Picking the Day Lent Begins

Author: Father Edward McNamara


Picking the Day Lent Begins

ROME, 28 FEB. 2006 (ZENIT)

Answered by Father Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university.

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Q: What determines what day Lent begins? P.R., Fresno, California

A: The short answer to your question is that the beginning of Lent depends on the date of Easter.

Easter follows a lunar, rather than a solar, calendar and is celebrated on the Sunday that follows the first full moon after March 21, the vernal (spring) equinox. Therefore Easter cannot fall earlier than March 22 or later than April 25.

All the other movable celebrations in the Church calendar ultimately depend on the date of Easter.

Most of the Eastern Churches follow the same basic principles but often celebrate Easter on a date different from Catholics and other Western Christians because they continue to follow the calendar of Julius Caesar without the corrections incorporated by Pope Gregory XIII in 1582.

Julius Caesar's calendar calculated the year as 365 days and 6 hours and thus was about 11 minutes and 9 seconds more than the sun's actual course. Although tiny, this excess puts the calendar off by a day, more or less, every 128 years. Thus, the Council of Nicaea already found it necessary to regress the date of the spring equinox to March 21 instead of the original date of March 25.

By the time of Pope Gregory XIII the difference had grown so much that the spring equinox occurred on March 11.

In 1581 with the bull "Inter Gravissimas" Pope Gregory promulgated a widespread reform which, among other things, re-established the spring equinox on March 21 by eliminating 10 days from October 1582. Coincidence would have it that St. Teresa of Avila died on that very night of Oct. 4-15.

The error of Julius Caesar's calendar was corrected by deciding that the turn of the century — always a leap year in the Julian calendar — would be so only when the year could be divided by 400, that is 1600, 2000 2400 2800, etc., whereas there would be no leap year in the others.

Most Catholic countries, and even some Protestant ones, accepted the reform almost immediately. Some countries, such as England, held off accepting the papal reform until 1752 while Russia did not adopt it until after the Communist takeover in 1918.

The calculation is still not perfect as there is still a difference of 24 seconds between the legal and the solar calendar. However, 3,500 years will have to pass before another day is added.

Getting back to Lent. This season comprises 40 days before Easter without counting Sundays which, even though they are called "Sundays of Lent," are not days of penance. Church tradition has always excluded fasting and penance on a Sunday.

The tradition of a fast in preparation for Easter goes back to the late third century but it varied in duration. The tradition of a 40-day fast was established in Rome between 354 and 384, although it began after the first Sunday.

As this period was also deemed suitable for the final preparation of candidates for baptism, the baptismal scrutinies were incorporated with the rites of this season. Scrutinies are communal prayers celebrated around the elect to strengthen them to overcome the power of sin in their lives and to grow in virtue.

Later, at the start of the sixth century, the beginning of Lent was moved up to Ash Wednesday in order to guarantee 40 days of effective fasting.

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Follow-up: Picking the Day Lent Begins [3-14-2006]

Several readers asked for clarifications regarding the start of the Lenten season (Feb. 28) while one or two apparently misunderstood the point I was making.

Some followed my statement that "Most of the Eastern Churches follow the same basic principles but often celebrate Easter on a date different from Catholics and other Western Christians ...," by pointing out that "the 21 Eastern Churches do not have 'Ash Wednesday.' This is a peculiarity of the Western Church. Lent begins on the Monday before that event."

It is true that Eastern Churches begin Lent on the Monday before Ash Wednesday. My reference to the "same basic principles" regarded the system for calculating Easter Sunday, not the beginning of Lent.

Several other readers questioned the duration of the Lenten season.

One wrote: "It is clear that, with the liturgical reforms, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Thursday evening. The triduum is not a part of Lent; thus Lent extends for a total of 44 days. If you take out the Sundays, you're left with 38 days, not 40. (You'd have to extend Lent into the triduum, as in the former calendar, to make it 40.) The 1988 circular letter of the CDW [Congregation for Divine Worship], 'Preparing and Celebrating the Paschal Feasts,' says, 'The first Sunday of Lent marks the beginning of the annual Lenten observance' (No. 23). If the First Sunday of Lent is part of the 'Lenten observance' (indeed, its beginning) why not the other Sundays? In fact, to get to 40 penitential days you simply have to count Sundays (they are Sundays 'of' Lent, despite what you wrote). But you don't begin on Ash Wednesday, but on the First Sunday of Lent when the catechumens become the elect."

A few lines earlier than those quoted by our interlocutor the same circular letter states: "On the Wednesday before the first Sunday of Lent, the faithful receive the ashes, thus entering into the time established for the purification of their souls" (No. 21).

In No. 16 it also clarifies: "All Lenten observances should be of such a nature that they also witness to the life of the local Church and foster it. The Roman tradition of the 'stational' churches can be recommended as a model for gathering the faithful in one place. In this way the faithful can assemble in larger numbers, especially under the leadership of the bishop of the diocese, or at the tombs of the saints, or in the principal churches of the city or sanctuaries, or some place of pilgrimage which has a special significance for the diocese."

I think, therefore, that by saying that Lenten observances begin on the First Sunday of Lent, the document was making a practical pastoral suggestion and did not intend to establish a new beginning for Lent. Still, there is some solid historical evidence for the custom of counting the 40 days from the First Sunday of Lent.

The problem might be solved by distinguishing between the liturgical season of Lent and the 40 penitential days.

As our reader, and the missal, point out, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends when the Easter triduum begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday.

This season includes the Sundays of Lent and thus extends for a total of 44 days.

If however, we take into account the number of days when fasting and/or abstinence is either recommended or obligatory before Easter, then Good Friday and Holy Saturday are also included, but the Sundays are not. We are then left with 40 fast or penitential days between Ash Wednesday and the Easter Vigil.

The absence of fasting on Lenten Sundays does not mean that these days are devoid of all penitential meaning. The liturgy itself expresses this reality by use of violet, the absence of flowers, the omission of the Alleluia and Gloria, and the overall tone of the liturgical texts.

As we saw earlier, the practice of Eastern Churches differs somewhat. Their period of abstinence and fast begins on the Monday preceding our Ash Wednesday and continues for 40 days straight. The following seven days are a special period that includes a more intense fast and other particular observations before Easter. ZE06031423

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