I’m from North Carolina. Southern Baptist country right inside the Bible Belt which means it’s not until you’re outside of that setting (or you’re an outsider in that setting) that you realize the world is so much bigger than it seems. When I was a little girl, everyone could easily be divided into two groups. People who went to church and people who didn’t. Oh, I had friends whose parents didn’t take them to church but they were all white and that fueled my childlike view that white people didn’t go to church. (Because my church like almost all churches back then were completely segregated. No worries. With people like Bachmann and Santorum around, I know white people believe, too.) Back then I didn’t know anyone who went to mass so it’s hard to recall what I thought, if I thought anything at all, about Catholics. Such a label, without any outward manifestation of differences, is completely lost on children. Still, I knew I’d seen Catholics on television kneeling and crossing themselves before they prayed and before they ate. We didn’t do any of that stuff at my church and neither did any of my friends.
It wasn’t until high school when my community of peers actually shrank because of a small IB program that I was exposed to people who contradicted my previous method of categorizing people. Our group of 13 included us Southern Baptists, a Buddhist, a Hindu, a Mormon, a Muslim, a former Jehovah’s Witness, Methodists, and an atheist or two. And a Catholic. I remember the day my friend walked into class with smudges of dirt on his forehead. I didn’t know what it meant and by his explanation I had the feeling he didn’t know what it meant either. “It was a tradition; something he had to do,” along with give up meat on Fridays (which he frequently “forgot” when we were allowed to go off campus for lunch), and give up things like soda, candy, and sweets for Lent. I’m sure you could guess my next question.
I suspect the greatest difference between Protestants and Catholics is their understanding of salvation which undoubtedly affects the way these two groups live out their faith. Whether you believe in salvation by grace alone, salvation by faith alone, salvation by grace through faith, or salvation by works — all Christians believe Jesus is Savior and the key to whichever doctrine of salvation they believe. Catholics have a lot of stuff they believe they have to do in order to attain salvation — or at least this is the misleading and erroneous notion that Protestants have about them. And Protestants believe they don’t have to do anything (except have faith) in order to attain salvation.
But why don’t Protestants observe Lent? Why don’t Protestants want to join as a community of believers to sacrifice what we highly value in our present lives for the one who sacrificed His life for us all? The reason can’t just be because it’s a Catholic tradition but I suspect part of the aversion is indeed just that. Especially since Lent was a mandated practice by the Catholic Church for centuries, along with a host of other non-Biblical practices that serve under the heading of tradition. Protestants long ago renounced grace by works, sacraments (except the Lord’s Supper and Baptism), liturgical services, and self-flagellation. Disputes over practice and doctrine fundamentally split and fragmented the church into dozens of denominations each with different interpretations of the Scriptures. Yet, Protestants adopted many of its traditions and practices from the Catholic Church, like Sunday services, services for marriages and funerals, ordination, communion, baptism, prayer, and the observance of religious holy days, Christmas and Easter. While Baptists profess to “judge all days to be alike” meaning there is nothing we should do one day that we should not do on another, excepting the Sabbath, most do actually “judge one day to be better than another” (Rom 14:5). The Protestant Reformation brought with it the idea that one day is not holier than another. I agree. But I’m also of the opinion that we can have special days in which we all join together to celebrate the life of Christ and His resurrection over death. The designation of these special, or holy days, is key in keeping the central tenants of the faith in the forefront of believers’ minds and hearts. If we can observe these traditional religious (formerly Catholic) holidays, then we can observe the season of time before they occur.
Most of us just choose not to observe the Advent or Lenten seasons. It’s tradition. A traditional non-practice rooted in the belief that we don’t have to celebrate a season or a holiday. Salvation comes not through the Catholic Church, the sacraments or the following of tradition but from the grace of God alone. That grace might warm our hearts to join our Catholic brothers and sisters to sacrifice our time, give money to the poor, and abstain from sex and food; but it might not. My heart never knows when Lent begins so it’s nice to have a Catholic friend around who follows the patristic calendar. Otherwise, I might show up to church on Easter Sunday without knowing it’s a holy day.
I’m not so convinced that this period of 40 days is just an act of sacrifice steeped in high church tradition that dictates what you sacrifice and for how long without any spiritual benefit. I believe it’s a period of time (yes, mapped out by the Church) that serves as a gift to steer us back into what really matters. It’s a period of prayer, charity, and preparation for the miracle of Easter and the celebration of renewed life. And whether you do it because the Church tells you it’s time or because you want to feel closer to God or because everyone else is doing it or you do it when you want to do it, a spiritual fast can help believers to see things in a new light.
And that’s true for Catholics, Christians, Jews, Muslims and Buddhists. We all need to experience a bit of darkness in order to appreciate the light.