Seven Common Misconceptions About Lent
Whether you’ve been a Christian for 40 years or 40 minutes, there’s probably something you’re confused about when it comes to the season of Lent. Don’t worry. It’s nothing to be ashamed of. Your own pastor may have to check with the bishop once in a while to make sure he’s got everything straight for when these annual questions start coming in:
Ash Wednesday is a holy day of obligation. Isn’t it?
Well. It’s holy—what with being kick-off day for the holy season of Lent. But it is NOT a holy day of obligation. If you can make it to Mass, that’s great. But if you can only make it in time to get ashes after Mass or at another time when ashes are being distributed, there’s no need to spend confession time on it.
Do I HAVE to give something up? I don’t really have vices.
Two things here. First, get your vice-o-meter checked. It may need new batteries.
Second, you don’t HAVE to give something up, but you should at least think about doing something to help you grow spiritually—something of a penitential nature in that it takes some effort and discipline. Dedicating extra time to spiritual reading and/or prayer comes to mind, as does going to daily Mass.
I’m under 21. I don’t have to fast. Right?
Nice try, but here are the basic rules: for Latin Rite Catholics, fasting is obligatory from age 18 until age 59. There are health exceptions but this is the norm.
Fasting doesn’t mean I can’t eat anything all day. Does it?
This is a favorite question of people who worry that the rules may have changed since last year. Let’s just quote the U.S. Bishops on this one to be sure we have it straight. When fasting, “…we can have only one full, meatless meal. Some food can be taken at the other regular meal times if necessary, but combined they should be less than a full meal. Liquids are allowed at any time, but no solid food should be consumed between meals.” Not exactly a foodless trek through the desert.
If you can’t get over your craving for meat, then you should probably move to Lansing or New Orleans.
In New Orleans Alligator is considered “fish” for Lent as confirmed by Bishop Gregory M. Aymond in 2010.
If you aren’t into reptile flesh, you could enjoy the northern delicacy of Muskrat. Bishop Kenneth Povish of Lansing wrote in 2002 that it had been custom back to the missionary days in the 1700’s to allow Muskrat on Fridays.
Fasting and abstinence are the same. Aren’t they?
“Fasting,” means following the rules in the previous answer, which is required on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. “Abstinence,” when it comes to Lent, means avoiding meat, which is required every Friday during Lent. Here’s where the under-18 crowd doesn’t get a free pass, by the way. No meat on Fridays applies to them, too.
Lent sure seems longer than forty days. What gives?
Sometimes in life, people get their math wrong (like when our blog recently called Louis de Wohl’s 113th birthday his 103rd birthday, ahem), but the Church’s Lenten math is just fine. Sundays aren’t considered days of fasting or abstinence, so they aren’t counted as part of the “forty days of Lent.” That’s why it SEEMS like you’ve been off chocolate or coffee for something like 46 days instead of forty. And before you ask, the answer is, “Yes.” Your cousin is right when he says you’re allowed to take Sundays off during Lent. Technically, there’s no hard and fast rule either way. But do you really want to go through chocolate or caffeine withdrawal every Monday for seven weeks?
I’m good to go for all-you-can-eat lobster tails on Friday. Right?
Ahhh. You seafood lovers are clever. Fish is definitely not meat, so it’s perfectly fine to have on your Friday menu. But to quote the U.S. Bishops again, “…indulging in the lavish buffet at your favorite seafood place sort of misses the point.” Oh, and taking selfies with your brimming plate and sending them to beef lovers is just plain mean.
If you still think that Lenten observance is “too hard”, keep an eye on our Looking East series of posts. We’ll be shedding light on the Eastern traditions of fasting which include giving up just about everything except rice and beans (no cooking oil, butter or fat allowed).
Bonus: What if Ash Wednesday falls on Valentine's Day?
Sorry, it doesn't matter. St. Valentine's Day is not a major solemnity that overrules the fasting requirements of Lent. If you REALLY have to celebrate St. Valentine's Day, do it early.