“With Christ entering the desert for 40 days of temptation we will transition from our celebration of His epiphany into the celebration of Lent. As the days lengthen and spring approaches we will daily be reminded that Easter is on the move and the days of the power of sin over God’s people has ended.”
Song: O God of Earth and Altar (Prayer for the Nation)
Passage: Joel 2:12-19
Hello everyone and Welcome to episode #8 of the Anno Domini Podcast. A podcast dedicated to the supremacy of Christ over all things including our days, weeks, and months.
Join me as we explore how Christ is revealed through the cyclical life of the church calendar year. We’ll discover how this calendar once structured culture and how it can again. We’ll also discuss practical ways to observe and celebrate these holy days in our quest to glorify God and live the good life in the midst of all good He has given us.
Welcome back! My name for those just joining us is Joe Stout and the last few weeks have been extremely eventful in the Stout household. We welcomed with joy the birth of our 5th daughter, Ruthie Jane. Both Elizabeth and baby Ruthie are doing wonderfully well, God be praised. It’s been a little over 7 weeks since our last podcast. So In that episode I introduced the season of Epiphany in which we celebrate the manifestation or revealing of Christ to the world. He is revealed on Epiphany to the Magi, revealed to the world through His public baptism, revealed at the temple to Simeon, revealed to His inner circle on the mountain through His transfiguration and finally, His manifestation culminates as Christ goes into the desert and reveals Himself to Satan where he does battle for 40 days. With Christ entering the desert for 40 days of temptation we will transition from our celebration of His epiphany into the celebration of Lent. As the days lengthen and spring approaches we will daily be reminded that Easter is on the move and the days of the power of sin over God’s people has ended.
As a quick reminder we will look at for different segments, we generally start with the practical ways of celebrating a holiday or season of time, we then examine the biblical rationale for the holiday, then we look at how the holiday has been celebrated in history and finish with a hymn or psalm of music that we examine and listen to together. So let’s get started
Starting with the practical side, In the Stout house, we have never observed Lent or Ash Wednesday for that matter. This is due really to a combination of reasons the biggest one being that observing this time wasn’t a part of our families upbringing. We tend to emulate the way we were raised and that is a design feature not a bug. Kids turning out like their parents is how God made the world. It shouldn’t surprise us. Personally, this is an area of huge blessing for both Elizabeth and I as we had and still have righteous parents who raised us in the fear and admonition of the Lord. In fact in many cases we also had righteous grandparents going back several generations. We ought to go in the ways of our Father when our father’s go in the ways of the Lord. As GK Chesterton once observed, “these are the days when the Christian is expected to praise every creed except his own.” Christians shouldn’t fall into that temptation. We ought to feel a deep comfort in following the paths our father’s have laid for us provided those paths were honoring to God law. I say this because I have no paths to follow on this one; no prior experience to hearken back to. On the plus side, Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent have no sentimental or nostalgic value for me or my wife that could cloud God’s voice. On the negative side, it has none of the familiarities that for many Christians they have come to expect and naturally are held accountable too.
With that in mind what should Christians do during Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent? Let’s take a look at the historical practice of the church and then answer that question.
Ash Wednesday and the season of Lent precedes Easter by 40 days. As we stated earlier, In the gospel, Jesus fasts and does battle with Satan for 40 days in the desert. 40 days is a common number in Scripture and indicates a period of fullness or a complete cycle of time. Because the time of lent precedes the victory of Christ on the cross, we know that the suffering Christ experienced led ultimately to His glorification. Just as God’s promise to us is that if we humble ourselves, He will lift us up, so Jesus was tempted for 40 days and and beyond, was humbled to the point of death on a cross (a cursed tree) and during all of this faithfully obeyed His Father in Heaven. Because He was faithful in this, God raised Him up to glory and Christ calls us to follow the same path.
Now if you check the math you will see that Wednesday February 26th 2020 is actually 46 days before Easter on April 12th. This apparent inconsistency is actually proof of a point I’ve tried to make every episode thus far on the Anno Domini podcast. And that point is this: The church calendar is not a binding requirement for Christians. However, the Lord’s Day each week is the one day that Christians are bound to observe. It is literally one of the 10 commandments so ignoring it is not an option. Therefore 40 days of Lent don’t include Sundays since those Sundays are the Lord’s Days and are ALWAYS and I do mean always, a day of Feasting, Celebrating, and Joyfully giving God glory by setting the day aside for Him. If we are in a season of penance, and I will define that in a moment, than we set that discipline aside on the Lord’s Day to give Him the glory due Him by feasting. Bottom line: The Lord’s Day is not a day for fasting.
So what is Lent and what is Ash Wednesday?
Lent comes from the Middle English word Lente (with an e on the end) which simply means “spring.” It also comes from an Old English word Lengten which means to lengthen, referring of course to the lengthening of days leading up to Spring and Easter morning.
Lent is similar to Advent in that during lent, we are anticipating something coming that is well worth the wait. Just like in Advent, we patiently and eagerly anticipate the coming of the Messiah. During Lent we are anticipating and waiting on the victory of Christ over sin, the devil, and death itself.
Ash Wednesday has historically been the day that Christian get an ashen cross drawn on their foreheads to remind them of that primeval curse pronounced at the fall that “dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” We are mortal and the dust or ashes signify this. Abraham seems to understand this truth while speaking to God in Genesis 18:27 when he remarks. “Now that I have been so bold as to speak to the Lord, though I am nothing but dust and ashes,” and God certainly knows this seeing that he formed man from the dust of the ground and Psalm 103:14 promises us that He hasn’t forgot this either “for He knows our frame; He is mindful that we are dust.” So the point of Ash Wednesday is to remind us that we are as frail as dust. Not that man is as lowly as dirt…nothing more than a worm. No we are not being reminded of this but rather the question which James 4:14 asks and answers “What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes.”
This is the point of Ash Wednesday, to set the tone for the weeks to follow which is that of penance. Now what do I mean by penance? This is important to define because in the Catholic church penance is an actual sacrament and I believe one of the chief ways in which Catholics wrongly follow a path toward what amounts to self justification. If I do enough penance I will be worthy. This is totally anti-gospel. We are not penitent so that we can become worthy, we are penitent because we’ve been made worthy by the blood of Christ and our only logical response to this kindness of God is a spirit of penance as defined in 1828 by Noah Webster as simply repentance. Lent ought to be a season, and certainly not the only time, in which we take careful notice of the gargantuan gulf separating sinful man from the Holy God. Christians often minimize the distance between the holiness of God and the lowliness of our own spiritual state. But our natural spiritual state is antithetical to the station of God in heaven. Without the blood of Christ making us worthy, no amount of penance could ever be “enough” to bridge the gulf. We are helpless and dead in our sin and only the empowering work of the Holy Spirit through gospel can change this. Therefore during the time of Lent we should use it as an opportunity to pay careful attention this empowering work of the Spirit. In Ezekiel 37, the Lord tells the prophet to preach the gospel to the valley of dry bones and both flesh and breath enters the bones and they are seen as a great army. This is a picture of the gospel. The breath of life entering and bringing life to a corpse so dead all that is left are a heap dry bones.
During Lent we are reminded of our need to examine ourselves in the light of the gospel. What patterns in our life are inconsistent with a life of victory over sin?
Practical Things to do during Lent:
- Devote your time to others. Give to those who cannot repay. Visit nursing homes, the sick, or shut-ins.
- Pray for the Spirit to reveal hidden sins and then confess them to God remembering that He is faithful to forgive them. Also remember that repentance and self hatred are at odds with one another. We are made in God’s image and only Satan hates that we never should. We can face our sin and repent of it without self loathing.
- Fasting from food, not just one or two things but actually experiencing times of fasting. Fasting works like a spiritual alarm clock, protecting you from the complacency found with a full belly.
- Devote yourself with other to times of prayer for specific requests and mark these times by fasting from food. But never on the Lord’s Day
- Seek community and unity during this time. While personal times of devotion to God are important we are the ONE bride of Christ. There won’t be any empty seats that table of supper of the lamb. We will be one body for eternity so we should act like we are now.
A quick word on fasting which at this point is the main thing that Lent is associated with. In the law there is only one prescribed day of fasting which is called the Day of Atonement. However there are literally weeks and weeks of prescribed feast days. This seems to indicate that feasting is either more important or at least AS important as fasting. However Peter Leithart notices that as the scriptures progresses fasting becomes more common. He speculates that this could indicate that with maturity comes patience in waiting for the good things to come. You don’t expect nursing infants and little kids to fast but as they grow in maturity you expect them to grow in the discipline of waiting for good things. Fasting provides an opportunity for this. However don’t give things up simply for the sake of giving something up. Give something up in order that you can be a more useful servant for the Cross of Christ.
Will we be celebrating Ash Wednesday by receiving an ashen cross on our heads? No. While I know that Catholics and Lutherans know about the teaching of Christ and His express prohibition on outward signs of fasting, I feel, at least at this point, that going and getting smudged with ashes so that the world knows I am now fasting is in direct opposition to the teaching of Christ when He said “And when you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites, for they disfigure their faces that their fasting may be seen by others. Truly, I say to you, they have received their reward. But when you fast, anoint your head and wash your face, that your fasting may not be seen by others but by your Father who is in secret. And your Father who sees in secret will reward you.” This “anointing your head and washing your face” seems to indicate the greater feast that is to come and so the outward sign of an unwashed face seems to miss that point. While I won’t be getting a visible outward sign on Ash Wednesday I will be attempting to follow, in secret, the practical ideas listed above. Also, I will include a link to a wonderful little catechism that is excellent to use during Lent for yourself or your little ones too.
Biblical Joel 2:12-19
Our biblical passage today is from the Old Testament lectionary reading in Joel. I’m not going to give any commentary on it but just read it and you will see what an apropos passage it is for Ash Wednesday and the days of Lent to come. The Gospel as throughout this passage. God is full of lovingkindness toward those who humble themselves before Him.
“Now, therefore,” says the Lord,
“Turn to Me with all your heart,
With fasting, with weeping, and with mourning.”
So rend your heart, and not your garments;
Return to the Lord your God,
For He is gracious and merciful,
Slow to anger, and of great kindness;
And He relents from doing harm.
Who knows if He will turn and relent,
And leave a blessing behind Him—
A grain offering and a drink offering
For the Lord your God?
Blow the trumpet in Zion,
Consecrate a fast,
Call a sacred assembly;
Gather the people,
Sanctify the congregation,
Assemble the elders,
Gather the children and nursing babes;
Let the bridegroom go out from his chamber,
And the bride from her dressing room.
Let the priests, who minister to the Lord,
Weep between the porch and the altar;
Let them say, “Spare Your people, O Lord,
And do not give Your heritage to reproach,
That the nations should rule over them.
Why should they say among the peoples,
‘Where is their God?’ ”
Then the Lord will be zealous for His land,
And pity His people.
The Lord will answer and say to His people,
“Behold, I will send you grain and new wine and oil,
And you will be satisfied by them;
I will no longer make you a reproach among the nations.
The promise of God is that to those who humble themselves He will lift up but the proud He actively opposes. During this season of Lent may our attitude toward God be one of repentance and humility so that we might be lifted up by Him. May we choose the seat at the foot of the table so that we might be called up to the place of honor.
In 1906 there was a young energetic English Anglican by the name of Gilbert who penned a rousing hymn full of vitality and courage. It was a call to National Repentance. The song is called O God of Earth and Alter and in parenthesis were the words, (Prayer for the Nation). It was written by GK Chesterton in his early thirties before he converted to the Church of Rome. In the Spirit of the Lenten Season may this hymn, written 114 years ago be just as appropriate for us 21st century Americans as when it was written. Let’s listen to the words.
O God of earth and altar,
Bow down and hear our cry,
Our earthly rulers falter,
Our people drift and die;
The walls of gold entomb us,
The swords of scorn divide,
Take not thy thunder from us,
But take away our pride.
From all that terror teaches,
From lies of tongue and pen,
From all the easy speeches
That comfort cruel men,
From sale and profanation
Of honour and the sword,
From sleep and from damnation,
Deliver us, good Lord.
Tie in a living tether
The prince and priest and thrall,
Bind all our lives together,
Smite us and save us all;
In ire and exultation
Aflame with faith, and free,
Lift up a living nation,
A single sword to thee.
Verse one is striking to say the least and sets the tone for what is a VERY striking and convicting hymn. There are no platitudes here. God is high in heaven and we are low on earth and we are asking God to bow down and stoop to our level and hear our cry. Why are we crying to Him? Because our rulers here on earth are faltering failures and we as a people are drifting and dying. We are drifting and dying because our walls, made of gold in our prosperity, are actually entombing us. Scorn has become so common place that it is merely used as a weapon to divide brother against brother. We are asking God not to spare His wrath or His thunder against us but instead to take away the one thing that is causing all of this mess…our pride.
Verse 2 is even more visually intense. We confess that fear is teacher and not the fear of God either. Buttressing fear as our teacher are lies both written and spoken. Speeches that are nothing more than pandering platitudes to achieve political gain are the order of the day and they ease the conscience and comfort men and women who have cruelty bound in their hearts. We ask in verse two for deliverance from many things, greed, a love of the profane, violence, the fear of man disguised as honor, laziness, and ultimately the fires of hell. We ask the Father, our good Father in Heaven to deliver us from these evils.
Verse 3 shows somewhat the peculiarity of the writers connection to the Monarch and Church of England. The prince is the monarchy, the priest is the Church of England, and the thrall are those bound under the rule of the King. I’d like to quote Peter Leithart again from an article he wrote last December on the website First Things “Few hymns offer so stark a portrait of the human condition—lies, terror, cruelty disguised as niceness, tombs of gold, lazy indifference, pride. It’s stark, and very contemporary. “Swords of scorn divide”: Chesterton could have been watching CNN or Fox News, or following Twitter. Chesterton doesn’t permit a jot of sentimentality. No “Sweet Hour of Prayer” for him; his prayer is an anguished cry. He’s not looking for a gently wafting Spirit; Chesterton invokes divine thunder. He doesn’t want God to hold back, because he knows salvation lies on the far side of judgment: “Smite us and save us all.”
Yes Chesterton knows a secret that the mare Hwin discovered in the book “The Horse and His Boy” In the book Hwin, who is terrified of lions, is shaking all over while Aslan, the ruler of Narnia approaches her and goes to him saying “You may eat me if you like. I’d sooner be eaten by you than fed by anyone else.” The best place to be is a willing participant under Providence of God even if that means, like Job, the life as you know it will be consumed.
Okay that concludes the episode for this week. As usual I have the preceding hymn set to music I’ve recorded. In this recording, I set the hymn a new tune and one of the things I am most excited about is that I was able to record this song with my oldest daughter Eva singing the vocals with me. She is a dear girl and I hope you enjoy it. I will be back on April 5th with four simultaneous episodes for Palm Sunday, Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, and Easter Sunday itself. Until then, I hope you have a blessed Lent and may these next 40 days grow you in maturity in ways only the Holy Spirit can accomplish.