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In Zürich, March 1522, the Bavarian printer Christoph Froschauer gathered with twelve friends for a meal. The canon of Grossmünster Cathedral was there, along with Huldrych Zwingli, who would later become famous for founding the Swiss Reformed Church. The friends sat down to eat sausages prepared by Froschauer’s wife, Elsie. This was not just any meal: This was a flagrant violation of church law. And as Yale historian Bruce Gordon notes in his book Zwingli: God’s Armed Prophet, it was the second such episode of that day. For breakfast, “a small group had assembled at the house of Hans Kloter to eat soup with wine, bread, and eggs.” That breakfast turned into a moveable feast that ended up at Froschauer’s house. 

This meal occurred during the forty days of the Lenten fast, a season of penitential self-denial, in imitation of Christ’s forty days in the wilderness. Catholic canon law required abstinence from meat during Lent. With their hearty breakfast and sausage luncheon, this group of mostly lay Christians was asserting their Christian liberty, specifically their freedom to be governed first by Scripture (sola Scriptura), in which they found no mandate for Lent. The act of civil and religious disobedience got Froschauer et alia arrested, and stimulated Zwingli, who had attended the meals but not broken the fast, to deliver a notable sermon in defense of Christian liberty, which he expanded and published in April (“Concerning Choice and Liberty Respecting Food”). This sermon articulated the same principle that Luther had begun defending in March and April of 1521, most famously in his speech at the Diet of Worms, that the authority of the Church is limited by Scripture. If Lent is not taught in Scripture or necessarily implied, the Church may not impose it upon Christians as a matter of obligation.

Since 1522, most Reformed Christians have sympathized with the Zürich rebellion; Reformed theology traditionally has not supported observance of the Lenten season. Reformation fathers such as Jacques LeFevre d’Etaples and John Calvin asserted that the Lenten season was a “superstition” created by the human imagination and imposed on the Church without divine warrant. These Reformers argued that the Lenten season was not observed by the apostles. Whereas we know that the early Church argued heatedly over the date of the observance of Pascha, we know nothing about Quadragesima. Some, such as Irenaeus, observed a one- or two-day fast prior to Pascha. But the forty-day Lenten fast was first instituted at the Council of Nicaea.

The later Reformed tradition defended these theological reasons for not observing an official Lenten season. The Second Helvetic Confession (1536) advocates private, voluntary fasts, but says Lent “ought not nor cannot be imposed upon the faithful.” The Belgic Confession (1561) asserts the unique regulatory authority of Scripture quite forcefully in articles 7 and 32. When the Dutch churches confessed “we reject all human innovations and laws imposed on us, in our worship of God, which bind and force our consciences in any way,” they spoke for all the Reformed churches. One searches the Reformed catechisms and confessions in vain for an exhortation to observe the Lenten season—or, for that matter, any part of the church calendar apart from the so-called “evangelical days” (Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost), of which two occur on the Lord’s Day.

But over the last decade, there has been a surge of interest in Lent among Reformed Christians. It is easy to find contemporary Reformed writers advocating the benefits of Lent. But this makes little sense in the context of Reformed theology. Given the rejection of Lent by the early Reformed theologians and all the Reformed churches, why are Reformed Christians now attracted to the Lenten season?

I suspect that it speaks to other problems among contemporary Reformed Christians. The traditional Reformed vision of the Christian life was even more demanding than Lent and renders a normative Lenten season irrelevant. In the older Reformed literature, there was much discussion on the value of prayer and fasting. In the modern period those aspects of piety have largely been neglected. Karin Maag observes in her book Worshiping with the Reformers that though the Reformed are known for doing away with special days from the church calendar, they actually expanded “the range of communal worship offerings,” including days of prayer and fasting. Christians were called to attend these days during times of special distress (for example, plague, flood, drought, wars).

Maag notes that between 1567 and 1620, Geneva held fifteen special services of prayer and fasting. Days of prayer and fasting became so much a part of Reformed piety that, in 1644, the Westminster Divines (Anglicans, Independents, and Presbyterians) included a section on “Publick Solemn Fasting” in the Directory for the Publick Worship of God. Those public fasts required personal, private preparation.

Reformed Christians have at their disposal great resources to recover a richer and deeper piety of self-denial. In his exposition of the Sermon on the Mount, the English Reformed writer William Perkins devoted fifteen pages to discussing Matthew 5:16, “when you fast,” by defining what a “religious fast” is, when it should be done, how it should be done, the distinction between private and public fasting, the joy of fasting, sincere fasting, and the use of private fasting in preparation for regular Sabbath-day worship. That today’s Reformed Christians are turning to Lent suggests that they have lost track of the Reformed practice of fasting and self-denial and feel a need for something objective and external to ratify outwardly the promises and consequent obligations of the Christian faith.

Reformed Christians have also lost a Reformed understanding of the holy sacraments, which are divinely instituted, objective ratifications of the promises made in the gospel. Unlike Lent, they are not “human innovations.” Perhaps, instead of Lent, Reformed Christians ought to ask their congregations to administer holy communion weekly. Properly administered, there would be a weekly call to self-examination and mortification of sin, the Reformed appropriation and application of the ascetic tradition. Observing the sacraments according to the proper Reformed understanding of them would render an official Lenten season irrelevant.

After all, we confess that, in the Supper, the Holy Spirit feeds the faithful with the “proper and natural body and the proper blood of Christ.” We need not seek transcendence: It has come to us at the Lord’s Table. The Lenten season is yearlong. Properly understood, the Reformed church calendar has fifty-two holy days (the Christian Sabbath) and the regular, ideally weekly, administration of the means of grace. The way forward for the Reformed is to recover our theology, piety, and practice, to use the language of the Westminster Divines.

R. Scott Clark is professor of church history and historical theology at Westminster Seminary California.

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