As we approach this season of Grace, there are often a few questions and misconceptions about Lent which arise.
Most people assume that the Lenten season is forty days in length, which isn’t exactly true. This idea comes from a time in which Lent was forty days long, but let’s look at the history of Lent and its stages.
In the first stage we see that as far back as the year 384 that Lent comprised six weeks and was officially called Quadragesima – literally 40 days. Quadragesima consisted of the forty consecutive days immediately before the start of the Sacred Paschal Triduum1. This put Lent beginning on the First Sunday of Lent and lasting through Holy Thursday and while there was an Ash Wednesday, it was a symbol of the season about to come and wasn’t part of Lent. Because Lent didn’t begin until the First Sunday of Lent, this made the Triduum part of the Lenten season. The Sacred Triduum was not its own liturgical season as it is today, thereby giving the Christian faithful forty days of fast without counting Sundays. We know all of this to be true because of the writings of St. Leo2.
Even though the preceding forty days were all days of Lent, not all of them were fast days so much as they were days of spiritual combat. Sundays have never been considered days of fast (and still aren’t) and we can see in the Early Church an Apostolic Constitution3 which tells us that a man who fasts on the Lord’s Day is guilty of sin. Sundays were, and have always been, a celebration of the Resurrection of Christ and as such were never counted among the days of fast.
The second stage of Lenten reform happens around the time of the fifth century. It is at this time we see the development of the Triduum into its own liturgical season which begins on Holy Thursday evening and lasts until Vespers on Easter Sunday, the same as in our current liturgical time.
With the creation of the Triduum as a liturgical season, the character of the forty days was changed and, in an effort to maintain the forty fast days, Lent was reformed to begin on Ash Wednesday, which had previously been not part of Lent but rather a day of preparation, and ended on Holy Saturday, essentially overlapping with the Triduum. We can look to the Gelasian Missal of this time as it was the first official text to refer to Lent as beginning on Ash Wednesday. It is important to note that at this time in history the forty days of fast overlap with the Lenten season, but this has not always been the case and isn’t the case currently.
The third stage of Lenten reform occurs by the authority of Pope Paul VI in the year 1969. At this time the season of the Sacred Triddum is restored. This brings about a shortened Lenten season from 40 days to 38 days, if you count all of Holy Thursday.
The reform of Paul VI stated that the Triduum would begin with the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday and Last through Evening Prayer on Easter Sunday. It was also at this time that Paul VI removed the obligation to fast from all days except for Good Friday and Ash Wednesday and thereby removing the aspect of continual fasting from the Lenten time.
This revision returns us back to the original calculation and meaning of the Triduum and Lent. The norms of the Tridduum note that on Good Friday and Holy Saturday (if possible) the Easter fast is to be observed4.
So how to we calculate forty possible fast days? If the thirty-eight days of Lent are combined with Good Friday and Holy Saturday of the Triduum then one arrives at forty days of fasting, although there is no longer a obligation under pain of sin to fast on those days except for Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
This means Lent is not forty days long but rather thirty-eight. Sundays are not and never have been calculated as part of Lent. Even the current regulation notes that “the forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper
exclusive” (meaning some days in between are not part of Lent, namely the Sundays.)
We also see that from the history that the penitential season of Lent and the forty days of fast are two separate entities that have not always been one in the same. This is evident from our current practice where the possible forty days of fast include the thirty-eight days of Lent and two days of the Sacred Triduum.
So this Lent be mindful that Sundays is a mini-Easter – a day to celebrate the Resurrection. For that day, feel free to relax your lenten penance, enjoy in feasting and let it be mindful of the great feast of Easter that we will celebrate in a short 40 (or so) days!
- It is important to note also that in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year that the Sundays of Lent and Advent are clearly noted as “Sundays of Lent and Advent” respectively whereas Sunday during ordinary time are referred to “Sundays in Ordinary Time.” This is even denoted in the Sacramentary which clearly says “Second Sunday of Lent” and “Second Sunday in Ordinary Time” noting that Sundays of Lent are not in Lent but of Lent.
- See St. Leo the Great’s Sermon #39 
- 250-300 AD Apostolic Constitutions Do you therefore fast, and ask your petitions of God. We enjoin you to fast every fourth day of the week, and every day of the preparation, and the surplusage of your fast bestow upon the needy; every Sabbath-day excepting one, and every Lord’s day, hold your solemn assemblies, and rejoice: for he will be guilty of sin who fasts on the Lord’s day, being the day of the resurrection, or during the time of Pentecost, or, in general, who is sad on a festival day to the Lord For on them we ought to rejoice, and not to mourn. (Constitutions of the Holy Apostles, book 5)
- General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar 
- General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar 
- http://www.blessedsacrament.com/theology/emmanuel/huels.html