Brian Backe is a senior director at Catholic Relief Services. CRS Rice Bowl begins on Ash Wednesday, February 18. The views expressed in this column belong to Backe.
(CNN)Starting on Ash Wednesday, more than 1 billion Christians around the world will enter the season of Lent, a time of solemn spiritual preparation for Easter, the culmination of the church's calendar.
Despite its ancient history (Lent became standardized in the Catholic Church around the year 325) myths about Lenten traditions abound. Here are five of the most common, as well as one fact that may surprise you.
Myth 1: Lent is 40 days - Counting from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday, there are 46 days. Then why do we always refer to the 40 days of Lent? The 40 days of fasting during Lent do not include Sundays. Every Sunday Christians commemorate the day of Christ's resurrection, thus, Sunday by its nature is a day of joy and celebration. The Sundays during Lent are not prescribed days of fasting and abstinence, so meat is permitted.
Myth 2: Lent ends on Easter Sunday - Lent ends on Holy Thursday. The season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, February 18 this year, and ends on Holy Thursday, April 2, which commemorates Jesus' last supper with his disciples. As stated in the Catholic Church's "General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar," the Easter triduum (Latin for "three days") begins with the evening Mass of the Lord's Supper, and includes Good Friday and Holy Saturday. It closes with evening prayer on Easter Sunday.
Myth 3: Catholics abstain from meat during Lent - Only on Fridays during Lent are Catholics required to abstain from meat in remembrance of the sacrifice Jesus made on Good Friday. According to abstinence laws, meat includes warm-blooded animals and birds. Fish and other cold-blooded animals are not prohibited. Local Catholic bishops may determine specific prescripts about what foods are included in abstinence. This can lead to interesting exceptions. For instance, in the Catholic Archdiocese of Detroit, eating muskrat is allowable on Fridays during Lent. Puffin, beaver and alligator are permissible in some places, too -- provided your local butcher has good connections!
Myth 4: The Pope decides the date of Easter - Thanks in part to astronomers who figured out when all full moons would occur, for nearly 1,700 years Easter has fallen on the first Sunday after the Paschal, or Passover, full moon. The earliest possible date of Easter is March 22, and the latest is April 25.This year Easter is on April 5. The way to calculate the date of Easter was determined at a meeting of church bishops and others called the Council of Nicea in 325 near Constantinople in what is now modern day Turkey.
Myth 5: Jesus went into the desert for 40 days before he was put to death - Actually, Jesus spent 40 days in the desert before beginning his public ministry, several years before he was crucified. The Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke -- individual, yet similar, interpretations of Christ's message -- each tell of Jesus spending 40 days in the desert, where he fasted, prayed and was tempted by the devil. After this he went to Galilee where he called his first disciples and began his public ministry. The 40 days of Lent are a time to remember and imitate the life and ministry of Jesus as Christians prepare to commemorate his death and resurrection at Easter.
Fact: Since 1975, American Catholics have donated $250 million during Lent to feed the hungry around the world - Catholic Relief Service's Rice Bowl project began in Allentown, Pennsylvania, 40 years ago, when Americans began to take up a collection to help a famine in West Africa. More than 13,000 faith communities participated in CRS Rice Bowl last Lent.