A quick question regarding Lent. My understanding is that Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with the start of the Mass of the Lord's Supper on Holy Thursday. However, counting 40 days on the calendar from Ash Wednesday on brings us to Palm Sunday. If we omit counting Sundays as a part of these 40 days, we end up at Holy Saturday. Am I missing something?
The following answer to your question comes from a discussion I had with Fr. Pierre (our local liturgical expert) on the subject. The reason for the discrepancies you've noticed is due to successive liturgical layers that developed over time as follows:
In the 3rd century, Lent developed as a period of 40 days of fasting and prayer for those preparation for Christian initiation at the Easter Vigil. Very quickly this practice was embraced by all Christians, not just the catechumens preparing for baptism. The fasting of Lent began on Ash Wednesday, excluded all Sundays, and ended on Holy Saturday before nightfall.
Around the 4th century, Good Friday became a special part of Lent with particular rites. The veneration of the relic of the True Cross was practiced in Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem. This tradition quickly spread throughout the Church, East and West, using a wooden cross when a relic of the True Cross was not available.
Around the same time in Jerusalem, Holy Thursday was layered with additional liturgical rites: the Mass of the Last Supper (highlighting the institution of the Eucharist), and the Reconciliation of penitents on Holy Thursday morning (so they could worthily celebrate the Easter mysteries). In the 5th century, the Chrism Mass began to be celebrated on Holy Thursday. These additional liturgical themes were layered over the existing Lenten themes.
Thus these three days of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Holy Saturday Easter Vigil were celebrated with special rites. In the 20th century they were given the collective name of the Triduum. The Triduum is now considered as one unit liturgically, now distinct from Lent as a liturgical season, even though it still "counts" for the calculation of the 40 days.
Father Terry Donahue
June 1, 2001