ReLenting on Sundays

If you’re already trying to figure out what you’re going to eat Friday that doesn’t contain meat, you’re either Catholic or Paul McCartney. (If Paul, please write.)

Today marks the last week of the Lenten season in the Catholic Church, a period that commemorates the time Jesus fasted in the desert before He began His public ministry. It is a time to repent our sins and prepare ourselves for the celebration of Christ’s resurrection on Easter Sunday. We also have to pull the fish sticks out of the freezer because we can’t eat meat on Fridays.

Lent lasts 40 days and begins with Ash Wednesday, when Catholics go to church to have ashes rubbed into our foreheads before spending the rest of the day trying not to accidentally rub them off. Others seem to have asked for extra ash (probably the same folks who wear their “I voted” sticker to work on election days). Much like checking the batteries in your smoke alarms during Daylight Saving Time, Lent is a reminder to get in for that long-overdue confession of our sins.

It’s also a time of great debate among Catholics: Do we get to indulge in what we “gave up for Lent” on Sundays?

Before I go further, it’s important to note that most of my theology is an amalgam of harried Sunday School teachers, rushed parents, uninformed friends and poor memory. Still, the Sunday Question holds great importance to young Catholics who foolishly decide to give up chocolate or video games for Lent.

My parents conveniently forgot to tell me that Catholics are not required to give up personal pleasures during Lent. Instead, my family was shamed into giving up the things we loved most: television, junk food, swearing. It was a struggle to get through the days without these things, and I found myself seeking out the company of my Jewish or Atheist friends in order to sneak in the occasional “fix.”

Sundays, however, were an oasis — a one-a-week “rest day” from our sacrifice. We were allowed a candy bar if we gave up sweets; we could play a game of “Madden Football” if we could refrain from swearing. When I would explain to my Catholic friends that Sundays were rest days from our Lenten obligations, they looked at me as if I’d just pulled off the miracle of the fishes and loaves.

One parent tried to counter this by explaining that Jesus never came in from the desert on Sundays during His initial trial, but my brother reminded me that this was before Sundays were Sundays. After Jesus rose from the dead, every Sunday was a feast day. Technically, he explained, we were forbidden to fast from anything on a feast day. (I love my brother.)

That’s why the pre-Vatican II Lenten calendar was technically 46 days, as Sundays weren’t counted. Outside of Ash Wednesday and Good Friday (the day on which Christ died on the cross), we aren’t technically meant to fast.

Unfortunately, we did have to refrain from meat on Fridays. Nothing made me angrier than someone pointing to the hot dog in my mouth and saying, “You know it’s Friday, right?” Kids had an unwritten rule to wait until after someone had finished before alerting them. That way, you could simply add it to your list of confessions. However, choosing to continue to eat that hot dog turned into a mortal sin, a conscious denial of God’s love. Hot dogs are great with mustard, but guilt just ruins ‘em.

My mom added an extra layer of Lenten obligation by asking us to do extra chores at inconvenient times (say, during “The Dukes of Hazzard”). She would tell us to “offer it up to the Poor Souls in Purgatory,” those souls caught in between Heaven and Hell, in order to bribe God into letting them in. Helping my sister clean out the garage was evidently a way to raise their celestial bail money.

Today, I’m still conflicted as to which orthodoxy to embrace. I have friends who treat Lent like a second chance to start that New Year’s resolution they quit in mid-January, and others who approach it as one would the electric chair. As the years go by, I approach Lent less as an exercise in deprival and more as an opportunity to reflect and appreciate what I’ve been given.

Some folks are unrelenting (sorry) about telling me how I should observe this time, but I try to smile and bite back my reply. I offer that up to the Poor Souls.

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