Laurence Stookey notes the development of the 40 days of Lent:
In the early centuries [of the church], forty days was the time sufficient for converts to make their final, intensive preparation for baptism; and thus a pattern for Lent developed. (p79, Christ’s Time for the Church)
What is interesting to me is that many will take on the season of Lent–days of fasting etc–who would never recommend 40 days of preparation before baptism. In scripture, the pattern is repent, believe and get baptized, not repent for 40 days, then be baptized, or prepare to repent then get baptized. For Philip, if repentance and belief are apparent, it’s time to get some water. Separating an artificially imposed season of repentance is just as odd. If there is sin, repent of it now and believe. If sin is habitual and deeply ingrained, take a season to address it. But setting up a system that highlights (isolates?) mortification of sin for six weeks a year arose from an unhealthy understanding of baptismal preparation and seems to me to promote an unhealthy approach to sanctification.
There are a number of good articles out there for understanding All Hallow’s Eve (Halloween), Reformation Day, and All Saint’s Day. Here are one, two, three excellent ones that will make you wrestle with the issues.
All Saint’s Day is Nov. 1st, a day dedicated to remembering all the Christian martyrs. It’s appropriate to give thanks for the seed that went into the ground and grew us up. Too often Protestants treat All Saint’s like another gaudy Roman Catholic addition to the calendar. Ironically, it’s an antidote to the Rococofied celebrations for a different saint taking place every five minutes in the city of seven hills. Martin Luther posted his 95 Theses on Halloween, the eve of All Saint’s precisely because it was the time to celebrate and continue the church’s victory over Satan, sin and death. None of his Theses rejected All Saint’s, just the covetous superstition of indulgences that marked it at that time.
Any church or group of churches recovering a sense of history and true catholicity has to be discerning. What should we recover, leave alone, repent of, or consider for a while before we employ? Bible study and more Bible study is called for. If you like All Saint’s Day (and I think you should), you should reject (with equal joy!) the following day, November 2, All Soul’s Day. In 1048, Saint Odilo, the Abbot of Cluny, had a vision (derision?) of the saints suffering in purgatory. His vision directed him to perform masses on behalf of said dead, thus freeing them from purgatory. By the end of the 13th century, All Soul’s was a staple in the Western church until Luther lit the match on Oct. 31, 1517 that blew up the idolatry of the church.
The Jewish calendar was full of feast days. Every Sabbath was a holy convocation when God’s people were given a day off to rest, worship and celebrate together (Lev. 23:3). They also enjoyed the three “pilgrim festivals” of Passover, Weeks and Tabernacles where at least the household representative would appear in Jerusalem but sometimes the whole family would make the trek. This is Old Covenant family vacation, road trips to remember.
Only once a year was Israel commanded to fast and afflict their souls on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement (Lev. 23:27). Many other occasional fasts took place for repentance, blessing, preparation, consecration etc, but only one calender fast existed. Many Christians turn this season of Lent into 40 days (minus Lord’s Days which are always feasts) of fasting and affliction, but this is a lop-sided expression of faith. The Church has come into her majority, and although we fast because the bridegroom has gone away, it makes no sense to fast more cyclically now than at any other time in history. The disciples fast frequently in the book of Acts always in preparation for mission or for other particular circumstances. Continue reading
This is the season of Lent, however you observe it, the time of anticipation and preparation for the horror of Good Friday and the resurrection joy of Easter. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus was crucified by a particular governor who ruled at a particular time, and so the Church has always marked time around Christ. It’s funny, Christians used to argue over when to observe the feast, not whether to observe it at all. If our Christian faith means anything in this world, it has to mean something about how we think about calendar and generally the Church’s drift is to not think about it. For those who do think about it, one temptation is to think of it as a reenactment which in one sense is unhelpful. If you reenact the sorrow of the apostles at the crucifixion of Jesus, you’ll be reenacting their unbelief and sinful despair, which is just something else to repent of. More on the whole season of Lent later. For now, John Westerhoff and William Willimon have great insight on how to think of the liturgical calendar:
We must be clear that we are not engaging, in our liturgical year, in a cyclic redoing of historical events in the life of Christ which are remembered in a merely historical way. Our Church year celebrates the present reality of these events for us today. As we stated in the discussion of the Eucharist, the “remembrance” (anamnesis) of Christians is not historical recollection; rather it is remembering in the sense of remembering who we are. The Church year gives us our identity in the present, not just our memory of the past. … [Is] our worship an honest, painfully contemporary attempt to proclaim and enact the Gospel in light of what we understand to be God’s past and present dealings with us as well as God’s future purposes for us? (Liturgy Through the Life Cycle, 55)