Lent is Not American

(By Pastor Jared Oldenburg, previously published in the March 2015 edition of the Forward in Christ Magazine)

For centuries fasting, self-denial, prayer, and repentance have characterized Lent. This stands in notable contrast to just about every other holiday in America.

NOT A SPENDING HOLIDAY

Most American holidays are marked by consumption, indulgence and a celebratory mood. For the Fourth of July we celebrate our freedom with grand cookouts and by blowing things up. We purchase Mother’s day gifts and go out to brunch. There are Halloween parties and candy to appease the kids who so adoringly offer the threatening ultimatum, “Trick or Treat.” We buy chocolates for our sweethearts, gifts for our fathers and even throw parties in honor of an Irish Christian missionary.

All of these, of course, are not even in the same realm as Christmas. During the winter holidays, as the report calls them, Americans spent roughly 600 billion dollars in 2014. If you are doing the math at home, that averages out to around $1,900 per person in the United States.

From a retail perspective, Lent is not even a “B-level” holiday. Lent doesn’t exist. According to the report, Lent falls way behind St. Patrick’s Day, Halloween and even the Super Bowl.

Jesus himself tells us, “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21).  The only conclusion we can make is that for the American people, neither their treasure nor their hearts are much into Lent. To put it more bluntly, besides a committed group of Christians, no one else seems to care about Lent.

A TIME FOCUSED ON DEATH

I don’t think the solution to America’s indifference to Lent is issuing some sales promotions. When the season’s observance is marked by not eating, not drinking and not celebrating, there are not too many opportunities for spending. The challenge of Lent runs much deeper in the American psyche. Lent is a season that focuses on death.

To be frank, we don’t do too well with death, or even its sister, aging. Historian Arnold Toynbee on his 80th birthday quipped that he was glad that he was aging in England and not America, because America is the only society in history that the older you get, the less you are esteemed.   This has a number of implications. The most obvious is the obscene amounts of money we spend to hold off aging.

The other is that we as a culture are much more prepared for birth than death–countless trips to Babies“R”Us, multiple baby showers, announcements and birthing classes. We make phone calls, pick names and schedule regular doctor visits. Death? We hardly prepare for our own[2], much less prepare for the death of someone else. Of all our holidays, it is really only Memorial Day that has any recognition of death. But if we are honest, Memorial Day for most seems to be more about a day off and grilling than honoring those who have given their life for our freedom.

Even among Christians, Jesus’ birth seems to be more highly celebrated than his death or resurrection. I guess this should not surprise us completely. In some ways, at least in the prophecies, the Bible itself seems to emphasize Jesus’ birth more than his death. Think of the first promise. God condemns the devil in the garden, “I will put enmity between you and the woman and between your offspring and hers, he will crush your head and you will strike his heal” (Genesis 3:15). Granted there is an allusion to Jesus’ death with “you will strike his heal,” but it is not too clear that part of crushing of the devil means that the Messiah would have to die. Two thousand years before Jesus, the picture of the coming Messiah became clearer. God promised Abraham that through his line all the nations of the world would be blessed. A thousand years later, the promise becomes clearer still, but only in the sense that that promised one would be from King David’s family.

Of course there are memorable prophecies like Isaiah 53 or Psalm 22 that focus on Jesus’ suffering and death, but it is probably not a stretch to say that the bulk of the prophecies that you can remember about the promised Messiah revolve around this birth including “But you Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah….” (Micah 5:2) and “The virgin will be with child and give birth to a son….” (Isaiah 7:14). Perhaps this is why Jesus’ own disciples struggled so mightily with the predictions of his suffering and death (Matthew 16:21-28, Mark 9:30-32 or Mark 8:31-33). It is one thing to contemplate your own death; it is a whole other thing to contemplate someone else’s death that was necessary because of your sin.

Given the choice between thinking about death or birth, I don’t think there are too many people that would choose death. There is nothing nostalgic about death. Think of our own cultural heroes that are even more famous because of their significant deaths. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968; however, it is in January, the month of his birth, that we have a day to remember him. The same is true of Abraham Lincoln. He was also assassinated in the month of April, but Presidents Day coincides with the month of his birth, not his death. I think, as American Christians, we sometimes struggle with this as well. Is your Christmas celebration bigger than, well, everything?

FROM DEATH, LIFE

In a world filled with distractions, it is good that Lent is really our own. There are no Lenten sales to distract us. There is no Lenten music constantly playing on the radio or public radio Lenten fundraisers. We don’t even have to worry about Lenten gifts or sending Lenten cards. There are no flowers or cakes or candy or even special outfits. Instead, we have six weeks to contemplate sin, pray, worship and remember Jesus’ death for us.

It must seem morbid or strange to others that we spend a whole six weeks focusing on suffering and death. Yet, in Lent, death and life come together.   To appreciate the beauty of spring, we need to survive the span and darkness of winter. To appreciate life, you have to know that there is death.

As terrible as that would sound in an advertising flyer, we know that is not so terrible to us.   Our walk in the dark places is only temporary. At the end of our journey we see the very reason we looked at death and we can proclaim, “Where, O death is your victory? Where, O death, is your sting?”(1 Corinthians 15:55).

If you are an American, your Lenten walk this season will seem lonely. It is just not the American thing to do. Yet, as alone as you might feel, you are never alone. Across the globe and in the heavens, millions upon millions of believers are remembering what you are remembering—out of death comes life.

This Lenten Season do more to prepare than just read this article. Take the time to contemplate an extraordinary death that has brought about extraordinary life for you.

[1] Matthew 6:21

[2] More than 50% of adult Americans do not have a will or estate plan in place.

[3] Genesis 3:15

[4] Hosea 13:14 quoted by Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:55

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