Coming from a Baptist background, Lent has always been optional. It wasn’t always that way …
It was a Friday in March of 1522, Lent was well underway and the expectation was that nobody would eat meat. A printer in the city of Zurich, Switzerland by the name of Christopher Froschauer was thrilled to see that he and his workers had managed to complete a successful printing of the The Epistles of Saint Paul. He opted to celebrate by serving them sausages. He made the mistake of offering them to a few dignitaries and priests. Soon there was a public outcry and he was arrested.
Though Ulrich Zwingli hadn’t eaten any of the sausages himself, he was quick to come to Cristopher’s defense. He even preached a sermon: Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods – through which he argued that fasting should be voluntary, not mandatory.
Little did they know that in much the same way as Martin Luther had sparked a reformation through his thesis, this act of breaking a mandatory fast likewise sparked the Swiss Reformation.
Zwingli believed that Lent was subject to individual rule, and wasn’t a disciple that the church could require of everyone. By adhering to other Reformation ideas – Sola Scriptura, he pointed out that there weren’t any verses governing the practice or tradition of Lent in scripture. He also argued for Christian liberty. So Lent became optional.
Over time, churches continued to split and form new ones – the question of Lent would invariably arise. For those of us whose faith tradition is a descendant of that of the reformers and are Protestants, Lent is almost a foreign concept. I’m not sure if the Reformers would be celebrating to know that their actions are the reason why we have given up this season of fasting and service and prayer. I think they still would want us to maintain a sense of spirituality, just by our choice – they might not have wanted us to use their actions to erase Lent from the calendar altogether. It seems though, that’s what we’ve done. In a church famous for pot-lucks and high obesity rates, we’ve give into a tendency to overindulge.
I’m not sure of the exact occasion, but one year our church did challenge the youth group to complete the 30 Hour Famine, a fast that doubled as a fund-raiser sponsored by WorldVision to help children living in poverty who far too often go hungry. That is the extent of my experience with church-approved fasting.
If want to be technical about it, Jesus might have said “when you fast …” but the Bible never directly tells when to fast or how to fast, so we can find any excuse not to fast we want. While we’re at it, we can probably cross Easter and Christmas off of the calendar as well because the Bible says nothing about some of the traditions we celebrate so they must be unbiblical. We can get out of a lot of religious obligations that way. But that doesn’t explain why we still cross off a lot of ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ on our to-do list; care for the poor, feed the hungry, provide clothing, provide shelter, visit the ill, visit the imprisoned, etc. We ignore even more religious obligations than we should. Which is why Lent is almost a three-for-one deal. It sets aside a ‘when’ to fast, a ‘when’ to give and serve, and a ‘when’ to pray. Sure, it’s not in the Bible – but some things that aren’t in the Bible aren’t worth erasing.
In a way, we’re the continuation of the story of an unwritten gospel, and how we live out our lives reflect what’s in our hearts. Our ancient brothers and sisters continued the story by creating Lent as a season they could focus on the gospel message, they celebrated it together for over a thousand years. Many still celebrate it today after all this time. Those of us who stand on liberty should remember that we’re also free to fast and pray and serve and give, these things aren’t exactly optional – so why not do all of that together with our spiritual siblings even if it’s only for one day of Lent?
Credit goes to: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Affair_of_the_Sausages – I’m not so sure the name really tells the story, but it’s a fascinating look at a bit of history even I didn’t know.