A week into Lent, and you may now be wondering if self-discipline is really all it's made out to be. If you are craving the chocolate, fast food, television, caffeine, carbs, Facebook, Twitter -- or whatever you might have given up until Easter -- you have likely already gone through some sort of withdrawal.
Conversely, if you took on something for Lent -- like writing a letter every day to a loved one, exercising, praying more intently, spending more time with others, reading the Bible daily, or getting more involved at church -- you might now be wondering what exactly you were thinking when you made such a commitment.
Since the traditional purpose of Lent is the preparation of the believer through repentance, prayer, penance, almsgiving and self-denial, it might be helpful to have a little perspective in such a time of personal trial.
Acclaimed theologian and former Duke Divinity School professor and dean, Will Willimon, is quick to remind us in his book, "Remember Who You Are: Baptism, A Model for Christian Life," that in the second century church, Christian commitment meant a bit more than 40 days of P90X or abstention from Starbucks. Actually, in those days, people who wanted to join the church, had to go through a rigorous three-year process before they were admitted as a follower of Jesus.
Back then, Christianity was illegal within the pagan state, and adherents faced grim consequences for publicly professing their faith. As such, the bar for joining the community of faith was set very high. Many people were outright denied admission to examination for membership because of the immoral or then pagan connotation to their profession. Idolaters, actors, pimps, gladiators, harlots, astrologers, magicians and circus performers (sorry, no Bozos allowed) were sent packing. Soldiers and high government officials also were often rejected unless they took certain vows of allegiance to concretely separate themselves from the pagan state. Even artists and teachers were treated as suspect because, back then, they were considered notorious dabblers in pagan myths and fables.
If you happened to be one of the lucky ones who made the cut, though, then you would begin the intensive three-year process of instruction and worship. The primary purpose of this time was to learn to become morally disciplined in compliance with the ethical expectations of the church. As a matter of fact, until the process was complete, catechumens were only allowed to attend the first part of the Sunday worship service during which Scripture was read and the sermon was preached. They were kindly dismissed before corporate prayer and the Lord's Supper.
Day after day, month after month, these catechumens, engaged in intense prayer, service, fasting, being anointed with oil and having ceremonial exorcisms performed over them as a preparation for baptism, membership into the church, prayer and then communion. There was no being a cultural Christian back then. The goal was to die to one's sinful self and live fully in Christ. Either one must be determined to be a whole Christian, or one must be no Christian at all.
I don't bring Willimon's research to your attention to imply that we should return to such practices or initiate people into the faith this way today. I do, however, think that such a vantage point certainly gives some perspective to our meager 40 days of abstention, service and/or discipline. Hopefully, in knowing that the saints of the Christian tradition were willing to endure so much, often at great cost, to be called followers of Christ, our motivation will be strengthened and encouraged to see our humble Lenten goals through to Easter.
The Rev. Christopher Benek is the associate pastor of family ministries at Providence Presbyterian Church. Read his blog at www.christopherbenek.com.