In this biweekly feature, we seek to encourage the local church by remembering the times when things were much, much worse.
Like it or not, we have the traditional Lenten fast to thank for many of the things we take for granted. If it weren’t for Lent, for instance, we probably never would have learned how delicious square fish patties were, since McDonald’s Filet-O-Fish sandwiches were invented specifically because Catholic customers would stop buying burgers during Lent. (The other, less-successful attempt to bring those customers back had been the “Hula Burger,” which was a slice of grilled pineapple on a bun with some of that plasticky fake cheese. You just can’t make this stuff up.)
But if the delicate bouquet of flavors known as the Hula Burger is the second-greatest thing to happen as a result of the Lenten fast, surely the greatest is the Swiss Reformation. And just like Swiss cheese and Swiss Miss Cocoa, the Swiss Reformation was every bit as delicious as it sounds, mainly thanks to the involvement of massive amounts of processed meat. (In that sense, it was no different, and no less world-changing, than Lunchables—except it probably didn’t contribute to an entire generation of kids getting diabetes.)
The Swiss Reformation kicked off in 1522 with a scandal referred to as “The Affair of the Sausages” (which, in all likelihood, is also the name of Adam Sandler’s next screenplay). Here’s what happened: Ulrich Zwingli—who was the forerunner of John Calvin, but isn’t anywhere near as well-remembered because no one knows how to pronounce “Ulrich Zwingli”—was publishing a collection of his sermons on the epistles of St. Paul, and his printer, Christoph Froschauer, had his staff working overtime to get the pages out. When they finished, the men were hungry, so Froschauer invited them, along with Zwingli and various other churchmen, to feast upon some sausages, because those were dark times and the Filet-O-Fish hadn’t been invented yet.
This may not seem like a big deal—people print books and then eat sausages all the time, right? (That’s what they do at Booktoberfest, which is a holiday I just now made up but that should totally be a real thing).
Except, oh wait, it was Lent.
Modern readers may think of “Lent” as a time when they try and fail to quit smoking every year, or a time when their Catholic friends accidentally eat meat on Friday but then make sure to feel really bad about it, or a time when every terrible restaurant features an all-you-can-eat seafood buffet. In the 16th century, though, Lent was a season when meat was verboten for all 40 days of its duration—not just by church edict, but by law.
So, of course, Froschauer’s sausage stunt managed to get him arrested.
Zwingli himself had abstained, but he nonetheless seized the opportunity to come to his printer’s defense. In a sermon that he absolutely should have called “If Eating Sausages Is Wrong, Then I Don’t Want to Be Right,” but he instead called “Regarding the Choice and Freedom of Foods,” Zwingli laid out the case that fasting—since it was not commanded by Scripture—was a matter of personal conscience, not a law of God to be enforced. (Luckily for Zwingli, the Didache never made it into the canon.) Zwingli told his congregation:
To sum up briefly: 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 would be a Christian at heart, act in this way.
That was it, then—the Reformation had begun. Germany had had its 95 theses, and now Switzerland had had its all-you-can-eat sausage buffet. And while the latter may seem more undignified, in some sense, Zwingli’s criticism of the Lenten fast wasn’t all that different from Luther’s complaint against the selling of indulgences. Elsewhere in the sermon, Zwingli preached:
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 plowing in the field. You say, ‘but the idlers will eat meat without needing to.’ The answer is that these very same people fill themselves with even richer foods, which enflame them even more than the highly-seasoned, highly-spiced meats.
In other words, one of Zwingli’s chief concerns was the class politics of the whole thing—that the fast was being imposed by “persons of leisure,” who often found loopholes to let themselves get away with eating rich foods (even during Lent), on the working class, who needed real sustenance just to get through their days. That hypocrisy wasn’t terribly far removed from the sort of pharisaical rulemaking Jesus had spoken out against, which privileged performative piety over mercy. Jesus puts it pretty clearly in Matthew 6:16:
When you fast, do not look somber as the hypocrites do, for they disfigure their faces to show others they are fasting. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, so that it will not be obvious to others that you are fasting, but only to your Father, who is unseen; and your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.
I myself tend to think there’s great value in the witness of a church-wide fast—but Jesus made it clear that fasting, if it doesn’t come from a place of inward piety, is less than worthless. By standing against a legally enforced fast, Zwingli freed Christians to fast out of a love for God and a desire for holiness. He didn’t just free us from a fast—he freed us to fast.
That said, he didn’t come up with the Hula Burger. So, y’know—let’s not get too excited about the guy.