Thursday, February 22, 2007

40 Days in Lent? That's not what my calendar says.

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.

Lord, HOW Do We Get To 40 Days?

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


Anonymous said...

Ray, great post-thanks. (It's "Quinquagesima", btw.)

Laura The Crazy Mama said...

I KNEW Sundays counted! Hee hee, as kids we always said that people who ate candy on Sundays during lent were "just cheating" but secretly, we wished we could "cheat" too! We saved up our candy in shoe boxes and salivated all Lent until Easter and we NEVER cheated, we thought it would be a sin. Our parents didn't make us feel that way, we just really put a lot of pressure on ourselves during Lent, I guess. I think we liked the challenge! Thanks for your description of the 40 days but I'm even more confused now then I was before. I'll read it again more slowly!

Unknown said...

Anonymous: I have enough trouble with my own spelling and choice of words; I did wonder about "Octagesima Sunday (80th, which I don't believe exists in the old Church calendar); but who am I to question a priest and scholar?

Laura: No getting away with Sundays in our house in Duluth in those days; and on "Fat Tuesday" before Lent, in the remote possibility that there might be candy still loose, one of us five kids would have removed the temptation from the others.

It was deemed to be "Christian charity", not gluttony.

iyak's Mom said...

Interesting and informational article, yet, I too, can't tell if we should still do penance on the Sundays of Lent which "do count." My thinking is that one SHOULD stick with the program throughout Lent especially if you're trying to kick a bad habit. If you go without for 6 days, then allow yourself on Sunday, it will be pretty hard for most people to start in on Monday again. I know I would probably REALLY make use of THAT clause and overdo on the contraban on Sundays. Whereas, if you go w/o tv for ALL of the days between Ash Wed (or the 1st Sunday in Lent) and Holy Saturday, you have provided yourself with a retreat and a new way of thinking... "yes, I can get along w/o tv and it sure was nice and I discovered I can read and visit with the family, etc., at the same time." I see it as Jesus spent 40 days --straight-- in the desert and he didn't stay in a motel and eat chicken on Sundays. Isn't there something written down officially in Catholic doctrine about this? thanks for listening!

Anonymous said...

From: Ray from MN
To: Paula (and the rest of you)

For starters, we should all be doing penance 24/7/365 for the rest of our lives.

Weaseling out of your Lentan Penance on Sundays would be akin to those who dine on gourmet fish or exotic vegetarian meals on abstinence days.

I have exceeded the statutory age limit on abstinence requirements which is age 60. I don't know when that age was set, but I'd bet it was at a time when the average life span was far less than 60.

I would be ashamed to chow down on a Big Mac or a Porterhouse steak on a Lentan Friday or even Lobster or Walleye in a fine restaurant.

If it's going to be fish for me to fulfill my obligation, it better be something I caught myself or a CUB food store generic mess of fish sticks or whatever they happen to be serving at one of 50,000 Catholic parishes around the country.

I note with a great deal of chagrin and anger that for some reason Blogger is now asking me to identify myself on my own blog. You can't believe how much pain those people cause their customers.

Hate is a word that comes quickly to mind and I am ashamed, because it is Lent.

They arrogantly would remind me that their service is free. I would remind them that their owners are billionaires many times over because of me and millions like me.

Probably if I shut down my computer , I might be able to avoid this. but to keep my blood pressure from going through the ceiling, I will log in anonymously, which works. so what is the purpose of them asking me to identify myself?

Ray from MN

Anonymous said...

What if the Lenten penance you chose was to give up chocolate (or whatever)Monday through Saturday.
Furthermore, we are not strictly obligated to give anything up at all. We could choose a "positive" penance- doing something extra.
So IMO deciding whether Sunday "counts" depends on what you have chosen as your penance.