The term "lent" refers to spring time. In Christian traditions, most enthusiastically in the Catholic tradition, Lent is the liturgical season that begins on Ash Wednesday and lasts for 40 days before the celebration of the Paschal Mystery (aka Easter), which begins on Holy Thursday (today) and technically ends 40 days after Easter Sunday, some theologians might even add Pentecost (the descent of the Holy Spirit). This period of 40 days during Lent including Sundays is actually 43 days long, excluding Sundays is 37 days long.
The Paschal Mystery is referring to Christ's saving work as accomplished through his passion/suffering, death, resurrection, and ascension. Keeping in mind that the first followers of Christ were Jewish, the Paschal Mystery originally was commemorated at the celebration of Passover (Hebrew "pesach", Greek "pascha", best known Anglo-Saxon roots "easter"), when Jews remember their liberation from slavery. As the faith developed, the ancient Church celebrated the Paschal Mystery of Christ separate from the Passover in an all night vigil that recounted salvation history and initiated new members of the Church. Over time, the Paschal Mystery was celebrated over the course of several days, giving us what we now call the Easter Triduum; thus, Holy Thursday (commemorating the Last Supper/Passover) beginning the feast of the Paschal Mystery and ending the season of Lent.
So questions arise:
- If we count every Sunday there are more than 40 days in Lent. Does that mean we can break our fast on Sundays? Or at least 3 Sundays???
- If Lent ends on Holy Thursday, does that mean we can break our fast on Holy Thursday????
Lent is a time of fasting and abstinence (to voluntarily hold back from something), a time of prayer, a time of giving, and a time to examine what in our lives we need to CHANGE to draw closer to Christ. Part of the reason we fast is to have more to give to the poor. Ideally, every dollar we would usually spend on what we fast from we should still be spending, but consciously giving that money to, or buying necessities for, the poor. Another understanding of our fast is that we focus less on our wants, desires, and needs of this world so that we can focus more on our one true need - God. Lent is most importantly a time of preparation in which we prepare for a part of ourselves to die with Christ in the commemoration of the Paschal Mystery.
So when can we break our lenten fast? Well, that depends on what kind of fast you entered into.
Some Lenten fasts are more temporary. Two good examples in my life are (1) spending less time on facebook and myspace and more time in prayer and service of other things and (2) not eating out at all and putting more money toward donations and charities. These are fasts that I will break sometime after the Easter Vigil.
Concerning temporary fasts and when you can break them, I have a few thoughts. First, is it really that hard to abstain from something for 47 days compared to what God has done for us? Second, if we are only fasting from something to fulfill a "rule of the Church", we are doing it for the wrong reasons. Sometimes we get so caught up with what is right and what is wrong, when we should do this or when we should do that, that we forget the real reason why we are (not) doing it in the first place. In the case of fasting during Lent, we are fasting to focus on our Christian duties to God and neighbor, which means sacrifice of self - time, money, empty desires. Essentially, we should give up caring when we break our lenten fast as a fast in and of itself, for then we truly are seeking then to bind our lives more closely to God and neighbor as a result of Lent.
But, why must we think that every lenten fast will end? Theoretically, we should abstain from at least one thing that we intend to never partake in again, be it a behavior or addiction or something else. We should give things up for Lent that pull our lives from God's life. We should give things up for Lent that bring death to our lives and the world so that we do not just observe the Paschal Mystery but more fully enter into the Paschal Mystery. When we suffer through those forty days of giving something up, we can let those things die with Christ on the cross, we offer our suffering up with his. We agonize in the garden about facing the death of things that bring us death. We give those things one last look as we watch the excruciating pain and humiliation Christ suffered on the cross for us. Then, we are liberated from those things through his resurrection and receive new life with him. By entering into Christ's death and resurrection, sin and death no longer have power to keep us from the love of God; those things that bring us death no longer have power to do so unless we give them that power. In this sense, our lenten fast does not end, but dies with Christ.
I have as of yet to actually answer the questions of when we can end our lenten fasts. I am not going to answer those questions. We must all seek the answer in our own hearts. We must ask ourselves what our intention for our lenten fast is and then decide whether breaking that fast will make us yield again to the power of death or if continuing abstinence will help Christ continue to conquer the power of sin and death over us. We make the choice, not rules or semantics.
There are many different things that we must die to, my deaths this Holy Thursday and Good Friday will be different from yours, but the result is the same: new life with Christ. So in discerning when to break your lenten fast, ask yourself, instead of "When does Lent end?", "What will allow God's love and life to permeate my life?"