Do Sundays Count? A Lenten Consideration

February 24, 2012

Should we observe our Lenten fasts on Sunday?

It has finally come again.  The Season of Lent, I am speaking of.  I always find it a relief.  Many folks are surprised to hear me say that.  I think of a scene from the vintage 1970s biopic “Brother Sun, Sister Moon.”  St. Francis has shed his clothing and is making a ruckus in the piazza below the Cathedral.  The bishop – depicted as an obese and aloof aristocrat – is about to bite into a turkey leg when one of his clerical aides rushes in and calls for his help to disburse the crowd that has gathered to take in the spectacle.  The bishop sets down his turkey leg, sighs and says, “Oh, I just got over Lent!”  This is often how the world looks at these six weeks in which we are called to acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving.  For anyone who has ever engaged the season in the spirit of repentance and with a desire to grow in holiness, however, you should hear a different tune.

If we view this season as a burden with no positive benefit, then our acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are senseless and in vain.

Is Lent a challenge?  To be sure, but it is a challenge to greatness.  I am reminded of the passage from St. Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, “Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable one.”  (Several years ago, the graduating eighth graders at St. James school wanted to offer a parting gift to their school, and they wanted to bring a more Christian atmosphere to the gymnasium.  This was their parting gift, emblazoned at the center of the basketball court.)  When training for a marathon or a big game, athletes think nothing of self-denial.  In fact, they do it joyfully, because they know that whatever they “sacrifice” it will be to their benefit in competition.  In one discussion about fasting, I was surprised to hear one man say that when he was growing up, they didn’t fast or abstain from meat because his parents “thought it was a stupid rule”.  On the other hand, he said he would often fast to make weight for his wrestling matches.  I write that not to criticize the man who said it, but to point out that the world holds up certain values and will encourage us to do whatever we must to attain to those values.  Many in the world will criticize or demean religious people for making similar sacrifices to discipline the will and to be more attuned to the spiritual life.  If we view this season as a burden with no positive benefit, then our acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving are senseless and in vain.  On the other hand, if we see this as a time of intense training which engages the body, mind and soul and helps to equip us in our journey to holiness, then we cannot help but be joyful in this time of challenge.

that sacrifice is necessarily an act of worship, by which we take that which we hold dear, that which we treasure, and give it to God.

Lent is characterized, in the minds of most people, as the time to “give something up.”  Of course that is one way of describing the “fasting” component.  But to speak merely in terms of “giving up” is to miss the point of the fast.  When I fast I am disciplining my appetites – whether for food, drink, pleasure, sex, etc. – but I am also making a sacrifice.  I was recently reminded by a wise old priest whom I use as my confessor on a regular basis, that sacrifice is necessarily an act of worship, by which we take that which we hold dear, that which we treasure, and give it to God.  We do not give to God that which is less than pleasing to us, just as a lame animal would not be worthy of Sacrificial worship, so our Lenten sacrifice should be nothing less than that which we treasure, and it’s absence in our life will cause us some pain, but that void will be filled with the greater good of knowing that our highest treasure is God, and our fasting is a means to draw nearer to – or, rather to be drawn nearer by – Him whom we seek.  Further, consider that the term sacrifice is derived from two Latin words: sacra and facere.  Sacra is the root of the English cognate “Sacred” which means “Holy” or “set aside for a holy purpose.”  Facere is a Latin word meaning “to make.”  Consider that it is the root of the term “factory” a place where “things” are made.  Put together, sacrafacere or “sacrifice” should also be understood as a means of “making Holy” or, in the case of sacrifices we offer to God, a means by which we allow God to fashion us in holiness.

When considering what one may do as a sacrifice for Lent, it is possible to “fast” from any number of things, including food, media, entertainment, alcohol, etc.  Of course fasting is but one of the three components of Lent, the other two being prayer and almsgiving.  Prayer may take many forms both public, private, devotional and liturgical.  Almsgiving likewise may take any number of forms of “giving” specifically to alleviate the plight of the poor.  One may unite his fasting with his almsgiving by taking that which he might have spent on forsaken food, entertainment, etc. and giving that to the poor as an alms.  Another form of almsgiving may take the form or visiting the home-bound or hospitalized, or giving one’s time in service to the poor – perhaps directly, for example by working in a shelter or soup kitchen, or indirectly, by sorting clothes in a charity thrift shop, or some other such work.

One question I have often encountered is the one which I have chosen as the title for this reflection, “Do Sunday’s count?”  The implication is that Sunday, being a “little Easter” might be a day to relax one’s penance (i.e. “fasting”) and celebrate the resurrection.  Some people will even point out that if we were to count up the days between Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday, we would come up with the number 46 – remove the

This may be a legitimate interpretation, but it seems to me to be based a bit too much on legalistic numerology!

6 Sundays of Lent and you are left with the proverbial “Forty Days” (in Latin this season is officially called Quadragesima which means “Forty Days”).  This may be a legitimate interpretation, but it seems to me to be based a bit too much on legalistic numerology!  I have often seen the term “Forty Days” as a figure which calls to mind the time Jesus spent in the desert and the forty years that Israel spent wandering in the wilderness before entering the promised land.  This use of a nice even number shouldn’t be seen as an exact figure either, since the extraordinary form of the Roman Rite (aka the “traditional Latin Mass”) observes Quinquagesima, Sexagesima and Septuagesima Sundays which correspond respectively to the 3 weeks prior to the start of Lent, even though the names literally denote 50, 60 and 70 days!  Furthermore, even if Sundays are like “a little Easter” the Church clearly includes them, liturgically-speaking as part of Lent.  In fact, they are known by their order in this sacred season – “the First Sunday of Lent” etc.  And the liturgy is toned down to reflect the more somber nature of the season (The Gloria and Alleluia are omitted from the Sunday Mass and the Te Deum is not prayed by those who pray the Divine Office).

He said that, given the potential for growth in holiness, he couldn’t see why he would want to “take Sundays off.”

Since one may choose whatever acts of prayer, fasting and almsgiving one wishes to offer as a sacrifice, then I suppose one is free to determine how that will take shape.  We are called to pay special attention to penance during this holy season, but the Church – apart from a few minimal requirements of fasting and abstinence – does not strictly outline what is to be done and how they are to be observed.  Likewise if one wishes to relax his penance for Sundays, he is free to do so.  Others may choose to observe the same sacrifice for the whole of Lent, Sundays included.  I posed the question, “do Sundays count?” to several parishioners and was moved by the response of one man who re-discovered the Catholic faith of his baptism when he was already married with children in his late twenties.  He said that, given the potential for growth in holiness, he couldn’t see why he would want to “take Sundays off.”  I tend to agree with him and generally follow suit – the two exceptions being when the Solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation fall during the season of Lent.  These feasts are exceptional in that the Gloria is called to be sung during the Mass (though the Alleluia is still omitted) and the Te Deum is to be sung in the Divine Office.  Based on those liturgical cues, it seems reasonable that one may find reason to relax his penance as a short break.

Regardless of how one may choose to answer the question, “Do Sundays count?” I hope that each of you have prayerfully considered (or will do so in the coming days) what means you plan to use during this Lenten season to grow in Holiness.  Or, rather, to allow the Lord to increase in your heart the capacity to return His Love!

So how about it, “Do Sundays count?”  Let’s talk about it.

About Father Joseph Totton

Father Joseph Totton has written 2 post in this blog.

A parish priest ordained in 2004, Father Totton has served the past five years as Pastor of St. James Parish in St. Joseph, Missouri. He previously served as Parochial Vicar at Christ the King Parish in Kansas City, Missouri, and as Parochial Administrator for Immaculate Conception Parish in Lexington, Missouri. Fr. Totton has always taken a keen interest in the Sacred Liturgy, particularly the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, as the principal encounter between the Christ’s Faithful and His Divine Presence. Trained in both forms of the Roman Rite, he has offered Mass in the Extraordinary Form (“Traditional Latin Mass”) since 2007. Additionally, Fr.Totton regularly offers Mass in the Ordinary Form, employing both Latin and the English vernacular. In his spare time, Fr. Totton enjoys bicycling as well as playing recreational ice hockey and racquetball.

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  • Ryan Ellis

    Sundays don’t count, since they are too highly-ranked. Neither do general solemnities (St Joseph, Annunciation). Practically, neither does St. Patrick’s Day, which most would characterize as a de facto national solemnity in the United States. Neither do local solemnities, like the anniversary of the dedication of a parish.

    But to make up for it, I would counsel using the older rules for fasting and abstinence:

    –Fasting on Ash Wednesday and the Fridays and Saturdays of Lent

    –total abstinence Wednesdays, Fridays, and Saturdays of Lent, plus Holy Week after Palm Sunday

    –partial abstinence on other ferias of Lent

  • Kerry

    Beautiful post! I used to fast during Sundays as well, until a priest at our parish gave a homily about Sundays being “mini Easters.” While you did address that point, our family was moved by the homily to consider lenten Sundays as mini Easters and allow a break from our fast. However, it is a small break. For instance, if I have given up chocolate, I may have one Hershey’s kiss. My young children, in their innocence, have chosen to give up all screens (tv and computer). I know this will be hard for them, and going six days straight is tough enough, so I like “rewarding” them with a short video on Sundays.

    I like how you did not cast judgment one way or another, just gave some things to consider. Well written and insightful! Thank you!

  • Father Joseph Totton

    Ryan, I hope you read the full article and didn’t simply post your response in answer to the provocative headline! My point in writing this reflection was NOT to start an argument or arrive at an absolute conclusion, but to point out that both interpretations are legitimate. Though I cringe to think that my words may be taken as endorsing relativism – which I do NOT endorse. As I mentioned in the reflection, the Solemn (and I use that word very precisely) character of the Feasts of St. Joseph and the Annunciation are different than what is presented for the typical Sunday (White vestments, Gloria, Te Deum) which I why I DO relax my penance on those days, but not every Sunday.

    Kerry, I like your approach also (a slight relaxation of penance on Sundays), and I have observed as much in the past – relaxing one penance, but not all.

    I am happy that this has generated discussion, and I hope it will lead folks to reflect more upon Lenten penance as a means to an end, and not merely as an end in itself!

  • Scott (Duns Scotus)

    Father, While I appreciate your gracious attempt to leave the question open somewhat, I think the discussion would benefit from the reading of the article “Lent” in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

    It is also interesting to consider the Catholic traditions of the Eastern. In my opinion this evidence shows that Sundays were at the very least not as serious fast days. One pint but maybe not three. :)

    • admin1

      After reading New Advent’s article I think there is plenty of room to arrive at either conclusion,
      “From what has been said it will be clear that in the early Middle Ages Lent throughout the greater part of the Western Church consisted of forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and six Sundays. From the beginning to the end of that time all flesh meat, and also, for the most part, “lacticinia”, were forbidden even on Sundays,”
      If the objective is holiness and intimacy with Christ, then it’s not so much about what we’re ALLOWED to do, but what CAN we do to help that happen. From what I’ve read it is permissible, and even meritorious, to feast on Sunday. It is also permissible and meritorious to continue our fast on Sunday.

      • Scott (Duns Scotus)

        I agree with you that what we do with Lent is essentially personal and should lead us to greater holiness.

        On the historical point, I have heard some people suggest that the relaxing of the fast on Sundays in Lent is “a modern invention.” As a historical point I think that this at least is false. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia (1910) Rome itself celebrated Lent in the fifth century exclusive of both Saturday and Sundays. I am guessing that Saturday is mentioned because traditionally feast days begin at sunset the day before.

        The CE also notes; “In the time of Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all . . ” thus excluding Sundays.

        According the CE only later in the Middle Ages did *most* of the Western Church celebrated Lent for forty weekdays, which were all fast days, and included six Sundays. This strict tradition was then gradually relaxed! I would also point out that the strictness of this fast may have had to do with the monastic setting of the sources. Although in the Middle Ages “lacticinia” became the ‘common law’ of the Church, CE notes exceptions were admitted, and dispensations were often granted.

        Nuf said, Happy Lent!

        • admin1

          I have never heard anyone say that relaxing a fast on Lent is “a modern invention”. Interesting. I know that is not what Father Totton was saying. The desire to know and love God more sometimes trumps our desire to feast. Feasting is beautiful and be expression of love toward God…so is fasting.

  • Karyn

    Father, I think you make many good points. This reminds me of the saying from the desert fathers–The bow that is stretched too tight may break. They lived ascetic lives, but realized the value in taking time for fellowship and other enjoyable activities. What about making Sunday part of your Lenten practice? Rather than focusing on the thing you gave up, focus instead on making Sunday a truly holy day by adding something to it you don’t normally do. For example, reading Scripture, a family rosary, inviting neighbors over for a meal, visiting a nursing home, etc..

  • Father Totton

    The highly respected Fr. Z (Fr. John T. Zuhlsdorf) seems to concur with my opinion. You may check out his take on it below. His argument is based largely on the liturgical cues. For what it’s worth, Fr. Z. and I did not collaborate on this.

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