Evangelical Lent Redux

In my previous post, a comment from a Protestant challenged me to argue for Lent purely from Scripture, also saying that his own experience of Lent, like Mark Galli’s, was pretty miserable. That led me to consider that I actually had left several important things out in the previous post, most especially touching upon the question of the dualism of Evangelicals and what that might do to their appropriation of Lent. Following is my response to that comment, which I thought merited a post of its own:

If you want for me to reconstruct Lent using only a sort of “raw” reading of the Scriptures (i.e., without reference to any interpretive tradition), of course that is impossible. But then again, so are things like having an annual festal celebration of the Resurrection (Easter) or Christ’s birth (Christmas), weekly worship services on Sunday morning, and Sunday School.

But that takes us rather to a more basic question, which is on what authority any Christian does anything at all. You want me to show you everything from the Scriptures, but that begs a deeper question—Whose interpretation of them should we use? There is no such thing as a truly raw reading of the Bible. Every text has a context, and major element of the context of reading a text is the tradition in which one is reading it, even if that tradition is something as elementary as what language one happens to know. But of course Biblical interpretation involves a whole lot more than that, and the historic fact that Church tradition actually preceded, generated and defined the Scripture complicates matters even further.

But anyway, probably the deeper issue here is that the “Lent” you as a Protestant have experienced is quite different from the experience I as an Orthodox Christian also call “Lent.” Whatever combination of fasting, abstinence, church services, devotions and confession you may be doing is not the same as what I’m doing. We are using the same word to refer to two different things. You don’t mention what kind of Protestant you are, but there really is no parallel between anything in Protestantism and the Orthodox Christian experience of this season. Even fasting alone—though it could theoretically involve the exact same prescriptions in terms of types and amounts of food eaten—is a totally different experience.

Why is this? It is because of the dualism of Protestantism, its inner feeling that physical matter has nothing really to do with holiness or the spiritual life at all. So physical practices can never really be more than self-discipline or pure memorial. It can only be about thinking and feeling, because Protestants see no link between the body’s efforts and the soul’s salvation.

But for the Orthodox Christian, physical matter is precisely the stuff by which our salvation was accomplished, because God became man, and He really suffered in the flesh, and He really says we have to eat His flesh and drink His blood, or else we have no life in us. And of course the Bible itself is filled with all sorts of spiritual significance for physical matter, not just for healing of death and disease, but also for the engendering of faith and holiness. So it makes sense to us that asceticism and sacrament should be a normal part of our lives.

In short, an “argument” for Lent to a dualistic Christian from a non-dualistic Christian will never make sense. There are no shared assumptions. Lent for the Orthodox is something we do within and guided by the Orthodox Church. It is not a set of autonomously operating spiritual disciplines that will operate outside of the actual community of the Church that was founded by the Apostles. Protestants don’t have that, and they generally don’t want it, so it makes little sense for them to want to appropriate something that comes from within that context. (Mind you, I would argue that it therefore also makes little sense that they would accept the Scriptures, since they were written, compiled and canonized in an ecclesial context they would reject—bishops, sacraments, asceticism, etc.)

As for fasting and other ascetical practices in the New Testament, I’m afraid that you’re not seeing them because your tradition has conditioned you not to see them. But they’re really everywhere. I again recommend this article for a detailed, book-by-book examination of asceticism in the New Testament.

Having said all that, though, I honestly think that if you’ve chosen your spiritual tradition, then trying to add Lent into it where it does not already exist is rather futile. Grafting an oak onto a willow is just not going to work, and trying to incorporate even a little of the ancient Christian traditions of Lent—which presuppose a non-dualistic understanding of spirituality—will only frustrate you. The context is wrong, and so the results will be distorted.

If, however, your spiritual tradition is something you can highly customize and alter as you go (rather than something to which you are called to be faithful), adding or subtracting spiritual practices as you like, then I don’t see why you’d need any authoritative argument at all—even from Scripture. Pick what you like.


  1. I don’t know about the Protestants you are familiar with, but many of the Protestant churches have services for Ash Wednesday and throughout for Lent. As a matter of fact my daughter’s Girl Scouts troop meets in the basement of a Welsh Baptist Church. Our meetings are on Wednesdays. We were unable to have our usual meeting because of Ash Wednesday. The Church told us that they didn’t want a meeting going on while they were having services, and rightly so. It is also a very longtime tradition where I live and was raised that even though the Protestants weren’t instructed to abstain from meat on Fridays they did anyway, and always had Macaroni and cheese and fish if they could afford it because a Catholic or Orthodox neighbor might be there at supper time, and wanted the neighbor to be able to eat with them. To this day, almost everyone has either Macaroni and cheese or pizza. However I think there is Scriptural reference for observing Lent as the Orthodox do–Christ spending 40 days in the dessert to help him resist the temptation of taking Himself off the cross. Also the Scripture that says, “through prayer, fasting and supplication make your requests known to God.”

    1. Yes, I am aware that there are various Protestant groups that have Lenten practices. But I was speaking really about asceticism, and in any event, most Protestant Lenten practices are really in the end almost purely memorial in character. They’re there to get you to think about something or remember something (or perhaps to feel something).

      As for Lent from the Bible, yes of course Jesus fasted for 40 days. But it is one thing to note that, as well as other passages, and another to come up with a 40-day period of intensified asceticism, church services, and so forth, that is done annually and has a standard toward which all are expected to strive. It further complicates things that even within traditional Christianity, Lent did not always exist. The earliest known fasts before Pascha were no more than about a week.

      But Orthodox Christians do not believe in Sola Scriptura, so we don’t have to use the Bible as our exclusive source for everything in our spiritual lives. If we did, we wouldn’t even be able to define what the Bible actually consists of, because the list of books in the canon isn’t actually listed in the canon.

    2. One thing I would ask Jean is, do either of these things (Ash Wednesday and no meat on Friday) have any true significance for you? I would guess probably not in and of themselves. It’s wonderful to draw significance from Ash Wednesday and to use food selection as a tool to commune with others, but in Protestantism it’s ultimately up to each person to decide if and how to keep the “tradition”. In some cases it even goes so far as to what the ‘tradition” even is and if “it” has any true significance.

      If, all of the sudden, Ash Wednesday and fasting from meat on Friday were to disappear from your tradition, would you feel an impact? Would you believe your path to salvation had in anyway been affected? If not, then these “traditions” really aren’t doing anything that you couldn’t do without them.

      The same could be said of your quote “through prayer, fasting and supplication make your requests known to God.” If one doesn’t have an interpretation, framework, and tradition set by the Church for what such words mean, they could be interpreted to mean anything! I had a friend who if he really needed spiritual guidance would call off work to pray and fast at home. Is that what God intended by these words? If you’re a Protestant then the question is entirely subjective.

  2. It always tickles me when a person tries to argue sola scriptura, because that in and of itself is not biblical 😉 Well written friend.

  3. Megan, I’m Antiochian Orthodox. I was trying to show that in the Wyoming Valley (PA), most Protestants are not the way as portrayed in the article. We have a long tradition of fellowhip between Roman Catholics, Protestants, and Orthodox. By my examples of Ash Wednesday and not eating meat was an example of this and also that the Protestants weren’t fasting per se they were fasting in practice out of love for their neighbors which Christ himself tells us to do. For instance groups of Christians go to each other’s Churches for various reasons. An example, if a child or teenager were to sleep over a friend’s house, a typical scenario would be that the parents of the children would discuss who is taking the kids to Church that Saturday or Sunday. As in, “Should I take Mary to 4:00 mass before I drop her off to your house or will you take her to your Church (Orthodox or Protestant) in the morning ?” As for doing what you want to for Lent is according to one of my Priest’s is up to us. Giving up meat for Lent is no hardship to me. As for the Scripture I quoted, I don’t think it’s all that complicated of a Scripture to understand. Make your requests known to God through prayer, fasting and supplication is very straightforward. One of the main reason’s for fasting is to have simplier meals so that you can spend the time you save making an elaborate meal in Bible reading and prayer and worship. Fasting should also take our minds from a focus on the physical to a focus on the spiritual.

  4. Hi Jean, although there seems to be fantastic cooperation between Catholics, Orthodox, and Protestants in your community, there are still the differences of “tradition” and meaning. Having been a Protestant myself (Lutheran), I can attest to what Fr. Damick says; for us, fasting and Ash Wednesday had no true salvific benefits. They are reminders (and good for losing a little weight), but had no connection with salvation.

    If an Orthodox, Catholic, and Protestant from your community was put in a room and asked if they “fast” they may all answer with a resounding “yes” but they are NOT talking about the same thing. If you asked your Protestant neighbors what would happen if it was decided to cancel Ash Wednesday one year or decided to stop fasting on Fridays, what would they say? I doubt they’d say “We’d NEVER do that, such things are too important!” Conversely if you asked an Orthodox (such as yourself) what would happen if Lenten fasting was done away with and the Lenten services were nixed, the response would indeed be the above and you would seriously mean it! The difference is what actions mean. For Orthodox, Protestants, and Catholics, even the word “church” means VERY different things. “Mary” may go to mass but if she’s Orthodox, she cannot commune there (or in a Protestant church) nor can other faiths partake of our Eucharist.

    It seems to me in light of Orthodox Tradition that we have rules for Lent precisely so everyone DOESN’T do what they want. I don’t know the circumstances of when your priest made that comment but I doubt he would say as a general rule, “Fast if you want, or don’t. Come to services if you want, or don’t. No big deal; it’s your Lent, do what you want.” Obviously, people struggle with different things and priests can give specific fasting advice to parishioners when needed. Also, parishioners can decide things to “give up” in addition to the Church’s Fasting requirements, like TV, computer, etc. (hopefully under spiritual guidance from a priest or monastic) but ultimately for Orthodox Christians, Lent is about giving up our will to God. That’s hard to do if you’re making all personal choices about your spiritual life.

    As for my example with the fasting and praying; my point was my friend doesn’t fast continually, just when he feels he spiritually needs to. When Jesus came to cast out the demon in Matthew 17 He didn’t say “This one only comes out by prayer and fasting, let Me go away for a bit and fast and I’ll be back.” As Orthodox Christians we should always be fasting (and not just from food). Again, it goes back to our own will verses the Church. If we say I’ll fast Mondays but not Wednesdays and Fridays, we’re doing what we want. That being said, fasting at a time of need in addition to regular fasting is never bad, it’s just that the 11th hour should never be the ideal for any Christian.

  5. Megan we’re going to have to agree to disagree. You say that Protestants would say this or that. No one but God knows what one would say. Protestants and Roman Catholics are according to those Churches allow Orthodox to receive Communion. It is the Orthodox Church that doesn’t allow us to receive Communion in those Churches. I strongly disagreee with this as do the majority of my congregation. One of our Priests received Communion at my the Roman Catholic funeral Mass of my mother-in-law. A different Priest than the one I referred to about fasting. The majority of my Congregation feels that there is nothing wrong with us receiving Communion in another Church. I also disagree that the word Church means something different to Orthodox, Roman Catholic, and Protestant. Didn’t your Lutheran Church say the Nicene Creed ? My Uncle’s Lutheran Church does. I just don’t like putting people into categories as in what they’d say or think according to denomination. You are correct that the Priest I referred to about fasting wouldn’t say don’t fast etc. He didn’t and wouldn’t. He said that the Church’s rules are a guide, and that alter it accordingly. So let’s agree to disagree. You and I have grown up in very different community traditions. I wish you a good and spritually rewarding Lent.

    1. I’m afraid you’re misinformed regarding Roman Catholic policy regarding Orthodox Christian receiving communion at Roman Catholic churches. (This is unfortunately common, as many Roman Catholic clergy themselves appear either to be misinformed or are deliberately disobedient.) The official guidelines from the US National Council of Catholic Bishops explicitly says that Orthodox Christians ought to respect the Eucharistic discipline of their own church. It does not have an open-communion policy for members of the Orthodox Church.

      Further, the matter of the reception of communion in non-Orthodox churches is not really up for debate in Orthodoxy. It has been the same for 2000 years. If we don’t share the same faith, we cannot share Holy Communion. I do not know whether you’ve done an actual poll of your congregation to determine whether it really is the case that the majority are ready to break Orthodox tradition in this regard, but even if they all believed that, it would not really matter. We are not a congregationalist church, and we don’t change our faith because a majority in one community feel that we should change it. Indeed, such a majority feeling is an indication that some catechism is in order—or, if the people responsible are indeed doing good catechism, then that would mean that some obedience is in order.

      If that sounds a bit harsh (and it is not intended to), I have to say that I wonder why someone would stay in a church with whose doctrines one profoundly disagrees. Orthodoxy is not going to change, because it’s the truth, preserved without alteration for 2000 years. You either believe that or you don’t. If you don’t believe it, then why torture yourself by staying? If you do believe it (i.e., that Orthodoxy is the truth), then perhaps it would be wise to consider asking yourself in what ways your own understanding needs to be developed to conform to the unchanging Orthodox Christian faith.

      The Church is not going to change, but you can change. You can either choose change to yourself to conform to the Church or you can choose to change churches.

      In any event, you are right, we cannot absolutely say what some particular Protestant might say about this or that, but we can indeed look to what their churches’ official doctrines and practices are. Such things are readily available and worthy of examination and largely reveal the understanding that Megan has been posting about. Some of us have been on both (or several) sides of actual personal experience in these questions and can tell you that Orthodoxy really is quite different from other Christian traditions. That’s really only apparent for someone who has truly been a faithful member in these groups or for someone who has made a careful study of these questions.

      If I may be so bold (and perhaps a bit vain, I suppose), I strongly recommend taking a look at the book Orthodoxy and Heterodoxy, which was written precisely to make clear to Orthodox Christians what the differences are between our faith and other faiths (especially other Christians). Or, if you don’t care to read it, you can listen to the lectures on which it was based at this link (the book is somewhat more extensive, though).

      What you say about mutual love and respect between Christians of various groups is of course good and commendable, but we should not set that love and charity against a dedication to the truth. It is one thing to get along well with one’s neighbors, but it is another thing entirely to say that the very real doctrinal and spiritual differences that exist don’t really matter. They do, indeed, matter, and anyone who has taken his faith seriously and tried to be faithful to the fullness of its tradition will see that clearly.

  6. Again Father we will have to agree to disagree. I have not taken a formal poll, but we have had many, many conversations about all Christians receiving Communion at all Christians Churches. Years ago there was a General Assembly meeting where this subject came up and the Congregation clapped when my Aunt-in-law said that Christians should be able to Commune with other Christians. NONE of us are suffering in our Church. We love our Church, and of course it’s been that way for 2012 years. We were raised in a different Community tradition.

    As for Roman Catholic Priests being disobedient, I would have to hear that from them because with all due respect you are not an expert on Roman Catholocism. I would defer to a Priest of that Church to say what he is or is not to do. At my Father’s Roman Catholic Funeral, the Priest offered all of us (my Mother, sister, her husband, me, and my husband who are all Orthodox and the Priest knew it. My Father was baptized Orthodox and attended the Orthodox Church until he was 9 at which time, his Roman Catholic Mother started taking him to the Roman Catholic Church. He became Roman Catholic, but was at home in either Church as His Grandfather was a founding Father of our Orthodox Parrish, In fact before there was a Church building, Liturgy was held in my Great-Grandparents’ home.) Communion. At my brother’s Roman Catholic wedding in a different Church and different Priest than at my Father’s funeral offered Communion ot all of the Orthodox. Also at my friend’s Roman Catholic wedding, also a different Church and Priest, we Orthodox were also offered Communion. Again I say, my Community is different than yours.

    My Parishioners and I LOVE our Church. We have no desire to leave. We disagree with one tenant. That makes us have a mind of our own as God Himself intended having given us free will. I also am proud of my City and the people in it as we truly exhibit Christian behavior in regards to trying to bring the Church together which is what we pray for at every Liturgy.

    I agree that Orthodox, Roman Catholic and Protestant have theological differences, but I think we are much more alike than different. As we all say basically the same creed and in many Lutheran Churches the Nicene Creed.

    I also wish you a good and spritually fulfilled Lent.

    1. I do not disagree with you that you perhaps know many people who formally belong to Orthodoxy who do not believe what the Orthodox Church teaches, whether in whole or in part. I can agree with that, because I will take you at your word and I have not done the research there myself.

      What I am trying to communicate, however, is that it does not matter whether your whole congregation wants to see intercommunion between churches who do not actually have the same faith. Orthodoxy is Orthodoxy. There was a point in Church history when the vast majority of Christians worldwide had fallen into the Arian heresy (which teaches that Jesus is not God), but that majority was still dead wrong. In any event, while it may well be true that your parish is full of people who do not wish to honor Orthodox tradition (and again, I will take you at your word here), that does not change Orthodox tradition, and it does not change that such an attitude is wrong—perhaps sincerely mistaken, but wrong, nonetheless.

      Such an attitude is no doubt out of love, but let me suggest to you that true love would seek to bring all people into Holy Orthodoxy, which is the Church that Jesus Christ founded. Should we really leave people outside, just handing them a piece or two of the tradition given by Christ to the Apostles? Or should we bring them into the utter fullness? Hospitality (at least) would demand no less.

      As for whether I am an expert on Roman Catholicism, perhaps I am not. For years, I have done extensive study, writing and lecturing on the differences between us and Rome. But you don’t have to take my word for it. In my previous comment, I linked to the official website of the US National Conference of Catholic Bishops and referenced their official policy. Now, if you tell me that the USCCB are not experts on Roman Catholicism, well, with all due respect, madam, you are wrong. It honestly does not matter if every single Roman Catholic priest in Pennsylvania welcomed you to communion, no questions asked. That is still not official Roman Catholic policy. The unfaithful do not define the faith. If the whole council of Catholic bishops for America don’t know what they’re talking about when it comes to Roman Catholicism, then I am not sure who does. It surely won’t be some priest who has taken it into his head to go against his entire hierarchy.

      Likewise, the solid, unbroken 2000 year tradition of Orthodoxy is that there must be a true, full unity of doctrine, faith, and spiritual life before there can be communion. This teaching has persisted perfectly without any change for 20 centuries, across multiple cultures, countries, empires, wars, ethnicities, etc., etc. Does it make sense to suggest that now, a small minority tucked away in one corner of Pennsylvania who are out of step with that tradition are actually the real (to use your word) “experts”?

  7. Fr. I think we agree on more than I thought. I would be uncomfortable with the Orthodox Church changing practices because it is a slippery slope. We change one thing now, and then later we change another later. then we would end up with a diluted version of the Original Church. It is truly the Church that Christ founded. I will take you at your word and understanding about the policy of the Roman Catholic Church. What I objected to was to say that these Priests were being disobedient. That is for them to say, not us. As it was explained to me they feel that the Orthodox Church is part of the Roman Catholic Church or something to that affect and by offering us Communion they are offering one of their own Communion. This explanation I give might not be totally accurate, just what I remember as the explanation. Expert was the wrong word to choose, I just don’t like when a clergy member of one religion explains doctrines of another. I feel the the clergy of that religion should do the explaining. As for bringing people into Orthodoxy, I think that can be done by being tolerant of other Christians as we do here.

    1. As I said, you don’t need me to explain Roman Catholic doctrines to you (though there is nothing wrong with trying to learn about other faiths’ doctrines and to teach about them, where necessary)—we have official statements from their hierarchy. They have explained themselves to us by their published words.

      In any event, toleration is, I think, a too-emphasized virtue nowadays. One “tolerates” what one does not agree with, and “toleration” also suggests simply leaving people alone and not bothering with them. I don’t think we need to tolerate heterodox Christians, but actively love them and invite them into the fullness of the Christian faith, which is only found in Orthodoxy. Of course we should not push them around, but we also cannot pretend that differences don’t exist—indeed, if there were no differences, there would be no point in inviting them into Orthodoxy.

      Our tradition regarding “closed” communion helps to emphasize that separation really does exist. It is a painful separation, to be sure, but it is real, and there must be healing of these differences before the intimacy of communion can be entered into. One cannot simply overlook schism and heresy as though it’s all just been a big misunderstanding.

      May God bless and sanctify your community.

  8. I agree with almost every word you wrote. By tolerate I mean not arguing. We know there are differences, and that’s okay. I feel that if I am willing to attend service with someone else that person will be more likely to join me at service in my church. Thus the possibility exists that that person wants to come again, and eventually want to join our Church.

    May God bless you also.

  9. Very great insight here, Father. The dualism is a very insightful way to look at it. I had never thought of such a question in light of the dualism, but you hit the nail on the head.

    Christianity, as my priest, Father Stephen Freeman, points out to us is a set of practices. And Matter matters! The Enlightenment and modern day Secularism is destroying what is left of American Christianity I am afraid. Thankfully there is medicine found in Orthodoxy and we have a cure, no, the Cure, to share with this hurting culture that is starving for something Real….

    Thanks for your insights.

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