Each Lent, the question often comes up about whether we are allowed to refrain from our Lenten practices on Sundays. For example, if you give up chocolate for Lent, can you eat chocolate on the Sundays that fall during the Lenten season? Over the years, I have heard arguments and discussions on both sides of this question, with seemingly well-informed and dedicated people (clergy, religious, and lay) on each side. A couple years ago, I put together some thoughts to post on Facebook, and I have been asked to share them again this year. One caution at the beginning – with this type of argument, it is easy to become too legalistic – which can detract from the spiritual purposes of Lenten practices. So with that in mind, here are my thoughts – it’s a long discussion, so be prepared!
1) How do we count 40 days? Those who advocate for being able to refrain from your Lenten practice on Sundays often use as part of their argument that you don’t count the Sundays of Lent when you count the 40 days. But this simply does not work. If you were to start with Ash Wednesday as day 1, and skip the Sundays, then day 40 would be Holy Saturday. But Good Friday and Holy Saturday are not part of Lent – they are a separate liturgical season, called the Triduum. The actual last day of Lent is Holy Thursday. So skipping the Sundays in a count for 40 days doesn’t work – you actually only end up with 38 days by doing that. But, if you add in the Sundays, you get 44 days – so that doesn’t work either. The only way to get an exact count of 40 days is to start counting on the First Sunday of Lent (as day 1), count every day, and Holy Thursday becomes day 40. To understand this requires some history. Originally, Lent started on a Sunday – and so the count of 40 days was accurate. But over time, some days before the First Sunday of Lent were added as part of a period of preparation for the season – and so Ash Wednesday came to be known as the beginning of Lent. But the count of days never changed; and using the number 40 is more symbolic than literal – calling to mind the 40 days Jesus spent fasting in the desert. So using the method of counting 40 days does not help answer our question.
2) Fasting and Abstinence in the Code of Canon Law. Most of the Lenten practices we are talking about are really a kind of fasting – giving something up as part of our Lenten penance. The universal law of the Catholic Church – the Code of Canon Law – says very little about specific regulations regarding fasting and abstinence. It notes that the whole season of Lent, as well as all Fridays during the year, are to be observed as days of penance (Canon 1250). Here, this would seem to me to say that all days of Lent – including Sundays – are marked by the same penitential character, and so our Lenten practices should be observed on all days of the season. Fasting – the practice of eating only one full meal, two small meals, and nothing between meals – is to be observed on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday for those between ages 18 and 59. In the United States, abstinence from eating meat is to be observed on Ash Wednesday, Good Friday, and the Fridays of Lent for all those over age 14 (Canon 1251-1252). But here’s the interesting, little-known line that may influence some people’s thinking – if a Solemnity falls on a Friday during Lent, then the obligation to abstain from eating meat is lifted for that day (Canon 1251). There are typically only two dates when this could happen – March 19 (the Solemnity of St. Joseph) and March 25 (the Solemnity of the Annunciation). The idea is that solemnities – which are the highest level of liturgical celebration – should not be days of penance but days of celebration, and so the penitential practice of abstaining from eating meat on those days does not fit with the celebratory nature of the day.
Here is where I think some people argue for being able to refrain from your Lenten practice on Sundays. All Sundays are solemnities – days of celebration and rejoicing in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. Since Canon Law provides for the lifting of the practice of abstinence on solemnities that fall on Fridays – which are the only days of abstinence – then it could be argued that other solemnities, namely Sundays, should have a similar treatment and be free from penitential practices. It’s a good argument, and there may be basis for it even in Canon Law.
But, it seems to me that Canon Law could also be read to argue for continuing your Lenten practice on Sundays. Abstinence is one example of a penitential practice; fasting from food is another; “giving up” something for Lent is another. Canon 1250 says that the entire season of Lent has a penitential character – even the Sundays. And, liturgically, the Sundays during this season are considered part of the season – it is the Second Sunday of Lent, not the Second Sunday that falls during the days of Lent. The exception given for solemnities that fall on Friday only applies to abstaining from meat – it doesn’t apply across the board to all penitential practices. So here, Canon Law seems to be say that Sundays are not different from other days during Lent – they are part of the unity of the whole season.
Of course, I am not a canon lawyer – perhaps someone better schooled in Canon Law might have a different interpretation. And Canon Law also says that each country’s Conference of Bishops can issue directives on how to observe fasting and abstinence. To my knowledge, the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops has not directly addressed the question under consideration; if anyone knows that they have, let me know.
So in conclusion – 1) the argument from counting the 40 days does not apply to this questions; 2) the Code of Canon Law could be used to argue either side of this question. But I am inclined to think that our penitential practices during Lent – what we “give up” – should go for the entire season – every day from Ash Wednesday through Holy Thursday, the end of Lent. And then, Good Friday is a day of fasting and abstinence, and it is recommended that this fast be extended through Holy Saturday – so the first day to renounce our penitential practice should be Easter Sunday, when we celebrate the resurrection of our Lord. That’s my opinion – not doctrine – and I know many well-informed people who would answer the question differently. But, as I see it, these are the important facts to know to make a well-informed decision. And, ultimately, if we spend too much time (as I have here!) arguing the details, we can easily lose sight of the reason for our Lenten practices to begin with – to help us deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Christ. And I would think that would be harder to do if we take Sundays off.