Of Lent and Liturgies

“Tradition is the living faith of the dead, traditionalism is the dead faith of the living…”
Jaroslav Pelikan
Depending on your faith background or friend group, you may or may not have remembered that this past Wednesday was Ash Wednesday and marked the beginning of the season of Lent. (if you did, don’t feel bad, I didn’t remember until Wednesday night). The truth is, as American Evangelicals, we don’t tend to interact with these liturgical traditions often, and they often pass us by without much notice. In fact, I often used to look down on these traditions. Growing up in a contemporary evangelical church, I associated with tradition with stuffy, rote rituals. They got in the way of authentic, off-the-cuff worship, and I equated them with dead faith.

As it turns out, that’s really regrettable, because since then I’ve had a chance to learn and worship with a variety of Christians from different backgrounds and experienced a new take on Christian liturgy and tradition that I wish I had sooner. Traditionalism is certainly a reality that can tarnish genuine faith, but as Christians, we have thousands of years’ worth of Christians who have grown deeply in their walks with Jesus through certain traditions and liturgical practices and joining them in that would be a sad thing to miss out on. As you approach Easter and find yourself in the midst of Lent, I want to make a quick case for embracing traditions of the historic church, and give you a chance to experience worship a bit differently this year.

So first, just to make sure we are on the same page, what are liturgies and Lent anyway? Liturgy is simple- it’s a set pattern of worship, often charted on a calendar, that has been passed down from generation to generation. As for Lent, it’s a specific liturgy observed for 40 days leading up to Easter that dates back at least 1700 years if not more (just a few generations into the early church’s history). As Christians approached the celebration of Jesus’s resurrection, they found it meaningful to reflect on the suffering that Jesus endured to arrive at his final victory. In mimicking his suffering, Christians would fast, suffering in a small way, and devoted time and resources that would be spent on those things to pray, reflect, and give to the poor. It gave them time to repent and reflect on the excess they had, and focus on the depths that Jesus went to save his world. The 40 days of sacrifice made the coming of the resurrection all the more sweet.

But why participate in calendar traditions like these? Why don’t we all just worship however we see fit? Let me offer a few potential reasons. Firstly, when we engage in liturgies like Lent, we do so not as individual Christians, but as a worldwide body of people following Jesus together. Liturgies tie us together with people in our local church, as well as with Christians we may never meet in this lifetime. When we engage in liturgy, we remember that we are walking with Christ together. We are all suffering for his sake, and thus are all available to build each other up. Liturgy unites us not only with Christians geographically separated from us, but also with Christians who have long passed away. We are walking with and experiencing the same things that Christians experienced hundreds of years ago, which, seeing as we believe those in Christ never truly die, is a wild thought to consider.

Secondly, liturgies discipline us. Rather than letting us decide what we can or can’t do, liturgies set a pattern for us and expect us to follow it. Using repetition and cues, They train us to worship even when we don’t feel like it, and they instill in us triggers that will cause us to reflect on our spiritual life on a daily basis, even after they pass. Lent instills in us a sense of Jesus’s self-sacrifice that we can carry long past Easter.

Finally, Liturgies and ancient traditions of the church often do something that is foreign to us as modern Christians. Our default is head-knowledge. We approach the Bible with the intent of taking away facts and gaining new information. This however, is not the purpose of liturgy and tradition. What is the purpose? My favorite example (and really the thing that convinced me of the value of liturgy) is when my wife and I had the opportunity to eat the Passover with a Messianic Jewish family. Passover is one of the most central moments in the Jewish calendar, but it isn’t primarily a sermon- it’s a meal. I don’t learn about the Exodus. I experience it. Jews eat the foods that their ancestors ate. They weep with their ancestors in their slavery (this is done, quite humorously, through the eating of horseradish, which is sure to bring anyone to tears). It uses tastes, smells, visuals, and tangibles to help me feel and be present with those who God first showed himself to, and thus, experience God’s presence in the same way that they did. Lent is no different. Instead of just hearing about what Jesus did, I feel (in a very tiny way) the suffering he feels. It reminds me that Jesus didn’t just suffer in a textbook, he suffered in real life. Not only that, but when we reflect and experience 40 days of self-denial, the celebration of Easter becomes all the more joyful. To paraphrase a friend of mine, we let Jesus die and sit in that, so that we can experience the wonder when he comes back to life.

While Ash Wednesday has passed, I would challenge you and your family to consider embracing some Lenten traditions this year. What can you all give up as you approach Easter, and what can you put in its place that will let you reflect on Jesus’s life and death more tangibly? How can the stories of Jesus’ suffering become a bit more real in your house, and how can you set the stage to experience the Resurrection in its full delight?

Dan Vandzura