Are Sundays Part of Lent?
I clearly recall a Lenten sermon from my childhood during which the priest shared a statistic that chocolate stores are more profitable during Lent than the rest of year. At the beginning of Lent many people make the resolutions to give up sweets resulting in slow sales. By mid-Lent these resolutions have weakened and these same people are buying even more chocolate than before Lent. Over the years I thought his statistic was slightly misrepresented, because some people could be buying chocolate to save for Easter. But his point to be strong in our resolutions throughout Lent was quite valid and hit home.
I admit as the Third Week of Lent draws near, my resolve grows weak at times. My personal choices for Lenten penance have not grown habitual, but harder each day. I find myself looking for excuses to give into myself.
And that brings up the age-old question of whether Sundays are a part of Lent? If they are not, can I relax and celebrate every Sunday? Am I required to keep up my Lenten penances on Sunday?
Sundays in Lent
Are Sundays part of Lent? The simple answer is yes, Sundays are included as part of Lent, as explained by Universal Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar (which has an updated translation since the issuing of the Third Roman Missal):
28. The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive....
30. The Sundays of this time of year are called the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent. The Sixth Sunday, on which Holy Week begins, is called, “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord”....
The liturgy of the Sundays of Lent is the base of all the Lenten liturgy building up to Holy Week. Each Sunday shapes the rest of the week’s liturgical focus. For those parishes with a catechumen program, the Mass readings are particularly important, as they tie into the three scrutinies and the presentations of the Creed and Lord’s Prayer.
Counting the Days
One reason for the ongoing disagreement for whether or not Sundays are part of Lent is the length of days of the season. Ideally, the Lenten season should have forty days (as quoted above, “The forty days of Lent...”), the true number of days is always over forty. Counting every day from Ash Wednesday until Thursday afternoon of Holy Week the total is forty-four days. Removing the six Sundays drops the count to less than the ideal forty.
During the post-Vatican II reorganization of the Liturgical Year and calendar, there was diligence in obeying the instructions from Sacrosanctum Concilium (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy) which called for returning the focus of Lent to original charisms and bringing it back to its simplicity. Some of the reforms were aimed at the lengths of the Pre-Lent and Lent seasons. Adolf Adam in his The Liturgical Year: Its History and Its Meaning After the Reform of the Liturgy provides an insight into why the number of days does not equal forty:
[I]t seemed necessary to “omit things of less importance in order to emphasize those of greater importance.” Yet the authorities could not bring themselves to go back once more to the original beginning of Lent, i.e., the first Sunday of Lent, which marks the beginning of the forty-day period prior to the start of the Easter triduum. By way of justification the Roman commentary on the General Norms called attention to the fact that the rite of ashes on Ash Wednesday has made this day more popular among the faithful “than many other days of greater solemnity. It seems advisable for this reason to make no change here in our effort to restore to the sacred ‘forty days’ their full symbolic power.” Instead the authorities settled for an Easter penitential period that “lasts from Ash Wednesday to the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive,” or forty-four days if Sundays be included, thirty-eight if they are not.
The pre-Lent period is “abolished, since it had no special character of its own and in the Divine Office made use of the parts for Ordinary Time. It was always extremely difficult to preach on it to the people (just what meaning do the words Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima have?); more particularly, the existence of this season robbed the penitential season of its novelty before it even began (Adam, pp. 5-96).
With the inclusion of Ash Wednesday through Saturday after Wednesday, the season of Lent will never equal exactly forty days, including Sundays or not. The number of days is not really a deciding factor in determining if Sundays are included in Lent.
Days of Fasting
Another source of confusion is the formerly stringent fast rules throughout all of Lent. In times past, fasting was everyday except Sundays. The Church never required fasting on Sundays, hence this former idea that Sundays were not included in Lent.
The reorganization of Lent in 1969 changed the focus from calling Lent a “season of fasting.” The modern fasting laws require only two days (Ash Wednesday and Good Friday) of fasting. The term “season of fasting” is no longer applicable as far as required fasting from food, and also has a more negative connotation compared to the other liturgical seasons of the year.
[T]his period of preparation for Easter has a richer meaning. Above and beyond the works of abnegation, it calls for a greater openness to the word of God, a great zeal in attending the liturgy and performing works of charity, and a conversion (cf. M 1.15) in every area of life so as to obey the message of the gospel (Adam, p. 94).
The aspect of understanding Sunday as a day set apart from other days of Lent is rooted in Christian tradition, but since there are only two days of required fasting, the idea of Sundays giving rest from fasting doesn’t exactly apply to the modern laws of the Church. But this traditional view that Sunday should not be dominated by penance does play a large role in understanding the spirit of Sundays even in Lent.
Lenten penance doesn’t only mean following the laws of abstinence and fasting. Last week I explained how everyone is obligated to do penance, particularly during Lent. It’s not just a pious practice for some to choose, but required of all Catholics. The difference between personal penance and the laws of abstinence and fasting is that practicing the former one is not bound by sin.
People often use the term “fast” generally, applying to their personal penances and extra mortifications and sacrifices during Lent. The Church encourages us to have a spirit of conversion and to rend our hearts and pray, fast and give alms. Here is where the main question expands. Does my personal “fasting” need to extend into Sunday? Am I obligated to keep up all my penances even on Sunday?
To answer this extended question requires one more factor to be considered.
Primacy of Sundays
The final reason this question is raised about Sundays in Lent is recognizing the special character the Church has always held of Sundays. From the General Norms of the Liturgical Year and the Calendar:
4. On the first day of each week, which is known as the Day of the Lord or the Lord’s Day, the Church, by an apostolic tradition that draws its origin from the very day of the Resurrection of Christ, celebrates the Paschal Mystery. Hence, Sunday must be considered the primordial feast day.
5. Because of its special importance, the celebration of Sunday gives way only to Solemnities and Feasts of the Lord; indeed, the Sundays of Advent, Lent and Easter have precedence over all Feasts of the Lord and over all Solemnities.
The Code of Canon Law provides our obligations for Sundays:
Can. 1246 §1. Sunday, on which by apostolic tradition the paschal mystery is celebrated, must be observed in the universal Church as the primordial holy day of obligation....
Can. 1247 On Sundays and other holy days of obligation, the faithful are obliged to participate in the Mass.
Moreover, they are to abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God, the joy proper to the Lord’s day, or the suitable relaxation of mind and body.
And finally, the passages 2168-2195 of Catechism of the Catholic Church describes in more detail about Sundays:
2042 The first precept (“You shall attend Mass on Sundays and holy days of obligation and rest from servile labor”) requires the faithful to sanctify the day commemorating the Resurrection of the Lord...by participating in the Eucharistic celebration, in which the Christian community is gathered, and by resting from those works and activities which could impede such a sanctification of these days.
2194 The institution of Sunday helps all “to be allowed sufficient rest and leisure to cultivate their familial, cultural, social, and religious lives” (GS 67 § 3).
Since the beginning the Church has viewed Sundays as a day of celebration and remembrance of the Resurrection. As St. Augustine described Sundays, “Fasting, is set aside and prayers are said standing, as a sign of the Resurrection, which is also why the Alleluia is sung on every Sunday.“ Sundays are a little Easter. While Sundays in Lent count as days in the Lenten season, the character of Sunday is not abrogated. Balancing the primacy of Sunday is vitally important even in Lent.
Spirit of Sundays in Lent
Returning to the original question as to whether Sundays are part of Lent and whether to continue penances even on Sunday requires a two-part answer.
First, Sundays are definitely included in the count of days in the Lenten season and are an integral part of the Lenten liturgy.
Secondly, as far as being required to continue Lenten penances there is no outright declaration from the Church either way. The different teachings and writings point to Sundays having a different character that encourages less penance. Sundays are also “the primordial feast day,” recalling the resurrection of Christ and require a different focus even through Lent. The Church has never required fasting on Sundays, and the only abstaining required on Sundays is to “abstain from those works and affairs which hinder the worship to be rendered to God” (Code of Canon Law).
Personal penances are just that, personal. Depending on the type can help the decision on whether to continue them on Sundays. If I am “giving up” speaking uncharitably and reining in my temper for Lent, then discontinuing my penance on Sundays would mean I wouldn’t be keeping the spirit of Sunday. If another part of my penance was to “give up” sweets for Lent, it might be more in the spirit of Sunday to indulge in dessert with family as part of celebrating the feast.
In my family, my husband and I looked at the spirit of the Church regarding Sundays and decided we would keep the spirit of Sundays even in Lent. Throughout the year we try to follow Pope St. John Paul II’s advice on keeping Sundays holy from his Apostolic Letter Dies Domini. Sundays and Solemnities are the highest feast days, and need to be treated separately and differently from the rest of the year. We insert the Lenten flavor and liturgical spotlight, but we embrace Sunday as a joyful feast day. Our Sundays continue a Lenten focus throughout the day, discussing the Mass readings, adding extra prayers and working on good habits, but we do allow a little relaxation of some physical penances on Sundays. Our time is spent together as a family. A must is a special family breakfast and dinner, and some time during the day perhaps enjoying a movie, dessert, or even having dinner in a restaurant. And we do it without guilt, knowing that this is the spirit of Sunday in the Church, no matter what season of the year.
The opening question has a definite positive answer: Sundays are a primary part of the Lenten season. Are Lenten penances required through Sunday? No personal penances are required. Should they be continued through Sunday? That is a question that requires some prayerful consideration before answering. There is no definitive answer. Even in Lent the Church preserves the primacy of Sunday as a joyful feast commemorating the Resurrection of Christ. The spirit of Sunday must be considered in evaluating those Lenten penances on Sunday, but it will be a final decision between God and me.
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Posted by: jgmiller -
Feb. 17, 2021 7:12 PM ET USA
Alcuin, The main reason is the Holy Triduum does not count as days of Lent--they are set apart as separate days. However you count it, it won't officially add up to 40 days.
Posted by: Alcuin -
Feb. 17, 2021 1:23 PM ET USA
I am confused by the Counting the Days section. 'Ideally, the Lenten season should have forty days ... Counting every day from Ash Wednesday until Thursday afternoon of Holy Week the total is forty-four days. Removing the six Sundays drops the count to less than the ideal forty.' Isn't it much simpler to say '...from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday is 46 days. Removing the 6 Sundays drops the count to forty.' If you count that way, then the number of days is exactly 40, like it ought to be.
Posted by: jgmiller -
Mar. 08, 2015 4:45 PM ET USA
I will also add that the preaching I hear during Ordinary Time after Christmas has the same focus of the Pre-Lenten season. We are preparing for Lent and Easter.
Posted by: jgmiller -
Mar. 08, 2015 4:43 PM ET USA
Pre-Lent season was instituted in part to curb some of the Carnival abuses, to provide some spiritual focus. But Adam's point is that the season robs Lent of its uniqueness, such as the purple vestments, and the omission of the Gloria and Alleluia. While some people are fond of it, it is confusing, because it's not Lent, and yet it looks and feels like Lent. When we receive the Ashes on Ash Wednesday, all our senses are prodded to let us know that we are in Lent requiring conversion.
Posted by: stephanie.linden2136 -
Mar. 08, 2015 6:32 AM ET USA
Because you quoted Adam further about abolishing Pre-lent I have to say I don't get his reasoning. If the Church abolishes seasons or Feasts because it is difficult to preach about we are in big trouble! How many Pentecost Sundays have I heard only Mothers' Day glorifications or nothing at all ... In fact, I have even heard and read enlightening texts about the Pre-lenten season. Otherwise, a very helpful article. Thanks!