When does Lent begin and end?
Lent begins today…or does it? Fr Jonathan Jong explains the dates of Lent, and reminds us of its preparatory character.
The observance of a period of fasting before Easter is very ancient, though the length and character of the fast varied from place to place in the early days. Writing in the 2nd and 3rd centuries, Irenaeus of Lyons and Tertullian in North Africa both mention preparatory fasts in the days leading up to Easter. By the 4th and 5th centuries, there is evidence of a much longer period of fasting before Easter: both Athanasius’s and Cyril’s Festal Letters assume a 40 day fast, for example [1, 2]. There are, however, still debates over how the earlier pre-paschal fasts are related to this later establishment of Lenten practice: is the latter merely an extension of the former, or are they separate periods of fasting? What counts as this “fast of forty days” mentioned by Athanasius? How does Lent relate to Holy Week?  The simple question “When does Lent begin and end?” can lead to surprisingly varied answers.
The crux of the confusion is that “Lent”—taken from the Old English word for spring—refers both to the period of fasting as well as to a liturgical season: it would not be unreasonable to expect these two periods to be identical, but they do not. For Christians of the Roman Rite—as well as for Anglicans and Protestants who have inherited this tradition—the Lenten fast begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on Holy Saturday, inclusive: this makes 46 days. However, as Sundays are always feast days—and therefore never days of fasting—the six Sundays between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday are deducted from the Lenten fast, which gives us the expected 40.
Things are different for Byzantine Rite Christians: Eastern Orthodox, etc. Of course, the date of Easter is calculated differently, and only occasionally coincides with that of the Western Church: the next time this will happen is in the year 2025. The forty days of the Lenten Fast are also calculated differently. For Eastern Christians, Lent begins on Clean Monday, which is two days before Ash Wednesday on the years when Easter coincides: as it were, they begin earlier than we do. They also end earlier, on the Friday before Palm Sunday. Those with more felicity with arithmetic will notice that this only makes 40 days if Sundays are included, which they are. Now, to say that Great Lent ends before Palm Sunday is not to suggest that Eastern Orthodox Christians stop fasting early: there is a separate period of fasting for Holy Week! Holy Week is also liturgically distinct from Lent.
With the publication of General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar in 1969, there has since been a discrepancy between the Lenten Fast and the liturgical season of Lent in the Roman Catholic Church, and those who adopt her calendar: the latter begins on Ash Wednesday and ends just before the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Maundy Thursday. The Mass of the Lord’s Supper marks the beginning of the Triduum, liturgically considered distinct from Lent. There is no sense in which this counts as a forty day period.
Fortunately, most of us can safely ignore this distinction made under Pope Paul VI: what matters to us is the fast, rather than the liturgical season. In this sense, the widely accepted idea that Lent goes from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday (i.e., up to the Easter Vigil) is correct: if there is any new information here, it is that this is only a 40 day period if Sundays are omitted. So, Christians are faced with a dilemma. If we fast for contiguous days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, we will end up fasting for 46 days: if we want to fast for 40 days by omitting Sundays, the fast will not be contiguous. I am not at all tempted to wade into these waters wielding a strong recommendation either way, not least because the oft-recited platitudes are unconvincing. Jesus may only have fasted for 40 days—rather than 46—but there is nothing to suggest that he took breaks every week: ditto Moses on Sinai, Elijah to Horeb, Noah’s flood.
It is probably too late for guidance and advice about what you should do—what you should “give up” or, as has been trendy for a few years now, “take on”—for your Lenten Fast, except to say something about how one ought to think about it. We are often told that we fast during Lent in emulation of Jesus’s fast in the desert, and this is true as far as it goes. But as Lent is a period of preparation—preparation for Jesus’s death and resurrection—so we should also think of the fast in preparatory terms: and not only for Jesus’s death and resurrection, but for our participation in it. Whatever you have decided to do this Lent, do ask yourself: how does this prepare me to die with Christ, and to rise again with him?
Bradshaw, P. F., & Johnson, M. E. (2011). The origins of feasts, fasts, and seasons in early Christianity. Collegeville, MN: Pueblo.
Russo, N. V. (2013). The early history of Lent. Christian Reflection. Waco, TX: The Center for Christian Ethics Baylor University.
Athanasius (Festal Letter 6), John Chrysostom (Homily 30), and the Apostolic Constitution (Book 5.13-14) may all be read as distinguishing between the forty Lenten days from Holy Week.