Is there a “Sunday Exception” during Lent?
Yesterday morning, my son, who gave up meat for Lent, asked for sausage for breakfast. Why? Because it was a Sunday, and he was allowing himself to enjoy what he was sacrificing for Lent. But is this a real thing? Is there a so-called “Sunday exception” during Lent?
Why it makes sense.
One idea behind the “Sunday exception” is that Sundays are not really part of Lent. The thinking goes like this. We speak of the “40 Days of Lent.” If you look at the calendar, between Ash Wednesday and Easter is actually 46 days. But if you don’t count the Sundays, you get back down to 40. Ergo, Sundays are not part of Lent.
Another idea is that Sundays are days of celebration. Each and every Sunday, even during Lent, is like a “little Easter.” So it would be inappropriate to fast on a Sunday.
Why it doesn’t make sense.
OK, that “40 days” thing doesn’t quite add up, because technically Lent ends on Holy Thursday, when the Easter Triduum begins (though our fasting continues up till the Vigil on Holy Saturday). So if you count the days from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday, it’s only 43 days. Then if you took out all the Sundays, you are left with 37 days. The reality is that the “40 days of Lent” is a close approximation.
Plus it is wrong to say that Sundays are “not really part of Lent.” They are. We call them “the First Sunday of Lent,” and so forth. They are most definitely part of Lent, which is why we include all sorts of Lenten practices on Sundays, such as the use of purple as a liturgical color, the absence of the Gloria and Alleluia, and so on.
Also, the notion of not continuing your Lenten fast on Sundays seems to be very new. Granted, I have not researched this idea thoroughly, but in the past when the Church’s Lenten practices involved eating a nearly Vegan diet for the entirety of Lent, I can recall reading nothing to indicate that Sundays were considered “days off.” Moreover, none of the older Catholics I speak to remember Sundays being considered this way in the past. Even when I went through RCIA myself in the year 2000 nothing was ever mentioned about Sundays being an exception to our Lenten practices. This idea seems to be a rather new phenomenon.
So what should I do?
Whatever you choose. Remember, all the Church requires of us during Lent is to fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, and to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent. None of this affects Sundays. We are strongly encouraged to take on additional practices of prayer, fasting and almsgiving during the Lenten season. But how we do those things and to what extent are left up to the individual.
Deciding to give up something during Lent at all is purely voluntary. You are free to set the conditions of your Lenten sacrifice. This means that if you decide to allow yourself to enjoy whatever it is you have given up for Lent on Sundays, you may do so. You don’t need anyone’s permission. Likewise, if you want to maintain your Lenten sacrifice straight through, with no break on Sundays, that is perfectly fine, as well. There is no “right” or “wrong” here.
Before I wrap up this post, I should mention that there is a specific exemption in Canon Law regarding solemnities and days of penance. According to Canon 1250, penitential days include all Fridays during the year, and the season of Lent. According to Canon 1251, if a solemnity falls on a Friday, the normal practice of abstaining from meat is not observed. Note, however, that this is regarding Fridays during the year generally. The canon does not say anything specifically about other days during the season of Lent. In an answer to a question on EWTN, Fr. Edward McNamara, professor of liturgy at the Regina Apostolorum university, remarked that since Fridays in Lent are especially important, “it is customary in many places to observe abstinence even when a solemnity coincides with a Friday during this season.” My observance in our neck of the woods is that when a solemnity falls on a Friday during Lent (as sometimes happens with the Solemnity of St. Joseph on March 19) that abstinence is not customarily observed. Note, also, that an ordinary feast may be celebrated as a solemnity in a particular location if it is the feast of the patron of a parish or diocese. That means that in the Diocese of Charlotte, the feast of St. Patrick (March 17) is celebrated as a solemnity.
In either case, it would seem fitting — if the individual so chooses — to allow one’s self to enjoy whatever one has given up for Lent on a solemnity whatever day of the week it happens to fall on. Again, keep in mind that the decision to give up something for Lent is an individual one, and the individual may set the parameters.