clunking sound a couple of weeks ago.  Thankfully, up here in Vermont where it’s really cold in the Fall and Winter this is not a huge problem since we can just put our food out on our enclosed porch and it will stay cool.

Being that we are in a very rural area, probably the biggest pain of the whole ordeal is the waiting.  

You call the warranty people and you wait on the phone.  Then you wait to hear from the repair company to call and schedule an appointment.  The appointment is usually a week or two out and rarely do they fix it the first time.  By the end of the ordeal we are without a fridge sometimes more than four or five weeks.  

For my way-too-impatient self, this is simply unacceptable. 

Today’s western world does not do well with waiting. I do not do well with waiting.

In our era of modern conveniences–smartphones, refrigerators, microwaves, automobiles, email, Netflix and Amazon Prime–speed and efficiency reign.  

Checkout lines give us heartburn.  

Waiting is Good For Us

But God has built waiting into the very nature of things and our loving Father did this because waiting is good for us.

I see the gift of waiting in the coming of Spring in the northeastern United States.  In Vermont, it feels like Spring simply takes forever to arrive.  Some of my friends on Facebook post the number of days until Spring daily, starting in November.  The first time I observed this I was puzzled, but now that I’m in the middle of my sixth long Vermont winter, I understand fully.  Winter is long and cold and dark here.  It’s months on end of shoveling and salting, bundling up and trying not to slip on rock-hard ice every time you take a step.  It’s usually well into May before it finally completely lifts in northern New England.  I savor Spring as never before because I really have to wait for it here.

Waiting draws out the sweetness of things easily taken for granted. 

Gardening is a new hobby that my family has taken up since arriving in Vermont.  Months of back-breaking work and preparation result in a delicious celebration come harvest time.  Simply buying fruits and vegetables at the grocery store, while much easier, cuts out the joy and satisfaction of having raised your own delectables.  Waiting on harvest is work, but it’s a precious gift.

Another blessing of waiting is the time of preparation it affords us.  What if babies were born just moments after they were conceived?  That sounds strange to us but God could have accelerated the gestation period if He so desired.  But He chose to give us 40 weeks of time to prepare and to wait for the miracle of new life to be fully revealed.  

God’s People Have Always Had to Wait

The natural world is not the only place we see the gift of waiting time, when we come to the Bible we find that so many of God’s good blessings come on the heels of waiting. 

So frequent do we find blessing and waiting associated in Scripture, that it would be foolish to write it off as mere coincidence.  Think about Abraham and Sarah.  God’s promise to Abraham that his wife would bear a son and that he would be the father of many nations wasn’t fulfilled until Abraham was 100 years old and his wife was over 90 (see Gen. 21:5 and Gen. 17:17).  Or what of the people of God in Egypt?  They were slaves for centuries before God raised up a deliverer, and even once they were delivered God made them wander in the wilderness for 40 years before entering the Promised Land.  Finally, imagine the deafening silence that set in at the end of the book Malachi.  After an excruciating rollercoaster ride through the Old Testament, it’s 460 years before we finally hear the amazing words in Luke 3:2: “The word of God came to John, son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”  No prophet had spoken to the people for nearly five centuries when Jesus Christ finally arrives on the scene.  

Waiting was built into the blessings.  It gave the people time to prepare, time to grow in trust, and time for their hearts to be emptied of other things to make room for the coming gift.

God was not to be caricatured as a giant Santa-Claus bestowing gifts upon people the moment they asked for them or wanted them. If the people of God were to truly grasp some of the big-ness of what God was doing in their day, waiting was God’s way.  

Advent is About Waiting

Because Christians have always recognized the importance of waiting and preparation, they intentionally built periods of waiting into the Christian calendar. It makes room for this important piece of life that the secular world is so eager to get rid of.  It slows us down, reorients us around God and gives us time to reflect, to prepare, to rest.

Advent is one of those seasons of waiting.  When we come to Advent we remember the promise that Christ has come and will come again, but we also remember that we are not ready to jump headlong into celebration. First, we must prepare.

In the words of Tish Warren, Advent reminds us:

We live in liminal time, in the already and the not yet.  Christ has come, and he will come again.  We dwell in the meantime.  We wait.

Tish Harrison Warren, The Liturgy of the Ordinary, 104.

We wait for God to fulfill His promise again.  In this liminal time, we ask God to enlarge our hearts and allow us to comprehend the tremendous gift that He has given us in Jesus.  Waiting is a gift.  Let us prepare.  Let us be ready for the sweetness that has come and that is coming again.

The IF and BUT of Resurrection Sunday

“…if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is vain, your faith also is vain…”  I Corinthians 15:14

Webster’s dictionary defines vain as “having no real value, marked by futility or ineffectualness, foolish.”  That which is vain has an appearance that would make it desirable to our eyes, but it has no substance or worth behind its facade; it is a costume-jewelry diamond.  That which is vain has an appearance of strength and security, but has no foundation or underlying reinforcement; it is a house built upon sand.  That which is vain has an appearance of direction and purpose, but it is always bound up in the experiential and has no real basis outside itself; it is a pipe-dream, a grand and glorious promise that can never deliver.  That which is vain has an appearance of power and effect, but it lacks the integrity and harmony to accomplish anything; it is a broken tooth, or a limb out of joint.  And the Apostle Paul states emphatically that our religion, our doctrine, our faith, our liturgy, and our heritage is vanity if Jesus Christ be not raised.  Consider what this means.

If Christ be not raised, mankind remains dead in their sins, destined to be forever separated from their Creator.  If Christ be not raised, then our only destiny is death, and after death a certain awful judgment.  If Christ be not raised, then the soul of mankind remains chained in captivity forever, and the gates of heaven shall never be opened to them.  If Christ be not raised, then all the souls of the righteous dead have no hope of the promise of God being fulfilled for them.  If Christ be not raised, then we are not just lost, but deceived, and our religion and life is void of purpose.  It is a charade.  If Christ be not raised, then we are squandering what little life we have upon this earth pursuing the wind.  If Christ be not raised, then this world and all contained within it are shrouded even now in darkness, and will always bear the curse of sin as its lot.  If Christ be not raised, then all creation is subjected to Satan’s dominion and his unholy lordship mocks the Name of God.

That is, if Christ be not raised.  But Resurrection Sunday shouts hallelujah, He is raised; and because He is, our sins are forgiven, we have fellowship as sons and daughters of God, we have eternal life, heaven’s gates are opened wide to us, we are joined in the glorious communion of saints before God’s throne, our religion is alive and able to touch mankind’s heart, our lives have purpose which goes beyond this age, light has come in the world and people have seen it, and the serpent’s head has been crushed and his mocking accusations silenced forever.

For a time our world had been shrouded in darkness, and for a season Satan had his dominion. But the winds have changed, the fullness of time has come, and this season now belongs to us.  It is a season of light and life, a season of joy and grace, a season of healing and deliverance, a season of power and the breaking in of the kingdom of God.

So lift your eyes to the heavens and hear the words of the angel proclaim, “He is not here, He has risen!”  Hear those worlds of life and know that all the promises of God have become “Yes” and “Amen” in Jesus Christ.  And then go forth in joy, knowing that the season of darkness has passed away with the rising Son, and that the salvation of our God has today been made manifest in our hearts!  Christ is risen, truly He is risen!  We are a Resurrection people and Hallelujah is our song.

Ember Days

“…For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this age, against spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places.  Therefore, take up the whole armor of God…”  Ephesians 6:12-13

I think that one of the greatest failures of true religion is the lack of discernment regarding that which is evil.  Christians confine their spiritual vision to the earth, and too often miss the spiritual struggle that is even now working itself out in the heavenly places around us.  We tend to discount the new pagans, attributing far too little power to their rites and beliefs.  But Paul makes it clear in our opening scripture that there is a vast host of dark spiritual forces arrayed against the people of God, and it is to the heavens, as well as on the earth, that we must press the battle under the Lordship of Jesus Christ:

“For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal, but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds…”  II Corinthians 10:3-5.

Throughout the ages the Church has sought to place such mighty weapons in the hands of her saints that they might strive mightily against the gates of hell and prevail.  One such weapon was the seasons of fasting  known to the Church as the Ember days.

The Origins of the Ember Days

One tradition holds that the name “ember” comes from the Anglo-Saxon and means the completing of a circuit, the coming round of a recurring time or season.  In modern terms we might liken it to the keeping of an anniversary date in which something of significance is remembered and celebrated each year.  The scripture tells us that all of creation speaks to us of the nature of God, that His word and order is proclaimed throughout the heavens, that the recurring passage of time reveals knowledge of His ways to us (read Psalm 19:1-6 for instance).  It’s unfortunate that the Christian Church has forgotten such lessons in which the heavenly plan and will of God are made manifest in time and place.  It is a lesson that the pagans have not forgotten, for in their “earth religion” they seek to tap into the cycle of creation which is by heritage the rightful property of the Christian Church.

Consider, for example, the great significance attached by the new age pagans to the keeping of the Vernal Equinox (March 21), the Summer Solstice (June 21), the Autumnal Equinox (September 23) and the Winter Solstice (December 22).   Equinox comes from the Latin meaning days on which daylight and night are equal, and Solstice comes from a word meaning when the “sun stands” at its greatest extreme.  The summer solstice is the longest daylight period, the winter solstice the shortest daylight period.   Such celebrations were historically tied to the three great harvests of wheat, grapes and olives by the ancient Romans.  But the Church was quick to note that these times were also periods in which demonic evil and wickedness seemed to flourish and peak in a cyclical regularity.  This is not surprising; for if, in the times of abundance,  man’s heart does not rise to his Creator in thanksgiving, it falls to prideful sins of ingratitude and idolatry.  Said another way, where grace is not at work in restoration, sin is at work in degradation.  Because heathen practices and rituals were so active in these times, the Church instituted its own seasons which were intended to stir up the saints to spiritual activity.   Such spiritual legislation is not forbidden by the scriptures and is part of the spiritual liberty which we possess as heirs with Christ.

Thus were born the so-called Ember days of Christianity.  Another tradition holds the origin of their name to have been derived from a corruption of the Latin “Quatuor Tempora”, the quarter tense or the four times.  Regardless of the origin of their names, the Ember Days were established from the start as days of fasting, abstinence, prayer, and increased almsgiving that by the weapons of righteousness the deeds of darkness might be exposed and overcome.   The Church also saw the added benefit in the observance of cyclic fasting in all the seasons of the year.  It continued to remind the saints of their need for repeated purification under the hand of God.  Then too it reminded each man that earthly life was not the fullness of the Kingdom of God, and the balancing of the days of feasting and celebration against the days of fasting and penitence brought a Godly harmony to daily life.  As Paul states in Philippians 4:11-13:

“…in any and every circumstance I have learned the secret of being filled and going hungry, both of having abundance and suffering need.  I can do all things through Him who strengthens me.”

The lessons which the ember days sought to teach were that men ought to thank God for the gifts of nature in each of its seasons; that men were to make right and moderate use of the abundance of God’s bounty; and that from this use they were to remember and assist those in true need of Christian charity.

Seasonal Disciplines Like Fasting Are Ancient

The practice of seasonal Church fasting is ancient.  The Roman Archbishop Callistus in A.D. 222 wrote in his first epistle:

“Fasting, which you have learned to hold three times in the year among us, we decree now to take place as more suitable in four seasons; so that even as the year revolves through four seasons, we too may keep a solemn fast quarterly in the four seasons of the year.  And as we are replenished with corn, and wine and oil for the nourishment of our bodies, so let us be replenished with fasting for the nourishment of our souls…”

Leo the Great in his Sermon 19 delivered around A.D. 450 declared:

“This profitable observance [i.e. self restraint and abstinence] is especially laid down for the fasts of the Church, which, in accordance with the Holy Spirit’s teaching, are so distributed over the whole year that the law of abstinence may be kept before us at all times.  Accordingly we keep the spring fast in Lent, the summer fast at Whitsuntide, the autumn fast in the seventh month, and the winter fast in this which is the tenth month, knowing that there is nothing unconnected with the Divine commands, and that all the elements serve the Word of God to our instruction.  For when the prophet says, ‘The heavens declare the glory of God and the firmament showeth His handiwork; day unto day utters speech and night unto night shows knowledge..’ what is there then by which the Truth does not speak to us?”

He continues later on to infer an apostolic origin for this practice.

“Let us therefore fast on Wednesday, and Friday, and on Saturday keep vigil with the most blessed apostle Peter….[performing] our supplications and fastings and alms which the Lord Jesus Christ presents…”

The observance of Ember Days is therefore fixed and at the same time variable.  They are fixed in the sense of occurring always on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday and variable since they occur in the week after Ash Wednesday, Whitsunday (Pentecost), September 14 (historically the exaltation of the cross), and December 13 (the remembrance day of St. Lucia).  Thus the Latin verse was phrased to help the faithful remember their timing “Post crux, post lux, post ignes, post cineres”, or in a rough translation, “after the cross, after the light, after the fire, after the ashes.”

The seasons of God’s creation are ours by inheritance.  Let us reclaim them from the pagans so that their line may go out through all the earth for the glory of God; and let us not despise the Godly disciplines whereby the saints in ages past have wrestled to keep themselves undefiled in the world and persevering in the promises of God’s covenant.

The Ashes of Our Praise

A few nights ago we gathered at Red Door Church for our annual Ash Wednesday service.  Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent,  a 40 day season (not counting Sundays) of preparation leading up to Easter.

Every year I’m overwhelmed with the sheer number of potential Lenten themes.  As a pastor, my mind races here and there as I think about what direction the Lord would have us go each year.  The possibilities seem endless.

Of the many threads woven into the garment of Lent, one stood out to me this year as we approached Ash Wednesday: the ashes.  Each year I gather up the palm branches used during Palm Sunday from the year before and burn them to make the ashes that are later placed on the foreheads of worshippers who come to our Ash Wednesday service.

But why burn the palm fronds from the year before?  What is the significance of placing those ashes on our heads?  Why not just employ regular ol’ wood ash from my stove at home?  Those ashes are certainly in abundance this time of year and it would be easier to take a few spoonfuls of those out of the stove rather than creating new ash from the palms.

The answers are not immediately obvious but are profound and worth contemplating for a moment.

Palm Sunday

A week before Easter on Palm Sunday Christians remember the triumphal entry of Jesus into Jerusalem, mounted on a donkey (Matthew 21:1-11; Mark 11:1-11; Luke 19:28-44; John 12:12-19).  The crowds welcomed him with palm branches and shouted a short portion of Psalm 118:25: “Hosanna!”1  The symbolic use of palm branches has a long and interesting history.   In ancient times palm branches were a symbol of praise and victory.  They were used to welcome military leaders when they would come home from battle victorious.  They were used on coinage alongside pictures of emperors and gods, on Jewish ossuaries, and to this day can be found on flags.

Maybe most interesting of all, however, is that just five days later after welcoming Jesus in kingly fashion into Israel’s capital city, Jerusalem, the same crowds that praised him with great passion and asked for him to “Save us!” (which is what “Hosanna” means), were complicit in crucifying him with equal passion.  One minute they loved him and the next they scorned him.

Ashes

Now, what about the ashes?  In ancient Jewish culture, ashes were used as a symbol of grief, mourning, or penitence.  For example, we read of Tamar, after being raped by her brother:

“Tamar put ashes on her head and tore the ornate robe she was wearing. She put her hands on her head and went away, weeping aloud as she went.” (2 Samuel 13:19, NIV)

Or in the story of Jonah, we find the people of Nineveh repenting at the preaching of Jonah:

“And the people of Nineveh believed God. They called for a fast and put on sackcloth, from the greatest of them to the least of them. The word reached the king of Nineveh, and he arose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes.” (Jonah 3:5-6, ESV)

Examples of this could be multiplied (see for instance Esther 4:1-3; Job 2:8, 42:6 or Jeremiah 6:26).2

Combining the Two

The combination of the palms of praise and victory with the symbolism of ashes has a significance that should not be lost on us.

The reason we use the ashes of the palms and not just any ashes is to remind us of how frail our praise is.  That we, just like those joyous crowds that day in Jerusalem, would have been calling for Jesus’ condemnation just a few days later.3

The ashes on our heads are a mark of our mourning of that fact.  We grieve that our praise is half-hearted.  We mourn that the flame of our devotion can be blown out with the slightest breeze of temptation or trial.  We grieve that our sins are so great, that only the crucifixion of the Son of God could wash them away.

Let the ashes of the palm fronds on our foreheads be a fresh reminder of these things.

  1. For a great discussion on the meaning of the word “Hosanna” see the article “Hosanna” at DesiringGod.com.
  2. Ashes can also have other meaning in Scripture. See Isaiah 44:20.
  3. Bryan J. who writes at Mockingbird helped me to see this connection. Read his article “Burning Palm Sunday: An Ash Wednesday Reflection,” here.

Baccalaureate 2016 at Red Door

At significant moment’s in our lives it is appropriate and even expected to take time to reflect upon the past and the future, and to celebrate achievements.  At the same time, it is right and good to ponder the changes that lie ahead and to remind ourselves of what is most important.

On June 5th, at 4:00 p.m. at Red Door Church in South Royalton we will have one of those significant moments as leaders in business, education and spirituality from our local area will gather to surround and support South Royalton’s graduating senior class.  Our goal is to propel them into the next chapter of their lives and to give them a positive vision for their future.

In the past it was customary for schools to put together a religious service to give space to spiritual leaders (and students) to address the graduating student body as they prepared to enter the world.  At the university level, because most schools were originally founded for the education of ministers in the propagation of the Christian gospel these services would have been a normal part of the ebb and flow of university life.  Schools like Dartmouth, Lafayette, Wake Forest, Harvard, Yale, Princeton and many, many others all have Christian roots and their graduation ceremonies in the past would have reflected that.

While I had trouble finding an authoritative source on the subject, it seems that Baccalaureate services began during times when graduating oratory students would deliver sermons in Latin as part of their training.   The services were times to celebrate and worship God for lives dedicated to learning and the pursuit of wisdom.

Today, it is mainly the responsibility of churches and the students themselves to put together these services.  The services themselves have evolved quite a bit.  Our service is intended to be a time of celebration, inspiration, motivation and enrichment involving peoples of various backgrounds and traditions. Through video, music, song, prayer, speeches, and gifts we hope to put wind in the sails of graduating students as they embark on a new chapter in life.

We are honored to be working with the students of South Royalton school and other community leaders to put together a service that will be a treasured memory in the lives of the students, their friends, and family for many years to come.

We hope to see you there!

“Faith in the Storm,” A Lenten Reflection

We have noted before that the opposite of faith is not disbelief, it is fear.  Faith makes us certain, it gives us confident direction in our choices, and it defines our destination and the path that leads to it.  Fear introduces questioning, second guessing, worry about what might be.  It leaves us wondering and wandering, paralyzed with uncertainty, unable to move forward.  Just when we ought to be declaring, “Thus says the Lord God Almighty…” we hear the devil’s challenge whispered in our head, “Has God really said…?”

Faith in the word of Jesus, the scriptures tell us, is like a man building his house on the rock. The storms come, as storms must come in a fallen world, yet the house stands firm, not because of the house, but because of its unshakable foundation.  Faith in the completed work of Jesus places eternity in our hearts so that even if we suffer loss or pain in the short term, we understand that nothing can ever separate us from the love of God in Jesus.  When the scriptures speak of placing faith in God, it often resorts to spectacular imagery. Trusting God is being led to a rock higher than our own frailty or failure, it is a strong fortress into which we run for safety, it is dwelling under the wings of the most High God, it is being surrounded by the angel armies of heaven, or knowing that God is like the mountains that surround and protect us.

There are two commands that are repeatedly used throughout the scriptures that give us a worthwhile goal to seek after during this Lenten season, “Do not be afraid”, and “Stand fast” (or “Wait on the Lord”).  Often they are used together as in Exodus 14:13, “Don’t be afraid. Just stand still and watch the LORD rescue you today.”  If we can allow the Spirit of God to work into our hearts, and minds, and spirits a true faith in the promises of God made present in the work of Jesus, we will have gained something that will see us through the rest of our lives until that day when we stand in the presence of God and see Him face to face.  Begin today with this confession from Psalm 23, “The Lord is my shepherd; I have everything that I need.”