Lent is a period of penitential preparation for Easter that is linked with the Gospel account of the temptations of Jesus. It runs (in Western churches) for six and a half weeks and includes 40 days of fasting (Sundays are excluded). The English word is derived from the lengthening of days as winter heads towards spring.
In the early church this period was observed primarily by those preparing to be baptised on Easter Sunday and those who had been excluded from communion and were demonstrating their public penitence by wearing sackcloth and being sprinkled with ashes.
However, by the ninth century, Lent had become a period of fasting, contrition and reflection for all, and ashes (sometimes the burnt remains of Palm Sunday crosses distributed the previous year) were placed symbolically on people’s heads on the day that became known as Ash Wednesday. Fasting practices have varied during the centuries and in different traditions, with the prohibition on eating meat remaining prominent.
Some church buildings are deliberately made plainer during this period, with all flowers and decorations removed. Some Christians participate in Lent study groups, often ecumenically. But some aspects of fasting from foodstuffs remain.
In more recent years, Lent has been associated with the challenge to refrain from certain practices that have become addictive (including drinking coffee, social media and watching television), or to embrace simpler living, or to take action against injustice, or to explore acts of generosity. See, for example, https://40acts.org.uk/
Anabaptists and Lent
There are a number of reasons why Anabaptists may be reluctant to participate in a period that is observed by Christians in many other traditions.
First, although this practice may have originated very early in church history, it was formalised at the Council of Nicaea in 325, presided over by the emperor Constantine, with whom is associated the development over the following years of the Christendom system to which Anabaptist have strongly objected.
Second, although links can be made with the Gospel account of the temptations of Jesus at the end of a period of fasting in the wilderness, there is no biblical basis for this period or its restrictions. Some Anabaptists have embraced this period and its practices, alongside other aspects of the Christian calendar; others have rejected it as a later tradition that is unnecessary and even unhelpful.
Third, an incident of ‘breaking the Lenten fast’ in March 1522 (see below) is associated with the reform movement in Zurich turning in a more radical direction, leading soon afterwards to the emergence of the Swiss Anabaptist movement.
However, the Anabaptist prayer book, Take our Moments and our Days, has a section on Lent and includes two short prayers that resonate with the spirit of Lent and invite us to acknowledge our own weaknesses and the injustice and hunger that many experience:
God our only hope,
Feed us from your mouth, that we may see the poor,
listen to the lonely, and nourish our hungry neighbours
in the strength of your Anointed.
your body is broken in the rocky soil of human fear.
Lovingly tend and till us, that we may, at this day’s dying,
entrust ourselves into the hands of the merciful One.
The Affair of the Sausages
In the late afternoon of Sunday 9 March, 1522 (the first Sunday in Lent), a number of men met in the Zurich printing workshop of Christoph Froschauer: Hans Oggenfuss, a tailor, Laurenz Hochrütiner, a weaver, Niklaus Hottinger, a shoemaker, Heinrich Äberli, a baker, and two priests, Leo Jud and Ulrich Zwingli. They were all advocates and supporters of the reform movement that unsettling the city and were eager to push for more radical changes. Challenging the rules of the Lenten fast was intended to provoke the civic and ecclesiastical authorities to move further and faster.
All except Zwingli broke the fast by eating smoked sausages and publicising this act of disobedience. Äberli had, in fact, already taken action four days earlier on Ash Wednesday, eating a roast dinner contrary to the ban on meat in Lent.
The following Sunday, Zwingli preached a sermon, justifying the eating of the sausages, ‘On Food Choice and Freedom’, arguing that the Bible contained no dietary rules so breaking the Lenten fast was not sinful. Those who wanted to observe Lent were welcome to do so, but others should be free to eat meat.
Three weeks later, Froschauer printed and distributed this sermon, causing uproar in Zurich and stimulating passionate debate about the extent of reform needed in the city.
Although the early Swiss Anabaptists were not involved in this affair, it formed part of the context in which they started to make demands for faster and more throughgoing reform. Despite his participation in the affair of the sausages and his advocacy of reform, Zwingli began to pull back at this point, deferring to the civic authorities, fearful lest the gains he had made might be lost by precipitate actions. The Anabaptists became frustrated with his delaying tactics, urged him to take action regardless of the consequences and eventually broke away from him to pursue more radical reform, including believers’ baptism.
Isaiah 58:5-9: Is this the kind of fast I have chosen, only a day for people to humble themselves? Is it only for bowing one’s head like a reed and for lying in sackcloth and ashes? Is that what you call a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord? ‘Is not this the kind of fasting I have chosen: to loose the chains of injustice and untie the cords of the yoke, to set the oppressed free and break every yoke? Is it not to share your food with the hungry and to provide the poor wanderer with shelter—when you see the naked, to clothe them, and not to turn away from your own flesh and blood? Then your light will break forth like the dawn, and your healing will quickly appear; then your righteousness will go before you, and the glory of the Lord will be your rear guard. Then you will call, and the Lord will answer; you will cry for help, and he will say: Here am I.’
Luke 4:1-13: Jesus, full of the Holy Spirit, left the Jordan and was led by the Spirit into the wilderness, where for forty days he was tempted[a] by the devil. He ate nothing during those days, and at the end of them he was hungry. The devil said to him, ‘If you are the Son of God, tell this stone to become bread.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Man shall not live on bread alone.”’ The devil led him up to a high place and showed him in an instant all the kingdoms of the world. And he said to him, ‘I will give you all their authority and splendour; it has been given to me, and I can give it to anyone I want to. If you worship me, it will all be yours.’ Jesus answered, ‘It is written: “Worship the Lord your God and serve him only.”’ The devil led him to Jerusalem and had him stand on the highest point of the temple. ‘If you are the Son of God,’ he said, ‘throw yourself down from here. For it is written: “He will command his angels concerning you to guard you carefully; they will lift you up in their hands, so that you will not strike your foot against a stone.”’ Jesus answered, ‘It is said: “Do not put the Lord your God to the test.”’ When the devil had finished all this tempting, he left him until an opportune time.