For many Christians around the world, Lent is a season during which observers go through a time of fasting, self-denial, prayer and increased devotion to God. The purpose of Lent is for people to imitate the period of time that Jesus Christ spent alone in the Judean desert fasting while resisting the temptations of the devil. Because this period lasted for 40 days and nights, Lent also lasts for this same amount of time. The question of when it specifically begins and ends, however, is a bit trickier to answer. According to Scott P. Richert, an expert in the topic of Catholocism, it really depends on a few different things. And, if your concern is about when fasting ends, you may find his answer to be surprising.
As far as when Lent begins, he says, it makes a difference which sect of Christianity you belong to. In the Latin Rite of the Catholic Church, as well as those Protestant churches which observe Lent, it begins on Ash Wednesday, which occurred on March 5 in 2014. However, for Eastern Churches — both Catholic and Orthodox — it begins on Clean Monday, which was on March 3 this year. Clean Mondays originated as a way to get a head start on the Lenten season by gradually easing into the days of dietary restriction that were to come.
As for when it ends, Richert says this depends what you mean by “ends.” For many, he says, the real question on their mind is when does the fasting portion of Lent end. The fast ends on Holy Saturday (the day before Easter). Although Holy Saturday is 46 days after Ash Wednesday, it is actually the 40th day of the fast. While the math might seem to be off at first, Richert assures us that it is correct. The discrepancy arises from the fact that with Sunday being the day of Christ’s resurrection, all Sundays have come to be viewed as days of rest and worship. Therefore, they are not included in the days of fasting and penance. So, to bring the total number of fasting days up to 40, Lent was expanded to include six weeks containing six days per week of fasting plus four extra days — Ash Wednesday and the following Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
However, Richert notes, the liturgical ending of Lent is on Holy Thursday (April 17, 2014). Specifically, according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, it ends just before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday evening. Holy Thursday is followed by the Easter Triduum, which is composed of Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday. So, while Lent liturgically ends on Holy Thursday, the fasting and penance associated with the season continue through to Holy Saturday.
Richert says that some mistakenly think that Lent actually ends on Palm Sunday (the Sunday before Easter) because they believe that Holy Week is separate from Lent. In actuality, it is simply the last week at the end of Lent.
By Nancy Schimelpfening