The Kalendar in Lent


Lent is a 40-day period spanning 46 days.  Sundays are excluded from the calculation and, in the Book of Common Prayer, are technically referred to as Sundays “in” Lent rather than Sundays “of” Lent.  Nevertheless, they share common liturgical traits and themes with the Lenten ferias.

Lent begins on Ash Wednesday. Despite being a Holy Day, Ash Wednesday is a ferial day and thus the day liturgically begins at midnight—there is no “First Vespers” of Ash Wednesday and it is technically incorrect to anticipate it on Tuesday night.

The ending of Lent is a matter of controversy due to how one construes Holy Week and Triduum. Ritual Notes (11th ed.) ends Lent just before the Mass of the Easter Vigil (p. 262); the BCP does not say; the Roman GNLY ends it at the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Maundy Thursday (GNLY 28).

Due to the variability of Easter, the dates of Lent vary from year to year. The earliest Lent can begin is February 4th; the latest that Lent can end is April 24th. Thus, there is a 79 day period within which Lent will fall. No matter when it begins and ends, the days between March 10th and March 21st will always fall within Lent.

There are always six Sundays within Lent. They are numbered consecutively until the last which is officially entitled “The Sunday of the Passion: Palm Sunday.”

Historical Treatment

Lent is the season most affected by the changes of Vatican II. In the pre-conciliar period, Lent was, in essence, a graded season. the Pre-Lenten period proceeded it (starting at the 9th Sunday before Easter), liturgical Lent began at the First Sunday of Lent although the full penitential practices began a few days earlier on Ash Wednesday, and penitence was intensified at Passion Sunday which occurred on  the Fifth Sunday of Lent. Passiontide encompassed the last two weeks of Lent, the last week being Holy Week, concluding with the Triduum. (I will treat Holy Week and Triduum separately from Lent.)

In the immediately pre-conciliar Roman kalendar, the Sundays of Lent were of the first class, meaning that no observances or commemorations were permitted—the liturgical focus was entirely on Lent. The Sundays were (SBH):

  • Invocabit: First Sunday (or Quadragesima)/Lent 1
  • Reminiscere: Second Sunday/Lent 2
  • Oculi: Third Sunday/Lent 3
  • Laetare: Fourth Sunday/Lent 4
  • Judica: Passion Sunday/Lent 5
  • Palmarum: Sixth Sunday/Palm Sunday

The Fourth Sunday, Laetare (Rejoice), was the Rose Sunday, a day of penitential lessening before the on-set of Passiontide.

Leaving Holy Week aside, the ferial days of Lent were liturgically of the third class, meaning that they outranked any third class feasts; feasts would be commemorated rather than celebrated. First and second class feasts would be celebrated but the feria would receive a commemoration.

The prior Pian kalendar rules from the turn of the 20th century, still observed by those who use the Anglican Breviary, legislated that weekdays in Lent were Greater Non-Privileged Ferias meaning that they superseded Simple feasts. While the ferias gave way to feasts from Semidoubles on up, a commemoration of the feria was required.

Thus the temporal days within Lent fell into the following categories; rank/order of precedence is per Ritual Notes:

Rank Class Days
6 Sundays, 1st Class The Sundays of Lent
7 Feria, 1st Class Ash Wednesday
22 Feria, 3rd Class Weekdays in Lent

Current Status

Vatican II and the ’79 BCP put a very heavy emphasis on Lent’s early function as a preparation for Baptism. Theologically, the “grading” qualities of Lent were abolished. Liturgically, this meant the Pre-Lenten period disappeared, and Passion Sunday was collapsed into Palm Sunday.

The ’79 BCP does not differentiate the Sundays in Lent from other Sundays except to say that they may not be superseded by local feasts of dedication, patron, or title. Ash Wednesday is placed within Class 3 (Holy Days) and is one of two officially appointed fasts. The notes indicate that “Feasts appointed on fixed days in the Calendar do not take precedence of Ash Wednesday” (p. 17). The ferias of Lent are found in Class 4 (Days of Special Devotion). This is properly an ascetical category rather than a liturgical one; the instructions state: “The following days are observed by special acts of discipline and self-denial…Ash Wednesday and the other Weekdays of Lent…except for the feast of the Annunciation” (p. 17). The liturgical impact of these dates is not addressed.

The motu proprio on the kalendar following Vatican II, General Norms for the Liturgical Year (GNLY), make the Roman position a bit more clear.  As in the ’79 BCP, the Sundays of Lent have precedent over any other solemnity or feast (GNLY 5) which are equivalent to the BCP’s Classes 2 and 3. Ash Wednesday has precedence over any other celebration which could fall on this day (GNLY 16.1). All of the other weekdays of Lent have precedence over obligatory memorials (GNLY 16.3) which are equivalent to the BCP’s Class 5.

The order of precedence established in the GNLY 59 is:

Rank Class Days
2b I The Sundays of Lent
2c I Ash Wednesday
9c II Weekdays in Lent

Liturgical Days within Lent

Holy Days

There are 2 Holy Days that may fall within Lent and 1 that will always fall in Lent:

Date Class Feast DL Notes
Feb 24 Major Feast (3b) St Matthias the Apostle f Usually falls in Lent; may be in occurrence with Ash Wednesday
Mar 19 Major Feast (3b) St Joseph A Always falls in Lent
Mar 25 Feast of our Lord (3a) The Annunciation g Almost always falls in Lent

The Annunciation is the only feast excepted from the ascetical requirements of Class 4.

The Feast of St Matthias is the only one of the three that may be in occurrence with Ash Wednesday. When this happens, St Matthias should be transferred to the Friday.

In each case, the feast should be kept and, if commemorations are used, the feria should be commemorated. If the feast falls on a Sunday it should be transferred to Tuesday unless this would place it into Holy Week.

Days of Optional Observance

The BCP is not clear on what happens during Lent with Days of Optional Observance (Class 5). As noted above, all weekdays of Lent appear in Class 4, however, this class seems to be more ascetical than liturgical. Lesser Feasts and Fasts, however, includes collects for each day of Lent and states that:

“In keeping with ancient tradition, the observance of Lenten weekdays ordinarily takes precedence over Lesser Feasts occurring during this season. It is appropriate, however, to name the saint whose day it is in the Prayers of the People, and, if desired, to use the Collect of the saint to conclude the Prayers.”

Roman practice concurs based on the precedence of Lenten weekdays to memorials.

Ritual Notes, 11th Ed. states that third class feasts receive no commemorations on Sundays in Lent; on weekdays they receive commemoration only at Matins and low Mass. (p. 283)

There are a few significant Days of Optional Observance that should be mentioned:

Date Feast DL Notes
Varies Ember Days n/a The Wed, Fri, & Sat after Lent 1
Mar 1 David of Menevia d Patron of Wales
Mar 2 Chad of Lichfield e
Mar 12 Gregory the Great A sent missionaries to England
Mar 17 Patrick f Patron of Ireland

The Spring Ember days always fall in Lent. Under the old rules they were ferias of the second class taking precedence over the weekdays of Lent; according to the ’79 BCP they are Class 5 but are not recognized in the weekdays of Lent section within Lesser Feasts and Fasts.

The other saints listed my either be patrons of dioceses or regions or may be saints of title. If so, patronal festivals or feasts of title may not displace the Mass of the Day on a Sunday. They may, however, be observed on a Saturday or any other open day as a Local Feast of the first class/Class 3. Alternatively, they may be transferred outside of Lent.

Potential Issues

  • When does liturgical Lent start? At Morning Prayer of Ash Wednesday or at the First Vespers of Lent 1? I would suggest that since Ash Wednesday and the other initial days of Lent no longer fall under Pre-Lenten rules, Lent should begin liturgically on Ash Wednesday.
  • Should Days of Optional Observance be kept during Lent? I would say that the Ember Days have precedence, but that the ferias should be commemorated. In other cases, if they are not patrons or titular saints, the day is of the feria and the saint is commemorated. In the case patrons, the feast is celebrated and the feria commemorated (Gregory the Great is one of the patrons of the St Bede’s Breviary). If commemorations are not utilized, the saint is omitted.
  • How long is Passiontide? According to both Episcopal and Roman rubrics and practice, Passiontide and Holy Week are identical.

5 thoughts on “The Kalendar in Lent

  1. Paul Goings


    You need to be careful with your references to pre-Conciliar (Roman) liturgy. The system of 1st, 2nd, and 3rd Class observances, and the prohibition of commemorations on the Sundays of Lent (most Sundays, actually), were products of the code of rubrics promulgated by Bl. Pope John XXIII, and only obtained from 1960-1969 (a period of less than ten years). Prior to that you had Doubles of the 1st and 2nd Class, Greater and Lesser Doubles, Semidoubles and Simples, some of which had existed since before the Tridentine reforms, and some of which developed subsequently.

    So, for example, at S. Clement’s (where the clock stopped in 1955) we had a commemoration of S. Thomas Aquinas last Sunday, and, at Vespers, S. John of God (his I Vespers) and S. Thomas (his II Vespers) were commemorated.

    Hopefully you find this helpful and not distracting.

    Some questions:

    1. What is “liturgical Lent” in terms of Prayerbook usage? Are you referring to the optional accidentals such as antiphons, etc., or something else? If the former, then I suggest that the ordinary scheme be retained until I Evensong of Lent I; there was not really a proper office of the ‘Gesimas (apart from the Sunday Invitatory) so I’m not sure why their omission should impact historical Western practice.

    2. There are nods to the former two-week season of Passiontide in the modern Roman rite. It is still permitted to veil images during that period, and I believe that the office hymns in the typical edition of the LotH change as well.


  2. Derek Olsen

    Blast! I lost a long comment just before I was about to hit send… In brief:

    Right as usual—I do need to add more nuance there; I was relying too much on RN 11 which is from the period you identify…

    1. Yes, the optional accidentals but, given the theology of the season as presented in the ’79 BCP & OF I simply can’t make sense of it. Alternately, without the ‘Gesimas does it make sense to use the Gloria & A-word on the Thursday after Ash Wednesday? That doesn’t make sense to me…

    2. True, I see a reference to that in +Elliott as well but, as there is no mention of the term in GNLY, I suspect that the good bishop’s Anglo-Catholic roots are showing…

    More later after dinner (and probably after little ones’ bed-time…)

  3. rick allen

    Based on my own observations, all penitential disciplines are suspended on the Feast of St. Patrick in the United States. And the liturgical color returns, for 24 hours, to green.

  4. Michelle

    In England, St Cuthbert’s feast day is in March. The new Holy Women, Holy Men combines it with St Aidan in August.

  5. Derek Olsen

    In the printed kalendar of the ’79 BCP Cuthbert is also March 20th. However, very few American churches are named for him and only medievalists tend to take him as a patron… :-)

    I’ve noticed that too… I’m actually rather surprised that some of the major Irish foundations here don’t have green on white sets specially for the occasion like the blue on white sets for Feasts of Our Lady.

    Ok—I made some edits to clarify. See if those pass muster… I’m mostly interested in current practice and living memory so, yes, the Pian rules certainly are in scope there. I just didn’t want to get bogged down in too much historical detail.

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