Catholics, making up over 17% of the world’s population, are the main observers of Lent, though some Protestants also observe, as well as even non-religious who choose it for self-help reasons. So given the significance of this period then, is breaking Lent bad, particularly for Catholics who make up the majority of observers?
Purposefully breaking Lent is not okay for Catholics. Though technically Lent is not a commandment in the Bible, it’s a Catholic obligation. Catholics must observe Canon Law by fasting and abstaining on certain Lenten Days. As well, Catholics are obliged to pray and do penance during Lent.
As a Catholic convert family, it became really important for us to learn about Lent, particularly since it’s an ‘obligation’. In this article, I’ll share what we’ve found out and hopefully, inform your future Lenten practice, particularly as it pertains to Catholics. And if you do find that you’ve broken Lent, I’ll address how to handle that properly, too!
Is It Ok To Break Lent?
The 40-day period of Lent is a time for repentance and focusing on the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross. Fasting, praying, and giving alms are the three primary practices of Lent. Much more than forgoing food, ‘fasting’ also involves giving up one or more pleasurable activities.
It is not okay to break Lent for Catholics. With few exceptions, Catholics are obliged to abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays of Lent; fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday; attend confession at least once; and pray and give alms. If Catholics break Lent on purpose, then it is a sin.
Keep in mind, this is a Catholic obligation and so observing Lent is only obliged to Catholics. Other denominations are not required to observe Lent, though many strongly encourage it.
Although it is not a sin to break Lent for Protestants and non-religious, it is not constructive personally to do so. It is difficult to give up something that brings you pleasure and could also be a daily activity, for example, social media or internet use, so giving it up can be inconvenient. Regardless, the rewards for following through with your commitment make it worthwhile.
As well, giving up something pleasurable for awhile can make us stronger. It lets us know that we have strength to overcome obstacles in the future. This is one reason that even non-religious have turned to following Lent.
For instance, many give up pleasurable activities/foods as a way to identify with Jesus’ forty-day fast in the wilderness. It is swapping distractions for extra time to focus and reflect on the significance of Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross. You don’t have to just fast food (though as Catholics that is a requirement on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday!).
During Lent, you can fast social media, comfort foods, swearing, gossip magazines, or TV time.
To reiterate, though, breaking Lent is not okay for Catholics. Catholics should do their best to follow Lenten mandates as well as any promises they’ve made personally for alms, prayers, and fasting (besides the required fasts).
But we’re not perfect, so from time to time, we might find that even though we’re required to follow Lent as Catholics, we break it. What do we do, then?
Breaking your fast could happen by mistake, or it could be intentional and done in full conscience. It could be that you had a meal on Ash Wednesday that contained meat unknowingly. Or perhaps you ate meat after midnight on Good Friday, not realizing it was now time to abstain.
If you break Lent unknowingly, then you are not culpable. This means you are not responsible.
But it’s not a free for all to continue the action. So just because you accidentally ate meat on Friday during Lent, that doesn’t give you a valid excuse to do this every Lenten Friday, or even the rest of the day on that particular Lenten Friday.
Just start fresh from that spot!
However, as a Catholic if you break Lent knowingly, then you are indeed responsible for your actions. This means you have sinned and need to confess for it to be forgiven.
If you aren’t Catholic and are observing Lent anyway, then breaking Lent on purpose isn’t fruitful or helpful for you. It would be better for you to maintain your goals to observe Lent, and if you choose not to, then I’d suggest starting fresh and resetting your goals to make them manageable.
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What Should I Do If I Break My Lenten Fast?
It is important to have the right ideas about the Lenten fast. Understanding its true purpose makes it easier for you to commit and helps you adjust if you fall off the wagon. What is the primary goal of Lent?
If you break your Lenten fast, then make a confession to the priest to absolve your sin and do your penance. Then, start fresh and work hard to maintain required fasting. However, keep in mind that there are just two day of required Lenten fasting. Other fasting is optional and not a sin to break.
The primary goal of Lent is to instill in you a sense of humility and obedience. Your commitment towards fasting, praying, and giving alms is more than a route to self-development.
Even though Lenten disciplines can transform you into a better individual, they are not merely New Year’s resolutions.
The experience of Lent is part of your spiritual journey. As you strive for perfection in your faith, it is easy to forgo the grace of Christ and rely on your own strength. Failure to keep the Lenten fast can be a lesson in humility. After eating your humble pie, here’s what you can do:
- Lose the guilt:
Listen, maybe you broke your fast by mistake or not. If it is your routine to snack on a chicken wrap every lunch break, you may remember the “no meat on Friday” after your 4th bite. Guilt can be helpful because it is a way to remind us to not do it again. But some of us can overdo guilt to the point that it’s not helpful anymore.
Jesus is always ready to forgive us. So once you’ve recognized your sin (that is, if you did break Lent on purpose), then make a good confession to a priest and after he’s absolved you, let go of your guilt.
- Reevaluate your commitment and its purpose:
Instead of wallowing in the guilt of your error, you can review your choices and why you made them. Your Lenten focus may be on the wrong things. It is wise to open your heart and listen for a new direction from God.
It may surprise some people that Catholics actually only have two days during Lent in which they are obliged to fast. Other days of Lenten fasting are entirely optional. If you’re struggling with fasting, then it might be better to spend your Lent on something else. You can ‘fast’ many things and as well, do baby steps. If you rarely fast, then do something smaller. Rather than give up whole meals, instead give up dessert, alcohol, or caffeine.
And you don’t have to do it everyday. You can set limits like fasting every other day; only weekdays, or so on. For our family, we never fast on the Lord’s Day (Sunday) even during Lent and that helps us maintain our other Lenten promises.
- Focus on your added spiritual practice:
To become closer to Christ and identify more with His suffering, many Christians take up extra spiritual practices. Examples include praying for an extra hour outside their prayer routine or following a daily devotional throughout the Lenten period.
If you haven’t added one, this might be a good time to do so. It provides something else to focus on instead of your error, and it also strengthens you for the days ahead.
For instance, I recommend this book as a devotional during Lent called Bread and Wine: Readings for Lent and Easter (available at Amazon for a reasonable price). It has various texts from many classic and contemporary Christian authors from GK Chesterton to CS Lewis.
- Keep moving:
Do not throw in the towel! You are not an epic failure for not following through on your Lenten commitments. If you need to reevaluate and make different commitments, go right ahead. However, you can resume your commitments from where you left off.
The practices of Lent are not there to test your endurance limits but to help you relate to Christ’s sufferings (discipleship). A priest once said, “Lent is a success when it is a failure.”
If humility is the goal, then there is no better lesson of Lent than seeing just how badly you need God.
When Can Lent Be Broken?
Lent is broken after the 40 day period, leading to Easter Sunday. Other than that, Lenten obligations can be broken if one is ill, too young or old to maintain observances, and on Sunday, the Lord’s Day. Lenten obligations are picked up again if paused during the 40 days, unless deemed harmful.
Things to remember about Lent:
- It lasts 40 days.
- It begins on Ash Wednesday (the day after Mardi Gras).
- It ends upon Easter.
- Catholics must abstain from meat on Ash Wednesday and all Fridays during Lent.
- Catholics also must fast on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday, having just one meat-free meal. (Two snacks are permitted as long as combined they don’t equal a full-sized meal.)
- It is a time for extra fasting, prayers, and alms-giving. Alms-giving is typically meant as acts or works of charity.
Lent lasts for forty days, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending about six weeks later. Western Orthodox Churches end the season on Holy Thursday or on Holy Saturday at sundown. Eastern Orthodox Churches end their Lenten period on Holy Saturday at noon.
For the duration of the fast, the Church mandates fasting on Ash Wednesday and Good Friday if you’re 18-59 and abstaining from meat on Ash Wednesday and every Friday if you’re 14 or older. This is besides whatever extra food or activity you decide to fast from.
Fasting individuals may consume one full meal and two smaller meals enough to maintain strength. When combined, the smaller meals should not equal a full meal.
During Lent, Sundays do not count as part of the 40 days because each Sunday is like a “mini-Easter,” and celebrating with the somber attitude of fasting is impossible.
Sunday is the Lord’s Day even during Lent, so Lenten fasting and penance are not obligated and usually not observed.
The inclusion or exclusion of Sundays as fast days during Lent varies from church to church. While the Eastern Orthodox Churches fast for 40 days unbroken (including Sundays), the Western Orthodox Churches go for 40 days (excluding Sunday).
For followers of the Western Orthodox practices, on Sundays, it is up to the individual to abstain from what they committed to abstaining from. It is your choice to embark on the Lenten fast. Before you decide to commit to it, understand its primary goal and do your best to meet it.
Some things other than food that observers often ‘fast’ during Lent:
- Give up social media (I did this once by posting on Facebook that I was taking an absence for Lent just so my ‘friends’ knew why I was not posting and/or ignoring their posts all of a sudden.)
- Don’t watch entertainment (still watching news, educational or religious programming).
- Stop using internet for pleasure.
- Avoid all pleasurable shopping.
- Avoid negative talking (i.e. gossiping)
Wrapping Up: Is Breaking Lent Okay Or Is It Bad?
To wrap this up, breaking Lent is not okay. For Catholics, it is a sin if purposefully done, and for others, breaking your Lenten goals is not beneficial. However, you certainly aren’t alone if you find that you have broken Lent.
Ultimately, it’s easy to recover.
Catholics should confess this sin to a priest; do penance such as praying a ‘Hail Mary’ or an ‘Our Father’; and then, feel refresh to continue Lent. Non-Catholics can reevaluate their Lenten practice and make adjustments if needed in order to keep Lenten goals.
We all fail, unfortunately, more than we want or ever plan to. But our failures can serve as a reminder of why we have Lent in the first place- to move us to Jesus, and away from ourselves.
So with that in mind, I encourage you to look forward to the next Lent; try your best to be faithful and have comfort that if and when you fail, Jesus is there, ready to forgive!
Have a blessed Lent, indeed!
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