The affair of the sausages

It isn’t well known to many people, but one of the turning points of church history was precipitated by a dispute over sausages.

Now, I like sausages as much as the next person, but I don’t regard them as theologically significant.

But in Zurich in the 1520s, eating a sausage at the wrong time of year turned out to be quite a statement of belief.

How did this come to pass?

For many years the traditional practice of Christians was to fast during the season of Lent, in the lead-up to Easter, as a sign of penitence and to enable prayerful reflection. This involved refraining from meats and eating a simple diet.

This happens today, although people fast from all kinds of things. Every year, my Facebook page is atwitter with Christian friends declaring what they are going to give up for Lent – chocolate, coffee, even Facebook itself.

This is always 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. To me it smacks of the religious practices that tend to (in my mind) distract from the gospel of grace.

That’s because there’s a very significant back-story here.

Let’s return to Zurich in the 1520s.

Ulrich Zwingli, a former military chaplain, had become pastor of the Grossmünster in Zurich in 1519. Zwingli was well known as a scholar and preacher and in particular was known for his attacks on corruption in the church, the veneration of saints, and the power of the church to practice excommunication. He also began to work sequentially through the Bible in his preaching, rather than to simply preach on the lectionary readings of the day.

He became increasingly impressed by Martin Luther’s understanding of the gospel: that a person is justified – that is, declared to be righteous – by the grace of God through faith, and not through doing good works. This meant that no church-invented rules could be binding on a Christian person. The only guide for a Christian was the Bible – the word of God written and working through the Holy Spirit.

Zwingli survived an attack of the plague in 1519, but controversy had not yet arrived. That occurred in 1522 when he preached publicly 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 and some Swiss Fasnachtskiechli (a very delicious pastry dessert) at the house of the local printer, Christoph Froschauer. (Froschauer would later become famous for printing a Zwinglian translation of the Bible into the Swiss variant of German). Froschauer had given his exhausted workers the processed meatstuff, and had been arrested for his trouble!

History has even recorded exactly what kind of sausages these were. They were Swiss hard sausage, smoked, and had been stored for more than a year.

Sounds appetising.

To be fair, this was a staged event to which Froschauer had invited some leading townsfolk. It was a deliberate gesture in defiance of the rules about Lent.

Zwingli sprang into his pulpit and delivered a sermon entitled “Regarding the Choice and the Freedom of Foods” in which he declared:

“If you want to fast, do so; if you do not want to eat meat, don’t eat it; but allow Christians a free choice. If you are a person of leisure, you should fast often and abstain from food that excites you; the worker moderates his desires by hoeing and ploughing in the field … If you would be a Christian at heart, act in this way. If the spirit of your belief teaches you thus, then fast, but grant also your neighbour the privilege of Christian liberty, and fear God greatly, if you have transgressed his laws, nor make what man has invented greater before God than what God himself has commanded.”

Zwingli had seen plenty of hypocritical Lenten observance. But he wasn’t condemning Lent outright – just insisting on Christian freedom.

He picked this principle up from the New Testament itself – from Jesus and from Paul. Both of them were strong critics of formal but empty religious practices, and very aware of the danger that such practices may encourage hypocritical outward practice.

In 1 Corinthians 8-10, Paul explains his response to this. It isn’t to ban all feasts and ceremonies and fasts and whatever else. It is to, a) beware the danger that these sometimes present, and b) to allow freedom to not engage in them.

The moment a man-made ceremony or fast becomes compulsory, and we can’t find anything of it in the Bible, then there’s a problem. Jesus himself only instituted two of these – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. Beyond this – well, it is natural, and sometimes helpful to have a practice like a Lenten fast to prepare yourself spiritually for Easter.

But to make it something that Christians have to do, or you’ll clap them in irons? Preposterous, says Zwingli.

This is in keeping with the principles by which Archbishop Thomas 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.

John 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. Can you engage in a spiritual practice without announcing it to the world? Because God is certainly not impressed by your acts of self-denial. You gain no extra points with him. But if it is helpful to you – go for it!

For mine, I am a sausage eater from way back. 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! It is not a sign of their superior piety, and neither is my indulgence in Swiss pastries.

Michael Jensen is the rector of St Mark’s Anglican Church in Sydney and the author of several books.