Reformed Protestants don’t do Lent. It is not simply a function of giving up the church calendar and foreswearing holy days appointed by Rome. (Of course, Reformed Protestants do have a church calendar and sequence of holy days — one every week, for that matter, going by the name of the Lord’s Day.) It is also the result of differences between Roman Catholics and Reformed Protestants over the nature of repentance. Lent is part of Rome’s practice of penance — a way of meriting absolution for sins committed after baptism.Â Even so, contemporary Protestants are an eclectic bunch and find the practices of Rome appealing and even edifying.Â
BeyondÂ the theological problems of Reformed Protestants practicing Lent is the practical difficulty ofÂ observance.Â Â Presbyterians are not known for being a high-church lot.Â In fact, theÂ recent trend has been toward informality, contemporary music, and liturgical variety.Â So if a low-church Presbyterian wanted to observe Lent, where would he go for the ashes?Â Do any New Life churches actually observe Ash Wednesday (fat Tuesday is another matter)?Â Probably not.Â That leaves a low-church Protestant having to go to a Roman Catholic or Episcopalian church to receive the outward sign thatÂ marks contrition.Â But are the ashes available to any Tom, Dick or Mary who walks in off the street?Â I know Solomon Stoddard, Jonathan Edwards’ granddaddy, considered the Lord’s Supper to be a converting ordinance — a means that led sinners to Christ.Â But do Roman Catholics actually let those unwashed byÂ Rome’s holy water have access to the church’sÂ ashes?
Maybe they do.Â But I would have thought that being in fellowship with the Bishop of Rome was important for participating in Ash Wednesday services.Â Church membership might also be a necessity for obtaining ashes in an Episcopalian church.Â So how is it that low-church Protestants, those outside the churches that observe Lent, get a dirty forehead forty days before Easter?
I am not naive enough to think that churches and their ordinances maintain coherence or retain integrity.Â We live in a time of cafeteria Christianity, when believers are free to shop for whatever liturgical commodities will get them through the inter-advental era.Â But if cable TV companies will not allow consumers to mix and match their desired channels and networks, why are churches more accommodating to the brand disloyalty that afflictsÂ the would-be followers of Christ?