Every now and then someone goes through a calendar and counts the days in Lent and is shocked and annoyed (or at least confused) to discover that Lent is actually 46 days long. (It’s six full weeks, which is 42 days, plus the days of Ash Wednesday through Saturday adds 4 more to make 46.)
Hey! What gives? Is this a conspiracy by the Church to trick people into a 40-day season of discipline when secretly it’s really 46, and we’ve just been tricked because we almost never bother to count?
The answer is going to sound a little weird to those who are not used to the tradition of the Church, but bear with me. Lent is 46 days long as a season, but it’s only a 40-day fast. How is this possible? Because Sundays don’t count.
So, what, does this mean that Lent is a manic depressive season: “sad sad sad sad happy sad sad sad sad sad sad happy sad sad sad sad sad sad happy sad sad…?” Not exactly. To explain this properly, I need to point out a few features of the Christian calendar.
The Concept of Seasons
The Christian year is divided into a repeating pattern of seasons: Advent leads to Christmas leads to Epiphany (leads to Pre-Lent in some traditions) leads to Lent leads to Easter (leads to Ascension) leads to Pentecost leads to Trinity and the season beyond leads back to Advent. Each of these seasons have a different focus theologically, scripturally, and liturgically.
Lent fits into the picture by focusing on our sanctification, our battle against sin, the temptation and suffering of Christ, our sharing in the sufferings of Christ, the death of Christ, and our sharing in the death of Christ. It’s characterized by toning down (and in certain ways, eliminating) some of the usual praise-oriented worship and ratcheting up the penitential parts of our worship to bring our attentions more fully on our sinfulness and the continual need to repent and live & work for Christ.
Therefore, Lent as an overall season is characterized by stricter spiritual disciplines and a more somber & sober awareness of our sinfulness before a holy God, and that impacts every day in the season including Sundays.
The Concept of Holy Days
At the same time, the Church’s calendar is peppered with Holy Days (better known as holidays). Something often overlooked is that every Sunday is a holiday. Specifically, every Sunday is a feast day. Feast days are celebrations, the opposite of a fast. And, as the names imply, it is traditionally appropriate to have a special meal (a feast) on feast days, and to have fewer meals (a fast) on fast days.
Many different holidays pepper the calendar commemorating various events and people, especially ones in the Gospel books. But every Sunday is a feast day in honor of the resurrection of Jesus. In a sense, you could say that every Sunday is a mini-Easter. Therefore it is never appropriate to fast on a Sunday no matter what the season is.
Combining the Season and the Sunday
So what happens when the Sunday and the Season collide? First of all, the celebratory nature of the Sunday always is most important: Christ is risen, and that’s that. (Related to this, Communion is traditionally celebrated on every Sunday without exception, since it’s the celebration and appropriation of the whole Gospel – the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus.) But if every Sunday was explicitly and solely focused on the death and resurrection of Jesus, we’d never hear about the rest of his life, let alone the rest of the vast wealth of Scriptures!
That’s where the seasons come in to add flavor and variety. As the seasons walk us through different aspects of Christ’s identity, life, and ministry, each Sunday ends up bring out a different focus about Christ and the Christian life. With Lent being the main season that deals with human sin and sanctification, the Sundays therein are marked with a heavier sense of repentance than in other seasons. We still celebrate the joy of the resurrection every Sunday during Lent, but we also spend more time than usual reflecting on the cost of that victory along the way.
So Lent is… how long?
As a season of heightened penitential worship and self-reflection, Lent is 46 days long. As a fast, however, Lent is only 40 days long, broken up by each Sunday along the way.
So what about those Lenten disciplines I’m undertaking? If you’ve endeavored to fast or abstain from something during Lent, then according to the spirit of the holidays you don’t have to fast or abstain from those things on Sundays. In that sense, Sundays are like a break from those exercises. This may sound like cheating, but it’s neatly analogous to other types of exercising or practicing – it is often wise, when in a strict exercise regimen, to include planned breaks along the way to give yourself some recovery time.
On the other hand, if your Lenten discipline is something that’s focused on more forming (or eliminating) habits, then skipping Sundays may cause you to lose your momentum each week. In that case, in the spirit of the Lenten season, it makes sense to include Sundays, thus having a 46-day stretch of time to focus on fighting that certain sin, or working on that virtue you need, or whatever.
Just remember, at the end of the day, that you don’t want to turn into a legalist. In the grand scheme of things there isn’t much difference between 40 days and 46 days, and if you’re worrying too much about splitting hairs here, there’s a good chance you’re getting caught up in legalistic concerns and missing the overall spirit of Lent: sanctification through intentionally sharing in the sufferings of Christ.