THE OBSERVANCE OF LENT.
LET me begin by a parable.
A vase of Parian marble was carved by Phidias: it represented two labourers in a harvest field; the one cutting down the ears with his sickle; the other binding them into sheaves. It was the admiration of the highest age of art in Greece. But in process of time arose a generation of debased and still debasing taste. Before, their eyes stood the same masterpiece; but some disliked what they called the 'cold white' of the marble. To remove this it was painted scarlet, blue, and yellow. Some added to the figures patches of clay; some botched it with plaster of Paris, till the original subject was scarcely to be traced. At last the sickle of the one labourer seemed to be turned into something resembling a club, and the other looked as if he were gathering grapes.
A description of the original vase has come down to our times ; and the desire arises to see it such as it looked when it left the chisel of the immortal sculptor. What then must be done to set it before us in its original chaste beauty? We must get rid - must we not? - of all the foolish and disfiguring additions which ignorant men had imposed upon it. Shall we, retain the club of the labourer? No, for the record assures us, that Phidias carved a sickle. What must we do then? Break off the plaster of Paris, till our tool touches the marble beneath. Shall we keep the frightful daubings of scarlet and yellow? Out upon those blurrings of native beauty! Scrape off all the gaudy paint ! Be not content till your eye rests upon the pure white of the marble beneath!
That would be good advice - would it not ? - if a marvel of ancient art were to be restored. It is good advice also with regard to our heavenly faith.
What is Christianity?
Is it not that divine system which the Son of God and the Spirit of God reared on the earth - the record of which, as it appeared in its original loveliness and purity, is given in the New Testament. Did Phidias exceed in his perfection of art all the moderns? Far more do the Son of God and the Spirit of God in their knowledge of the mind of God in Christianity exceed all the sons of men.
To know what Christianity was at first, and what it should be now, we have only to read what the Saviour and His apostles made it. The additions then - which have come in as centuries flowed by - what shall we think of them?
That they are not Christian : that they are only a disfigurement of Christianity, a disgrace and encumbrance to it.
When then we wish to know of any doctrine or practice, whether it is Christian or no, we appeal to the words of Jesus and of His Spirit. Was it given from the beginning? If not, 'tis but manís mischievous daubing, man's perverse plastering. "Let that therefore abide in you which ye heard front the beginning. If that which ye have heard from the beginning shall remain in you, ye also shall continue in the Son and in the Father." 1 John ii, 24.
Beloved, when I gave all diligence to write to you of the common salvation, it was needful for me to write to you, and exhort you to contend earnestly for the faith which was once [for all] delivered unto the saints." Jude 3; 2 John 6.
We inquire then:-
Do we read in the New Testament of LENT as a period of fasting to be observed by Christians? Are we taught anywhere to keep Easter as a feast? [* The English reader may perhaps say, "We do read of Easter, in Acts xii, 4, ĎIntending after Easter to bring Him forth to the people." Yes! And who kept this Easter? The Jews who thirsted after Christian blood! It should have been rendered, as elsewhere, "After the Passover."]
Before we appeal to Scripture, listen a moment to what respectable ecclesiastical historians say about the origin of Lent and Easter.
1. Mosheimtells us, in his account of the first century, that "Neither Christ nor His apostles enacted any law concerning fasting." As time rolled on, high ideas of the power of fasting as a means of putting demons to flight, grew common. (3rd century.)
Of the fifth century he writes:-
"Fasting was considered in this century as the most effectual and powerful means of repelling the force, and disconcerting the stratagems of evil spirits, and [mark!] of appeasing the anger of an offended Deity.* (m.i.) Hence we may easily understand what induced the rulers of the church to establish this custom by express laws, and to impose as an indispensable duty, an act of humiliation, the observation of which had hitherto been left to everyone's choice. The Quadragesimal or Lent-fast, was held more sacred than all the rest, though it was not as yet confined to a fixed number.of days. We must, however, remark, that the fasts observed in this country were very different from those which were solemnized in the preceding times. Formerly those who submitted themselves to the discipline of fasting, abstained wholly from meat and drink ; but now a mere abstinence from flesh and wine was by many judged sufficient for the purposes of fasting, and this latter opinion prevailed from this time, and became universal among the Latins."
[*The word from the beginning had taught that the blood of Jesus the Saviour cleansed from all sin: (1 John i, 7 ;) but church-teaching had substituted for it, atonement by personal suffering, to be rendered to God by each sinner! The Gospel was gone, the Law had come back! ]
2. Socrates, the ecclesiastical historian of the fourth century, writes thus :-
"Men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labour ; and therefore it is that each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion (of Jesus' death). The Saviour and His apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast; nor in the New Testament are we threatened with any penalty, punishment, or curse, for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews. It is merely for the sake of historical accuracy, and for the reproach of the Jews, because they polluted themselves with blood on their very feasts, that it is recorded in the Gospels that our Saviour suffered Ďin the days of unleavened bread.í The apostles had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety. And it seems to me that the feast of Easter has been introduced into the church from some old usage, just established:" B. v. 22
3.Hear also what is said by Coleman in his Christian Antiquities, p. 190.
"The festival (of Easter) like that of Christmas, was preceded by a season of fasting. This fast at first continued forty hours (m.i.) corresponding to Friday and, Saturday before Easter, and comprising the period during which our Saviour lay in the grave. it was, moreover, the beginning of a voluntary fast. But it became in process of time a prescribed and necessary duty, not only for penitents and catechemens, but for all believers to observe this fast for their own spiritual improvement. In the fifth and sixth centuries the fast was extended to thirty-six days. The four additional days which complete the season of Lent were added, either in the sixth century by Gregory the Great, or in the eighth by Gregory the second."
It required then about seven hundred years to hoist into its present place the season of Lent, and to impart to it its present degree of fixity and finish.
4. With one more witness I will conclude this part.
"The festival of which we read in church history under the name of Easter, in the third or fourth centuries, was quite a different festival from that now observed in the Romish Church, and at that time was not known by any such name as Easter. It was called Pasch or the Passover, and though not of apostolic institution was very early observed by many professing Christians in commemoration of the death and resurrection of Christ. That festival agreed originally with the time of the Jewish Passover, when Christ was crucified - a period which in the days of Tertullian (at the end of the second century) was believed to have been the 23rd of March. That festival was not idolatrous, and it was preceded by no Lent." (m.i.)
"It ought to be known," said Cassianus, the Monk of Maxseilles, writing in the fifth century, and contrasting the primitive church with the church in his day, "that the observance of the forty days had no existence, so long as the perfections of that primitive church remained inviolate.".- Hislop's Two Babylons, p. 149.
In these passages is presented evidence both positive and negative upon the point before us. The season of Lent is not of Christ's ordaining: it came in by degrees, century after century, as the so-called 'church' became more and more unlike the body designed by our Lord.
Moreover, at the first council at Jerusalem, we have the followin sentence indited both by the apostles and the Holy Spirit. "It seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things; That ye abstain from meats Offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication, from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well:" Acts xv. 28, 29.
Among these necessary things, Lent is not to be found. It is a burden then not fastened on Christian shoulders by either the apostles or the Holy Spirit. IT IS THEREFORE NOT FROM GOD OR HIS CHRIST, BUT OF MEN.
What then does the Most High think about men's additions to His worship?
I will adduce three especial passages of the New Testament in answer.
1. The first shall be Matthew xy. 1-9.
"Then came to Jesus Scribes and Pharisees, which were of Jerusalem, saying, 'Why do thy disciples transgress the tradition of the elders? for they wash not their hands when they eat bread.' But he answered and said unto them, 'Why do ye also transgress the commandment of God by your tradition? For God commanded, saying, Honour thy father and mother: and, He that curseth father or mother, let him die the death. But ye say, Whosoever shall say to his father or his mother, It is a gift, by whatsoever thou mightest be profited by me, and honour not his father or his mother, he shall be free. Thus have ye made thecommandment of God of none effect by your tradition. Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying 'This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, honoureth me with their lips ; but their heart is far from me. But in vain they do worship me, teaching for doctrines the commandments of men."
Jesusí disciples are detected by the Pharisees breaking the tradition of the elders, in eating a meal without washing their hands. They complain of it to the Saviour. Jesus defends them; he accuses their accusers, of a far heavier offence brought in by means of their traditions. These washings commanded by men, though seemingly in the very style and strain of the law, were yet displeasing to God, for they introduced a new authority into the service of the Lord. True religion is the observance of the commands of God, through belief in His testimony. But the traditions of the elders bring in man's authority, and obedience to him in the things of God. They unseat God from His true and supreme place. Moreover, as man is both fallen, blind, and opposed to God, the new commands which he introduces makes void previous commands of God and His Christ. Thus the sprinkling of infants has thrust aside the immersion of believers.
The new rites of man's ordaining introduce new doctrines, and these new doctrines set aside the true ones of God. They are the new patch upon the previous garment ; nay, and a yoke fastened upon the neck, to be resisted by all Christ's freemen: Gal. v. 1.
How displeasing to the Lord is this intrusion of human traditions, we may perceive by an illustration. The king in his kindness has sent his own physician to give advice to one of his poor diseased subjects. He feels the pulse, he discerns the disease, he sends the appropriate medicine with directions how to take it.
But around the poor man stand a throng of doctors, who throw in their advice - 'The medicine sent is not bad - but it might be improved. What a fine remedy is calomel! No medicine so universally useful. Add a little calomel!í Some is dropped in.
Another suggests the value of camphor. ĎHow fine a tonic is camphor! The curative effect would be greatly heightened by camphor.' So some camphor enters the cup.
A third sings the praises of quinine. 'That precious restorative! that latest of scientific remedies! What potion can be perfect without quinine?' Some quinine then joins the former ingredients.
But the king and his physician hear of these additions.
How do they feel upon the matter?
The king is offended; so is his medical adviser.
'Take my medicine alone,' says the physician of the king, Ďand I will guarantee your recovery! But add other drugs to those I sent you, and I wash my hands of all responsibility. If you canít trust me, go openly to other doctors! If you profess to be under my care you must listen in things medical to me alone. The potent drugs you have foisted into my prescription have totally altered the character of the dose I sent ; they have deprived it of well nigh all healing power, and have exasperated the disorder it was sent to cure !'
II. The Saviour in the second place, accuses these traditions of men of fostering hypocrisy.
"Ye hypocrites, well did Esaias prophesy of you, saying, This people draweth nigh unto me with their mouth, and honoureth me with their lips ; but their heart is far from me."
True religion is the service of God with the heart. True worship brings the man near to God; and the heart is the man. But the introduction of rites not of God brings in man, and makes religion a thing of ecclesiastical observance. 'Keep these commands so as to please man's eye, and all is well.' But that is to eat out the heart of true worship. You have thrown God in the background. You give him the outside, and that he refuses to accept. God was not, even under the law, satisfied with the shadow and the flesh, while the heart was away. Much less now. The Father is seeking worship in spirit and in truth. His religion is not now the outside one of ritual: it is the forth-pouring of the heart of sons. It is not the priests near to God, and the people afar off: but all believers are made priests that they all may draw near to God in holy service; 1 Pet. ii. 4, 5, 9 ; Hebrews xiii. 15, 16.
But rites of the elders added to those of God bring in the clergy and the priest, and make religion form and hypocrisy, throwing off the people to a distance from the Most High. It ends surely in Rome.
III. But the same words of Jesus adduce a third reason against the traditions of men.
'Look at yonder monk! notice his bare feet, his shaven crown, his coarse dress, his hard fare, his scanty meals, his cold rooms, his bed little more than a board. And you! you are well clad, well fed, sleep well, enjoy the comforts of your fireside. Now are not his actings far more meritorious, far better pleasing to God? You pray but now and then; he has his complines, and his nones, his mantins, and his vespers, and so on through the day and night. Is not this more pleasing to God?'
A good question, friend! Jesus shall answer it!
"IN VAIN DO THEY WORSHIP ME, TEACHING FOR DOCTRINES THE COMMANDMENTS OF MEN."
There is your answer! These monkish orders, these self-devised observances, though they entail cost, selfdenial, suffering, are not well-pleasing to God. God accepts the doing of His Son's commands: the addition of others to His perfect words is folly. "This is my beloved Son; HEAR HIM." Down then with St. Barnabas, St. Augustine, St. Francis, and the rest! Stop your cars to their precepts! "This is My beloved Son; HEAR HIM."
II. Let me take a second passage. It shall be from Paul's epistle to the Galatians.
In the days of Paul there were those who disliked the 'bald' simplicity of the Gospel. They therefore added rites to those of the Gospel. They would introduce circumcision, and God's previous commands by Moses, not as intending to abandon Christianity, but to fill up gaps in it.
How does Paul regard this? He resists it with all his energy. 'Twas really a leaving of God's good news for a deceit. It was a bewitching of the soul, scarce to be credited in those who had beheld the atonement of the Son of God, and His death by law and to law. These additions were old leaven which would corrupt the, new Gospel of God. They would bring back law, after God had at great cost brought in grace. They set aside the Christianís hopes, turned him from spirit to flesh, from heaven to earth, from Christianity to Judaism and heathenism. What was "the Jews' religion?" "The traditions of the fathers," for which Saul the unconverted had been so full of zeal: Galatians i. 13. 14. But when God revealed to Paul His Son, these yellow leaves dropped off forever. Jesus was now his teacher; the Spirit his instructor. The commands of Jesus lead to Himself. The commandments of men turn from the truth.
Paul rebukes the Galatians for removing from God's freedom in Christ to observance of ritual, as being anabandonment of the place of freedom and. Intelligence which the Lord had given to sons. When the heir was in his infancy God taught him the first lessons of truth by the picture-alphabet of the law. But now that Christ was come, the substance of the law's shadows - the believer is possessed of spiritual intelligence as to his possession of those things which the law indicated. Jesus' coming found God's pupils under law. Jesus died to redeem them from under it, and to set them as sons justified and sanctified to do the newly manifested will of God in Christ: Gal. iv.
Then follows a passage specially bearing upon the question before us. Gal. iv. 7-11.
"Wherefore thou art no more a servant, but a son; and if a son, then an heir of God through Christ. Howbeit then, when ye knew not God, ye did service unto them which by nature are no gods. But now, after that ye have known God, or rather are known of God, how turn ye again to the weak and beggarly elements, whereunto ye desire again to be in bondage? Ye observe days, and months, and. times, and years. I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain."
From these words it is clear that the observance of Lent, in place of being characteristic of a Christian, shows him ignorant of the first principles of the faith. " Ye are observing days, and months; and times, and years. Iam afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labour in vain."
Paul's lessons have fallen in vain on the ear of the Christian who is observing Lent. He has lost sight of the A B C of the faith. He is running after shadows; he is deserting the substance. He has not observed the Spirit's protest at such conduct, and the energetic striving of Paul the servant of Christ, to bring back, if possible, such straying sheep again to the fold of the Good Shepherd. The sheep of Christ should know the voice of the Good Shepherd alone; they should flee from the voice of strangers.
Return to ceremonies devised of men, is, as the Spirit shows in the epistle, a beginning to leave justification by faith, and a return to the vain attempt to be justified by law.
The leaders in ritualism, of which Lent-observance is the rear-rank, are they men justified, pardoned by grace? No! they refuse justification by faith as "a dissenting heresy!" What are all these costly self-denying ceremonies for? To lead to their justification! They are designed to bring in the priest, and exalt him. But to introduce a priest in order to atone and justify, when perfect atonement has already been made, and when justification is already ours, were manifestly absurd. So then they are men of law - men fastened to the treadmill of good works in order to justify themselves. If you are a Christian, justified already by faith through God's grace, forsake the road that leads to such awful blindness. Get out of this train of unbelief: it goes express to Rome!
Here is a dry well in a very sandy soil. Yonder man peering into it was sent to the bottom through the earth caving in under him. At much trouble and expense he was lifted out, when almost at his last gasp, buried beneath tons of soil. Will such a one be led to the sandy rim again, once more to pry into the depths? Do you then keep away from all ritual of men's devising! It leads from God and grace to Samson's prison house, and the vain toil of the blind for life.
III. Take yet a third and final passage from the Colossians. Col. ii. 8-23.
"Beware lest any man spoil you through philosophy and vain deceit, after the tradition of men, after the rudiments of the world, and not after Christ. For in Him dwelleth all the fulness of the Godhead bodily. And ye are complete in Him, which is the head of all principality and power : In whom also ye are circumcised with the circumcision made without hands in putting off the body of the sins of the flesh by the circumcision of Christ: Buried with Him in baptism, wherein also ye are risen with Him through the faith of the operation of God, who bath raised Him from the dead. And you, being dead in your sins and the uncircumcision of your flesh, bath He quickened together with Him, having forgiven you all trespasses. Blotting out the handwriting of ordinances that was against us, which was contrary to us, and took it out of the way, nailing it to His cross; And having spoiled principalities and powers, He made a show of them openly, triumphing over them in it. Let no man therefore judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of festival, or new moon, or sabbath day: (Greek) Which are a shadow of things to come ; but the body is of Christ."
"Let no man beguile you of your reward in a voluntary humility and worshipping of angels, intruding into those things which he bath not seen, vainly puffed up by his fleshly mind. And not holding the head, from which all the body by joints and bands having nourishment ministered, and knit together, increaseth with the increase of God. Wherefore if ye died with Christ from the rudiments of the world, why, as though alive (Greek) in the world, are ye subject to ordinances, (Touch not ; taste not ; handle not ; Which all are to perish with the using:) after the commandments and doctrines of men? Which things have indeed a shew of wisdom in will worship, and humility, and neglecting of the body : not in any honour to the satisfying of the flesh."
Paul is dissuading from philosophic and from ritualistic additions to the Gospel. How?
He presents the believer's completeness in Christ ; a completeness exhibited in baptism. In that immersion he was buried, as dead with Christ. In emerging from the waters he came forth as one with Christ, risen with the Saviour to the things of heaven.
To what was he buried? To law, that he might walk in grace; to earthís religions, the rites of the flesh and of men, that he might observe the commands of the Risen from the dead.
The apostle therefore would have the believer assert his freedom to Christ. "Let none therefore judge you in meat or in drink, or in respect of feast (Greek)* or new moon or sabbath day."
Though, then, there were festivals ordained by God of old, they are gone by. They were mere shadows of the realities in Christ. Even with regard to these the believer was to feel and assert his freedom. If any condemned him as proud or wilful, or unbelieving because he would not keep them, he was not to care for it. Those judgments proceeded from ignorance. Christ would sustain him, whoever thrust him aside. Do you, Christian, uphold the completeness of Jesus' wisdom and power, as able to direct His own household in full perfection! Go not to other households to borrow their empty rules; in so doing you dishonour Christ. You have in Him the substance; let those who will not be warned go in chase of shadows!
If any tell you of the Church and her motherly ordinances, which all her sons ought to obey, do you reply, that the Church cannot be a mother, unless she be a harlot! By God's ordination she is a "chaste virgin," waiting for the Bridegroom, set to obey the commands of her spouse: 2 Cor. xi. 2, 3. If she be a mother issuing commands, instead of a virgin obeying her affianced, she is either the Great Harlot, "mother of Harlots, and of the abominations of the earth," or one of her daughters : Rev. xvii. 5.
See how Paul rebukes the giving heed to any commands in the things of God but those of Christ, as being indeed a forsaking of the true position which the Lord has assigned in His goodness to the believer. If you died with Christ to the world and its beggarly elements, why do you return to it, and the commands of men? You falsify thereby your position as dead with Christ. If you make yourself subject to ordinances of men, you are one alive in the world again. As dead with Christ then, and risen with Him, forsake all doctrines and commands but His! You belong to the Risen One; hear Him! You are not of the earth and of the flesh. Forsake its teachings then, by whatever titles it may dignify its traditions. They have indeed an appearance of wisdom; but God accounts them really folly. So do you. They are self-devised worship, and God refuses it. 'This ritualistic humility and fasting, are they not excellent to keep under the flesh?' Nay, they "satisfy the flesh," ver. 23.
The great fasters, are they very loving gentle, humble, devoted to Christ? Nay, most of them in mortifying the body have fed the flesh into vanity, pride, hatred of the truth, unbelief of their need of a Saviour, and persecution of those that are His. A man may fast thrice a week, and be as proud as Lucifer.
So then, Christian, God calls you to obey, not the Church, but the Son of God. Who has such claims on you as He who bought you! Obey Him as one ransomed out of death into eternal life.
Will you surrender your place of privilege? God has put all the truly baptized under death and burial to earth and the flesh, that you may as the risen obey the Lord of all. Sons of God, listen to the Son of God alone! Hear His voice, which the Spirit of God came to enforce! O sheep of Christ, he who leads you away from Christ's pastures, starves and carries captive. Flee the voice of the stranger!
It has been proved to you, that Lent is not of God.
Forsake it then! It has been shown you that it is of men. Touch it not therefore! Take not up the chaff which God has cast out from His threshing-floor. You have in Christ the true wheat. Your teacher Christ is the alone perfect One; Him follow! He refuses the traditions of men. Do you account them vain worship, as He says they are! They have a show of wisdom indeed. But, instructed by Him, you will discern between the gilded lead and the pure gold. They are not 'harmless'; they lead you off from. the freedom of grace to the slavery and curse of law; from acceptance by faith to vain striving after justification by works; from. the Spirit of God to the flesh and idolatry.
They bring present harm to the soul, and future loss. Be warned! He who foresaw the future assured us that in the latter days the form of godliness would thrust out its power. Are you to take part with those who would do so? Nay. " From such turn away" : 2 Tim. iii. 5.
Are you a teacher? Earnestly contend for the faith once for all delivered to the saints, Are you one of Godís builders? Then upon Christ, the only true foundation, do not rear as your superstructure, chaff and stubble, wood and hay. Would you have your house burnt amidst the fireballs of the Great Day to come? Would you be one of those who have to grope. their way out of the smoke and flame?
We cannot serve two masters. Christ refuses all service taught by other masters than Himself. Forsake all others then! Be true to Jesus!.
But to some who read these pages the fitting inquiry would be - Has God your heart? The heart! the heart! This is what the Lord asks. He distinguishes between the precious diamond and its empty casket. He knows well the vast difference between the bent knee and the obedient soul. He discerns well between the restless spirit, attempting to save itself by its own obedience, and the soul that casts itself, all soiled and, helpless, on Jesus to save.
Have you been vainly seeking to pay your debts to God? Does the tale of bricks unmade still grow? your soul cast down within you? No wonder! Yours hitherto is the blind work of unbelief. If you are to save yourself - why did Jesus come to save you? If you can keep God's law, why did Jesus descend to observe it for you? If you can atone for sin, why was the cross of Calvary stained with Jesus' blood? Go, seek His forgiveness who alone can cleanse! Go, ask His robe of white who alone can clothe thee! Off with thy smirched rags! Read anew and with faith those words of grace - "He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved."