As I write this, the season of Septuagesima (also called “Pre-Lent” or “Gesimatide”) is almost over. In fact, one week from now will be Ash Wednesday, the beginning of Quadragesima or Lent proper.
Some of you are doubtlessly asking “What the hell is this guy talking about?” Others may be thinking “I ask this about all your posts, anyway.”
What Is Septuagesima?
To begin at the beginning, Septuagesima is a two-and-a-half week period for transitioning into Lent. It begins three Sundays before Ash Wednesday (nine weeks before Easter or “Septuagesima Sunday”) and ends on Fat Tuesday (the day before Ash Wednesday). The three Sundays of this period are called “Septuagesima,” “Sexagesima,” and “Quinquagesima,” respectively, and they were observed consistently in the Catholic, Lutheran, and Anglican churches prior to the 1970s.
Although the season begins 63 days before Easter, the name itself means “the seventieth” and refers to the 70 years the Israelites spent in exile. The great liturgist Dom Prosper Guéranger explains this by saying “the Church, according to the style so continually used in the Sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.” (The Liturgical Year, “The Mystery of Septuagesima”)
Me personally, I think the reference to the number 70 may have had something to do with where the concept of Septuagesima came from, in that it’s a borrowing from Eastern Orthodox practice. The Eastern Church has a period of “Pre-Lent” to help the faithful ease into the fasting of Great Lent. This transitional period lasts four Sundays instead of three, thus beginning an actual 70 days before Pascha, with the last two Sundays known as “Meatfare” and “Cheesefare,” on which Sundays the faithful say “goodbye” to fleshmeats and dairy products respectively. In the Orthodox tradition, Great Lent proper begins on Clean Monday, the day after Cheesefare Sunday.
In the Western Church, the themes of Gesimatide are expressed differently. While the East gives these Sundays themes of 1. The Pharisee and the Publican, 2. The Prodigal Son, 3. The Last Judgment, and 4. Forgiveness; Catholics attribute these Sundays (following the Breviary) to 1. Christ the New Adam, 2. Christ the New Noah, and 3. Christ the New Abraham.
Lutherans, on the other hand (following the Gospel readings) call these Sundays 1. Grace Alone Sunday, 2. Word Alone Sunday, and 3. Christ Alone Sunday.
From the Epistles of these Sundays, my own reading uncovers themes related to the Three Theological Virtues: 1. Faith, 2. Hope, and 3. Charity.
This gives us three sets of themes based on the Western readings, and I do not believe these interpretations are mutually exclusive. Rather, in my preaching these past few Sundays, I’ve endeavored to show how these interpretations are complimentary to each other, work hand-in-hand, and give us much fruit for meditation and the proper ordering of our lives both physically and spiritually.
Why Have I Never Heard of These Sundays?
Okay, so you know what I’m talking about. Now most of you are likely scratching your heads and asking, “All well and good, but why haven’t I heard any of this before?”
The answer to that, dear THAVMA reader, is that Gesimatide was obliterated thanks to Vatican II. The official reason for this is found in the Calendarium Romanum published in 1969, which gives commentary on the reasons for the changes found in the 1970 Calendar; the part that concerns us is discussed on page 58:
There is an official translation of this book dated 1976 and titled The Roman Calendar: Text and Commentary. However, I’ve not been able to find either an electronic or physical copy of this book, so unfortunately the translation is my own very rough work.
I’ll warn you that I had problems translating the Latin in this document. I understand every word in the text, their grammatical case, conjugation, all the technical elements, and understood what the text is trying to say, but it proved less than straightforward putting these elements together into coherent English sentences. That’s why this translation is more than a little “weird,” and it gives the gist of what’s being said though I apologize for not being literal.
Tempus Septuagesimae et Passionis. – Si initium Quadragesimae feria IV Cinerum servatum est propter suam indolem popularem, suppression temporis Septuagesimae, quandam amplificationem antecedentem temporis quadragesimalis constituentis, necnon temporis Passionis temperamentum, eo quod quandam abruptionem efficit, sacram Quadragesimam in pristinam unitatem et momentum restituet.
If the beginning of Lent is observed on Ash Wednesday on account of popular inclination, the suppression of Gesimatide, constituting a “widening” coming before the season of Lent, and likewise the temperament of Passiontide, [the suppression] makes a separation, [and] restores Lent in its pristine unity and momentum.
The concern here is with restoring “the pristine unity of Lent,” and that Septuagesima constitutes a “widening” of Lent. The text also claims that suppressing Septuagesima makes a separation between Lent and the Sundays after Epiphany (we’ll extrapolate on that in a moment). This “widening” or “amplification” seems to be the source of what some commentaries refer to as “a preparation for a preparation,” in the sense that page 57 of this document calls Lent a preparation for Easter.
Tempus Septuagesimae aboletur, eo quod nihil proprium prae se ferebat et in Officio divino partes «per annum» sumebat. Difficillimum erat munus de eo loqui ad populum (quid admodum sonant voces Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima?), et praesertim novitatis notam detrahebat liturgiae paenitentiali Quadragesimae, antequam haec inciperet.
Gesimatide is abolished, unto which it brought nothing proper to itself, and took the part of “Ordinary Time” in the Divine Office. It was also very difficult to speak about to the people (who can properly pronounce Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima?), and especially diminishes the note of novelty of the penitential liturgy of Lent, beginning beforehand.
Yes, you read that correctly. We got rid of it because it’s hard to explain to people and they can’t pronounce it anyway! This is an untenable position, and we can thank blogger Amy Welborn for posting images from a seventh-grade religion textbook that explains Septuagesima in language a child can understand. She also quotes an article from Dr. Lauren Pristas (which I’ve not yet been able to read in its entirety), which discusses the decision-making process behind Septuagesima’s abolition.
We also come to the “note of novelty,” or novitatis nota that Bugnini and company wanted in the Lenten liturgy, which goes back to what I said above about Lent being “divorced” (abruptio in the original text) from the preceding season of Epiphany. The concepts of “separation/divorce” and “novelty” are an indicator that the Conciliar reformers weren’t looking for Lent to be transitioned into gently, but rather for the change in mood smash into the faithful in a sudden wave of “shock and awe.”
Textus proprii harum trium Dominicarum alibi ponentur in Missali romano; Alleluia cantabitur usque ad feriam IV Cinerum exclusive.
The texts proper to these three Sundays will be placed elsewhere in the Roman Missal; Alleluia shall be sung up until Ash Wednesday exclusive.
[Translator’s note: “Ash Wednesday exclusive” is rubric-speak for saying “up until the day before Ash Wednesday.”]
This is simply a directive as to what will happen to the texts of Septuagesima and the last remaining distinctive (the suppression of the Alleluia). In essence, Septuagesima is effectively subjected to a sort of damnatio memoriae and treated as though it never happened.
What Do I Think?
What I’ve discussed above are the officially-stated reasons coming out of Rome, not the meta-narrative behind the reasons or what actually happened during those discussions. This is also where I wish I had a copy of the Comes Hieronymi (considered the source-text for the western lectionary), because until I cross-reference with that, everything I say here is merely speculation.
During most years, I’ve looked at Septuagesima in the micro-context of the readings of those three Sundays. This year as I’ve preached these texts, I expanded my gaze to macro-context of the Sundays of Septuagesima as well as the Sundays after Epiphany. What I’ve noticed is the Gospels do not indicate two separate seasons, but rather one continuous theme.
In the first Sunday after Epiphany (the Feast of the Holy Family), for example, Jesus is lost in the Temple but is found. The second, third, and fourth Sundays focus on Jesus’ miracles, while the fifth and sixth Sundays have Jesus telling us parables.
As we go into Septuagesima, this theme does not abate but continues where Jesus gives us two more parables on the first two Sundays, while on Quinquagesima the season concludes with a prophecy of his death and then a miracle of sight to the blind man. From this angle, one can perceive Septuagesima not as a season in its own right, but rather as the final part of the Epiphany season that had been turned into something of a countdown for Lent via slapping on violet vestments and names like “Seventieth” and “Sixtieth.”
I’m no specialist in ancient liturgies, and so to know this for certain, I’d need to examine older lectionaries from before the time Septuagesima was established, to be sure whether these readings were already there before the season was instituted, or if they replaced an older set of pericopes. The continuity I’ve noticed, though (i.e. the sequence of parables and miracles is uninterrupted from Epiphanytide), gives me the sense we’re taking about a continuous sequence. Until I do this and confirm with my own eyes, I consider everything I’ve said here a mere speculation.
UPDATE (02/28/2019): It’s no longer speculation. I managed to find a 1750 printing of the Comes Hieronymi included as part of the compilation Ritualis SS. Patrum Latinorum II (a compilation of liturgical source-texts). I’ve uploaded the entire document to this website’s file section, and readings for Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima are given on pages 30 and 31 of the .pdf file, and match exactly with the readings given in the Missale Romanum.
What this means is that as the continuity of readings go, thus far my hypothesizing finds itself on solid ground. That the Epistles and Gospels of these Sundays are the same across the historic Catholic, Anglican, and Lutheran lectionaries (i.e. what I’ve called the “Northern” and “Southern” lectionary traditions) gives me more confidence in these readings’ antiquity, even though the Comes itself may be of a later date than claimed.
Moreover, according to Duchesne’s Christian Worship: Its Origin and Evolution, on page 244, the actual feast of Septuagesima dates to an unknown Pope in the seventh century. Duchesne also quotes the Fourth Council of Orleans in 541, which mentions the Sexagesima and Quinquagesima but not approvingly:
“Hoc etiam decernimus observandum ut quadragesima ab omnibus ecclesiis aequaliter teneatur; neque quinquagesimam aut sexagesimam ante Pascha quilibet sacerdos praesumat indicere.”
The Latin is straightforward, and translates thus: This we also decide: that Lent is to be observed equally by all the churches; let not any priest presume to appoint the quinquagesima or sexagesima before Easter.
It should be noted the words “quinquagesima” and “sexagesima” are used in the sense of “fiftieth” and “sixtieth” day before Easter, and the Council’s actual disapproval was directed at priests upholding the Eastern custom of Meatfare, Cheesefare, and Clean Monday which still prevailed in Gaul (the Gallican Rite was much inspired by Eastern liturgy and praxis) and put up stiff resistance to the Roman practices being introduced at the time.
In any case, I find it hard to believe that agenda-driven or no, the liturgical scholars who put together the Novus Ordo would not have been aware of this progression. If they were aware of this progression, then it could only have weighed in favor of their agenda.
I also think another factor in the suppression of Septuagesima in 1969 is the gutting of the Lenten fast three years prior. After all, Septuagesima was supposed to help prepare for the Lenten fast, but in 1966 fasting was restricted to only two days: Ash Wednesday and Good Friday. If there’s no longer a sustained fast for which to prepare, then why bother with a transitional period anymore? From the “religion made for the industrial age” perspective that birthed the Novus Ordo, would there even be a pastoral reason?
For my own part, I do believe Paul VI was a legitimate Pope, and therefore he had the authority to alter the rules of fasting and abstinence however he saw fit, or even to abolish the Second Precept altogether. This does not prevent a person from choosing to follow the rules of their own free will (I’ve personally found it great for my spiritual practice), it simply prevents them from claiming anyone is under pain of mortal sin for choosing otherwise.
All that said, while my own analysis cannot find fault with the abolition of Septuagesima on an intellectual level, I cannot help but feel this suppression was not a good idea, and that a gentle transition from the “happy” mood of Epiphany to the “doom and gloom” of Lent is a good thing in that it gives us a warm-up to prepare spiritually, mentally, and physically for the penitential season to follow.