A few friends have posted on Facebook asking about whether Sundays in Lent “count” for fasting from whatever one has given up for the penitential season. This issue also came up in conversation with a few friends at dinner over the weekend. There are a few good reasons as to why Sundays indeed do not count as days of Lenten fasting.
The plain matter of fact is that there are 46 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, while there are only 40 days of Lent. Those remaining six days are the six Sundays from the first Sunday in Lent to Palm Sunday. The fact that these six days are left over from the 40 days of Lent suggest that they are not actually a part of Lent.
I can understand why people get confused about this. Frankly, most people don’t realize that there are actually 46 days between the beginning and end of Lent. I know I didn’t bother to think about that until I read it somewhere on a Catholic blog or heard about it from a friend during college. So, most people assume there are 40 days between Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, thus making Sundays part of Lent.
Still, there are those who are of the opinion that even though Sundays are a remainder from the 40 days of Lent, one should continue one’s fast on those days. Such a person might consider it “cheating” to take that piece of candy from the bowl, or watch that TV show one has blocked during the week. It’s spiritually “wimpy” to “give in” and indulge in whatever you have given up for Lent on Sundays.
I think that this attitude often carries an implicit disoriented intention, and simply goes against good theology. Sure, it is good to fast, to do penance, make reparation for sins as much as one can. God knows this world needs more of that now more than ever. However, as the Catechism reminds us, each Sunday is a special commemoration of the Paschal Mystery, most notably the Resurrection of Christ, who rose from the dead on Sunday. In other words, each Sunday is a “mini-Easter” (just as each Friday is a “mini-Good Friday,” a notion which has been lost in modern Catholicism).
Sundays during Lent are no exception. They are “mini-Easters” as much as any other Sunday is. As the Lord Himself said, when the bridegroom is present, His friends do not fast. Neither should we on a day when we particularly commemorate the bridegroom’s Resurrection, His being-with-us in glorified and definitive form. Sundays call for celebration, for breaking from the fast. This includes our Lenten fast. I’m tempted to argue that it is actually improper to abstain from whatever one has given up for Lent on a Sunday. As the reading from Morning Prayer of the Liturgy of the Hours says, “Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” (Nehemiah 8:10). Sounds like a command to be – do not be saddened!
Can the fast be extended healthily into the 6 Sundays of Lent? Sure. Like I said above, more fasting is not a bad thing. However, the Church has made the 6 Sundays amidst Lent extraneous to the 40 days of Lent proper for a reason. It seems to me, based on how people talk about breaking the fast on Sundays as “taking a day off” or “cheating” or “being wimpy,” the implicit source of such an intention is not a desire for a greater love of God – which is the only reason we fast, anyways – but a focus primarily on the self, on what I can do, how good I can be. A very slight distinction, sure – we all strive to do more for God, to be good – but a distinction nonetheless. The emphasis with this intention falls first on the I, then on God, when it must be the other way around for true goodness to emerge. It also seems to say one knows better than the careful reflection of the 2,000 year tradition on the Church (you could add an another few thousand years if you want to include the history of Judaism as well, which would give more credence to relaxing and rejoicing in the Sabbath).
So, next Sunday, go ahead and break your fast. The Church encourages you to. It’s proper to the spirit of the day. You’ll find me at La Cave Du Vin with a great craft beer, that’s for sure.