It’s nearly Ash Wednesday, the traditional commencement of the Christian season of Lent, a time of fasting and repentance in readiness for Easter. I’m occasionally asked why not all Protestants observe Lenten fasts and I explain it’s basically about freedom from legalism. But it’s also about sausages.
Yep, a lot of Protestants don’t observe Lent because of the humble wiener.
Way back in the sixteenth century, a dissident group of Swiss Christians were putting together a new translation of the Epistles of St Paul. The edition was being published by a very prominent citizen of Zurich, the printer, Christoph Froschauer. Printing was still a relatively new trade, and wildly popular, so Froschauer had become a wealthy businessman, prestigious and influential. He was also a Protestant, having been caught up in the liberation and excitement of the Reformation that had begun to sweep through Germany and was creeping into eastern Switzerland.
Froschauer’s priest, the forceful and charismatic Ulrich Zwingli had brought the teachings of Martin Luther to Zurich, and he had seized upon the need to publish the New Testament in the vernacular, as well as distributing tracts and sermons to the citizens of the city. The priest and the printer became a formidable duo.
Anyway, in the spring of 1522, as the first copies of the new edition of Paul’s letters rolled off the printing presses, Zwingli and Froschauer were in the mood to celebrate. Together with his exhausted staff and his apprentices, and in the presence of a number of church clerics, Christoph Froschauer had his table loaded with beer and sausages (and presumably cheese and potato and sauerkraut) and threw a party.
…and this part is going to be hard to fully understand…
…eating sausages during the season of Lent was against the law.
Not just frowned upon, illegal! And Froschauer and Zwingli knew it. That feast was an incendiary act. They had just published Paul’s epistles, for goodness sake! So they knew Paul’s teachings against the imposition of ritual fasts and festivals. They knew his words from Galatians 4:
But now that you have come to know God, or rather to be known by God, how can you turn back again to the weak and worthless elementary principles of the world, whose slaves you want to be once more? You observe days and months and seasons and years! I am afraid I may have labored over you in vain (7-11, emphasis mine).
And his even more pointed advice to the Colossians:
Therefore, let no one pass judgment on you in questions of food and drink, or with regard to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath. These are a shadow of the things to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Let no one disqualify you, insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions, puffed up without reason by his sensuous mind… If with Christ you died to the elemental spirits of the world, why, as if you were still alive in the world, do you submit to regulations — “Do not handle, Do not taste, Do not touch” (referring to things that all perish as they are used) — according to human precepts and teachings? These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-made religion and asceticism and severity to the body, but they are of no value in stopping the indulgence of the flesh (Col. 2: 16-18, 20-23).
Having just rolled those pages through his press, Froschauer was in no mood to kowtow to the Roman Catholic Church authorities. They had turned the Christian faith into a repressive system of social control. If you’ve read Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale, or seen the Hulu series, you’ll know how vile and soul-crushing toxic religion can be. Froschauer’s sausage dinner, or wurst abendessen, was a big “middle finger” to those very authorities. It was an intentionally provocative act, designed to show the city of Zurich that he wasn’t only prepared to print the words of Paul, he was going to follow them.
His partner in this act of defiance, Father Ulrich Zwingli, immediately prepared a sermon entitled On the Choice and Freedom of Foods and soon after, he climbed into the high pulpit at his church, the Grossmünster and unloaded both barrels.
There is no such thing as Lent in Scripture, Zwingli announced. The draconian rules imposed on you by the authoritarian clerics have no biblical support. If you think you can earn the church’s favor, and by extension God’s favor, by observing these rules, think again. You have been saved by grace, not by somehow achieving some required level of righteousness.
Or as Zwingli might have put it, you can take your Lenten fast and shove it.
It’s hard for us today to fully appreciate the stifling religiosity under which men like Froschauer and Zwingli were living, and the enormous sense of liberation they felt when they realized Scripture freed them from all this dreadful rule-keeping and religious anxiety.
I spent a bit of time with Russian Protestants in Moscow some years ago and heard them speak of their revulsion for Great Lent, Clean Monday, Ash Wednesday, Lazarus Saturday, etc etc. They felt they had been set free from the slavish observance of these feasts and from the veneration of saints and the use of icons. When I asked them whether, in order to share their perspective with their Orthodox friends and relatives, they could still engage with these feasts and practices, showing that their salvation is assured in Christ, not via legalism, the answer was a big fat, NO.
When you’ve suffered under legalistic religion, you want no part of it again. Ever. It’s revolting.
There are a number of hallmarks of a bad religion. They include being chiefly concerned with things to avoid; measuring quantities (of observance etc.); locating our identity in our behavior; constricting life; simulating holiness; promoting suspicion; suppressing thought; isolating dissenters.
These are the very things Christoph Froschauer was done with when he dished up those bangers. No more bad religion for him, even if it meant risking arrest.
I’ve just watched The Handmaid’s Tale on Hulu and I’ve gotta tell you, it isn’t for the faint of heart. It is set in a near future when fertility rates have inexplicably plummeted, and a cruel and misogynistic religious state has been established. Fertile women (or handmaids) are used like cattle for breeding purposes, their dreadful treatment being veiled by grand-sounding religious jargon. The penalty for disobedience is torture and death.
Like serving sausages during Lent in 1522.
Today, Lent holds no such revulsion for Protestants who’ve never suffered under religious legalism. For many younger Protestants, Lent can be a season for bearing the burden of one’s sin in readiness for a fresh experience of God’s grace in Christ on Resurrection Sunday. The fasting element is designed to foster that sense of carrying a nagging need or hunger. Every pang of desire for whatever you’ve given up is meant to be experienced as a call to prayer and repentance. It’s a beautiful tradition when truly practised with the devotion of the penitent. And it makes the freedom and joy of Easter Sunday so much more enjoyable (especially if you gave up chocolate for Lent!).
I see no problem with Protestants reaching back into church history and pulling out ancient observances like Lent or Advent or traditional practices like the Stations of the Cross. I hear the concerns some people have about us adding to Scripture. But it’s possible to engage in traditional practices in a way that enhances our faith without diverting us from the freedom we have in Christ. While I have found the observance of Lent very enriching in the past, I’m not practising it this year. I think one of the ways to find it spiritually profitable is to avoid it becoming a routine, or worse, a slavishly observed ritual.
As Paul wrote to the Galatians, “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery” (5:1).