Franciscan Spirit Blog

Ask a Franciscan about…Lent and Easter

Where did the law about not eating meat on Fridays originate? When was this changed to Ash Wednesday and the Fridays of Lent?

Already in the fourth century, there was a Church law about abstinence (not eating meat on certain days). Wednesdays, Fridays and Saturdays were once days of abstinence in the Western Church. By the 12th century, this was required only on Ash Wednesday and on Fridays—to remind Christians that Jesus died on this day. (Later, abstinence was added in connection with a few feasts.)

The U.S. bishops decided in 1966 to require fasting and abstinence only on Ash Wednesday, the Fridays of Lent and on Good Friday. Earlier that year, Pope Paul VI allowed conferences of bishops to select days of fast and abstinence.

Why abstain from meat? People like it and notice its absence. Christian fasting regulations once included milk and eggs. Fasting and abstaining show respect for God’s creation by using it more sparingly at times.

My lifelong curiosity prompts me to ask: 1) When and how did Ash Wednesday originate? 2) What was the specific thinking that inspired this practice? 3) Can you recommend reference sources on this subject?

Ashes and repentance have a year-round link. According to the Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs by Francis Weiser, SJ, the term Ash Wednesday was officially introduced by Pope Urban II in 1099 for the day that was formerly called “the beginning of the fast.” The Mass texts of Lent predate Pope Gregory the Great, who died in 604. The custom of a 40- day Lent was observed in the East and the West by the year 400, inspired by Jesus’ 40-day fast in the desert, and used as part of the Church’s preparation of people to be baptized at the Easter Vigil.

Ashes were a penitential symbol already in the Old Testament. They are linked to sackcloth in Isaiah 58:5, Jeremiah 6:26, Jonah 3:6, Daniel 9:3, and Esther 4:3. They also appear in Matthew 11:21 and Luke 10:13. The term “dust and ashes” occurs in Genesis 18:27, Job 30:19 and 42:6, Ezekiel 27:30, and Sirach 17:32 and 40:3.

Last year my Catholic coworkers and I disagreed over whether Sundays are considered part of Lent. Each year I give up sweets for Lent, but I have always understood that I could eat them on Sundays during Lent. Some of my coworkers disagree. I would like to know who is right on this issue.

Technically, Sundays are not part of Lent. Although we celebrate them liturgically as part of Lent, the Lord’s Day cannot be a day of fast and abstinence. Six weeks of Monday through Saturday gives you 36 days. If you add to them Ash Wednesday and the three days after it, you get the 40 days of Lent.

Some people may find it easier to “give up” something for the entire time between Ash Wednesday and Easter, but you are correct in saying that Sundays are not part of the 40 days.

Are chicken and fish considered meat?

Chicken yes, fish no. The Catholic Church’s abstinence laws consider that meat comes only from animals such as chickens, cattle or pigs—all of which live on land. Birds are also considered meat. Fish are a different category of animal.

What feasts are celebrated during Lent?

Though Lenten liturgies take precedence on most weekdays, the Church celebrates the feasts of St. Patrick on March 17 and St. Joseph on March 19.

What determines the date Easter Sunday falls on or when Lent begins?

The Council of Nicaea, in 325 A.D., determined that Easter should be celebrated the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring. To determine the beginning of Lent, count back six Sundays before Easter. The Wednesday before the first of these Sundays is Ash Wednesday.

What does the word Lent mean?

It is from the Anglo-Saxon word lengten, which means spring. [From Modern Catholic Dictionary by John Hardon, SJ]

Did Jesus rise from the dead under his own power or was he raised from the dead by God the Father? 

Let’s begin with the fact that human language about God is always approximate; it is never exhaustive. Thus, to speak of God as Father, Son, and Spirit has many advantages, but it already suggests the subordination of the Son to the Father.

Christians have walked a tightrope in affirming the unity within the Trinity along with its diversity (three persons). It would be very easy to speak of the three persons as though they could ever compete with one another—as all pagan gods and goddesses tended to do. Likewise, it would be very easy to describe Jesus as truly having one nature (divine or human) and only seeming to have the other one. The Church has always resisted such temptations about the Trinity and the Incarnation.

Now to your question: The New Testament speaks of Jesus as rising from the dead (active voice) and of Jesus as being raised from the dead  (passive voice). According to the NRSV Concordance, Matthew uses the active voice about Jesus’ rising in 27:63; Mark does the same in 8:31, 9:31, and 10:34. Luke has three such references (18:33, 24:7, and 24:46), and John has one (20:9).

The same Gospel writers, however, much more often used “was raised” (Mt, nine times; Mk, twice; Lk, once; Jn twice). St. Paul used both active and passive voice to describe Jesus’ resurrection.

I once had a Scripture professor who liked to recall that one of his former students (now a retired friar) frequently asked for simple explanations about certain Scripture passages. Sometimes that is possible; at other times, not so easy. That professor also used to quote St. Augustine of Hippo, that if you have figured out God completely, you have already made a mistake about God. The faith community (the Church) that has been reading and praying over the Scriptures for centuries is our best guide to their interpretation.

If the date when we celebrate the birth of Jesus was selected rather arbitrarily, why couldn’t we select a permanent date for Easter? It would simplify things for many people!

The current “first Sunday after the first full moon of the spring equinox” system causes Easter to bounce around like a yo-yo. Who wrote this date in stone? Can it be changed?

Yes, Easter could have a permanent date. The Roman Catholic Church has indicated its openness to this if a common agreement can be reached among all Christians. Because such an agreement already exists among Catholics and Protestant denominations, any change will involve discussions with the Orthodox Churches.

A bit of background may help here. In the earliest years of Christianity, Easter was celebrated on Passover (14th day of the month of Nisan, based on a lunar calendar). Eventually, most Christians came from a gentile background and began to look for a date based on the solar calendar. The dating system that Western Christians now use was confirmed at the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D.

In the appendix to Vatican II’s Constitution on the Sacred Liturgy, we read: “The Sacred Council is not opposed to assigning the feast of Easter to a fixed Sunday in the Gregorian Calendar, provided those whom it may concern give their assent, especially the brethren who are not in communion with the Apostolic See.”

Ecumenical dialogues have not yet led to any official decision to change the present system.

The council went on to say in that same appendix that the Catholic Church does not oppose a permanent calendar in civil society, as long as it uses a seven-day week and does not introduce any days outside the week.

Ask a Franciscan in St. Anthony Messenger

1 thought on “Ask a Franciscan about…Lent and Easter”

  1. When did the Church discontinue the rule of only eating meat once a day during lent?
    Ash Wednesday and the Fridays were still meatless.

    Thank you

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