|1st Sunday of Lent, Missa "Ivocabit me"|
“This Sunday, the first of the six which come during Lent, is one of the most solemn throughout the year. […] Lent solemnly opens to-day. We have already noticed, that the four preceding days were added since the time of St. Gregory the Great, in order to make up Forty days of fasting. Neither can we look upon Ash Wednesday as the solemn opening of the Season, for the Faithful are not bound to hear Mass on that day.” (Dom Prosper Gueranger, The Liturgical Year)
While it is certainly true that something of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, we also must admit that there is a certain instinct which tells us the Lent properly begins on the First Sunday – since the Seasons of the Church’s Liturgical Year are always initiated by the Sunday Liturgy. What of Lent, then, begins on Ash Wednesday; and what begins on the First Sunday?
Ash Wednesday is the first day of the Lenten Fast, but not originally part of the Lenten Season
“In the time of 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, the sacrifice of the opening of Lent.” (Catholic Encyclopedia, Lent)
There was great variety in the early Church: In some places, Lent lasted for eight weeks, in others it was only six. Moreover, it was almost everywhere the case that the Fast was not extended to Sundays. Hence, as the significance of a forty day fast was realized, modifications were introduced.
Accepting a Lent of six weeks, not fasting on Sundays, we get thirty-six fast-days. This was widely accepted as a “tithe” of the three hundred sixty-five day calendar year. Such reasoning was popular even into medieval times (cf. ST II-II, q.147, a.5).
The desire to gain forty days of fasting led to the inclusion of the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and Saturday preceding Lent. Hence, the Lenten Fast was held to begin on Ash Wednesday, even though the Lenten Season proper would begin only on the First Sunday of Lent.
Septuagesima and Quadragesima
Ash Wednesday (and the three days which follow) is traditionally reckoned as belonging to the Season of Septuagesima – the time beginning nine weeks before Easter, three weeks before the first Sunday of Lent. Septuagesima means “seventieth,” and it is a bit of a mystery as to why it has received this name – since we are certainly not seventy days from Easter (it is sixty-three days from Septuagesima Sunday to Easter Sunday). On the other hand, Quadragesima (the Latin term for Lent) means “fortieth,” and is most definitely connected to the concept of a forty-day period leading up to Easter Sunday. Ash Wednesday is still somehow in the Season of Septuagesima, not simply because it is more than forty days till Easter (in fact, it is forty-six days), but more because it precedes the First Sunday of Quadragesima.
For this reason, in the Divine Office according to the Traditional Use of the Roman Rite, Ash Wednesday and the days following up until Sunday are celebrated as belonging to Septuagesima. The hymns, chapters, and antiphons of the Office all come from Septuagesima rather than from Quadragesima.
Still, there is some ambiguity here, since the Season of Quardragesima does indeed begin with Ash Wednesday (even in the traditional calendar), though all the seasonal propers of the Divine Office are taken from Septuagesima. Hence, Lent has partially started and has partially not yet begun – the ancient tradition of beginning on the First Sunday is maintained, while the Season is extended to Ash Wednesday together with the Fast.
In the reformed calendar, all this has been lost – for, as the Season of Septuagesima was abolished, so too the anticipatory character of Ash Wednesday was destroyed. Unlike the Church’s nearly 2000 year tradition, Ash Wednesday is now wholly a part of the Season of Lent. Nevertheless, we are still free to maintain that the Season’s solemn opening is this Sunday, the First Sunday of Lent.