As Holy Week begins, a few parishes begin receiving calls as to when Lent will finally be over. It can also be noted that church offices field quite a few calls each year wanting to know what time the Midnight Mass on Christmas starts. Neither of these questions has an answer as simple as it might seem on the surface.
The Christmas timing is easier to respond to; generally, the Midnight Mass would start at 12am. However, in Albuquerque, throughout the southwest, and in predominantly Mexican-American communities, parishes often celebrate Las Posadas, an active, nine day novena leading up to the celebration of the Lord’s birth. The last of those evenings takes place at the church, where parishioners act as fatigued peregrinos seeking shelter, the same as Mary and Joseph. They beg entrance to the church, and when that is granted, the ceremony moves to the nativity scene, where the image of baby Jesus is ceremoniously placed in the manger. This would be the beginning of Midnight Mass, although it most often begins earlier…say, 11pm.
Officially, according to the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar, a Church document, Lent runs from Ash Wednesday to the beginning of the Mass of the Lord’s Supper on Holy Thursday (GN#28). Bewildered catechists and teachers, who have used that formula to try and count off forty days in explanation of the season, have come away shaking their heads. There is no way to count from Ash Wednesday to Holy Thursday and come up with forty.
Here is how it works: If one counts the days between Ash Wednesday and Holy Saturday, excluding the six Sundays of Lent, they will come up with forty. But then, how does one account for the three days of the Triduum: Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, if Lent ends at the beginning of the Lord’s Supper, and Easter doesn’t really start until the conclusion of the Easter Vigil? For the answer, one must return to the origin of this special time.
Imagine the Triduum as a part of Lent that became so important, it branched off on its own, because that’s exactly what happened. Some Church historians place the original creation of Lent with Jesus’ own apostles. They sought a period of strict fasting and prayer, and chose forty days to mirror the Lord’s time in the desert, which serves as the backdrop for Lenten Scripture. Other considerations had to be made including the creation of a season that also corresponded with the Jewish calendar, specifically, the celebration of Passover. In the earliest years of Christianity, Easter could be celebrated on any day of the week that was the third day of Passover. The first recognition of Easter as a definite Sunday celebration came at the Council of Nicea in ad325. At that time, different Church factions celebrated the Resurrection of the Lord on different days, and every effort was made to bring them all to one.
The events of Thursday through Sunday, Jesus’ death, burial, and Resurrection, forced the earliest disciples to acknowledge their unique importance to the lives of the faithful. Because those days include a specific fast of their own, they can legitimately be counted in the forty days of Lent; they are part of the forty day fast the originators were seeking. The Church norms suggest the appropriate fast for the Triduum is complete abstinence from the conclusion of the Lord’s Supper until Holy Communion at the Easter Vigil (GN#20).
For years, the Triduum was not treated as a special part, but as the conclusion of the Lenten fast. As both the Church and the liturgical calendar evolved over centuries, the importance of these special days became even more obvious. Finally, in 1969, the Triduum was recognized as a separate (and shortest of all) Church season, and it was defined in the general norms as beginning with the Lord’s Supper and concluding with evening prayer on Easter Sunday (GN#19).
Further, although many still refer to it as the Lenten fast, the most rigid requirements of the past have been eliminated. In part because of Christ’s baptism prior to his forty days in the desert, the season became more associated with baptism, penance, and renewal. To practice good works, prayer, penitential acts, and to give to those in need began to take precedence over fasting.
The season was easily adapted to the RCIA (Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults) process because of its relationship to baptism and penance. Catechumens (adults preparing for baptism) and candidates (baptized Christians preparing for the sacraments of Confirmation and Eucharist) begin Lent, after a period of extensive inquiry and study, as a period of enlightenment culminating in the celebration of the sacraments at the Easter Vigil.
So, it would seem that Lent ends on Holy Thursday after thirty-seven days, and elevated Lent (the Triduum) begins immediately thereafter, lasting until after the sun goes down on Easter Sunday. One’s personal Lent ends when he/she is prepared to meet Jesus at his death and Resurrection.