You ask any reasonably catechized Catholic and they will tell you that Ash Wednesday marks the beginning of Lent. Also, we speak of the “40 Days” of Lent. Yet, if you actually count up the days between Wednesday, Feb 22nd ( Ash Wednesday this year) and April 7th ( Holy Saturday) you will see 46 days. So, as they say, today, “what’s up with that?”
What is “up with that” is the organic development of the Lenten Season in our Latin Rite, Roman Catholic Church. In the Latin of the Roman Missal and Calendar, the first Sunday of Lent is described as “Quadragesima” or “fortieth” for the forty days that elapse from that Sunday till Holy Thursday, the first of the special three-day Sacred Triduum, a liturgical period all its own. The name “Quadragesima” is the basis of the term for the penitential season in the so-called “Romance languages”; i.e., those languages derived from the “Roman tongue”: Latin. Our own Anglo-Saxon “Lent” is derived from a word for “Spring” in that tongue.
Originally, the season of Lent began on the First Sunday, “Quadragesima”. An echo of that very ancient practice survived in the Roman Breviary where right down to 1970 the proper Lenten Office only began on the First Sunday. ( Those who follow the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite will be aware of this, as well as the “Pre-Lenten” Sundays of “Septuagesima” time.)
The addition of what we call Ash Wednesday, and the following days known as “post cineres” (“after the ashes”) until Quadragesima Sunday was an attempt to address a subsequent development in the canon law and disciplinary customs of the Western Church by the eighth century: i.e.; that no Sunday could be a penitential day of fast as each Sunday is regarded as a “little Easter”. Hence taking out the six Sundays that fall in Lent including Palm Sunday, and regarding Holy Thursday and Good Friday as Lenten Days, the total number of fast days remained at the ancient and biblical forty. In the older, more strict, Lenten regulations all the Sundays of Lent were not days of fast and partial-abstinence from meat.
Even today, our brethren of the Catholic Eastern Rites and the Orthodox Churches begin “Great Lent” on the first Sunday, with no custom of the imposition of blessed ashes.
The custom of “getting ashes” on Ash Wednesday became popular all over the West, and even today many who regrettably do not normally practice their Faith; or who are not even Catholics, still make it a point to visit a church and receive the mark of the ashes as a visible sign of even a nominal connection to the Faith.
February 20, 2012.