Pretzels are a popular snack, especially for anyone who is counting calories. They come in different sizes and shapes — sticks and nuggets, thick and thin, as well as the customary twisted loose knot configuration. In many European countries, pretzels are considered a food proper to Lent.
How can this be, since we think of Lent as a time of fasting and prayer? Consider the pretzel’s history.
The pretzel can be traced back to the ancient Romans. Its name comes from the Latin word, pretiola, meaning “a small reward.” It is said that pretzels were first made by monks in southern Europe and given as a reward to children who learned their prayers properly. The Germans coined the term brezel (or prezel, the name by which we know it today — pretzel).
Pretzels are traditionally made from three ingredients: a mixture of flour, water and salt. Since the early Christians were very strict in observing the lenten fast set by Pope Saint Gregory the Great in the sixth century, meat and “all things that came from the flesh” — cheese, cream, milk, butter, and eggs — were forbidden food. Pretzels, then, were a natural replacement for regular bread that called for dairy products.
In those times, people crossed their arms over their chests when they prayed. Hence, these early Christians twisted the unleavened dough into a loose knot shape that resembled crossed arms. This was to remind them that Lent is a time of prayer and devotion.
During Lent this year, let us resurrect this ancient tradition and serve pretzels — not as snack food — but with the main meal, instead of bread. Let the ingredients remind us of who we are and Whose we are.
Flour and water are the basic ingredients used to make pretzels. These are the same ingredients that make up the unleavened Bread of Life (John 6:48) of which we partake at the eucharist. Jesus, our Saviour, is our “gift of finest wheat,” our “life-giving water” (Jn 4:14). These ingredients are the sign of God’s life in us.
Salt is sprinkled on pretzels as an additive used to season the food and give it zest. It reminds us that “we are the salt of the earth” (Mt 5:13), the sprinkling of people called to be models of excellence, by witnessing to and zealously proclaiming the kingdom of God in our midst. In doing so, we will give savour to the rest of humankind who are in need of a Saviour.
We are the yeast called to modify and permeate and eventually change those in our midst.
We are the leaven for the world.
Ponder these thoughts during Lent. And pass the pretzels!
Martino Land is a freelance writer from North Palm Beach, Florida.