More sausages anyone?
This week has seen the start of the season of Lent – that period in the lead up to Easter in which many Christians have traditionally fasted from foods as a sign of penitence and to enable prayerful reflection.
But we live in the world of social media. My facebook page was atwitter with declarations from evangelical friends declaring what they were going to give up for Lent – chocolate, coffee, even Facebook itself.
This was a bit strange to me. I’ve grown up in the evangelical world, and Lent has never been a practice that I’ve followed. It has never been something advocated in the churches I’ve been in. It all felt a bit Catholic to me – it smacked of religious practices that tend to (in my mind) distract from the gospel of grace.
Actually, there’s a history with Protestants and Lent. The Swiss Reformation was started in 1522 when the leading pastor Ulrich Zwingli spoke publically in favour of eating sausage during Lent, when people were supposed to be fasting, or at least not eating rich things like sausages to be sure.
Prior to this, Zwingli had been at table during the consumption of some sausages at the house of the local printer, Christoph Froschauer. Froschauer had given his exhausted workers the processed meatstuff, and had been arrested for his trouble!
Zwingli sprang into his pulpit and delivered a sermon entitled ‘Regarding the Choice and the Freedom of Foods’ in which he declared that ‘Christians are free to fast or not to fast because the Bible does not prohibit the eating of meat during Lent’. Lent, he argued, was a human institution, not a command of God in the Bible. Therefore, it must not be imposed on Christians by any church, though there is in principle nothing wrong with observing it.
Zwingli had seen plenty of hypocritical Lenten observance. But he wasn’t condemning Lent outright – just insisting on Christian freedom.
This is in keeping with the principles by which Cranmer framed his prayer book in England – his attitude to ceremonies was that not all human institutions need to be abolished, but that the corrupt uses of them certainly ought to be repudiated. He included Lenten collects in his prayer books, and followed a pretty much traditional pattern for the church year. However, he said next to nothing about fasting.
Calvin on the other hand was quite vehement that Lent was in general a bad thing, writing in the Institutes:
Then this superstitious observance of Lent had everywhere prevailed: for both the vulgar imagined that they thereby perform some excellent service to God, and pastors commended it as a holy imitation of Christ; though it is plain that Christ did not fast to set an example to others, but, by thus commencing the preaching of the gospel, meant to prove that his doctrine was not of men, but had come from heaven.
Later on in the sixteenth century, Puritan authors become more insistent that the observation of Lent was a sure sign of papist superstition. But they had lost the genius of Zwingli’s original insight: that Christian freedom allows the observance of human institution but does not allow it to be commanded. The legalism of observance became the legalism of non-observance.
And that’s an important lesson for today. Have Lent, or, don’t have Lent. Eat sausages, or not. Give up Facebook, or not. Whatever: if I insist on it, or forbid it, I am adding to the gospel of Jesus Christ.
But there’s one small but vital caveat: that secrecy ought to safeguard sincerity. Jesus was pretty clear about this in the Sermon on the Mount: don’t fast as the pagans do, for maximum religious effect. Fast on the quiet, without bragging about it, or posting a status update to let us know, so we can all figure out how spiritual you are.
For mine, I am a sausage eater from way back, and no less spiritual for it. But if there are those who are giving up their sausages for Lent so as to maximise the spiritual impact of the season as they hear once more about the death of Jesus on the cross and his rising to new life: good for them! Just: could you keep it quiet?
Feature photo: Christopher Craig