Last week marked the beginning of Lent and, I must admit, I wouldn’t have known if not for one of my co-worker’s admonitions. He challenged our crew to refrain from eating meat for lunch. Of course, his appeal was met with sarcasm and snickers. But it’s what he said next that bothered me. Paraphrase: If someone were to “accidentally” eat meat and then die in a car wreck, they would automatically go to hell.
Well, I ate chicken that day (is that considered meat?), didn’t die in a car wreck and, if I would have, doubt seriously that I would have gone to hell.
As a general rule, I don’t judge people’s religious practices. Sure, I may question the practice or personally disavow it. But I’ve always believed that the Bible gives us a little leeway regarding ritual. A couple of verses guide me:
“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” (Col. 2:16 ISV).
This verse goes both ways. If I want to abstain from meat during Lent, that’s my prerogative and no one can judge me. Conversely, if someone doesn’t want to celebrate Lent, the Sabbath or a religious festival, who am I to be their judge?
The second verse sounds a similar note:
One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind. He who observes the day, observes it for the Lord, and he who eats, does so for the Lord, for he gives thanks to God; and he who eats not, for the Lord he does not eat, and gives thanks to God. (Rom. 14:5-6 ISV)
In other words, liberty is the order of the day. One regards Lent, the other doesn’t. But ultimately, both must let their conscience be their guide.
So where does this belief about eating meat and damnation fit in? Is this an innocuous addendum to Lenten celebration or a rank heresy?
Many view Protestantism as a rejection of ritual, and in many ways, it is. Martin Luther’s thesis was as much a return to a New Testament paradigm as it was a rejection of Papal legalities. Christ came to abolish the Law, we say. The sacrificial system and Levitical canon was replaced by a living relationship with the Almighty. Amen and amen. But this isn’t to say that Protestants don’t have their own ordinances, namely communion and baptism. And, last I checked, most Protestant churches still celebrate Easter and Christmas. So the issue here is not Lent, per se, but the nature of religious rituals and ceremony in general.
Religious rituals tend to move from form to formula. Rather than seeing the ceremony as a means to get closer to God, we invest the process with unwarranted power. Thus, the participant potentially comes to view a sacrament as salvific. So in the case of Lent, abstinence from meat becomes more than just a means of better knowing and serving my Lord, it becomes a legalistic demand that, if not complied with, carries damnable consequences.
The Sabbath is a perfect example of how rituals — form — can replace faith. Whereas God instituted the Sabbath as a point of rest, reflection and reverence, the Jewish people gutted it and turned it into a cold legalistic obligation encumbered by a minutia of tedious details, restrictions and pointless practices. Likewise, Lent marks a season of introspection, remembering what Christ went through for us. This is a noble goal for any believer. It’s when Lent — or any other religious practice — becomes an end in itself, that that practice becomes moot.
So is Lent a matter of faith or superstition? It depends entirely on the person celebrating it.
While my co-worker’s belief about meat and hellish exile may not be Catholic dogma, it is symptomatic of systems built upon ritual. Tradition and religious practice must engage faith in order to be salvific. In other words, it’s faith that saves, not the celebration of Lent. Getting ash on my forehead will not save me. And the person who believes that, is the one who might really be lost.