This Sunday is the perhaps the peak of “cultural Catholicism” in 2016. For one thing, it will be the most widely observed Saint’s Day in Australia and the West – St. Valentine’s Day. It’s amusing how many people who wouldn’t have a clue when the ancient feast days of the great apostles fall in the liturgical church calendar will get in on the act of celebrating a day commemorating the martyrdom of an obscure Italian bishop. But then Valentinius has an advantage over Peter, Paul and John in the 21st century, since medieval Catholicism did him the favour of venerating him as the patron saint of the part of life that enjoys perhaps even more idealisation today than ever before: romantic love.
Now of course in 2016, Hallmark and the advertising industry have a lot more clout in shaping how you’re supposed to think about this day and celebrate it than the Vatican does. But nevertheless, I simply want to point out the anomaly of this day – the one time a year that the staunch atheist and decidedly unceremonial “low church” Christians embrace some vestigial martyrology now unrecognisable beneath the garb of cultural commercialism and modern notions of romantic love.
On the other hand, it’s the first weekend of the season of Lent – observed by Catholics worldwide in the lead-up to Easter and present in the traditions of certain Protestant churches that have retained the Catholic liturgical calendar and some of its ceremonial practices. Evangelical Christians, particularly those of the non-liturgical, less-ritualistic “low church” variety have often viewed Lent as an extra-biblical (or even unbiblical) season and eschewed the fasting and other observances that go along with this period. But as Christians of this variety grow increasingly open to considering the value of practices and traditions from outside their own denominational background or “camp” – experimenting with Lent appears more common amongst evangelicals than in the past.
But as the first Sunday of Lent draws near, I’m more inclined to enjoy some meat instead of fasting and commemorate “Vale Lent Time” than Valentine’s. This is not just an effort to be snarky towards traditions with Catholic trappings that I dislike. My anti-fasting commemorates one of the most important events in the Protestant Reformation: one which was inseparably linked to questions of Lenten observance.
While many Christians will be aware of the event nearly 500 years ago that is often spoken of as the flashpoint that started the Reformation – Luther’s nailing of his 95 theses to the Wittenberg Door – fewer are aware of the event that escalated tensions between the Catholic church and those who would become the Reformers of Switzerland. In 1522, a few years after Luther’s infamous challenge to Catholic practice, the “Affair of Sausages” caused a storm in Zurich, which led to a chain of events that were pivotal to the Swiss Reformation.
On the first Sunday of Lent, Christoph Froschauer, a Swiss printer, violated the fast from meat that was officially sanctioned by the Church for the period leading up to Easter, by serving his employees and friends sausages for supper. He was subsequently arrested for this act of defiance against the authority of the church’s teachings concerning Lent.
Ulrich Zwingli, the premiere Swiss Reformer was present that evening (as were many of the figures who would later play a significant role in the Swiss Reformation) and defended the breaking of Lenten rules in his subsequent church sermons by appealing to the Scriptures and noting the lack of a biblical warrant for enforcing fasting during this period and the New Testament’s emphasis instead on freedom in the gospel. What many of us take for granted nearly 500 years later was revolutionary preaching in 1522 in the face of the often unbiblical, artificially constructed religious regulations of the Roman ecclesiastical hierarchy. Evangelical freedom to practice one’s faith according to the clear teaching of Scripture and to follow one’s conscience when the Bible was silent was one of the important emphases recovered during the Reformation and made an enormous difference in the daily lives of Christians and the power of church officials.
Zwingli essentially made Lent a matter of conscience or preference. If you wanted to fast you were free to do so. If you didn’t desire to abstain from certain foods in the lead up to Easter, men with ecclesiastical titles did not have the power to compel you to forego the almost absolute freedom to partake of any kind of food granted by the New Testament.
So while many of my Christian brothers and sisters will use their freedom in the gospel to observe some form of Lenten fasting or abstaining, or to enjoy the commercial/cultural/Catholic celebration of romantic love with their significant other, I’ll be endeavouring to celebrate the freedom itself.
There is nothing wrong with fasting (as long as it’s practiced in accordance with Christ’s instructions) or spiritual preparation for reflection on the deeper truths of the gospel. If you find giving something up in the lead up to Easter to be helpful to you spiritual life – nothing and no one (other than the Bible or Jesus Himself) should restrict your freedom to abstain. If you find celebrating February 14th with roses, candlelight dinners and love poems nourishes intimacy within your relationship – again only Scripture should curb the way you express your participation in this cultural celebration of romance.
But as for me, I look forward to celebrating Sunday with a sausage or a steak as I rejoice in the liberty God gave me from man-made rules through the gospel of Christ – which was revealed in the New Testament and recovered in the Reformation.