In defence of Lent

I grew up a Roman Catholic. When I was converted in my teenage years, I became a (high church) Presbyterian, so much so that in 2010 I refused to celebrate Christmas. Fortunately, in Scotland there are pockets of Presbyterians who likewise do the same. So I found myself on Boxing Day in their company, having a truly Cromwellian ‘festive’ season. Back then, I would never have had time for a season such as Lent.

Yet now, years later, I am a convinced and ordained Anglican, and I find myself in a parish where many of our members expect something to be said about Lent. It was Ash Wednesday when I first preached at our church’s Wednesday service. And truth be told, I’d never given Lent much thought before. So what were my options? Should I ignore it? Call them all popish fiends? Or should I try to articulate a Reformed, Anglican understanding of the season? Well, I aimed to do the latter, and here is how I tried.

Although I didn’t have any ash on hand (I never smoke in the morning), I wanted to give the congregation something they could relate to. And so I opened up my 1662 prayer book and—lo and behold—I discovered the ‘A Commination’ service or, as it’s also known, ‘Denouncing of God’s Anger and Judgment Against Sinners; with certain prayers to be used on the first day of Lent, and at other times as the Ordinary shall appoint’. My ordinary was off sick that day, and failing to find any ability to talk about Lent in any other constructive way, I decided to run with it.

And here is what I discovered. In the Anglican tradition, Lent is not a season of abstinence from vice. Rather, Lent—as Cranmer saw it—is a season of repentance from sin. Let me share with you what is involved in ‘A Commination’.

Firstly, Lent is situated in its proper, historical context. The service begins:

Brethren, in the primitive church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin, were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls may be saved in the day of the Lord; and that others, admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.

The service does not make any particular value statement on the season of Lent itself. And nor am I arguing that Lent is something that Protestants should adopt en masse. Indeed, if a local congregation has little to no awareness of a liturgical calendar, then why bother adding potential confusion? At the same time, Cranmer was speaking to a church that didhave a consciousness of the season of Lent. Which is why this service begins, not with an encouragement to retain Lent, but for its practices to be re-appropriated.

We see clearly that the service is about repentance from sin (rather than abstinence from vice) when it begins with a reading of the law, and a clear use of the law’s first purpose: to convict of sin. The congregation is reminded of their estate before a holy God:

It is good, at this time in the presence of you all, should be read the general sentences of God’s cursing against all impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy, and other places of Scripture, that ye should answer to every sense. Amen.

And that is how we begun our service that morning. We read the sentences, and we said “Amen”—so let it be. And the congregation felt the dreadful judgement hanging over our heads. As Cranmer tells us:

It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God: he shall pour down rain upon sinners, snares, fire and brimstone, storm and tempest, and this shall be their portion to drink.

This is a far cry from what I grew up knowing Lent to be about. There is no mention of acts of penance here—no call to abstinence from bad habits. This is a service about having our utter ruin before a holy God on display.

It is a rare thing for our churches to feel the weight of that first use of the law. When did we last feel our sin, corporately? When did we last devote what I imagine would be about 12 minutes of in-service speech to the theme of curse, sin and judgement?

Our Reformed Anglican tradition was pleased to do it every year. Although ‘A Commination’is not a common service in Australia, elements of it do make up some contemporary prayer book services. I found myself recognising some of its elements. Can you spot some of our more common phrases in this section about the offer of forgiveness in Christ?

Although we have sinned, yet we have an Advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the propitiation for our sins. For he was wounded for our offences and smitten for our wickedness. Let us therefore return unto him, who is the merciful receiver of all true penitent sinners, souring ourselves that he is ready to receive us, and most willing to pardon us…

And it goes on. I would highly recommend you read the whole service for yourself.

Does this mean that I’m a convert to Lent? Am I creeping up the candle stick, or drifting into the middle of the road? I’d hope you don’t think so. I only want to suggest that ministers whose congregations expect an acknowledgement of Lent don’t ignore or rebuke that request. Instead, I encourage you to celebrate the Anglican tradition that causes us to remember afresh our great sin before our holy God, and our great need for a perfect Saviour: Jesus Christ the righteous.