The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the Cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion, and a danger to Christian souls. Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.” -Pope Benedict XIV, “Non Ambigimus”
A few years back, I heard a priest say during his homily that you should give up something for the entirety of Lent and not use Sundays as a “cheat day.” Later, I asked a priest at this same parish what he thought about this statement and he laughed out loud. “No! Of course you can’t fast on Sundays!” Google “Sundays during Lent” and you’ll find a variety of opinions, many of them conflicting, and all of them promulgated with certainty. Why are there such different judgements on the matter?
The confusion here is due to two things: mixed up terminology and the recent changes to lenten fasting rules.
First, let’s get some Catholic terms clear.
1. Fasting is when you eat only one meal for the day (along with two smaller snacks that together do not make a full meal). This is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
2. Abstinence is when you don’t eat meat. This is required on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and all other Fridays of Lent.
3. Penance can be many different forms. The Catechism says the most important are fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. But there are plenty of other kinds of penance. Reading scripture. Wearing hair shirts. Flagellation. Whatever the outward form, the purpose of penance is “conversion of the heart.” (CCC, 1430)
4. In the context of Lent, Penitential practices or penances are disciplines some Catholics VOLUNTARILY take up during lent at the suggestion of the Church. This could be giving up something you like or adding another practice to your day. So, when someone says they’re “giving up chocolate for lent,” this is a PENANCE but not really a FAST in the way the word is used during Lent.
Second, let’s talk history.
Christians have always fasted and performed penance before Easter. But the nature of those fasts and their durations have varied widely. In the second century, fasting before Easter lasted anywhere from a few days to a full 40 days. By the fourth century, longer fasts were the norm. In Jerusalem and many other parts of the East, the fast was 8 weeks. But, because they did not fast on Saturday and Sunday, the period was not 56 but 40 days. In the sixth century, most of the Church in the West fasted for 6 weeks. Since they did not fast on Sunday, they didn’t put in a full 40 days. St. Gregory the Great called this the “36 day fast.”
Around this time, Ash Wednesday was established in the Church calendar. Why start a liturgical season in the middle of the week? Because it was extremely important to early Christians that Lent should be exactly 40 days long. But it was also important to them that fasting should NEVER take place on Sunday. So, a little arithmetic can help us here. Take 6 weeks and multiply it by 7 days and you get 42 days. But you then subtract the 6 Sundays. Now you’ve got 36. So add 4 days. Boom. Ash Wednesday.
As far as practice is concerned, by the Middle Ages, Catholics FASTED and ABSTAINED from meat every day of Lent except Sundays. This meant that they only took one meal a day and this meal did not contain meat or any animal product. The time and nature of this meal varied widely over the years.
Still, for a long, long time, Catholics fasted for exactly 40 days during Lent; From Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. They did NOT fast on Sundays.
Guidance from the Church on lent was never set in stone. Our current rules come, not from Vatican II as many suppose but, from Pope Paul VI’s letter “Paenitemini”; fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, abstain on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays. This encyclical also says, “It is strongly recommended to all the faithful that they keep deeply rooted in their hearts a genuine Christian spirit of penitence to spur them to accomplish works of charity and penitence.” In this spirit, Catholics are encouraged to take up a lenten penance. (It’s worth noting here that, after Pope Paul’s letter, American Bishops still strongly suggested an observance of the 40 day fast unless there was a grave reason not to.)
These days, most Catholics forego the stricter fasting practices and take up a Lenten penance of their choice.
Now, as someone who enjoys the “pleasures of the flesh,” I kind of like not having to fast or abstain that much. But, I think there’s a general sense that our current rules require very little sacrifice. For families who don’t eat much meat, abstaining from meat on Fridays isn’t even inconvenient. And fasting for two days out of 365 just isn’t that much of a challenge. Which is why most people are so willing (even eager) to take on an extra penance. And this is good!
But this is also where the confusion comes in. A lot of folks think of these penances as fasting. And, if you’re giving up a certain kind of food, this makes etymological sense. But the terminology isn’t in line with the way the Church uses the terms. So, if you give up chocolate for Lent, you are not fasting. You are performing an act of penitence.
Fine.But what about Sundays and why does it matter?
Well, if you’re “fasting,” you really shouldn’t keep that fast on Sundays. In fact, fasting is forbidden on Sundays. Because Sundays are a little Easter and always a time to FEAST! The Bridegroom is here! Christ is Risen! Even during Lent, Sundays remind us that the darkness will not last forever and Jesus is victorious! This is why Sunday celebrations are so important, especially in a culture that is so bad at both fasting AND feasting. So, if the new “penitential practice” prescribed is supposed to be like the fast traditionally observed by the Church, then Sundays should be excluded.
On the other hand, like many suggest, there is great benefit to taking on a penance for all of lent. Denying our flesh for a long period of time and focusing instead on the things of Heaven is part of the point of this season. So, when you take up a lenten penance, you might want to keep it up through Sundays. But understand that this practice is quite novel and will result in 46 days. This is not how Christians have historically practiced Lent and it isn’t a requirement now. Additionally, it certainly isn’t “cheating” to feast on Sunday. And those who do so have a lot of history and theology to back up their decision.
So what are you supposed to do? First off, follow the rules already set out regarding fasting and abstinence. These are clear enough: No meat on Ash Wednesday or any Friday during Lent. Only one meal (and two small snacks) on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If you’re Catholic, this is required of you.
Beyond this, it’s kind of up to you. If you feel strongly about keeping your penance for all of Lent, great! Do that! If you love the meaning of the Sunday feast, then stick with that! Either way, treat Sunday like a feast day. Because it is. But still try to preserve the penitential nature of the season.
Now, if you’re looking for a bit of a compromise, here’s what I suggest:
Take on one penance that’s food related such as no beer, no dessert, no snacks- something like that. Or just go all in and actually fast the whole time. But only do this Monday through Saturday. Go ahead and FEAST on Sundays.
Then, take on ANOTHER penance that’s not food related and has a certain aspect of spiritual discipline to it. Maybe read a chapter from a spiritual work everyday, say a rosary every day, or only take cold showers. Keep up this penance for ALL of lent, Sundays included.
This way, you can keep the proper theological significance of the Sunday feast while also experiencing the effectiveness of the longer period of self-control.
That’s just my idea and should be taken with a grain of salt or two.
Whatever you choose regarding this penance remember that, just as the Sabbath was made for man and not the other way around, the season of Lent was made for us. Like everything else the Church give us, it is a way for God to pour grace into our lives. And don’t forget that these penances are supposed to spur us on to greater works of charity! And, whatever you do, don’t give up coffee. That’s a terrible idea.
And most importantly, don’t get so caught up in the reckoning of days that you forget the purpose of the season. Lent is not a liturgical diet or a weird food challenge. It is a time to cultivate a spirit of penitence and -still more!- a spirit of charity! Almsgiving and acts of charity are a crucial element of this season. So give to the poor, to charity, to your parish. Do kind things. Go out of your way to care for other people. And drink lots of coffee.
Here are some more resources on this topic:
Code of Canon Law
Days of Penance
Can. 1249 The divine law binds all the Christian faithful to do penance each in his or her own way. In order for all to be united among themselves by some common observance of penance, however, penitential days are prescribed on which the Christian faithful devote themselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny themselves by fulfilling their own obligations more faithfully and especially by observing fast and abstinence, according to the norm of the following canons.
Can. 1250 The penitential days and times in the universal Church are every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent.
Can. 1251 Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday. Abstinence and fasting are to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
Can. 1252 The law of abstinence binds those who have completed their fourteenth year. The law of fasting binds those who have attained their majority, until the beginning of their sixtieth year. Pastors of souls and parents are to ensure that even those who by reason of their age are not bound by the law of fasting and abstinence, are taught the true meaning of penance.
Can. 1253 The conference of bishops can determine more precisely the observance of fast and abstinence as well as substitute other forms of penance, especially works of charity and exercises of piety, in whole or in part, for abstinence and fast.
Brief history of Lent and Lenten discipline.
Pope Paul VI’s encyclical “Paenitemini.”
Some info from the USCCB website. Not a letter from the bishops and not binding, just Q&A stuff and other resources.
Dom Prosper Gueranger’s The Liturgical Year. Umm. It’s kind of expensive. But some of it is free online if you look around.