National Catholic Register


Ash Wednesday Already?

Lent won’t be this early again for 152 years



February 3-9, 2008 Issue | Posted 1/29/08 at 1:41 PM


ST. LOUIS — It hasn’t happened since 1913, and it won’t happen again until the year 2160.

Easter is coming on March 23, meaning Ash Wednesday will fall on a very early Feb. 6.

The change will have a lot of consequences.

Mardi Gras will come very early this year.

The regular dates of the feasts of St. Patrick and St. Joseph, the source of a friendly competition between Irish and Italian immigrants, fall during Holy Week. St. Joseph wins the competition, being assigned March 15 — but St. Patrick’s day will share that date in certain dioceses.

The regular date for the Feast of the Annunciation, March 25, falls in the Octave of Easter, so that feast is being pushed to March 31, the Monday after Divine Mercy Sunday.

“Blame it on the moon,” quipped Father Michael John Witt, associate professor of Church history at Kenrick-Glennon Seminary in St. Louis, and well-known locally for his engaging radio talks. “By setting up Easter you’re dealing with a solar cycle and a lunar cycle at the same time. Everything is set on the Spring Equinox — that’s the key — which is always the 20th or 21st of March. Then you figure out when the next full moon is after that date. For us in the Western Church, Easter is the Sunday after that.”

As early as March 23 sounds, it is possible by this formula for Easter to fall a day earlier. That hasn’t happened since 1818 and won’t occur again until 2285.

The dual-cycled reasoning for the dating, Father Witt said, has to do with the Paschal mystery. Christ celebrated the Last Supper on Passover, the Jewish holy day honoring the Lord’s deliverance of the Israelites from their slavery in Egypt: “Passover is celebrated on the first full moon after the Spring Equinox, and the Church adopted the same pattern.”

The dating works theologically, too: The Catechism teaches that the Church has long believed that through the institution of the Eucharist at the Last Supper Christ memorialized his voluntary role in the deliverance of mankind, anticipating his death and resurrection (No. 1340).

The faithful may not find themselves psychologically prepared for Lent so soon after the revelry of Christmas. Auxiliary Bishop Robert Hermann of St. Louis reported that Archbishop Raymond Burke will be sending out his annual pastoral letter much sooner than usual to avert that shock.

“Lent is truly a time of penance and preparation, and the archbishop’s Lenten notices help prepare us for fasting and abstinence; encourage us to get in a weekday Mass; and exhort us to take time for the sacraments,” Bishop Hermann said.

Expressing similar prudential concern as president of the Confraternity of Catholic Clergy, Father John Trigilio saw a spiritual opportunity in an earlier Lent.

“The full impact of Lent and Easter may be adversely affected if we clergy do not remind our people to step back and make a concerted effort to engage in the sacred mysteries of salvation,” said Father Trigilio, who hosts a series on EWTN. “Besides the traditional staples of prayer, fasting and almsgiving, an early Lent means we can seize the day, so to speak, and get on track as soon as possible.”

Encouraging the faithful to see the hand of God at work in every aspect of their lives and also in the cosmos itself, Father Trigilio recommended what he himself plans to do: Increase the amount and quality of daily prayer, get to confession every month, and read the Bible and the Catechism at least every other day.

Ultimately, said Dominican Father Juan-Diego Brunetta, director of the Knights of Columbus’ Catholic Information Service, this daily discipline renewed during Lent and consummated at Easter becomes a habit of being.

“A life submersed in the passion, death and resurrection of Christ is not easily disturbed by small temporal fluxes,” he said. “We must say that we live the Paschal mystery in our very bodies throughout the year.”

Orthodox Easter this year is April 27 — more than a month later.

The reason for the disparity, Dominican Father Dominic Holtz said, has to do with extra days that were cut out of the modern Western calendar.

“Because of an over-correction of leap years, we were off by 10 days, which Pope Gregory XIII excised when revising the calendar in the 16th century,” he said. “Conflict between the Eastern and Western Churches had mounted to a point where the East could not cut those 10 days without appearing to cede to Western demands. So even though they calculate Easter based on the same formula, their spring equinox is nearly two weeks later than ours because they haven’t removed those days.”

A lunar cycle generally passes in the meantime, pushing Orthodox Easter much farther into the month.

St. Patrick and St. Joseph

With Western Easter being celebrated that much sooner, a couple of key feasts will fall during Holy Week, namely, the memorial of St. Patrick on March 17 and the solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19.

Though the liturgical celebrations of Holy Week are reserved for the suffering and resurrection of Christ, fans of green-tinted bread and float-filled parades need not fret. According to Msgr. Anthony Sherman, executive director of the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops’ Secretariat for Divine Worship, “the observation of secular customs are not dependent on the liturgical celebrations of the feast. In other words, it’s a liturgical question, which is easily solved by a liturgical answer.”

While the feast of St. Patrick in most dioceses ranks as an optional memorial and thus won’t be transferred, having St. Patrick as the patron of a diocese upgrades the celebration, and those bishops may transfer the feast if they wish.

As a Solemnity, St. Joseph’s Day ranks in a higher category of liturgical celebrations. It will be transferred to March 15, the Saturday before Holy Week.

Stephen Mirarchi

writes from St. Louis.