In the long history of monastic life (and the church as a whole in this case), there is a tradition of “anticipating” an upcoming feast. The propers (appropriate prayers, readings and music) used in tonight’s Vespers service reflect the themes of the first Sunday in Lent. This practice springs in part from our Jewish roots, where Sabbath begins at sundown on Friday night.
Some of our current holiday names have come to us under this same rubric. Halloween (October 31), which occurs on the eve of All Saints Day (also called All Hallows or Hallowmas), is a good example. “Halloween” comes to us as a contraction, the result of being the evening (“even” or “e’en”) of All Hallows, which evolved over the years to Hallow-een.
Sundays are not counted in the forty days of Lent; they are considered feast days, and Lenten practices may be held in abeyance on these days. This is a good thing, I think. Forty days is a long time, and it’s easier than we think to go a bit brain-dead in our observances. Throwing a feast day in there is a reminder to us that our Lenten practices are real. They are important, and they (hopefully) keep us connected to the nature of sacrifice—in our own lives, in our lives as Christians, in our lives as humans in a sacrificial Universe.
We anticipate, or look forward to, the Sunday “break in the [Lenten] action” on Saturday evening; not in the sense that we need relief from, or that we cannot otherwise maintain, our Lenten work, but because the rhythm of feast and fast days helps keep us balanced in our journey to the cross. We need not observe Sundays with huge meals, by invading the cookie jar, by drinking alcohol immoderately (or at all), reading murder mysteries or reinstating any of the other “fasts” we might have adopted for Lent.
The point is to stay in touch with the good news that Jesus taught and for which he died. The point is not what we have given up, but that we have given something up, that we adopted a forty-day fast from business as usual. The Sunday break is but a reminder of that which is yet to come. The whole of Lent, in a way, is a great anticipation of Easter, and it is that promise that we look forward to on Saturday night.
A final word of caution; there are forty days of Lent, but only five Sundays before we begin the observance of Holy Week with Palm Sunday. Even considering the occasional mid-Lent red-letter feast (like the Annunciation on March 25), the focus of the next five weeks is profoundly Lenten. Let those Sundays be a reminder of God’s promise to humanity while Lent does its holy work in your heart.