Glynn Cardy 26th March 2023
In Pakistan, during the 30 days of Ramadan when Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset, many Christians join them, concurrently fasting for Lent. The Eastern Orthodox and Eastern Catholic tradition called a Black Fast is not dissimilar to Ramadan, with a meal only allowed after sunset, and then restrictions on luxury foods – meats, eggs, sweets, and the like.
Although there is plenty of evidence that Jewish communities, including early Jesus groups, practiced fasting, it was not until the 4th century that it became ‘a thing’. The thing being instituting the practice of abstinence in the 40 days from Ash Wednesday until Maundy Thursday. Abstinence was, in theory, not to be thought of as a great burden to weigh you down, but as a preparatory discipline to aid your prayer.
I imagine several us, maybe first inspired by World Vision’s successful marketing campaign, have tried voluntary fasting; and maybe for longer than 40 hours. I can certainly remember in my distant devout past living only on water for three or more days. Once over the hurdle of a complaining gurgling tummy, I was pleasantly surprised how the desire for food waned and my sensory perception sharpened. Not unlike I suppose some of the detox therapies of today.
And fasting, at its best, and Lent, at its best, are about detoxicating our hearts and souls. Something akin to a holiday or retreat that takes you right out of your usual places, routines, diet, and worries, and deeply rejuvenates you. On returning your problems might not be solved, and your inbox might be full, but somehow the weight on your shoulders feels a little lighter, and the air and sun a little brighter.
Good religion helps this happen. It helps people live healthier more fulfilling lives. Bad religion puts more weight on our shoulders, and tells us this is God’s will.
When a good idea is instituted, there is always a danger that it will become an institution. And institutions, almost invariably over time, can be corrupted, or corrupted in part, by the wealthy and powerful. And so, it was with Lent. People wanted an exemption for special occasions. So, the Church authorities in their mercy and their desire to generate income, put a price on such exemptions (called dispensations). A price that only really the rich could afford.
So even though the Church said: ‘God said ‘Thou shalt not eat a nice succulent sausage in Lent’’, if you were rich enough to slip the Church some money you had a ticket out. Like if you paid God’s representatives enough, God would pretend to look the other way. What? Like you could barter with God. Really? And like God had one set of rules for the rich and one set of rules for everyone else. Yeah, we all believe that!
In the 1500s the issues around fasting were one of the grievances in the powder keg that would explode into the Protestant Reformation. Not that the Swiss Reformation was particularly explosive. Some might say, with more people able to read, and with the advanced technology called the printing press disseminating such radical literature as biblical tracts, with the governed wanting more patriotic participatory styles of governance (even, horror of horrors, in the Church), reformation was inevitable.
Let me tell you about a protest:
The time: the afternoon of March 9, 1522, the first Sunday of Lent.
The crime scene: the Zurich workshop of Christoph and Elise Froschauer. Printers. Of biblical tracts amongst other things. They did all the printing for the Canton of Zurich. They were artisans. Not poor, not rich. But not wanting to pay for a dispensation to eat meat.
The crime: eating a sausage. Two smoked sausages, cut up, and a piece eaten by each of the dissenters.
The dissenters: Along with Christoph and Elise there were Hans a tailor, Laurenz a weaver, Niklaus a shoemaker, and Heinrich a baker. All reforming ‘hot-heads’.
The powers that be, whether in the 16th century or today, likes to denigrate the validity of their opposition’s arguments not by addressing those arguments but by calling them names. Be it ‘hot heads’, ‘rent-a-mob’, ‘communists’, ‘socialists’, or ‘fascists’. Same old, same old.
This historical account is part of a series of swissinfo.ch articles marking 500 years of the Reformation. The origin of the Reformation is generally considered to date back to the publication in Germany of the Martin Luther’s 95 Theses on October 31, 1517.
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Also present with the dissenters, though not partaking of the succulent sausages, were two Catholic priests – Huldrych Zwingli and Leo Jud (Zwingli’s mate).
The sausage eaters meant to get caught. They meant for people to know what they’d done. They knew they would be thrown in prison. They knew they wanted to provoke not just the Church, but the town authorities, and the town’s citizens. And they knew that Zwingli, not being in prison, would have the freedom to articulate their defence from the pulpit of Grossmünster, the monastery church in downtown Zurich, where he was a preacher. And two weeks later he did so.
I smiled when I read the ‘two weeks’ bit. So different from the world of today where a protest event needs to get its press release out, explaining its actions, within two hours! In two weeks you’re forgotten.
Zwingli argued that fasting serves a valuable purpose, especially for ‘disciplining the desires’, but that there is no biblical basis for making fasting legally obligatory for all Christians. Zwingli wrote, “Abstinence from meat and drink is an old custom, which however later by the wickedness of some of the clergy came to be viewed as a command.”
Note you could interpret that sentence as Zwingli calling his bishop wicked. Which the bishop did. One Hugo von Hohenlandenberg. Who reacted in the predictable and ineffectual manner of authoritarian bishops by banning such teaching. Too late Hugo, there is a thing now called a printing press!
Zwingli could be today misunderstood as a libertarian. If there is no biblical basis for making something obligatory, then it is up to the individual to choose. Free choice. And all that and all that.
And it would be a misunderstanding of Zwingli to pigeon-hole him as an anti-authoritarian anarchist, turfing the mighty off their thrones and supplanting them with the humble and meek. He was no Magnificat Mary.
As Reformation historian Daniel Owings notes, “For Zwingli, the gospel was not freedom from the law per se, but freedom from human laws claiming divine authority.”[i] Laws are useful and necessary things. But when religious authorities, without reference to Scripture, justified laws by claiming them to be mandated by God (making law, and obedience of the same, into an idol), well that got Zwingli’s goat.
Which is always the danger for us in the religion business. That we will, by intention or not, dress our opinion up in the guise of ‘God says’, with reference to the Bible or not, and expect to carry the day. There is a long history of people dressing up their opinions with ‘God says’.
Zwingli also reflected on Paul’s thoughts I Corinthians 8 and 10 (on sausages sacrificed to idols), “‘I have the right to do anything,’ you say—but not everything is beneficial. ‘I have the right to do anything’—but not everything is constructive. No one should seek their own good, but the good of others.”
For Zwingli freedom from obligation is only the first step, and the necessary next step is to reflect on whether one’s actions could offend or injure others. The freedom of the Christian, and here Zwingli echoed Luther, was found in Christian love, and not merely liberation from laws and regulations.
We are free not so we can do whatever we want, or whatever we think is most beneficial to us, but so we can do whatever is most compassionate. Scripture compels us to love our neighbours – i.e., to be compassionate to all, even, especially those who are ‘other’, different, vulnerable, ‘Samaritan’ – and compassion being something that will cost us in time, money, and reputation.
Disobeying laws dressed up in religiously authoritative drag by ecclesial institutions does not exempt us from obeying laws, and obeying that which is not legislated, to do good, the most we can, for the wellbeing of others – and so embody the injunction and ethic in the second reading today (Mark 10:35-45) of service to the least.
This issue of freedom, obligation, and compulsion is not just one of the past. During the recent Covid epidemic we were compelled by law to wear masks. To have made mask wearing optional, to have made them a matter of individual choice (like they are at present), would not have averted the public health crisis that was very real overseas and threatened to replicate here. I imagine Zwingli would have been very critical of those who used their Christianity to justify non-compliance.
The law did not compel us to be vaccinated, only strongly encouraged us. Encouragement was the overriding Health Department strategy. But there were also consequences put in place for those who did not vaccinate. Again, I could imagine Zwingli thundering from his pulpit that our faith compels us to do what is beneficial for the most vulnerable, rather than being guided by our personal preference or anti-authoritarian leanings or whatever.
Modern governance, whether of state or church, is very aware of this balance between freedom of choice, obligation, and compulsion, and the cultures and leanings of the populace. What we in New Zealand tolerated, resulting in (comparatively) few deaths, would not have been tolerated in the USA with its strong resistance to thinking of, planning, and acting in the best interests of the common good.
Three weeks after Zwingli preached his justification of the actions of the sausage gang, Christoph and Elise (now out of jail) made copies of the sermon available throughout the city. Zurich erupted. Fights broke out in taverns between Zwingli’s fans and opponents. A rumour circulated that fanatics want to kidnap Zwingli and drag him to Bishop Hugo in Constance to be held to account by his superior. Hugo did send a delegation to find out what was going on. Zwingli sat at the negotiating table as an equal partner and instigator of the reform movement, alongside the local magistrate Mark Reust, whose support Zwingli had gained.
Christoph, however, who was responsible for all the government printing, has to apologise for his indiscretion. But the Affair of the Sausages didn’t do him any harm either, publishing a few years later the first complete Reformation Bible.
One year after the gathering in the printing workshop for a sausage, all fasting is abolished in Zurich. The Canton’s governing body thus not only followed Zwingli’s interpretation of the Bible, but at the same time broke with the tradition of the Catholic Church.
The Swiss Reformation has begun. Vive la saucisse !
[i] Daniel Owings, “Idols, Ideals, and Ideology: The Critique of False Religion in the Sixteenth Century,” PhD diss. University of Chicago.