A Continual Repentance

February 27, 2017 | by: Rev. John D. Standridge | 0 Comments

We all have family recipes that have been handed down to us, but few of us question where they came from. We usually just dig in and enjoy and leave it at that. I heard a story once about a man who began an investigation as to the origin of his wife’s family recipe for Easter ham.

What got him investigating was the fact that it involved cutting the ends off both ends of the ham before putting it in the oven. Observing this method, he asked his wife why it was necessary as it seemed like a waste of good ham. Her reply was, “That’s the way my mother always did it.” When the man saw his mother-in-law at Easter, he asked her the same question, and received the same answer: “That’s the way my mother always did it.” Overtaken by curiosity, he was relieved to see the grandmother arrive and immediately asked her why cutting off both ends of the ham was necessary. “Oh,” she said, “I only did that because my pan was too small.”

Whether it’s what we cook or how we worship, it’s good to investigate what has been passed down to us and how that has shaped our life. As Christians with a commitment to biblical worship, this is particularly vital to our life together. Every church follows some kind of tradition, but it’s wise to remember that tradition has its perils. When it becomes unmoored from God’s word, or even worse, when it accrues a stature and authority that stands alongside Scripture then we are right to reevaluate and change our ways.

From the earliest days, Christians have had something of a liturgical calendar marked by special seasons and days, borrowed largely from the Jewish calendar. Certain festivals were discarded with the coming of Jesus (Yom Kippur, Sukkoth), as these celebrations were rightly understood to only make sense as anticipating the coming Messiah. Once Jesus came and completed His mission, a Day of Atonement was no longer necessary. A festival of tabernacles no longer made sense, now that Jesus has “tabernacled” among His people and Himself is our intercession before the Father. On the other hand, some days were retained, while others were redefined. The Sabbath became the Lord’s Day, and moved from the end of the week to the beginning in weekly celebration of the resurrection life now enjoyed by believers continuing a “day of rest and gladness” for God’s people.

Some time in the late fourth century, the Roman church established the forty-day period we now know as Lent as a fast to prepare believers for Easter. This didn’t come from nowhere, but also didn’t grow out of any established feast or celebration on the Jewish calendar. Instead it emerged out of the practice of holding mass baptisms on Easter. In anticipation of this, a three-week period of preparation for converts was added prior to Easter. At some point before the late fifth century, 4 more days were added to establish a forty day fasting period during this time. So that what once started on a Sunday would now begin on a Wednesday, and thus began what we now know as “Ash Wednesday,” the beginning of the season of Lent.

Over time, more special observances were added to the ecclesial calendar as a kind of preparation for the preparation for this season of fasting culminating in Easter: Septuagesima (seventy), Sexagesima (60), and Quinquagesima (50). Lent was then cemented as the Church’s official “season of repentance,” and along with it came all the expected religious accoutrement: special rites, diets, worship services, prayers, and processions.

While it may be the case that few of us adhere to those formalized traditions, as Ash Wednesday approaches this week many of us engage in our own little annual rites: giving up chocolate, cutting down our time on Facebook, backing off of the binge-watching for a while. Positively, we might see it as an opportunity for doing more for our spouses, increasing Bible reading, or doing some kind of community service.

But if we take Lent for what it is supposed to be - a season of repentance and not merely an occasion for self-improvement - we would be wise to consider the value of this season in terms of what the Bible says about repentance. Is its place to be confined to several boxes on our kitchen calendars, finally coming to an end when Easter arrives? What is to precede this season? What should follow it? Famously, the bacchanalia of Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday) is unleashed every year as the final catharsis before the faithful are quieted and humbled by the season of dust and ashes that comes with Lent.

We aren’t the first Christians to think about this and ask questions about our practices and traditions. Martin Luther considered the issue of when and how Christians should repent as being of first importance, so important that it was “thesis number one” in his famous 95 Theses which he nailed to the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg in 1517: “When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent,” he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.”

This was no small statement and should not be confined to the corners of arcane theological debate, but rather brought to the center and considered anew. We can rightly say that it strikes at the heart of what it means to be a Christian. After all, Jesus’ ministry was inaugurated with a call to repentance (Matt. 4:17) that was not intended to be a one-time repentance that ushers one into the Christian life, nor was it a call to engage in occasional seasons of repentance. Rather, it was and remains a call to an entire life marked by repentance and faith, where followers of Jesus regularly confess their sins and cling by faith again and again to their faithful Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, relishing and relying on the gospel.

The prophet Joel called upon God's people to “tear our hearts and not our garments” (Joel 2:3), reminding them that it’s the orientation of the heart not the outward practice that the Lord sees and regards. The fasts of “sackcloth and ashes” in Isaiah’s day were sarcastically mocked by the prophet for their false pietism that lacked any indication of a changed heart. (Isaiah 58:5)

Repentance is a great gift and a grace that opens up the promise of the gospel afresh in an ongoing way, so that Paul encourages the church to access it regularly as “God’s kindness that leads us to repentance” (Rom. 2:4). Along with him, Peter assures us that God is faithful to His promises, not wishing that we would perish, but would instead repent. (II Peter 3:9).

How ought we go into Easter? How might we anticipate this great celebration of our Lord’s resurrection, which lies at the very core of our faith? It seems to me that we would do well to practice not seasonal, but a continual repentance as part of the warp and woof of the Christian life, being reminded that “the entire life of believers is to be one of repentance.” This lies is at the heart of the gospel – that Jesus “came not for the righteous, but for sinners.” This was, is, and remains very good news.

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