Sundays in Lent: We Can’t ALL Be Right About This

by | Mar 9, 2014 | February, Lent, Liturgical Living, March | 38 comments

Sundays in Lent seem to be a genuine source of confusion among Catholics. Both the “I don’t cheat on Sundays” people and the “Sundays don’t count” people believe that Church teaching is on their side. Or perhaps they just think there isn’t a formal Church teaching on it, so it is a matter on which good Catholics are allowed to disagree.


But we can’t ALL be right, right?

There are 40 days of Lent, because Jesus spent 40 days in the desert in prayer and fasting before beginning his public ministry. This was three years before the events of Holy Week. Early Christians began observing 40 days of prayer and fasting immediately before the Triduum, in order to make reparation for their sins and prepare themselves for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter.   As the “no cheating” folks like to point out, Jesus did not come in from the desert on Sundays. But, here’s the thing. When Jesus was in the desert, Sundays weren’t Sundays yet. When Jesus went to the desert, he had not yet begun his ministry, he had not yet suffered his passion, he had not yet died for our sins and risen again on the third day. But once that very first Easter happened, Sundays became something set apart, something special. Each and every one is a feast.   The very earliest Christians recognized that. Medieval Christians were on board with it. Pre-Vatican II types knew a Sunday when they saw one, even in Lent. That’s why, when you count up the days on the calendar, the season of Lent is NOT 40 days, it’s 46 days. Because, from the very beginning of Lents, Sundays were not included as part of the Lenten fast.   It’s not that fasting isn’t REQUIRED on Sundays and Holy Days of Obligation in Lent. It’s actually FORBIDDEN.

Now, most of us do not fast from food except as required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Most of us choose to fast from something else, like sweets or television, instead. But that’s still a fast. And fasts don’t apply on Sundays.

We’re not required to have sweets or watch TV on any particular Sunday, of course, so we’re not required to seek them out on Sundays during Lent either. But if the opportunity arises to partake in a licit pleasurable activity on a Sunday during Lent, we shouldn’t refrain because of our Lenten disciplines. Every Sunday is a little Easter. Every Sunday should feel like a celebration. If your Lenten discipline is a real, prayerful struggle, that’s great. But Sunday isn’t the place to struggle against licit pleasures.

If, however, we have given up something that is immoral, or at least leans in that direction (like my Lenten no yelling policy), continuing to abstain from that behavior would certainly be a good idea. And any good habits we are trying to add to our lives during Lent shouldn’t be abandoned on Sundays.

If you’ve chosen to give up something for Lent, like going to the movies, but you only ever go to the movies on Sundays, may I suggest that that’s not a particularly good thing to give up for Lent? Here are some other ideas.

I’ve written on Lent before. Many times. But the thing I most want to emphasize is that we cannot punish ourselves into being deserving of God’s love and forgiveness. Lent is not a time to punish oneself. Lent is a time to perfect oneself.

A perfect Christian life respects the rhythm of the Christian year and the rhythm of the week. Even within the season of Lent, there are days that are meant to be celebrated. Let’s not deny those days to ourselves and to our Church.

Happy Sunday everyone!

Update: some information a reader shared in the comments of this post, made me panic for a bit and write a follow-up post. But then, I talked to Scott P. Richert of the Catholicism page, and he wrote a nice little update to his original post on how the days of Lent are calculated, in response to my concerns about some of the excellent points raised in the comments here. I have since come full circle and now stand behind the content of this post again.  _________________  

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  1. Anonymous

    Love this post! Very nicely expressed. I've also felt that there's a certain all or nothing mentality with the "I don't cheat on Sundays" idea. It might actually be a bit harder to celebrate His resurrection and then return to our Lenten fast. Living a balance requires a bit more than all/nothing.

  2. The Kibbes!

    I appreciate your post. I think that there is an issue with the vocabulary – fasting and abstaining. For me fasting is not eating a certain food at a meal, or not eating snacks in between meals, or not eating any food for a specific period of time. Then abstaining is not doing something whether it is eating chocolate or not yelling at your kids or some other specific activity.

    My husband and I are Ukrainian Catholic so we (our family) does not have the Sunday issue. (There are minimum prescribed fasting/abstaining levels so each person/family can decide was is good for them) We abstain from meat throughout Lent and try to limit other animal products but we also fast on Wednesdays and Fridays and eat smaller meals and don't snack in between meals.

  3. Amelia Bentrup

    Aaah….but you didn't even mention the *other* Sunday controversary. Does Saturday night count as Sunday? When does Sunday start Liturgically? On Sunday morning? Or Saturday evening, approximately after the time you would say evening prayer or after the evening Mass? Since Saturday evening Mass celebrates the "Sunday Mass", liturgically Saturday evening is Sunday. My sister is a Franciscan nun and they fast from sweets during the week all year long (and fast every day during Lent), but they start their Sunday feasting on Saturday evening after they pray Evening Prayer from the Divine Office. My mom on the other hand, (who is in a lay religious organization), fasts from sweets all week long, all year long, but they don't feast until actual Sunday, no Saturday night for them, even though they do observe and pray all hours of the Divine Office. So, which is the "right" way???

    • Kendra

      Wow, I don't know! We've always done midnight or after Mass, whichever comes first.

    • Anna

      Growing up we always 'feasted' starting at sundown Saturday night. This was how the Jews celebrated their Sabbath, starting at sundown on Friday evening. My husband prefers to just honor Sunday as a feast, starting at midnight Sunday morning. In a way I prefer this also, because I would think that if you acted as though Sunday began on Saturday at sundown then you would also need to behave as though Monday started at sundown Sunday evening.

    • Andrea

      We always attend Mass on Saturday evening so I feasted after Mass a bit. 🙂

    • Melissa

      As long as you fast or feast for 24 hours, not sure it makes a difference when you start.

    • Llywellyn O'Brien

      For Catholics all days except for Monday begin at sundown the night before – as such if you have been to the vigil Mass of Sunday your fast is broken until the following midnight.

      This can also be useful year-round for Feast days on which you might like to attend Mass but cannot for some reason. Some Feast days have vigil Masses (such as the Assumption) but even if they do not, attending an afternoon or evening Mass the night before counts. Basically during the week the system is that if you are attending a Mass in the evening it can "count" either as a standard weekday Mass or as a vigil for a Feast the next day (or both, whatever is best for the faithfuls progress).

  4. Susannah Edwards

    Sorry that this is only tangentially related, but what do you do about birthdays during Lent?

    • Elizabeth

      Birthdays are feast days during Lent. Why? Because most Lenten birthdays fall during Lent every.single.year. My husband and daughter both have March birthdays, so we have a lot of experience with this and have asked many people and priests. They are legitimate feast days. Otherwise, those folks couldn't ever celebrate their birthdays on their birthdays.

      On another note, I have often been reminded that manners, hospitality, and etiquette go above our Lenten fast. This is another example of the spirit of the law trumping the letter of the law. If you go to a birthday party during Lent, eat the treats despite your Lenten fast. It's polite, and you are at a celebration of someone's birthday (a once-a-year-event, as discussed above). If you are at a non-Catholic house for dinner, and they offer dessert — Eat it anyway. It is out of respect for your host and love for your neighbor that you accept their hospitality in appropriate situations. Obviously, don't make tons of excuses to break your fast, but always defer to loving and serving the other people around you. If that means eating cake during Lent for a birthday or as a guest, then do it with joy! Hope that helps 🙂

    • Elizabeth

      Another suggestion: People often throw birthday parties on weekends to accommodate work schedules. If someone in your family has a Lenten birthday, maybe have a little treat the evening of their birthday, but throw the bigger party Saturday evening or Sunday to make indulging in treats even easier on Catholics. That isn't required, but you might as well arrange it that way if possible if you were going to do a weekend celebration anyway :).

    • Kendra

      My grandmother's birthday is on St. Patrick's Day, and she has NEVER had a birthday cake because her birthday always falls in Lent. So I guess that's one way to do it. In our family we celebrate birthdays as family feasts. On the year my daughter's birthday fell on Ash Wednesday, we just moved our celebration one day.

    • Danielle

      Great insights on a topic I've thought a lot about (what Catholic hasn't during Lent?) Regarding hospitality trumping fasts, as the comment above talks about, I wonder if fasting and abstaining, even from cake at a birthday party, could be an evangelization tool. It seems like especially at a non-Catholic home I'd love such an easy "in" to talking about why we do these things during Lent and the beauty behind them. Many people seem to lack an understanding of the beauty behind fasting and abstaining.

    • Elizabeth

      Danielle, there are certainly moments when this might be appropriate (like the hostess knew ahead of time and prepared accordingly). But…Most hostesses don't want their carefully prepared dessert to be an evangelization tool. It is distressing to many people when they realize they have "made a mistake" and possibly offended their guests by serving something "inappropriate". There is lots of room for embarrassment here, even if the hostess doesn't show it outwardly. And some people may continue to offer things out of confusion (Oh, you can't have cake? What about a few cookies?), further exacerbating the situation. I have been in situations where most of the guests refused the dessert because they were Catholic, and the poor hostess was left regretting the whole thing. Inadvertently embarrassing someone automatically puts up a small barrier to evangelizing. And lots of people are nervous about entertaining (even if there is little reason to be nervous).

      I think a good balance for evangelizing would be to thank the hostess for her delicious dessert and possibly comment on how it is a special treat, because you haven't had many desserts due to Lent. Maybe get the discussion started that way?

  5. Nanacamille

    Sunday used to be a family day with church in the morning as no sat vigil mass. Then a big meal and time together. No stores were open and no kid's sports games to attend. I vote that sun is a feast day and should be treated as such. Nanacamille

  6. Nanacamille

    Sunday used to be a family day with church in the morning as no sat vigil mass. Then a big meal and time together. No stores were open and no kid's sports games to attend. I vote that sun is a feast day and should be treated as such. Nanacamille

  7. Kris

    Kendra — thanks for posting this! Great explanation – and I've always struggled with what is "right" during Lent on Sundays. And now I know!

  8. Catholic Mutt

    I think every Catholic has to come to peace with this at some point, and what worked for me was to realize that Sunday WAS a feast day, and to treat it as such with some relaxation of whatever Lenten things I offer up and to do something fun on Sunday, but I also still somewhat avoid certain things on Sunday even in Lent. Only because one year I used Sunday as the day to binge on everything that I gave up, and obviously that is not the intention of the Church, either.

  9. Ashley Sue

    Eastern Rite Catholics (not Orthodox Churches as the Orthodox church is not in communion with Rome) do not recognize Sunday as a day of breaking fast. The followers in those rites are held to their rite's guidelines not the Roman Guidelines. We have struggled with this concept because of our strong ties to the Eastern Rite esp. the Byzantine Rite. Just like the fasting is completely different from a Roman Rite Catholic.

    • Ashley Sue

      I do think that if breaking your fast from whatever you chose will hinder your process during Lent, then there can be another way to feast that will allow you to both celebrate Sunday and keep yourself on the Lent train.

  10. Anonymous

    Yes, yes, and yes! THANK YOU.

  11. Christine

    hmm…I had no idea there was any controversy over this question. I've always been taught basically the same thing you said.

    One thing that would definitely help people to accept that Sundays during Lent aren't supposed to be penitential would be if Catholics once again started treating EVERY Sunday of the year as a celebration (something we certainly need to work on around my house…).

  12. Becky

    This is actually wrong. The 40 days of Lent run from the first Sunday of Lent until Holy Thursday. If you look at the lectionary and the missal, the days after Ash Wednesday are labeled "Thursday after Ash Wednesday" and not "X weekday of Lent."

    • Kendra

      Thanks Becky, I hadn't seen this. And I did a bunch of research. Like reading encyclicals on that blindness-inducing background on the Vatican website, and talking to priests, and looking at faithful Catholic websites. I can't believe I missed this. But there you have it. I'd love to have some clarification, since all those other sources were on the other side of the issue. But it's quite clear as to what the recommendation of the bishops is. So you should probably listen to them not me.

    • Kendra

      Okay, this link sent me for a bit of a loop. But I'm okay now. I wrote a follow up post, but I now stand firmly behind this original post again. If you'd like to see the crazy (and some photoshopping of which I am particularly proud) and see why I eventually came to believe that the USCCB link and my post can co-exist, check it out here.

  13. Claire

    Funny, I was absently wondering why 40 days doesn't seem to divide by the right number of seven-day weeks…. But I got distracted. What you describe here sounds right on, in terms of both the spirit and the letter of the "law". I just checked out Becky's link and it said this:" Q. Why do we say that there are forty days of Lent? When you count all the days from Ash Wednesday through Holy Saturday, there are 46.

    A. It might be more accurate to say that there is the "forty day fast within Lent." Historically, Lent has varied from a week to three weeks to the present configuration of 46 days. The forty day fast, however, has been more stable. The Sundays of Lent are certainly part of the Time of Lent, but they are not prescribed days of fast and abstinence.

    Q. So does that mean that when we give something up for Lent, such as candy, we can have it on Sundays?

    A. Apart from the prescribed days of fast and abstinence on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and the days of abstinence every Friday of Lent, Catholics have traditionally chosen additional penitential practices for the whole Time of Lent. These practices are disciplinary in nature and often more effective if they are continuous, i.e., kept on Sundays as well. That being said, such practices are not regulated by the Church, but by individual conscience.

  14. Anna

    We honor Sundays as feast days, on everything except my spending fast. I try to avoid any sort of shopping on Sundays all year long, since they are supposed to be days of rest, so it would seem backwards to me to start allowing for spending on Sundays just because it's Lent.

  15. Nichole @ Yackity Shmackity

    Thanks, Kendra! I saw this post and almost didn't read it because I was afraid it would burst my bubble, but as usual you speak the no-nonsense truth.
    Thanks for finally clarifying this issue for me!

  16. Anonymous

    Thank you! I gave up secuclar music for Lent (no Broadway, no country, nothing of my faves) and I feel like people think they're somehow "better" because they "don't cheat."

  17. Nilo Cantonjos

    This is actually a good article. Very informative. Thank you for writing it!

    In Christ throufh Mary,

  18. Anonymous

    I was taught that you did not have to fast/abstain from Saturday evening (after Vespers) until Sunday night. Thank you for this article. Several people have disagreed with me when we discussed this issue. My parish priest disagreed with me as well but admitted that it is debatable. My brother is a benedictine priest and they do not fast/abstain Saturday after Vespers and Sunday.

  19. Jenny Watts Makingmusic

    What happenes if you skip a day because you forgot. For lent I was doing a novena pray for my bestfriend and I miss a day. What happens?

    • Kendra

      Just make it up as soon as you are able, and perhaps add in a little extra mortification, like eating something you don't like for lunch. Then do something to help it from happening again, like putting a reminder in your phone or a note inside the pantry or on the computer. But you can't sin by forgetting. Sin has to be on purpose. And a novena isn't a magic spell that we have to do just right or it won't work. It's a prayer. God knows us and understands that we are weak and forgetful. What a lovely thing you're doing to say a novena for your friend. Keep it up!

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Hi! I’m Kendra.

For twenty years now, I’ve been using food, prayer, and conversation based around the liturgical calendar to share the lives of the saints and the beautiful truths and traditions of our Catholic faith. My own ten children, our friends and neighbors, and people just like you have been on this journey with me.

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