Father Guy Selvester, who blogs at Shouts in the Piazza, and whose hobby is making and critiquing the coats of arms of various members of the episcopacy, also must be a history or calendar wonk. He has a nice post on the length of Lent.
Whenever Lent begins there is an annual argument. How do we count the forty days of Lent? Some of us were taught that the Sundays don't count. So, I went to Fr. Guy and asked him. This is what he told me.
Apparently, the first thing you need to do is get it straight why there are forty days and when they begin. Well, that seemed stupid to me. There are forty days in Lent because Jesus went into the desert for forty days. And, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, right? Everyone knows that.
Well, the Biblical image of forty days was correct it turns out but I also found out that Lent hasn't always had forty days. At some points in Church history it had sixty or even seventy days. I also found out, much to my surprise that Lent doesn't really begin on Ash Wednesday. What? Well, we commonly begin our Lenten observances on Ash Wednesday. But technically speaking Lent begins on the First Sunday of Lent. That is to say, Ash Wednesday (and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday which follow it) are penitential days preparing for Lent. In the missal they are not referred to as Lenten weekdays. Rather they are simply called the "Thursday after Ash Wednesday, the Friday after Ash Wednesday", etc. Years ago, the penitential part began well before Ash Wednesday. Remember things like Septuagesima Sunday and Octagesima [??] Sunday? On these Sundays the Gloria was already omitted from the mass and the liturgical color was purple...but Lent had not yet started! In the reforms of Vatican II the calendar was changed and the commonly accepted idea is that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday but the counting of the forty days does not begin until the First Sunday of Lent.
The next thing Father told me to find out was the time Lent ended. Again, pretty easy, right? Lent ends at Easter. WRONG! Lent ends on the morning of Holy Thursday. But, that wasn't always the case either. It used to be that Lent proceeded until the morning of Holy Saturday when the Easter Vigil was celebrated. That's why it was OK to have Easter baskets blessed on the afternoon of Holy Saturday. The vigil was already completed and Easter had "begun". Nowadays that's different. After Pope Pius XII restored the Holy Week rites in 1955 (ten years before Vatican II) Lent ended on the morning of Holy Thursday so that we then enter into the very brief liturgical season called the Sacred Triduum (meaning three days). This lasts until the Easter Vigil on Holy Saturday when we then begin the Easter season.
So, if we begin counting the forty days on the First Sunday of Lent and end on Holy Thursday we see it's easy. We begin counting on the evening of the Saturday after Ash Wednesday. (Remember? The sabbath begins at sundown the night before a Sunday.) So, starting on the Saturday eve of the First Sunday of Lent we count forward until the eve of the Second Sunday of Lent. That's seven days or one week. There are five weeks of Lent (five times seven is Thirty-five) bringing us up to the Saturday eve of Palm Sunday. From there we simply count forward: Palm Sunday, Monday of Holy Week, Tuesday of Holy Week, Spy Wednesday and Holy Thursday morning. That's five more days. Thirty-five plus five equals...FORTY!
What about this "Sunday isn't counted" deal? I asked Father and he reminded me that Sundays, even in Lent, are days on which we don't do penance because every Sunday is a celebration of the Resurrection. That's why your teachers probably taught some of you that whatever you had given up for Lent you could have on Sunday. Abstaining from something is a penitential act and we don't perform acts of penance on Sundays. Anyway, Fr. Guy reminded me too that the missal calls these Sundays OF LENT. They are very much counted within the season of Lent.
So, even though we commonly accept that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday (a manner of speaking I use myself and do not dispute) the counting of the forty days doesn't really commence until the First Sunday of Lent and it extends until the morning of Holy Thursday. THAT's how we get forty days of Lent. Oh, and, yes the SUNDAYS DO COUNT. Shouts in the Piazza