I wrote about Lent several years ago. It’s worth bringing this up every year, I think:
For all you Catholics out there, [yesterday was] “Ash Wednesday”. It’s the beginning of the Lent season – the 40 days prior to Easter, a very old tradition of the early church.
For all you Protestants, you should know that there’s a difference between “tradition” and “Tradition” in Catholic understanding.
It’s true that Lent is one of the earliest church traditions. But it’s also one of just a handful of such “traditions.” Most of these are really just practices; many of them are no longer practiced. Yves Congar, in his “The Meaning of Tradition,” (and derived from his scholarly “Tradition and Traditions” and a textbook for Roman Catholic seminarians), provides a list (pg. 37):
— The Lenten fast (Irenaeus, Jerome, Leo)
— Certain baptismal rites (Tertullian, Origen, Basil, Jerome, Augustine)
— Certain Eucharistic rites (Origin, Cyprian, Basil)
— Infant baptism (Origen, Augustine)
— Prayer facing the East (Origen, Basil)
— Validity of baptism by heretics (pope Stephen, Augustine)
— Certain rules for the election and consecration of bishops (Cyprian)
— The sign of the cross (Basil, who lived 329-379)
— Prayer for the dead (note, this is not “prayers to the dead) (John Chrysostom)
— Various liturgical fests and rites (Basil, Augustine)
Again, while such practices as Lenten fasts the sign of the cross are still practiced, many of these “apostolic traditions” – really those extending earlier than the 4th century – such as prayer facing east, and Cyprian’s rules for electing and consecrating bishops are, well, in the dustbin of history.
Congar was one of the leading experts on the early church. He was influential at Vatican II, and John Paul II named him a Cardinal in 1994. (I mention this because Congar was a noted liberal, as well, and I’ve had some Catholic apologists dismiss “liberal” theologians as if their writings had no official standing in Rome.)
Congar wrote, “We should be prepared to find that the apostles had not recorded in writing all the rules they gave the churches in view of the fragmentary and occasional nature of their writings.” (pg 34)
“What do the written documents we possess tell us of the preparation for baptism, of the Eucharistic celebration, of the way to deal with sinners, and so on? St. John tells us he has not written everything concerning Christ, at least with regard to his miracles (Jn 30:30; 21:35). The apostles preached before they wrote (cf. 1 Cor 15:1); they preached more than they wrote, and their letters speak of certain of their actions that are not recorded in writing. St. Paul gave this advice to the Thessalonians: “So then, brethren, stand firm and hold to the traditions which you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by letter” (2 Thess 2:15); he congratulated the Corinthians because they “maintain the traditions even as I have delivered them to you” (1 Cor 11;2); just as without repeating them he reminded the Thessalonians of the instructions he had given them verbally (1 Thess 4:1-2; 2 Thess 2:15); finally he told the Corinthians that he would settle a certain number of points at his next visit (1 Cor 11:4).” The existence of unwritten traditions is therefore a certainty…”
However, as I noted above, the only “unwritten apostolic traditions” that exist, from the time of the earliest church, are the items listed above.
Catholics are wont to trumpet the fact that their church has “tradition,” but the paucity of actual extra-Scriptural traditions means that any other “unwritten traditions” from the Apostles were either unimportant enough to be forgotten, or written down as Scripture.
David King, in his work “Holy Scripture: A Biblical Defense of the Reformation Principle of Sola Scriptura,” explains this very well:
“Roman apologists use [these texts mentioning tradition, including 1 Thess 4:1-2; 2 Thess 2:15] often when objecting to the principle of sola Scriptura. What they attempt to prove is that if we hold only to those traditions delivered in Scripture, then we are not receiving God’s full or complete revelation, leaving the impression that the Roman communion has access to special revelation not contained in holy Scripture. So then, failure to hold to the traditions passed down orally in the Church is disobedience to the complete revelation of God. However, as has been repeatedly shown, the problem is that they cannot even identify what these orally ‘preserved’ traditions are. (pg 119)
So now, for those Protestants concerned that you might be missing out on “the fullness of the faith,” you can know that many of the “infallible [T]raditions” are accretions that were added in post-apostolic times.
The first thing to say is that Ash Wednesday and Lent are definitely in the “non-essentials” category. Adiaphora, or things indifferent, are things which are neither morally commanded nor morally prohibited. There may be good things about them or bad things about them, and they may be pastorally wise or not-so-wise, but they are not absolutely sinful or righteous. I know that’s an uncomfortable category, but it is the mark of maturity be able to judge and apply such cases.
Secondly, the practice of the imposition of ashes in the manner of today’s Ash Wednesday celebrations dates back to 10th cent. Spain. It was quite localized at first, and it slowly caught on across Europe. This is still certainly “old” by today’s standards, but it is not actually ancient. Ash Wednesday is certainly not a tradition from “the early church,” and it is most definitely not apostolic. This is not a disqualification, but we should still be honest about it. Ash Wednesday is a liturgical development. If we retain it, we should do so based on its merits, not its antiquity. The history is also relevant because, at the time of the Reformation, Ash Wednesday would not have been particularly old at all, and most of the Reformers discontinued it. The Book of Common Prayer doesn’t even have an “Ash Wednesday” liturgy. What is used is the generic penitential office. I know that the Reformed Episcopalians allow the imposition of ashes “at the discretion of the minister,” and its celebration has varied among them according to time and location. It would be interesting to know the prevalence of the practice throughout Anglican history. The continental Reformed and the Lutherans, however, did not practice Ash Wednesday as a part of their liturgical tradition at all.