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Friday, February 24, 2012

Just Gotta Make it to Sunday

Well, we're nearing the First Sunday of Lent, and already I hear people saying things like "I can't wait for Sunday so I can eat X again," and "Just a couple more days and I can take a break from Lent."  

WHAT THE HECK, PEOPLE?!?!

Now, I know that it seems to be the modern custom to "take a break" from Lent on Sundays, but have we ever really stopped to examine what we're doing and why?


Josef Jungmann, the eminent liturgical scholar (who eventually went a little nutty--too much progressive liturgical theology can do that to a person!), has the following to say:
Even before the introduction of Lent it had been customary to fast before Easter: one day, two days, even a week.  But even when Lent was generally accepted, not all of its forty days (from the First Sunday of Lent until Holy Thursday) were at first regarded as fast days.  In Rome toward the end of the fourth century a fast of three weeks was usual; and even when people began to fast on all the other days of Lent they still made an exception of the Sundays.  Because Lent contains six Sundays, there thus remained thirty-four fast days leading up to the ancient paschal triduum.  But if Good Friday and Holy Saturday (which were also fast days) were counted as well, that made thirty-six days in all--just one tenth of a year.  In this fashion, as was observed with a certain satisfaction (for example, by John Cassian and Gregory the Great), one paid a tithe of one year to God.
But since the seventh century considerable importance began to be attached to the idea that in Lent there ought to be the full number of forty fast days.  It became necessary, therefore, to take in four days from the preceding week; and thus Ash Wednesday came to be the beginning of Lent.
Now, there are a few things we need to get clear here.  First of all, prior to Paul VI's liturgical reform of 1969, there existed in the Roman Calendar what we called the season of Septuagesima, a pre-lenten season to help ease the Faithful into the "Great Fast of Lent," as the Proclamation of Moveable Feasts calls it (even today).  Septuagesima takes its name from the number 70--a symbolic countdown of 70 days until Easter.  Of course, anyone with half a brain and a few pages of a calendar can quickly see that Septugesima Sunday is not 70 days prior to Easter.  Nor are the subsequent Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays respectively 60 and 50 days away from Easter.  They are merely symbolic--and beautifully Roman in that the Roman love of symmetry and order would far prefer to count in blocs of 10's, rather than name the Sundays something not-quite-so-elegant as Dominica Sexagesima-tertia,  Dominica Quinquagesima-sexta, and Dominica Quadrigesima-quinta.  They just don't have the same ring as Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima.  So maybe, just maybe, the reference to the First Sunday of Lent as "Quadrigesima" is not necessarily literal.  So much for Jungmann...

Keeping with the numerical gradation, Quadrigesima seemed both logical and reasonably appropriate as a number, both symbolic and more-or-less actual, given the parallel to Christ's forty days in the desert, the Hebrews' forty years of wandering in the desert, etc.  A quick glance at the calendar shows that from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday is 47 days (as Romans count them).  Without counting the Sundays, indeed there are 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.  Except that Jungmann completely overlooks the existence of the pre-lenten season, which is, of its own right, very ancient and of a dignity that belies the manner in which it was so cavalierly chucked from the calendar like dross.  But I digress.

Now to the heart of the matter.  What Jungmann is talking about is Lent as a season comprised of days of fasting.  It might seem nit-picky, but here's the point.  The practice of fasting during the aptly-named Great Fast of Lent used to be quite severe--as we can still see in our Eastern brethren.  It was not merely a season in which we "give something up," as if the removal of soda pop or candy will somehow lead us to greater spiritual purity.  [As a friend of mine pointed out, about the only impact this seems to have is to inflate one's Pride.]  Rather, it included the removal of ALL extravagances, including meat, cheeses, butter, eggs, confections...and the list continues. But, this isn't fasting--this is simply abstaining.

Fasting, as it exists in the law of the Church, consists in taking one normal-sized meal per day, with the inclusion of up to two smaller snacks (collations) that, combined, do not amount to a full meal.  While the distinction between fasting and abstinence currently exists in the Church, that was not the case in previous generations.  Once upon a time, they were one and the same.  When you fasted, you abstained.  When you abstained, you fasted.  Which means you both cut certain things out of your diet, AND decreased the amount you were consuming.

What Jungmann is describing seems to make the fasting/abstinence distinction, and to speak far more about the lessening of the fasting restriction in terms of the amount of food to be taken, rather than the actual foods that are consumed.  It would be more in keeping with a proper historical understanding of the Church's understanding of the Lenten season as it developed to suggest that the Faithful continued to abstain from the various foods prescribed, but ate their fill of other foods on Sundays so as to help keep up their strength during the week.  Otherwise, what would have been the point?  Even the most compulsive over-eater or junk food junkie can give something up for six days.  And it rather defeats the purpose (spiritually, theologically, and physically) of a Lenten fast if one is going to gorge himself and fall into the sin of gluttony just because "Sundays are not part of Lent."  (I would be willing to grant that, if people actually kept a proper Lenten fast in accordance with our tradition, a "pig-out" day might be allowable...but the almost sinful with which a jelly bean addict dives into the bowl on Sunday morning is both sickening and horrific.)

The fact is, Sunday IS a part of Lent.  Otherwise, we couldn't call them the Sundays of Lent.  The nature of Sunday as the Day of Resurrection does not lose any of its significance, but if Sundays were not a part of Lent, we'd be singing Gloria in excelsis Deo (and possibly even the forbidden A-word)--the same as we do on Solemnities like that of St. Joseph--left and right, wouldn't we?!  By the same logic, we would no longer be bound to observe abstinence from meat on Fridays during the Easter Season, when penitential practices are discouraged--and yet, the law still foresees the observance of certain penitential acts on all Fridays throughout the year (cf. canon 1250).  [Don't freak out, US readers--you're not required to abstain from meat every Friday of the year, but you are most certainly required to abstain from something in its place--and space exploration, root canals, and Christianity DO NOT COUNT!  Again, canon 1250.]

My point--insofar as I have one to make--is this: during the Great Fast of Lent, we must concern ourselves not just with "giving up something," but also with cutting back on the amounts of what we consume (thereby helping us to reduce the risk of committing gluttony).  There is nothing penitential about giving up candy or cookies or soda pop unless you are helplessly addicted--you'll know if this is true because you'll start going into withdrawal.  Can the joy of Easter, experienced both in the Liturgy as well as on the dinner table, be fully appreciated if we continue to stuff our faces as we consistently do throughout Lent, just avoiding one particular ingredient in our daily bucket of slop?  This makes absolutely no sense.  It would be far more reasonable, and far better in keeping with the long-standing traditions of the Church, to work toward once again partaking of the seasonal fast, in the truest sense of the word--a general scaling-back of the amount that we consume, as well as a continued practice of denying ourselves certain foods, and not merely one thing that we can most certainly live without--and probably should!

As my dear friend over at Casa Santa Lidia said, if you want to give up something for Lent, how about giving up talking about what you've given up for Lent?  (see Matthew 6: 16-18 for details)  [Incidentally, CSL has a great article right now on a different type of Lenten fasting.  Have a look!]

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