Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent in the Catholic Church, is always 46 days before Easter Sunday. It is a “movable” feast that is assigned a date in the calendar only after the date of Easter Sunday is calculated. How is it calculated? I’m glad you asked.
According to the norms established by the Council of Nicaea (325 AD) and later adopted for Western Christianity at the Synod of Whitby, Easter Sunday falls each year on the first Sunday following the first full moon after the vernal equinox. This year the vernal equinox falls on Monday, March 20, 2017 and the first full moon after that occurs on Tuesday, April 11, 2017. Therefore, Easter Sunday is celebrated this year on April 16. If you want Ash Wednesday, just count backwards 46 days and you get March 1, 2017.
But why 46? I thought Lent was the season of “40 days” in the desert. What’s the deal? The six Sundays in Lent are not considered part of the official “Lenten fast” (every Sunday is a special remembrance of the Resurrection of Christ), and so if you subtract six from 46, you get the famous 40 days of Lent. There you have it. That is why this year Ash Wednesday is on March 1.
The six Sundays within the season are not considered by the Church days of the “Lenten Fast?” This is on account of Sundays being recognized as a day in the Church calendar that commemorates the Resurrection of Jesus. Sundays, in the eyes of the Church, are a “feast” day, a day to celebrate the Resurrection. This is why, even before Vatican II, Sundays in the Roman Rite are exempt from the rigors of fasting and abstinence.
Does this mean I can binge watch my favorite Netflix shows or eat chocolate on Sundays? Catholics have traditionally been encouraged to take on additional penitential practices during Lent, such as giving up chocolate or a favorite activity, or making some other type of sacrifice, but these practices are not regulated by the Catholic Church. Each person is asked to discern what sacrifice they are able to make and to do so according to their state in life. I would offer that sacra fice is Latin for “make holy.”
This type of sacra fice is entirely personal in nature and intentional. A person must also make the intentional choice whether or not to continue their penitential practice on Sundays during Lent. In some cases, it may be advisable to continue that practice even on Sundays.
For example, if a person is hoping to establish a discipline against a specific bad habit during Lent, “taking a break” on Sundays could be so detrimental to that effort that it can tempt one away from the Lenten effort altogether. On the other hand, if one has given up bread or desserts and is attending a 50th wedding anniversary during a Sunday in Lent, it might be a good and festive thing to fully participate in the celebratory meal, both in remembrance of the resurrection, and the happy occasion before one.
If the question is, “in Lent, do we fast or feast on Sundays?” the correct answer would be “it depends.” We are not obligated to fast on Sundays during Lent and are generally encouraged to celebrate the joy of the Resurrection, but for our own personal benefit, it may be a good idea to extend our Lenten practice on Sundays as well.