I call this the great Lent debate.
Every year people ask “Are Sundays in Lent part of the Lenten penance?”
Or more concretely, “If I gave up daily lattes for Lent, can I have one on Sunday?”
Should Catholics continue to fast and abstain on Sundays from the things they voluntarily gave up for Lent? Do the “forty days” include Sundays?
The forty days of Lent
The Latin word for what we call ‘Lent’ is ‘Quadragesima’ which literally means ‘forty.’ The term imitates many biblical images of fasting for forty days (e.g. Exodus 24:18; Matthew 4:2; Luke 4:2).
While all of this is true, Lenten and Easter practices varied in the East and the West as both traditions developed over time. The various Lenten fasts which developed did not always last forty days.
In fourth century, the council of Nicaea referred to Lent as “the forty” before the Paschal feast. Although it is not entirely clear, the grammar of this phrase could be read to imply that one should prepare forty days for the coming of Easter.
One thing is clear from Nicaea, whatever the length of this penance, it did not include Sundays. This council forbade even kneeling on Sunday.
Sunday’s were clearly treated differently by the early Christians.
The focus of Lent
In the history of the development of Lenten traditions in the western Church there were actually two different focuses. One was on the Baptismal liturgy of catechumens who were journeying towards the Easter Vigil. The other involved a rite for reconciling adult penitents.
Initially these penitents were those who were excommunicated and were in the process of being reconciled to the Church. In 1091 AD, Pope Urban II changed this and required all the faithful to receive ashes in what became Ash Wednesday. Over time the penitential aspect alone became the focus of Lent.
The Second Vatican Council wished to restore the original double focus on baptism and penance. The fathers note:
“The season of Lent has a twofold character: primarily by recalling or preparing for baptism and by penance, it disposes the faithful, who more diligently hear the word of God and devote themselves to prayer, to celebrate the paschal mystery. This twofold character is to be brought into greater prominence both in the liturgy and by liturgical catechesis.” (SC 109).
Are Sundays part of the forty days?
What are the implications for the Sundays in Lent? Can we solve this with math?
According to the modern General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (2011), “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive.”
If you get out a calendar, you would see that this year there are 20 days of Lent in February but only 24 days (23.5?) of Lent in March for a total of 44 days. There are 6 Sundays in Lent.
Using these numbers you would not achieve the ‘biblical number’ forty by subtracting the six Sundays that occur within the Lenten season. Does this prove that we should fast and abstain on Sundays? Or perhaps two of the Sundays?
Several points must be noted. The definition of Lent as excluding half of Holy Thursday, the whole of Good Friday and Holy Saturday only came about in 1969. These three days are now called the Triduum and are no longer considered part of the season of Lent. In other words, the numbers did actually work until this recent change.
But now is the number ‘forty,’ merely figurative?
Notice that even in the current definition of Lent, Easter waits for us to complete the Triduum, and there are two more days of serious penance in the Triduum which still brings the total to forty days of penance excluding Sundays.
The penitential disciple of Lent is still forty days even if the season of Lent is now shortened by the Triduum.
The season of Lent and the discipline of Lent
We must not confuse the season on Lent with the penitential disciple of Lent.
The tradition of the Church did not require equal penances on each day of Lent, and no penance was required on Sunday.
Someone might say that the Sunday’s of Lent are part of the season of Lent and, therefore, must continue to have a penitential meaning. This is certainly partly true. We do worship in a more reserved and sober manner on the Sundays of Lent.
But the fact remains that the penitential discipline of Lent always excluded these Sundays. We might also point out that the lectionary readings of the Sundays of Lent all focus on the catechumenal journey towards the Easter Vigil and not exclusively on penance.
St. Augustine and the scandal of Sunday fasting
I already pointed out that the traditions of Lent developed over time.
One consistent feature has been that the penitential discipline of Lent excluded Sundays. To further emphasize this, I would like to invite St. Augustine to this discussion.
In St. Augustine’s Letter 36, he refutes a rigorist who insists that Christians should fast on the Sabbath (Saturday). This might initially sound tangential but it leads Augustine to our question.
Augustine tells us that, in his time, Christians regularly fasted on Wednesdays and Fridays throughout the year and not just in Lent (36.30) and that some Churches fasted as well on the Sabbath.
By comparison, fasting on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) “would be a cause of no small scandal to the Church” (36.2, cf. 36.10, 29). He notes, “For in these questions on which the divine scripture has determined nothing certain, the custom of the people of God or the practices of our ancestors are to be taken as law” (36.2).
He makes it clear that not fasting on the Lord’s Day was the standard practice for the Church in Rome, in Africa and in Millan. He also points out that fasting or abstaining on the Lord’s Day was a practice of the followers of the heresy of the Manichees (36.27) and Priscillianist (36.28) which the Church universally rejected.
Fasting on the Lord’s Day is a ‘scandal’ and ‘abominable’ (36.27) though Augustine allows one exception, “unless perhaps someone might be able to extend a fast beyond a week without taking any meal in order to approximate a fast of forty days” (36.27).
He does not seem to have in mind someone who is merely, for example, not eating meat for forty days, but an epic fast of biblical proportions. (e.g. “without taking any meal”).
Again the point is that the penitential discipline of Lent always excluded Sundays and further St. Augustine says that fasting on Sundays is a scandal and abominable.
It’s private devotion, do what you want but…
Finally someone might add one more layer to this discussion.
The person who is asking about drinking their latte on Sundays in Lent, is really taking about their own self-imposed private devotion.
It is interesting to learn about the history of this practice of private devotion.
Prior to Second Vatican Council the 1917 Code of Canon Law, the Roman Pontifical and the approved regulations for the United States (Uniform Norms 1951, Modification 1956) required a rigorous scheme of fasting by all the faithful 21-59 years old.
Abstinence could be complete or partial, and fasting allowed one full meal plus partial meals. All week days of Lent had either a fast or a fast and abstinence attached to them. It is very clear in these documents that we were discussing the weekdays of Lent, excluding Sundays.
During World War II special permission was given to local ordinaries to dispense the faithful from these rigorous daily requirements and this permission was extended again in 1949.
In light of these dispensations the Uniform Norms 1951, and Modification 1956 for the US included a paragraph which exhorted the faithful to be generous in performing additional voluntary works of Christian perfection.
It seems the wide spread custom of taking on voluntary penance began in the 1950’s. Prior to this people were satisfied fulfilling the demanding norms of Lent.
Since these new voluntary acts are not required I guess you can do whatever you want, but choosing to do penance on a Sunday is clearly not in the spirit of Catholic Tradition.
One might ask, what would St. Augustine say?