Choose the option that most corresponds to your understanding of the length of Lent to determine the Church age and possible location in which you are living:
Option 1: Extending from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday (roughly six full weeks) for a total of 44 days of Lent.
Option 2: Extending from Ash Wednesday, except Sundays are exempt, for a total of 38 days of Lent.
Option 3: Lasting six full weeks, with Sundays exempt, for a total of 36 Days of Lent.
Option 4: Lasting eight full weeks, with Saturday and Sunday exempt, for a total of 40 days of Lent.
Option 5: Beginning the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and ending on Holy Thursday for a total of 40 days of Lent.
Option 6: Lent extends over six weeks beginning the Sunday after Ash Wednesday and penance is done only five days of the week for a total of 35 days of Lent.
If you chose Option 1 or 2 then, congratulations, you are living in the current time after Vatican II under the Roman Rite. If you chose option 3, you are living in Rome under Pope Gregory the Great in the late sixth century and the early seventh century. If you chose option 4, then you are living in Jerusalem during the late fourth century. If you chose option 5, then you are living under the Roman rite, likely somewhere in the world after the council of Trent (sixteenth century) and before Vatican II (twentieth century). If you choose option 6, you are likely living in the Church of Milan using the Ambrosian rite under a practice that likely extends from the time of St. Ambrose himself (fourth century) to today.
If any of this surprises you. Good. Because it demonstrates both a universal practice of the Catholic Church as well as the unique cultural take on those universal practices that are acceptable. But more importantly it helps to answer the yearly question of “How long is Lent?” The traditional answer to that question is “forty days.” However, from the data above option 6 is the only modern option in the group that makes Lent exactly 40 days. In the Roman Rite, no matter how you do the math and what Sundays you take out and add in, Lent does not add up to forty days. So what does this mean? Absolutely nothing.
The reason it means nothing is that there are various cultural traditions, theological understandings and rites within Catholicism that allow for such leeway in regards to certain feasts, fasts, and penances. It would be silly to say that Lent must calculate to exactly forty days and not a second longer or shorter, for this would go against the opinions of Saints and Popes. Take for example option 3, Pope Gregory the Great, for whom is the name sake of Gregorian Chant and the Gregorian Calendar, only celebrates Lent for 36 days. Though Gregory did attach a meaning of tithing to the 36 days, as he saw the 36 days of fasting and penance as ten percent of the solar year of 365 days, which gave Lent a different theological meaning. Yet, contrary to the earlier Pope, most post-Vatican II Catholics celebrate a Lent that consists of 44 days in length and can possibly consist of only 38 days of penance.
When asked “when does Lent begin?” the traditional answer that most Catholic know today is “Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.” But this was not always the case. Before Vatican II, Lent did not begin on Ash Wednesday. The first telling support of this is that in the older Roman Missal, on the First Sunday of Lent, the priest would make mention of the “sacrificium quadragesimalis initii,” the sacrifice beginning or initiating the forty days. The forty days, or “quadragesimalis” is a reference to Lent. The second example is found in many daily missals of today. The days following Ash Wednesday up to the first Sunday in Lent are marked as the Thursday, Friday and Saturday after Ash Wednesday as opposed to the days after the First Sunday of Lent that get named specifically by the week of Lent in which the Church is in followed by the day of the week (i.e. Monday of the Second week of Lent or Second week of Lent: Monday).
If Lent didn’t always begin on Ash Wednesday and it really isn’t forty days in length any more, then why do people keep saying Lent is forty days in length? For three reasons.The first being that at one point in time Lent was forty days.
The second is that the Congregation for Divine Worship and the Discipline of the Sacrament states in paragraph 125 of the Directory on Popular Piety and the Liturgy Principles and Guidelines written in 2001 that “In the Roman Rite, the beginning of the forty days of penance is marked with the austere symbol of ashes which are used in the Liturgy of Ash Wednesday.” Though the document does not say how it calculates the 40 days, it affirms the tradition that Lent is 40 days in length. Neither does the document mention whether or not Sundays are to be included into that count.
The third tails from biblical theology where the number forty was the number of testing. A quick glace at the notable forties in the Old Testamet leads to the conclusion that to do something for 40 days means to be tested. Noah and his family were test in the 40 day flood. Moses was on Mount Sinai with God for 40 days. Elijah the prophet traveled for 40 days without food in the desert to meet with God atop Mount Horeb. Jonah preached to the Ninevites who in turn did penance for 40 days to show God that Nineveh had truly taken to heart the prophet’s call to repentance. Lastly, Israel traveled in the desert for 40 years. In a homily on the book of Numbers, the early Christian writer Origen linked the forty years as well as the names and locations the Israelites traveled to a period of testing, training, and purging that needed to happen to prepare Israel to enter into the promise land. Scripturally speaking, liking the number forty to a person or event is to says that the person underwent a trial or the event was a trial or test. Therefore to put Christ in the desert for forty day is to say that Christ is being tested, which is later depicted with His encounter with the devil.
Though the math might not make sense (after all Christianity has never been good at numbers as two still equates to three in the Trinity) this is a prime example of connecting to the spiritual and mysterious meaning of Lent, where the Christian undergoes his or her own trial, whether it is set forth by their own means or comes from an outside source.
Ultimately, Lent is a prime example of the spirit of the law meeting the letter of the law. Both are important, and both are necessary, for a spirit without its body is a horrid and frightful thing, but sometimes the letter and spirit of the law do not always correspond as nicely as we would like.
If time and culture tell us that Lent has varied over the years what is the modern Catholic to do today during this Lent? Simple. Follow the wisdom of the Church as guided by the Holy Spirit.
However you count it, we are about at the halfway point of Lent and there is still time for penance.