Every Lent at least one person will come and tell me they have uncovered a fraud. The forty days of Lent are not really forty days. Counting the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday they come up with forty-six days. Is this just a way for the Church to trick us into suffering more?
In truth, the story of Lent has a very complicated history. From the very beginning Easter was the most important celebration of the Christian community. It soon became the day when new members were baptized and “old” members renewed their baptismal promises. For such an important feast, there needed to be a time of spiritual preparation; so some sort of fast seemed to be in order. In some places the fast was only for two days (Good Friday and Holy Saturday), while in other places the fast lasted for eight weeks or more. Little by little, though, the notion of forty days of Lent began to prevail. Moses had fasted for forty days before meeting God on the mountain and Jesus had fasted for forty days before beginning his public ministry. Certain practices also came to be associated with the Lenten fast. Ashes, for example, were not just dished out to anyone who came through the church doors. Ashes originally marked those who were enrolled in the Order of Penitents. The Sacrament of Reconciliation in its earliest form was not the neat and tidy (and secret) process that it later became. Penitents confessed their sins at the beginning of Lent and then were given a penance, which often involved the ancient Biblical practice of dressing in sackcloth and ashes. At the end of their forty days, they could approach the priest for absolution
One of the reasons that Lenten practices varied so much from place to place is that for the first three centuries ours was largely an underground church. Communication from city to city and region to region, primitive in the best of circumstances, was made even more difficult under persecution. The Council of Nicea (325), which gave us the familiar Nicene Creed, also began the process of regularizing the Church’s calendar. While some places around Jerusalem held out for an eight week Lenten season (with both Saturdays and Sundays not counted in the fast), the forty days beginning on Ash Wednesday (with Sundays not counted) eventually won out. Since the Resurrection took place on a Sunday, it continues to be a day of celebration—even during a penitential season.
When fasting rules were much stricter (Until the late 1960’s on all forty days of Lent only one full meal was to be eaten, not just on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday), the Sunday holiday from Lent was much prized. Sunday also provided a “day off” from whatever else one had chosen to “give up.” One popular loophole in Lenten fasting allowed Catholics to extend the Sunday holiday back to noon on Saturday. This was because in the old Holy Week Liturgy, the blessing of the new fire and blessing of the baptismal water (now part of the Easter Vigil Mass) took place on Holy Saturday morning. Easter foods could then be blessed at church with holy water beginning at noon on Holy Saturday. So, the Lenten fast essentially ended at noon on Holy Saturday. By analogy, the fast ended at noon on all other Saturdays of Lent. As a child I remember seeing some of my relatives who gave up cigarettes for Lent, waiting on Saturday morning for twelve noon to arrive, with cigarette and match in hand. To the surprise of absolutely no one, their feat of giving up cigarettes for five and a half days a week never lasted past Easter. For that is truly the hope of the Lenten practices of fasting and self-denial. That our new found ability to control our appetites and address our sins and character defects and share more with those in need will endure past the celebration of Easter. Lent is not meant to be an endurance test, but an opportunity that the Church gives us to address the changes in our life that we know we need to make. And all the rituals, services, and practices that are part of Lent are meant to support us on that journey of transformation.