Sundays in Lent – Both/And

My friend, Fr. Zehnle, posted something on Twitter today that I thought was very good:

I think he’s responding to the classic Catholic discussion on how the Sundays of Lent are not included in the Lenten season, because if you included them in the math, there would be more than 40 days of Lent. Moreover, Sundays are a “little Easter”. Therefore, etc.

I think our loss of the Pre-Lenten Season, which starts with Septuagesima, has caused us to lose sight of things a bit and we are actually grasping for reasons with such explanations as in the last paragraph. Let me explain:

Septuagesima Sunday — the word means “70th” — is three Sundays before Ash Wednesday. That was when, traditionally, as I have recently posted, the pre-Lenten season of preparation began, that more or less corresponds with the time of “carnival”. “Carnival” is a word that comes from Latin and means “farewell to meat”, and since in traditional Lenten penitential discipline there was little to no meat eaten during the sacred season, the time leading up to Lent was a time to clean out the larder. It was also a time to start preparing so that on Ash Wednesday, one would be ready to go full-speed ahead into the penitential discipline, having already been “warming oneself up” for it.

But Septuagesima is not exactly 70 days before Easter! The Sunday after is “Sexagesima” — 60th –, but not exactly 60 days before Easter. And the Sunday before Ash Wednesday (tomorrow, at time of posting) is “Quinquagesima” (50th) — yet, again, not exactly 50 days before Easter. In other words, the names are approximate: in common understanding, they meant “roughly 70/60/50 days before Easter”.

Well what about next Sunday — i.e., the Sunday after Ash Wednesday? It is known as Quadragesima — “40th” — and that’s where we get the concept of 40 days. Yes, there is also the biblical symbolism of “40”, including our Lord’s 40 days in the desert. But our 40 days are not exact. Indeed, next Sunday is about 41 days before Easter — and anyway, Lent begins five days before, on Ash Wednesday!

Incidentally, the Latin name for this coming Sunday is where the word for “Lent” comes from in the Romance languages — the Latin “quadragesima” is “quaresima” in Italian, “cuaresma” in Spanish, and “carême” in French — and that is what they call the entire season that we know as “Lent”.

In other words, the modern controversy over whether Sundays of Lent “count as Lent” is based — at least in part — on a mistaken literalism about the number of days of the season. I don’t think the Church ever understood it as an exact 40-day season. In the Mediterranean world such germanic precision was… well… Germanic — barbarous!

Now the title of this post has “both/and” in it – the classic Catholic approach to a large swath of reality. I agree with Fr. Zehnle that the Sundays of Lent are part of the season of Lent — he is correct. In fact, the liturgy itself shows that to us: no Gloria, no Alleluia, purple (penitential) vestments, no flowers, no instrumental music except to support singing, etc.

But — and this is the “both/and” part — it is the case that Sundays and Solemnities are not traditionally days of penance. In fact, canon 1251 of the Code of Canon Law tells us that when a Solemnity falls on a Friday, we are not bound by the laws of fast and abstinence that day. As I posted earlier, there are few such Fridays in 2019, though none in the season of Lent this year. So I think that, in view of the fact that Sundays are not ordinarily penitential days and that they are, indeed a “little Easter”, it is common and permissible on the Sundays of Lent to relax one’s discipline a little.

But is relaxing things on Lenten Sundays a good idea? Here basic human psychology enters in: just as it was a great idea to have a Pre-Lenten season, so that we could ease our way into our Lenten discipline rather than trying to start cold-turkey on Ash Wednesday (and I encourage people to recover this tradition), so also, it’s probably not a good idea to have a “blowout” on a Lenten Sunday — even if we can argue for its permissibility. Monday will be that much harder — and this is how many people end up, well, blowing their Lenten resolutions. The Sundays of Lent are still days of Lent — so I encourage all to stick with their Lenten penances even on those days. It’s only six Sundays, and a little penance will do us all a lot of good.

Finally, let me take this opportunity once again to suggest that we all offer our penance this year for the continued purification of the Church!

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