Here’s a story that you can find in many places on the internet. The season of Lent is 40 days of fasting. This is why it is called Quadragesima, in the West. So Lent must start on the Sunday which is forty days before Easter. But it is also the rule that fasting is not allowed on Sundays, so there are only 36 actual days of fasting in Lent. To resolve this, we are told, Pope Gregory the Great (d. 604 AD) added 4 days to the start of Lent, which means that it begins on what is today known as Ash Wednesday.
Is it true? What are the sources for this?
The only source that I have found that addresses it is a footnote in a very old 1774 text by Alban Butler. This gives three sources which are relevant,:
- Gregory (d.604), Homilies on the Gospels, homily 16, cap. 5. (See here for information about text and translation.)
- Ratramnus of Corbie (d.868), Contra Graecorum opposita Romanam ecclesiam infamantium, libri quattuor (Against the slanders of the Greeks opposing the Roman church. text: PL 121:223-346, here; an original French translation by JesusMarie.com, 2016, is here.)
- 9th century manuscripts of the so-called Gregorian family of “sacramentaries”, service books.
- Ca. 700, the “Old Gelasian Sacramentary”, i.e. the manuscript Vatican reg. lat. 316.
There may well be other sources from the 9th century that verify that by that time Lent began on Ash Wednesday, but these are not known to me.
Gregory, Forty Gospel Homilies, Homily 16, is luckily online here. From chapter 5:
5. Since there is harmony between the reading of the day and the liturgical time – we have indeed heard that our Redeemer practiced abstinence for forty days, and at the same time we begin the holy quarantine – we must examine carefully why this abstinence is observed for forty days. Moses, to receive the Law a second time, fasted forty days. Elijah in the desert abstained from eating forty days. The Creator of men himself, coming among men, did not take food for forty days. Let us also try, as far as we can, 3 to afflict our flesh by abstinence in this annual time of the Holy Quarantine.
Why is the number forty set for abstinence, if not because the Decalogue finds its perfection in the four books of the Holy Gospel? Likewise, in fact, that ten multiplied by four gives forty, we observe the commandments of the Decalogue to perfection by the practice of the four books of the Holy Gospel.
We can also give another interpretation to this number: our mortal body subsists by four elements, and it is by the pleasures of this body that we oppose the precepts of the Lord. But these are prescribed to us by the Decalogue. Therefore, since the desires of the flesh make us despise the commandments of the Decalogue, we should mortify this flesh forty times.
Here is yet another possible explanation of this holy quarantine: from today until the joys of the solemnity of Easter, it will pass six weeks, which is forty-two days. Since six Sundays are withdrawn from abstinence, there are only thirty-six days of abstinence left. To mortify thirty-six days in a year which counts three hundred and sixty-five, it is a little to give to God the tithe: having lived for ourselves during the year he granted us, we mortified ourselves in abstinence for our Creator during the tenth of this year.
So, dear brothers, since the law commands you to offer [to God] the tithe of all things (see Lev 27:30), try to offer him also the tithe of your days. May each one macerate himself in his flesh to the measure of his strength, mortify his desires and annihilate his shameful concupiscences, in order to become, in the words of Paul, a living host (Rm 12: 1). Man is a host at once living and immolated when, without leaving this life, he causes the carnal desires to die in him. Satisfied flesh has dragged us into sin; that mortified flesh brings us back to forgiveness. The author of our death [Adam] transgressed the precepts of life by eating the forbidden fruit of the tree. It is therefore necessary that, having lost the joys of paradise by the fact of food, we should endeavor to reconquer them, as far as we can, by abstinence.
That does indicate that the church in his day was observing 36 days of actual fasting.
Yet Ratramnus testifies that in his day the Roman church did not fast on the Sundays, leaving 36 fast days, which they corrected by adding 4 days. This meant starting Lent on the Wednesday. This from Book 4, chapter 4, via Google Translate:
IV. Let’s move on to what they blame us for about Lent. We abstain neither from meat like them, for eight weeks, nor from cheese and eggs for seven weeks, as is their custom. They speak as if, apart from that of the Romans, all the Eastern and Western churches followed their custom. It’s the opposite that is true. In both Eastern and Western churches, diversity is the rule, as we have already demonstrated. Some fast for seven weeks before Passover, except Sunday. Other six. Others started fasting before the seven weeks. So there are some who fast six weeks before Easter, others seven, others eight and even nine.
Let these censors name those who follow or imitate them! Certainly not the Romans who fast every day of the week, except Sundays, for six weeks before Passover! …
The gospel and the law teach us that the duration of Lent is forty days. For we read in the Gospel that the Savior fasted continually for forty days and forty nights. It is written in the Old Testament that Moses fasted twice for the same number of days and nights. Once before receiving from God the decalogue of the law; another time, after the transgression of the people had induced them to smash the tables of the law. When Elijah was fleeing the wrath of Jezebel, he walked in the wilderness for forty days and forty nights, until he came to the mountain of God, Oreb. From this comes the custom of the Church to fast for forty days. All the churches of Christ apply to celebrate the quadragesimal fast with this number. But since not everyone agrees on the number of weeks, inevitably there is a disparity in the days. It is a fact that, for the duration of Lent, all keep to the number forty; but not everyone fasts every day of the week. For there are some who only eat on Sunday; others do not fast on Saturday or Sunday. There are even some who do not fast on Fridays. By not fasting on Sunday, even if they fast every other day of the week, they do not reach the number forty. They are four days away. Hence it is that, wanting to fast for forty days, they do not fast, before Easter, for six weeks, but seven weeks, although in six weeks there are forty-two days and not forty. If we subtract the six Sundays from the forty days, there remain thirty-six days of fasting. To reach the number forty, four days must be added in the seventh week. It therefore follows that Lent lasts seven weeks and not six weeks. But, in the seventh week, only four days are fasted, which are added to the thirty-six to complete the number forty. …
The reproaches of the Easterns are therefore completely unfounded, because what they do in eight weeks – fasting only five days a week – Westerners do in six, adding four days from a seventh week.
There are some errors in the last paragraph of the French, which I have notified to the translator, so let’s give the Migne text (col. 320 A):
Hac de causa Graeci non habeat quid Romanis objiciant super septimanarum disparilitate, quoniam quod illi in octo hebdomadibus faciunt, per singulas hebdomadas quinis non amplius diebus jejunantes, hoc tam Romana, quam Occidentalis Ecclesia, sex hebdomadibus perficere noscuntur; superadditis quatuor diebus hebdomadis septimae.
There are the Gregorian sacramentaries. I don’t really know very much about these, but I have seen statements to the effect that these include material for the dies cinerum, the day of ashes, i.e. Ash Wednesday, and therefore testify to the four-day extension.
Finally we have another old service book, the so-called “old Gelasian” sacramentary, which is preserved in a Vatican manuscript with the shelfmark Vat. reg. Lat. 316. This dates to around 700 AD. Wilson’s edition is here. On p.15, we find, at the foot of the page, in section XVII, prayers for “Quinquagesima usque ad quadragesimam” – the week in which lent now starts. At the bottom we find:
In Ieiunio. Prima Statione. Feria iv. Inchoata ieiunia, quaesumus, Domine, …
On the (Lenten) Fast. First Station. Wednesday. The fast having being begun, we seek, O Lord,…
The manuscript is here. The relevant material is at the foot of folio 16r (there seems no way to link directly to the page):
The day of the week is clearly part of the original text.
I was not aware of this custom of labelling the days of the week in this way – Monday = feria secunda, Tuesday = feria tertia, etc – but this image shows that in 700 AD the fast began on the Wednesday of Quinquagesima.
Unless there is evidence to the contrary – and surely there has been work on this since 1774? – then we have no evidence of action by Gregory to add extra days during the 6th century. A century later the Gelasian sacramentary witnesses to the addition of four days. Another hundred years later, in the 9th century we find that the Greeks are sneering at the wimpy Latins for not fasting as long as themselves, and a retort demonstrating that the latter had a longer Lent than in the days of Gregory.
Update (12 March 2022) : Twitter user @Albertojr555 kindly drew my attention to the witness of the Gelasian sacramentary, noted by Joseph Abrahamson on his blog διαθηκη here. I have updated the post accordingly.
- Alban Butler, The Moveable Feast, Fasts, and Other Annual Observances of the Catholic Church, (1774) p.197, n. Here.: “For though six weeks make forty-two days, yet the Western churches excepted out of the fast all the Sundays, which make six days; and the Eastern Churches, both the Sundays and Saturdays. (Cassian. Collat. xxi. c. 14.) Hence it is clear that Lent consisted of thirty-fix days of fast, and of forty or more of abstinence. Those who made it less, or fasted the weeks alternately, were either hereticks or loose livers, unless the weakness of their health required such a dispensation. S. Gregory the Great defines the fast of Lent to have only comprised thirty-six days, the six Sundays being excepted as to the fast (Hom. 16. in Evang. n. 5. T. i. p. 1494.) To make the fast of forty days, four were added soon after, of which Ratramnus (l. 4. contra Graecor. Opin. c. iv. T. 2. Spicileg. p. 121.) and others are vouchers. From this time, not the first Sunday, but the foregoing Wednesday, is in the West the Head of the Fast. The Greeks, to make up for the Saturdays and Sundays which they do not fast, make their Abstinence from flesh of eight weeks; that from eggs and cheese of seven weeks. (Ratramn. ib. p. 123.) For the Greeks never fast on any Saturday in Lent except on Easter Eve.”↩
- There is an error in the French translation here, but the PL col. 320 A says “in octo hebdomadibus”.↩