A Lenten Reprieve

Celebrating the Solemnity of St. Joseph

Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Holy Family with a Bird”, ca. 1650
Bartolomé Esteban Murillo, “The Holy Family with a Bird”, ca. 1650 (photo: Public Domain)

Growing up and going to St. Mary of Redford Grade School in Detroit, my family and friends continued the longstanding and venerable tradition of not taking Sundays off from our Lenten sacrifices.  We never fasted on Sunday, of course, per liturgical tradition, because, even in Lent, it was the Lord’s Day, the day on which we especially commemorate Jesus’ Resurrection. And yet the wearing of purple priestly vestments, omitting the Gloria and the Alleluia, etc., on Lenten Sundays reminded us that the penitential character embraces even the Lord’s Day during this liturgical season.

In more recent decades, a number of the faithful—myself included, mea culpa—would do the liturgical math and argue that the only way you could get to 40 days of Lent is not count the Sundays—and therefore you could take a break from your Lenten penances on those related Lord’s Days.  Well, while the math is correct in one sense, the spirit of the conclusion is mistaken in a more important sense, and so I’ve striven to return to my “old-school” ways in recent times.  Indeed, as Lenten tradition affirms, even the Sundays of Lent have a penitential character, even if they were never included in the official Lenten count of 40 days, a duration which derives from Christ’s 40 days in the desert, Moses’ 40 days on the mountain, etc.


Forty Days of Penance or Not?

Others argue that if you don’t count the Sundays, you really only have 37 days in Lent, because you can’t count the Paschal Triduum.  Thus, they argue “the idea that ‘Lent is 40 days’ is just approximate.”  Well, that’s not exactly on the mark either.  It’s true that in modern times “Lent runs from Ash Wednesday until the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive,” as the Roman Missal provides.  But that rendering would still give us 38—or most of 38—days, given that we celebrate that Mass in the evening on Holy Thursday.  In addition, the Triduum extends to the evening of Easter Sunday, so the third day of the Triduum, beginning with the Easter Vigil on the evening of Holy Saturday, marks the onset of the Easter season.

Also, as The Catholic Encyclopedia explains, “the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday,” which further affirms that the traditional 40-day count excluded Lenten Sundays but included Good Friday and Holy Saturday.  Back when my dearly departed Dad was a kid in the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Easter Vigil took place in the morning, meaning kids could partake of Easter candy beginning at noon, as it was then that the long season of penance officially ended.  Since then, as we know, the Easter Vigil was restored to its traditional evening time and the Paschal Triduum demarcated from the Lenten season.

Yet, even in modern times, we can still speak of “40 days” of penance—apart from Lenten Sundays—because the penitential practices begun on Ash Wednesday extend through Holy Thursday evening, Good Friday and Holy Saturday, arguably to the conclusion of the Easter Vigil and at least to its onset.  As the Church provides in Vatican II:

During Lent penance should not be only internal and individual, but also external and social. The practice of penance should be fostered in ways that are possible in our own times and in different regions, and according to the circumstances of the faithful; it should be encouraged by the authorities mentioned in Article 22.

Nevertheless, let the paschal fast be kept sacred. Let it be celebrated everywhere on Good Friday and, where possible, prolonged throughout Holy Saturday, so that the joys of the Sunday of the resurrection may be attained with uplifted and clear mind (Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy [Sacrosantum Concilium], 110).


Thank you, St. Joseph and Blessed Mother: A Lenten Reprieve!

Having said all that, I’m pleased to report—as I’ve found many Catholics don’t know—that the Church typically and officially gives us a one or two-day reprieve during Lent, as we ordinarily celebrate two solemnities during this penitential season: the witness of St. Joseph (March 19) and Mary’s Annunciation (March 25). As the Church’s Code of Canon Law provides, “Abstinence from meat, or from some other food as determined by the Episcopal [i.e., national Bishops] Conference, is to be observed on all Fridays, unless a solemnity should fall on a Friday” (canon 1251).

That occurred in 2004, so my godson Joe and I took full advantage, enjoying both a good burger and dessert that Friday evening, and then watching “The Passion of the Christ,” which was in theaters that year.  Hey, we were made ultimately for celebration, not suffering, though our Lord shows that the latter, when united with his Passion and Death, leads joyously to the former, quintessentially exemplified by Jesus’ Resurrection commemorated on Easter Sunday.

And if on a Lenten Friday, so much more on another day!  (The solemnity is moved to the ensuing Monday if March 19 falls on a Sunday, except on the rare occasion that Sunday is Palm Sunday or March 19 falls another day during Holy Week.  But don’t worry. That won’t occur again until the year 2035).

In that light, I would argue that we Catholics tend to do Lent better than we do Easter.  And that shouldn’t be the case.  Most Catholics treat Easter like a one-day event, instead of the eight-day celebration the Easter Octave really is, as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops reminds us:

The octave of Easter comprises the eight days which stretch from the first to the second Sunday.  It is a way of prolonging the joy of the initial day. In a sense, every day of the Octave is like a little Sunday.

And, of course, the Easter season culminates on Pentecost Sunday.  But you want children and young adults to remember the importance of special religious days of observance?  Give them the opportunity to celebrate well, especially for eight consecutive days during the Easter Octave!

And you can make that nine consecutive days this year.  That’s because the normal date for Lent’s other solemnity, the Annunciation (March 25), falls on Palm Sunday this year, which means that it gets transferred to the Monday following the Easter Octave, April 9 this year, as would also be the case if it otherwise fell place during Holy Week or the Easter Octave.

Both the solemnities of St. Joseph and the Annunciation will be observed within the Lenten period next year, and St. Joseph’s will fall on a Lenten Friday in 2021 and the Annunciation in 2022.  So somethings to which you can look forward.

Finally, even if you’re reading this in the evening this year, 2018, give yourself a break from your Lenten practices and celebrate the Solemnity of St. Joseph.

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