By Jenna Marie Cooper
Q: I understand that the 40 days of Lent do not include Sundays because every Sunday is a "little Easter" – when we remember and celebrate Jesus' resurrection. I hear people say it is cheating if one doesn't abstain on Sundays from whatever one gives up during Lent, but I wonder why one would fast on the happy day of Sunday?
A: Lent is not meant so much to provide us with a literal 40 forty days of penance, but rather to recall Jesus’ 40 days of fasting in the desert. That said, every Friday of the whole year and the season of Lent are considered penitential days and times in accord with canon 1250 of the Code of Canon Law.
Let’s take a look at the math: from Ash Wednesday to the Wednesday of Holy Week we have six full weeks plus one day. This adds up to 43 days; if we count the Paschal Triduum – Holy Thursday, Good Friday and Holy Saturday – as part of Lent rather than as its own mini liturgical season (which is a bit more technically accurate), this adds another three days, bringing our total to 46. But if we subtract the six Sundays of Lent from this total, that leaves us with 40 days. In that sense, Sundays do not numerically count toward the days of penance preceding Easter.
However, Sundays during Lent are still very much a part of this liturgical season. At Mass on Lenten Sundays, the priest is still vested in penitential purple; and the readings each year are specifically chosen to help draw us into the mystery of Christ’s saving passion and death.
At the same time, every Sundays retains its character as a day of joy and rest in the Lord. As you note, Sunday is a day that has always been set aside each week specifically to recall Easter. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Jesus rose from the dead ‘on the first day of the week.’ Because it is the ‘first day,’ the day of Christ's Resurrection recalls the first creation…. For Christians it has become the first of all days, the first of all feasts, the Lord’s Day” (CCC 1166).
In our current Code of Canon Law, while Canon 1247 reiterates the obligation to attend Mass on Sundays and holy days, it also pointedly directs the faithful to “abstain from those works and affairs which hinder” the “joy proper to the Lord’s day.” And, notably to those of us who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the Scripture reading for Sunday Lauds (Morning Prayer) throughout the Lenten season exhorts us, “Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:9, 10).
Practically, should we take a break from our Lenten sacrifices on Sundays? The answer – like so many things related to the spiritual life – is that it depends on our own individual situation and spiritual needs. Aside from the relatively few required days of fasting and abstinence from meat, our personal Lenten sacrifices are not specifically described by the Church’s law to begin with albeit to note that every Friday and the season of Lent are penitential days and times during which we are to devote ourselves in a special way to prayer, perform works of piety and charity, and deny ourselves by fulfilling our obligations more faithfully (canon 1249). So, if we prayerfully discern that God is calling us to enter into the joyful spirit of Sunday more fully – or that we will be better able to make our sacrifices with love and devotion if we refresh ourselves with a weekly break – then no; it’s not cheating to relax our Lenten penances on Sundays. But it’s also perfectly reasonable for another person to discern that keeping up their Lenten sacrifices throughout Lent will be more spiritually fruitful for them in their own life.
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Jenna Marie Cooper, who holds a licentiate in canon law, is a consecrated virgin and a canonist whose column appears weekly at OSV News. Send your questions to [email protected].