The puzzle of Lent

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Icon of Christ Crucified, chapel of San Damiano, near Assisi

Icon of Christ Crucified, chapel of San Damiano, near Assisi

2013 note: There are some technical errors in this post.  For a more accurate assessment of when Lent begins, which days (weekdays and/or Sundays) fall in Lent, etc., see the Annual Lent Fight! (2013 Ed.) by Jimmy Akin.  As the title suggests, it’s a thorny and complicated matter.

Lent is a 40 day preparation for Easter, yet it can start on a Monday 48 days before Easter, or a Wednesday 46 days before Easter, while Easter is always on a Sunday.

How does this work?

The date for Easter, as most people know it, is calculated according to rules defined by the Catholic Church centuries ago.  Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Dutch Reformed, and other Protestant churches that celebrate Lent, a 40 day preparation before Easter, along with most Catholics, keep Lent the way most people know it.

Western Lent is as follows:

  • starts on Ash Wednesday
  • starts 46 days before Easter Sunday
  • lasts 40 days
  • ends on the day before Easter Sunday
  • does not include the Sundays during that period

The Catholic Church in Milan keeps a completely different Lent to either the one known to most Western Catholics or the one known to the Eastern Christians.

Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox both count Lent differently.

Eastern Lent is as follows:

  • starts on Clean Monday
  • starts 48 days before Easter Sunday
  • lasts 40 days
  • ends on the day before Lazarus Saturday, which is the day before Palm Sunday, which is the Sunday before Easter Sunday
  • includes the Sundays during that period

Lent this year [2007] started on Monday 19 February for Eastern Catholics and Eastern Orthodox, and on Wednesday 21 February for Western Catholic and Protestants.

This image shows this year’s Lent, with day counts for Eastern and Western Lent.

Lent 2007

Lent 2007

Click on the image to open a larger version.

A further problem arises from the fact that Protestants follow the Catholic calculation for the date of Easter, while the Orthodox use a different calculation – so they usually celebrate Easter 1-4 weeks after Catholics and Protestants.  So sometimes the two Eastern Lents do not begin the same week.  And so sometimes there are THREE Lents – one for the West, one for the Eastern Catholics who keep the Easter as defined by the Catholic Church, and one for the Orthodox and Eastern Catholics who keep the Easter defined by the Eastern rule.

Note: the Eastern Catholics who follow the Eastern rule still acknowledge the jurisdiction of the bishop of Rome, currently HH Pope Benedict XVI, even though they celebrate Easter on a different date.  (They even have married priests with kids and all.)  “The Eastern Catholic Churches are in full communion of faith and of acceptance of authority of the see of Rome, but retain their distinctive liturgical rites, laws and customs, traditional devotions and have their own theological emphases.” – Eastern Catholic Churches, Wikipedia

In 2007, the dates for Eastern and Western Easter coincide.  The next image shows the dates of Easter from this year until 2030 AD.

Easter Dates 2007-2030

Easter Dates 2007-2030

Catholic / Protestant Easter dates can be calculated at the following page: Dates of Ash Wednesday and Easter Sunday [dead link]

At Easter Dates, the dates of Easter (Orthodox and Catholic/Protestant) are listed for 1990 till 2050.  A calculator is available to calculate the date of Easter between 326 AD and 4099 AD.  A text file (zipped, 32K) containing all these dates can be found here.

More info on Orthodox Easter and Lent:

More info on Eastern Catholics keeping Eastern Easter, or a different Lent:

… a Lent of eight weeks in all observed at Jerusalem, which, remembering that both the Saturday and Sunday of ordinary weeks were exempt, gives five times eight, i.e., forty days for fasting. On the other hand, in many localities people were content to observe no more than a six weeks’ period, sometimes, as at Milan, fasting only five days in the week after the oriental fashion (Ambrose, “De Elia et Jejunio”, 10). In the time of [Pope] Gregory the Great (590-604) there were apparently at Rome six weeks of six days each, making thirty-six fast days in all, which St. Gregory, who is followed therein by many medieval writers, describes as the spiritual tithing of the year, thirty-six days being approximately the tenth part of three hundred and sixty-five. At a later date the wish to realize the exact number of forty days led to the practice of beginning Lent upon our present Ash Wednesday, but the Church of Milan, even to this day adheres to the more primitive arrangement, which still betrays itself in the Roman Missal when the priest in the Secret of the Mass on the first Sunday of Lent speaks of “sacrificium quadragesimalis initii”
– Lent, Catholic Encyclopedia
20. Until such time as all Christians are agreed on a fixed day for the celebration of Easter, with a view meantime to promoting unity among the Christians of the same area or nation, it is left to the patriarchs or supreme authorities of a place to come to an agreement by the unanimous consent and combined counsel of those affected to celebrate the feast of Easter on the same Sunday.
– Orientalium Ecclesiarum, HH Pope Paul VI
On May 5, when he was visiting Damascus, John Paul II proposed that Christians in the East and West celebrate Easter on the same day, as a visible sign of the quest for full unity.
–, Oct 19, 2001
Also on the Melkite Catholic Church website

And finally, on the differing dates for Easter, Celebrating Together Redemption in Christ: Catholic Hopes for a Common Date of Easter

Now Lent is no longer the puzzle it was. [2013: Or not, as the case may be.]

Comments imported from the old blog:

Posted by Dave Armstrong on February 25, 2007, 11:26 pm
Interesting article. Thanks!

Posted by Kenneth Bhima on February 28, 2007, 5:00 pm
How does one fast during lent,I know it’s forty days..what time should one start in the morning till the evening..what does one drink during the fast

Posted by stephen on February 28, 2007, 6:36 pm
Exactly what you should avoid, and when, is often a decision made on a national level by the national councils of bishops around the world. The general is fasting from when you get up in the morning … I’m not so sure about when in the evening – I think it’s all day, i.e. till you go to sleep. Fasting doesn’t mean no food – it means less food, and limitations on certain types. There are no limitations on what you can drink, as far as I am aware … although I’m sure beef soup counts as meat and isn’t kosher, if we can use that word as Catholics.

The intent, though, is spiritual. There is no use in fasting if it is a burden that makes you feel your faith is meaningless. If it’s a burden, that can be a good thing, though, because we can all carry a cross together as a community. Fast all you like, but if it’s a pride thing, or if you don’t let it help you grow spiritually, it means nothing. Except perhaps to others, who may not see inside your heart. If ice-cream is not forbidden, and you avoid meat and enjoy your ice-cream and chocolate etc every day, the fast is not going to be very valuable. Then you might as well not bother avoiding the meat.

The rules are there for a purpose – guidelines to help you grow spiritually. They are not there for the sake of themselves. As Jesus said, the Sabbath was made for man, not man for the Sabbath. Lenten fasts are made for us, we are not made so that fasts can occur.

Don’t get too bogged down watching your clock. Let your physical fast be a spiritual exercise.

Some useful guidelines that some parishes have put out: [2013: some links are now defunct; unlinked urls listed for historical purposes] (not really about fasting, but some nice info)

Eastern Catholic:


Vatican [Pope Paul VI on fasting and abstinence] [url too long otherwise]

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