Counting the Days
Every year around this time I hear discussions about how many days are really part of Lent or if Sundays are included, so I did the math to try and set the record straight, but it is not exactly clear-cut.
The first oddity we encounter is the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday. Now why would a season of the liturgical year start in the middle of the week? Most likely, this happened back when every day of Lent was a day of fasting—fasting not in the loose sense of giving something up for Lent, but in the strict sense of eating just one meal each day. The exception was always Sundays because in honor of the Resurrection, it was never thought appropriate to fast on Sundays or Solemnities. The six weeks of six days of fasting came out to 36 days, so they added the four days leading up to the First Sunday of Lent to make it an even 40 days of fasting (46 days of Lent, including the six Sundays).
The current Universal Norms on the Liturgical Year and the Calendar (1969) give us yet another way of counting the days, which excludes the Easter Triduum. In paragraph 28, it says, “The forty days of Lent run from Ash Wednesday up to but excluding the Mass of the Lord’s Supper” on Holy Thursday, which actually comes out to just shy of 44 days of Lent. So the four days that were originally added to make for 40 total days of fasting now give us four extra days of Lent.
Regardless, we still talk about Lent having 40 days because this symbolically harkens back to the 40 days Jesus spent in the desert—after His baptism in the Jordan by John and before His public ministry—and the 40 years Moses spent leading the Israelites through the desert out of slavery in Egypt.
Today, Catholics ages 18 to 58 are still required to fast in the strict sense on just two days, Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. Fasting on these days means limiting oneself to one full meal. If necessary to maintain strength, something small can be taken up to a couple other times during the day. Eating between meals is not allowed.
Ash Wednesday and every Friday of Lent are still days of abstinence from meat for all Catholics aged 14 and older, but on these days the Church allows us fish, eggs, milk products, and condiments of any kind, even when these are made from animal fat.
As for our own Lenten practices, giving something up or doing something extra in the areas of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, the Church does not legislate how we do these. You can decide to maintain them throughout the season of Lent, even on Sundays and Solemnities—as long as they are not in conflict with giving thanks for the Resurrection—or you can decide to take a break from them on the Sundays of Lent. May the Holy Spirit lead you throughout the season of Lent, as He led our Lord Jesus in the desert.