40 days of Lent
Question: Why not start Lent on the first Sunday of Lent? What is the reasoning behind starting Lent on a Wednesday?
— Paul VanHoudt, Erie, Colorado
Answer: There are different explanations or theories of why we begin Lent on a Wednesday. A common thread to the theories is that there was a need to come up with some extra days to fill out the number to 40. But the problem is, if you simply count the days of Lent, as the Church defines Lent, they add up to 43. The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar says simply that “Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive” (No. 28). There is no mention of not counting certain days during this period. Simply put, Lent runs from Ash Wednesday till the evening of Holy Thursday. If this official definition is used, then we need to lose three days, not add them.
One theory is that, in more ancient times, the Sundays of Lent — including Palm Sunday — were not counted as days of Lent. This reduces the number of days to 36, and thus, the need to add the four days back to the total. Ash Wednesday, and the Thursday, Friday and Saturday following it are those four needed days. But there is scant evidence that the Church has ever officially excluded the Sundays of Lent from the count. They are called Sundays of Lent, purple is worn, the Gloria is suppressed and so forth.
A more modern explanation is to exclude from the count the solemnities of the Annunciation and St. Joseph, as well as Palm Sunday and Holy Thursday. And those four missing days are then pre-supplied by beginning on Ash Wednesday, as already noted. The problem with this theory is that it is modern and does not account for the fact that the feast of St. Joseph was not celebrated as a solemnity in earlier centuries.
A final position is to shrug and stop insisting that Lent has ever had or required 40 exact days. It was around 40 and so it was called, in Latin, Quadragesima, which means “40 days” but also can refer to a number in the 40s. Our need for a literal and exact 40 days says more about us than the ancients who were less obsessed with exactitude in time. For example, Jesus’ three days in the tomb really indicates one full day and parts of two other days, not an exact 72 hours.
The disadvantage of this final explanation is that it does not really answer your question as to why Lent begins on a Wednesday. It consigns it to mysteries of the 11th century, when the custom began. It is possible that in those times local customs excluded certain days from Lent that needed to be added back. But exactly what those days were are not clear.
Question: Is it sinful if someone doesn’t give up something for Lent?
Answer: No, the practice of abstinence throughout Lent in a particular matter is more in the realm of a pious custom. Current Church law very minimally requires that we abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent. The Church encourages, but does not require, “giving something up” for Lent. There also is the possibility that one may take something on for Lent, such as a routine of prayer, reading Scripture or a pious work. It is possible that one might sense clearly from the Lord that they should abstain from something. To resist the Lord in such a matter could be sinful, but not due to Church law.