How Presbyterians Do Lent
I’m not going to lie. We’re halfway through the season of Lent and I scoured the internet looking for an “out” this weekend. I gave up all alcohol for Lent this year and Saturday was St. Patrick’s Day. And I’m Irish, too!! Well, about as Irish as a 4th generation Jersey mutt can be anyway.
The point is, I grew weak and wanted an excuse to “undo” Lent for the day. While most Irish are Catholics, I am really only about one quarter Irish on from my father’s side. I was raised Presbyterian from the English and German of my mother’s side, though. So I find myself in a bit of a quandry when it comes to St. Patrick’s Day. Even those who don’t have the quarter claim to the heritage are a little bit Irish on March 17th. I know the songs, can do the jig and look great in green. I LOVE St. Pat’s! And, in all honesty, I love beer, too.
So I took to the internet to
find a loophole research more on Lent and St. Patrick’s Day. I learned that the Catholic church has given a special dispensation excusing all Catholics from any Lenten fasting on March 17th in order to celebrate St. Patrick.
I went to enough services of Catholic mass with girlfriends while growing up to know that Catholics are MUCH stricter than Presbyterians, so that must be good news for me. If Catholics are off the hook for Lent on St. Patrick’s Day, then I definitely was, too, right? Right??
I looked further, but could not find any such “dispensation” for Presbyterians. Bummer.
With my curiousity sparked, though, I had to continue. I’ve always been a bit of a nerd when it comes to religion. One of my favorite classes in college was a Comparative Literature class that studied the religious texts of multiple faiths. It was enlightening and eye-opening to discover how similar the histories and teachings are across all religions. I was proud of myself as I realized that I was only thirsting for more knowledge on my own culture, not just thirsting for the flavors of hops and barley.
What I discovered, however, was a bit surprising. Presbyterians, it turns out, do NOT have to give up anything for Lent. At all.
Really? Boy, was I going to talk to my mom about all those years I tried to give up chocolate!
Presbyterians are not required to do anything at all for Lent, it seems. Many Presbyterian churches encourage a “lifestyle change” to bring you more in touch with your faith, but nothing is absolutely required. I noticed that, in my own church, our entire Lenten Message Series spoke only about how “Christ Centered is Cross Centered,” and made no mention at all about giving anything up for the season. Well, that at least sounded a lot more like the relaxed Presbyterian faith I grew up with, but it left me with more questions.
If we’re not required to do anything for Lent, why do so many Presbyterians observe Lent through a sacrifice of some sort? The best answers I found in my research came from a blog by the Presbyterian Pastor, Rev. Dr. Mark D. Roberts. In his blog, he discussed the difference between the reformed church’s observance of Lent and the Roman Catholic teachings. Since Lent is not specifically taught in scripture, Protestants who want to observe and make the season of Lent special are encouraged to add a spiritual discipline to their lives instead of giving up something.
Suddenly, the addition of Lenten small group Bible studies at my church made a whole lot more sense to me than my Lenten sacrifice of giving up all alcohol.
Now that I learned what I was supposed to be doing for Lent, where did that leave me? If I wanted an “out,” I certainly had one. I was free from giving up anything for the whole season! Of course I could enjoy a few pints of Guinness to celebrate my favorite Irish saint.
While the technical answer is “yes,” I realized that wasn’t the right answer for me. I thought about my reasons for doing anything for Lent and knew that it was less about the letter of the law (or lack thereof), and more about my own connection to my faith. While there is nothing in the Bible that spells out that Lent reflects Jesus’ sacrifice for us, that is how I always have interpreted it. If Lent is the lead-up to Easter, when we celebrate the greatest sacrifice in the history of mankind, it makes sense to me that I should experience some small sacrifice to honor the God who gave up His only Son and Jesus who gave up His life for us sinners.
So I was left with this realization. I could choose to stop my observance of Lent at any time without any change in my faith or standing. But Jesus was offered a similar “out” on the cross. He could hop on down at any time and continue to live his life. All he had to do was say that he wasn’t the Son of God, and he’d be free to go. This parallel may not reflect the exact teachings of the Presbyterian Church, but that is how I have always viewed Lent.
I decided to stick it out for the last three weeks of the season and continue with my alcohol-free observance. While my quest for exemption led to a dry St. Patrick’s Day, I suppose I should be grateful for the education. Even if it means seltzer is the only bubbly beverage filling my cup.
Next year, I plan to be a good little Presbyterian and add something like a Bible study to celebrate Lent. I might even add a second lifestyle change and include a toast to Jesus each time I raise my wine glass.