March 18, 1897
ABOUT as near as anyone can come to divining the purpose of “Lent,” as related to Protestants, in the absence of any authority on the subject, is to say that it institutes a sort of “indulgence” for a life of doubtful duty during the rest of the year.
It would be possible for Lent to be only this, even if it were a season instituted by the Lord; for God’s institutions often become perverted. And as it was not instituted by the Lord, it is not possible that it should be anything but this.
The real purpose of penance, in the heathen system of which it forms a part, is that of an indulgence, either to satisfy a past transgression, or to provide for a future one. It is a principle of human nature—and human nature is strictly heathen—that an individual can in some way and to some extent, atone for his own transgressions. This principle crops out everywhere in an individual’s way, before he becomes a Christian, of dealing with himself and with others. His own bad deeds, or those of others, are offset in his view by the later “good” deeds of the respective parties. He thinks that he must do something good in order to become good; and that he must just make himself good in this way to a certain extent, before he can come into touch with God.
Having done what he considers a very good deed, by way of penance, his conscience will be eased until he again does something that he knows to be of a decidedly different character, or until he has continued for some time in the pathway of “small” transgressions. Then he feels that he must again do something to set himself straight. So it happens that the Lenten period of penance supplies a want of human nature, coming as it does in intervals convenient for that purpose.
Upon this question of the real nature and purpose of Lent, we may cite the testimony of the papal church. That church is the author of the observance, and being in no sense a divine ordinance, it has never been perverted from its original purpose. In a late issue of Cardinal Gibbons’ organ, the Catholic Mirror, the following observations are made by way of preparing the minds of “the faithful” for the occasion:—
“With this week begins the holy season of Lent, when according to the precept and immemorial custom of the church, we should, as far as possible, lay aside worldly thoughts, and especially worldly pleasures, and occupy ourselves with considerations which relate to our eternal salvation. This, indeed, we should do at all times; but more especially in Lent, when everything in the divine offices of our religion reminds us that the passion and death of our Lord are to be soon commemorated.
“There is no person who cannot give up something for the sake of Almighty God, in Lent—all that is necessary is the will to do so. There are pleasures, of doubtful benefit to us spiritually at all times, which should now peremptorily be abandoned. There are the very questionable amusements in which many indulge—the play-going, the reading of light literature, and the various diversions of society. During the penitential season, at least, these recreations should be utterly relinquished, and the discipline of the church should be complied with as rigorously as possible. Then it will not follow at the end that one, looking back with regret and self-reproach, will realize that the holy season for him or her has come and gone in vain.”
In brief, the idea here expressed is that during this season of penance, “worldly pleasures” “of doubtful benefit to us spiritually at all times,” “very questionable amusements,” etc., should be laid aside, and the individual should conduct himself in a strictly Christian manner. And what makes it a season of penance is the very fact that he feels obliged to conduct himself in this way. For forty days a heathen must try to act like a Christian. And truly, if that be not a penance, we cannot think of anything that would be. Every individual who has tried the experiment knows how hard it is to try to act like a Christian before being one.
It will be said, of course, that Lent is for Christians—“the faithful”—and not for the heathen at all. But we do not care anything about the theory of Lent. We are considering only the reality of it, and the reality is that Christians can have no possible use for Lent, because (1) it has no sanction in the Word of God, and (2) a Christian acts like a Christian at all times of the year, and not merely during some period of penance. And he finds no penance at all, but only pleasure, in so doing.
To seek to gain an indulgence for a life of “questionable amusements” and “worldly pleasures” during the rest of the year, by means of the Lenten penance, is no more Protestant or Christian than to purchase an indulgence from the pope direct.