One of the more amusing events in the otherwise austere Swiss Reformation was the Supper of the Sausage. In 1522, on the First Sunday in Lent, Christoph Froschauer solemnly sat down with twelve companions, cut up a sausage and passed it around to his friends, and they ate. The injunction not to eat meat in Lent, this parody proclaimed, is a law of man not of God.
According to my reading of the table at the front of the Book of Common Prayer (Vigils, Fasts and Days of Abstinence), there are 108 fast days this year out of 366, comprising (roughly) the forty days of Lent – and therefore not including the Sundays (or that would make 46) something the poor Swiss hadn’t quite worked out – plus every Friday (except Christmas Day), Rogation and Ember days, and the days before certain major feasts.
I occasionally follow the rubric before the sermon, ‘Then shall the Curate declare unto the people what Holy-days, or Fasting-days, are in the week following to be observed’ in order to share that sense of the discipline of the Christian calendar, and to comply with Canon B7.
Most people suppose that this regime of abstinence must be a relic of medieval formalism, and therefore can be ignored. Not so. It first appears in the 1662 Prayer Book, which in Reformation terms is strikingly late. Furthermore, Canon B6 maintains a discipline of fasting more thorough than that of the Roman Catholic Church – tell that to your Protestant do-gooders.
I am not blaming others; I am as bad as any. Among the vigils I take Holy Saturday and Christmas Eve very seriously; I keep Ash Wednesday and Good Friday rigorously, but I am not alone in having lost a clear notion of the practice of fasting and abstinence, as expressed by the other 104 days.
Of course I can try harder, but it is not just individual effort (that would be a gospel of good works). There is a shared understanding that we have lost and need to regain. It is a social as well as an individual discipline.
Final thought: is it coincidence that we have forgotten how to practice abstinence at the same time as obesity is on the increase?