A reader writes:
Regarding what we give up for Lent, I am hearing two stories. First story: Of the 40 days of Lent, we do not observe Sundays; therefore, on this day and this day only, we do not have to observe Lent by what we have given up—i.e., if we gave up smoking, this is a day on which we can smoke.
Second story: Through the whole duration of Lent, including Sundays, up to Easter we should observe Lent thoroughly, including all that we have given up during Lent. It comes to more than 40 days if we include the Sundays, which is where I think the confusion comes into play.
Can you clarify?
I'm happy to do so! You've put your finger on the point of confusion. Everybody knows that there are supposed to be 40 days in Lent, and yet, if we count the days from Ash Wednesday until Holy Saturday (inclusive), we come up with 46 days. So how do we explain the discrepancy?
The answer is that all of those 46 days are within Lent, yet not all of them are of Lent, in the sense that they are supposed to be days of fasting and penance. In the past, Christians observed Lent by imitating Christ's 40 days in the desert. As He fasted for 40 days, so did they. (See "Reader Question: Observing Lent Before Vatican II.") Today, the Church only requires Western Catholics to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday.
From the very earliest days, the Church has declared that Sunday, the day of Christ's Resurrection, is always a feast day, and therefore fasting is forbidden. Since there are six Sundays within Lent, we have to subtract them from the days of fasting. Forty-six minus six is forty.
That's why, in the West, Lent starts on Ash Wednesday--to allow a full 40 days of fasting before Easter Sunday.
Unlike earlier generations of Christians, most of us don't actually fast every day during Lent, in the sense of reducing the amount of food we eat and not eating between meals. Still, when we give something up for Lent, that's a form of fasting. Therefore, that cannot be binding on the Sundays within Lent.
Does that mean that you should go out of your way on Sundays to indulge in whatever you gave up for Lent? Of course not. But in the same manner, you should not actively avoid it (assuming that it is something good that you've deprived yourself of, rather than something that you shouldn't do or consume anyway). To do so would be fasting, and that's forbidden on Sundays--even during Lent.
You can find out more in How Are the 40 Days of Lent Calculated?
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