The forty days of lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper exclusive. This mean that Lent begins at 12:01 a.m. on Ash Wednesday and runs to just before the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on the evening of Holy Thursday. As soon as the Mass of the Lord’s Supper starts, it’s a new liturgical season: Triduum.
How long is it? Despite Jesus’ 40 days in the desert, Lent lasts 46 days. But Sundays during Lent are not “prescribed days” of fasting and abstinence. If you don’t count the Sundays, you’re left with 40 days of Lenten fasting.
The Sundays of this time of year are called the First, Second, Third, Fourth, and Fifth Sundays of Lent [emphasis added]. The Sixth Sunday, on which Holy Week begins, is called, “Palm Sunday of the Passion of the Lord.”
The 40-day period of Lent is based on two episodes of spiritual testing in the Bible: the 40 years of wilderness wanderings by the Israelites after the exodus from Egypt (Numbers 33:38 and Deuteronomy 1:3) and the Temptation of Jesus after he spent 40 days fasting in the wilderness (Matthew 4:1-11; Mark 1:12-13; Luke 4:1-13). In the Bible, the number 40 holds special significance in the measurement of time, and many other important events revolve around it. During the flood, it rained for 40 days and 40 nights (Genesis 7:4, 12, 17; 8:6). Moses fasted on the mountain for 40 days and nights before God gave the Ten Commandments (Exodus 24:18; 34:28; Deuteronomy 9). The spies spent 40 days in the land of Canaan (Numbers 13:25; 14:34). The prophet Elijah travelled for 40 days and nights to reach the mountain of God in Sinai (1 Kings 19:8).
Pope Benedict explains: ‘Lent recalls the forty days of our Lord’s fasting in the desert, which He undertook before entering into His public ministry. We read in the Gospel: “Jesus was led up by the Spirit into the wilderness to be tempted by the devil. He fasted for forty days and forty nights, and afterwards he was hungry” (Mt 4,1-2). Like Moses, who fasted before receiving the tablets of the Law (cf. Ex 34,28) and Elijah’s fast before meeting the Lord on Mount Horeb (cf. 1 Kings19,8), Jesus, too, through prayer and fasting, prepared Himself for the mission that lay before Him, marked at the start by a serious battle with the tempter [Message for Lent 2009].
Traditionally Lent is marked by Prayer, fasting and almsgiving. Basically it boils down to self denial, saying no to self so that we can more readily say yes to God and to other people too. So, we seek to be more faithful to prayer.
Fasting has often been confined, in people’s minds, to fasting and abstaining from certain foods. The main thing to fast from is wrongdoing – sin. We can fast from being unkind in word or thought. We can fast and deny ourselves some television, so that we can take some extra time to read, or call up our friends. Traditionally, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fast. The law of fast binds those who are from 18 to 59 years old, unless they are excused for a sufficient reason (e.g., a medical condition that requires more frequent food, etc.). According to the Church’s official rules (as opposed to someone’s personal summary of them): ‘The law of fasting allows only one full meal a day, but does not prohibit taking some food in the morning and evening, observing—as far as quantity and quality are concerned—approved local custom’ [Apostolic Constitution Paenitemini, Norms, III:2]. Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent are days of abstinence (as well as Good Friday). The law of abstinence binds those who are 14 years old or older. The traditional custom of giving up something for Lent is voluntary. Consequently, if you give something up, you set the parameters. If you choose to allow yourself to have it on Sundays as to promote joy on this holy day, that is up to you.
Almsgiving – Charity – is the third dimension of Lent. So, the Trocaire campaign is promoted. In other ways also we are called to think of others too. So, giving people some of our valuable time may be something good.
There are numerous ways to approach Lent, some more legalistic than devotional. Still, the origins of Lent seem to be rooted in Christians denying themselves to emulate Christ’s yes to the Father.