Recently, someone wrote to ask about Lent. “My friend is celebrating Lent. She asked her pastor about it, and he told her, ‘If it makes you feel closer to God, then do it.’”
I would have given the opposite advice.
It reminds me of the Samaritans.
The Samaritans were a mixed-breed people with a mixed-breed religion. They had Jewish ancestry, but during the Exile, they intermarried with the Gentile nations sent to repopulate the land. When the Jews returned from exile, they rejected the Samaritans. In fact, Jewish people often refused to even walk through Samaritan land because they considered it unclean.
The Samaritans developed their own religion. They practiced a form of Judaism mixed with idolatry. They had their own priests, sacrifices, and a temple built on Mt. Gerizim. They believed their religion was authentic—in line with authentic traditions that went all the way back to Moses and Aaron—but, evidently, had some doubts about it (see John 4:19-24). The Samaritans were sincere but sincerely wrong!
Celebrating Lent is like celebrating Samaritan religion.
When I think of Fat Tuesday, Ash Wednesday, and Lent; the resolutions; the food laws; the fast days; the feast days; the ashes; the candles; the special prayers; the special vestments; and all the rest of it, you need to realize it’s all made up. These are imitations of Biblical commands, strung together in a way that God never intended or prescribed.
We have a tremendous amount of freedom in the Christian life. That means we shouldn’t bind ourselves to these man-made religious regulations. But even more so, we shouldn’t be bound by these traditions because they have no spiritual value. Paul is clear about this in his letter to the Colossians. What does Paul think about following liturgical calendars and special food laws? Does he say they help?
Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ…If you have died with Christ to the elementary principles of the world, why, as if you were living in the world, do you submit yourself to decrees, such as,“Do not handle, do not taste, do not touch!” (which all refer to things destined to perish with use)—in accordance with the commandments and teachings of men? These are matters which have, to be sure, the appearance of wisdom in self-made religion and self-abasement and severe treatment of the body, but are of no value against fleshly indulgence (Col 2:16-17, 21-23).
Samaritan religion looked impressive to the world. It made them feel close to God. So does Lent. The other pastor urged the woman to celebrate Lent if that’s what made her feel close to God. I would have urged her to put her feelings aside and worship God in spirit and in truth.