I have had a long fascination with church history in general and with the early church in particular. I have enjoyed reading early church fathers from the second and third centuries and have gained a great appreciation for our historic faith rooted in the early movement of Christ-followers. One thing I’ve discovered is the that the early church, like the apostles, fought for orthodoxy, or right belief. Jude wrote his brief letter encouraging believers “to contend for the faith that was once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3). Paul exhorted young Timothy to be careful with the apostolic teaching: “what you have heard from me in the presence of many witnesses entrust to faithful men, who will be able to teach others also” (2 Timothy 2:2). The early church fathers who followed the footsteps of the apostles and that first generation of believers were careful to fight for the truth that was handed down. This should not be surprising. What is surprising is the wide latitude the early church allowed in a variety of practices (we will see more of this in our Spring / Summer topical series on the Apostles’ Creed and our own New City Church distinctives).
In the early 300s, shortly before the Council of Nicea, a man named Eusebius wrote a history of the church. In this history he tells a fascinating story about an elder from the church in Rome and an elder from the church in Smyrna. Each of these men were presiding elders, or as they came to be known in the second century, “bishops” or overseers (to use the word the English Standard Version uses). Many churches today would use the title “senior pastor”. The first was Anicetus and the second was the well-known martyr Polycarp. In the second century there were a wide variety of practices when it came to fasting and observing certain days as holy. One of these was the annual observance of Easter.
One year Polycarp—perhaps the most-widely celebrated bishop of his day—visited Rome on Pascha, the day before the church in Rome would celebrate Easter. In preparation the church in Rome was fasting for the following day’s celebration. Anicetus was shocked to discover that Polycarp and his church back in Smyrna were not fasting, as they would not be observing Easter the next day. Polycarp argued that the apostle John, along with the other apostles, had taught him to observe the resurrection of Jesus on 14 Nisan, the date of Passover on the Jewish calendar, whereas Anicetus argued that the elders who came before him had taught him to observe it always on a Sunday, the first day of the week.
Think of the debate! On the one hand Peter and Paul had both been in Rome, passing on the faith to faithful men. They had, apparently, observed Easter on a Sunday rather than a specific date, much like we do today. The apostle John, however, had taught Polycarp to observe Easter on a specific date, much like we do with Christmas today. How can this be, when the apostles instructed us in the Scriptures to hold fast to true doctrine? The resolution to this “problem” is a lesson for us all today:
And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.
But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.Philip Schaff and Henry Wace, eds., Eusebius Pamphilus: Church History, Life of Constantine, & Oration in Praise of Constantine (NPNF-2 I; Accordance electronic ed. 14 vols.; New York: Christian Literature Publishing, 1890), n.p., Book 5, Chapter 22, Parargraphs 16–17
Rather than divide over what was clearly an important practice, Anicetus allowed his fellow elder to serve communion to the church in Rome. (Churches would later agree to a common reckoning of the date of Easter, which is what we observe today.) Our unity is not in our practice, but in our common faith in Jesus!
What does this have to do with Lent? Much in every way! There were numerous times of fasting in the early church. In the first century Christians would fast every Wednesday and Friday, with various longer fasts at other times. Fasting prior to the celebration of Easter was both widespread and disparate. There were all sorts of fasts and for different reasons. Over time these consolidated into what we know of as the Lenten fast, or the spring fast (Lent comes from a word meaning “spring”). This fast became a 40-day fast of voluntary sacrifice. Though it’s a 40-day fast, it takes place over 46 days. This is because Jesus said his disciples would not fast while he was with them but when he was not with them they would fast (see Mark 2:18–22). Since Jesus is present in his gathered assembly in a unique and powerful way, we do not fast on Sundays. In fact, we share a meal together every Sunday as we observe the Lord’s Supper.
Lent begins on February 17—next Wednesday—and continues until Holy Saturday, the day before Easter Sunday, which is April 4 this year. There are six Sundays between next Wednesday and Easter Sunday, so while next Wednesday until the Saturday before Easter is 46 days, the fast is only 40 days.
There is no biblical requirement that a follower of Jesus observe Lent by sacrificing something good during this time. On the other hand, Jesus clearly expected his disciples to fast. Whether you fast regularly as the earliest Christians did, or you fast occasionally such as when you have a pressing need to hear from the Lord, or you have never fasted, why not join in the fast of Lent this year? The reason for voluntarily sacrificing something good is simple: we are reminded that resurrection ends suffering. We gather together on Sunday mornings in celebration of Jesus’ resurrection, which means each Sunday is a “mini” Easter and once a year we go big in celebrating his resurrection on Easter Sunday. When we enjoy the thing we’ve given up, be it chocolate or coffee or whatever it is, we are reminded on Sunday that resurrection ends all suffering.
Our voluntary sacrifice should be something we enjoy regularly. If I were to give up liver, for example, there is no sacrifice involved. It could also be something other than food. If you enjoy television each day, you could give up an hour or two and devote that time to something else. In other words, your sacrifice could be a positive addition to your life. Get up a little earlier and spend time reading Scripture. Or spend more time praying. This year I plan to get up earlier than I usually do and spend an hour each day working on Hebrew. I promise you that I will find myself longing for Sundays to end my suffering!
You could also get up early and spend time writing notes to encourage other members of the church or memorize Scripture or some other worthwhile activity. You can add a positive activity and you can remove something good from your life. Either way, allow a change in your behavior during the fast, knowing that whatever difficulty it creates for you (less sleep, a craving for that late-night snack you indulge in normally, more Hebrew flashcards, etc.), the resurrection of Jesus means our future resurrection and resurrection will end all suffering, no matter how small or how great.
Lent allows us to take on discomfort in our lives. “Sacrifice” may be too strong a word (though if my wife actually gives up Brussels sprouts for Lent, I suspect “sacrifice” may not be a strong enough word). The idea is that we take on a form, even a mild form, of suffering as a means of focusing our attention on the Lord’s suffering and his resurrection that ended not only his suffering, but will soon end all our suffering. Lent is simply a tool, one that we use to focus on that which really matters: Jesus Christ died, was buried, and rose again on the third day, and is coming soon to restore all things. Lent helps us say, “Come, Lord Jesus.”