As my wife and I pulled up to a fast-food restaurant one year during Lent, our daughter quickly noticed a sign advertising vegetarian options. Given that she had decided to join the millions of Christians fasting during Lent, she was all too happy to know that market forces were at work acknowledging this aspect of Christian culture. At that moment her young faith became more than a private commitment. It became a public expression as she identified with a practice that Christians have engaged in for well over a thousand years.
The approach of Lent serves as a reminder to Christians of a common culture that they share. It reminds Christians that, in the language of the Martyrdom of Polycarp, they are members of a “God-fearing and God-loving race.” Of course, the actual practice of Lent varies, being adapted differently by diverse forms of Christianity with elements being added or subtracted given time and place. The Sunday before Lent has been called Transfiguration Sunday, Shrove Sunday, and Forgiveness or Cheesefare Sunday, to name a few. Such diversity attests to the rich local expression in Christianity, setting a precedent for the need to honor local culture in the celebration of a global inheritance.
The historical development of Lent corresponded to the construction of a Christian culture and thus the redemption of cultural life. It formed part of the message that upon entering the faith, the individual entered into an alternative way of existing in the world in which time was understood differently. The patterns of one’s existence now corresponded to a new narrative about the history of the world as one of creation and redemption in and through Jesus Christ. This is the link between the fasting and prayer that catechumens engaged in prior to undergoing baptism, confirmation, and first Eucharist and the incorporation of those practices into a Lenten season as part of the movement toward Easter.
As a cultural practice, then, Lent concerns the ongoing mission of the churches. Sometimes pastors or priests will talk about Lent as part of an individual’s ongoing conversion, because the person enters a prolonged period of heightened spiritual awareness in which acts of repentance and acts of mercy form the preparation for Easter celebration. While this may personalize Lent, the global culture that it communicates relates more to cosmic salvation and the mission to bring all of life under the authority of Christ. It may be that the importance of Lent resides in its reminder of the continuing mission to transform culture by the creation of new cultural forms of life that attest to the arrival of a new race of people.
It is for this reason that I have a strong sympathy for the first act of reform by Ulrich Zwingli in 1522, when he bore witness as priest to the eating of sausages during Lent. It was important to say at that time that the church’s rituals could not be linked in such a direct fashion to the salvation of the soul without putting a weight on the individual that was more than he or she could bear. The yoke of Christ resists such connections, which is why Zwingli referred to these practices as “matters of indifference” with respect to conscience.
Zwingli and his compatriots, however, went too far in their zeal to place as much distance as possible between personal salvation and ritual. The effect was an iconoclasm that destroyed a culture. It would have been better to shift the theological location of these rituals from the salvation of the person to the culture of the church and the way that culture is a manifestation of cosmic redemption. In other words, a shift from soteriology to eschatology.
The nature of the Lenten season in relation to Easter fits well within an eschatological framework since Christians relive a movement from the dust of creation to the deifying nature of resurrection. It is indeed within this cosmic setting that Christians bear witness to the drama of creation, fall, and redemption. Lent is a cultural inheritance that reminds Christians they are part of a great “race” composed of many tribes and tongues. It is also about redeeming cultures by catching them up in a drama that sets the local within a cosmic story.
This may also be a way to resolve the tension over a “matter of indifference” in early Christianity: the eating of food sacrificed to idols. There is a question about how to resolve Paul’s more lax approach to eating food sacrificed to idols and the Book of Revelation’s and the Didache’s more strident interpretation. The difference lies between a pre-Neronian period when the Temple remained and a post-Neronian period in which Christians and Jews were compelled by events to understand just how hostile Rome could be. In the face of such hostility, Christian participation in civic life threatened the integrity of Christian identity. Thus the need to bear witness to the dawn of a new age and new way of living.
Paul’s point that this testimony to Christian identity should be kept out of issues surrounding salvation and firmly planted in the soil of creation harmonizes with the emphasis on the renewal of creation in the Book of Revelation. Christians should not abstain from eating food sacrificed to idols as a means of securing their personal union with Christ, but they should abstain as a matter of bearing witness to the life to come and its renewal of creation. This is a Christian way of affirming a deeply Jewish principle: all food is a gift from God. Since it is God’s gift food should not be used as a weapon either by Christians to destroy the weaker consciences of their fellow believers or by the state to compel Christians to engage in certain cultural activities deemed to be necessary for citizenship.
Just like Lent, the practice of eating or not eating food sacrificed to idols was a way of reminding Christians about their identity as a new people and the continuing mission to bear witness to a cosmic event, the dawning of a new age. It also spoke powerfully to the transformation of Roman civic life, for Christians decided that they were unwilling to pay the cultural price of admission into the global economy at the time. They were happy to transact business and live moral lives as citizens, but not at the expense of their new identity. Receiving the sign of the cross with ash on Ash Wednesday marks Christians as belonging to a people with a cultural identity that honors the local without sacrificing the globalindeed, catholicnature of that identity.