What is Septuagesima?

Ashes are placed on a parishioner's forehead. (CNS photo/Sam Lucero, The Compass)

We plan for all sorts of important events, like vacations and birthday parties, well in advance. In general, the more significant an event we approach, the more time and effort we put into the preparation. You wouldn’t call “wise” the retiree who has never given thought to retirement or the student who never studies except bare hours before an exam. Our great feasts in the Church are great occasions, and they, too, require preparation. For example, before Easter, the greatest feast of all, we have the longest and the most important season of preparation, Lent. Since Lent is itself important for us, we should also prepare for Lent before Lent.

We have had for many centuries in the traditional Roman calendar a time of “pre-Lent”, consisting of a few Sundays before Lent when something of Lent’s austerity is already sampled by Holy Church. Three Sundays before Ash Wednesday are nicknamed in Latin Septuagesima, Latin for the “seventieth” day before Easter, Sexagesima (“sixtieth”), and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). The whole season of Lent is called Quadragesima, or, literally, “Fortieth”.

Of course the attentive reader is now scratching her head and thinking, “The nicknames change by 10 each Sunday, but there are only 7 days in a week. So, how do we get from ‘70th’ Sunday to “60th” in a mere 7 days? Does 2+2=5 after all?”

Let’s drill more deeply. Our forebears had reasons for the way they counted:

• Septuagesima Sunday is the 63rd day before Easter and thus falls within the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period, consisting of the 61st to 70th days before Easter;
• Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th day before Easter and falls in the 6th (sextus) decade, consisting of the 51st to 60th days before Easter; and
• Quinquagesima Sunday is the 49th day before Easter and falls in the 5th (quintus) decade, consisting of the 41st to 50th days before Easter.

Meanwhile, the whole of the season of Lent is technically called Quadragesima (40th) even though there are more 40 days from Ash Wednesday to Easter. (Hint: try counting the days of Lent excluding its Sundays and the Sacred Triduum, which technically is a separate sacred time.)

During traditional pre-Lent, Sunday Mass (not the weekdays) is celebrated already in violet vestments. The Church ceases in Holy Mass and the Office to sing “Alleluia” until Easter. The Sundays have Roman Stations, as do all the days of Lent itself. In ancient times, catechumens were taken on these Sundays to the Station Masses where they heard tough readings and ever tougher prayers and to underwent scrutinies to help them understand what they were getting into. The prayers and readings for the Masses of these pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by St Gregory the Great, pope in a time of great turmoil and suffering. Looking at Gregory’s time, with the massive migration of peoples, the war, the turmoil, you are reminded of our own times.

Speaking of the “Alleluia”, there is a charming custom – happily now being revived – surrounding it’s exclusion from the First Vespers of Septuagesima until Holy Saturday’s Vigil. There is a tradition of “burying” the Alleluia, with a depositio ceremony, like a little funeral. A hymn of farewell was sung and, after a procession with cross and candles, a coffin containing a banner with “Alleluia” was sprinkled, incensed, and buried.

In the post-Conciliar, Novus Ordo calendar of Paul VI there is no more pre-Lent. This, like the Octave of Pentecost, was a great loss. It was not, as the Council’s document on the liturgy Sacrosanctum Concilium required, a change that was either organic, developing from previous practice, or for the benefit of the people.

However, we are grateful that, with Benedict XVI’s 2007 gift of the document Summorum Pontificum, the pre-Lent Sundays are regaining something of their ancient status. Those who opt to follow the older, traditional calendar are given the advantage of pre-Lent. Moreover, Pope Benedict also gave us a great gift in the document Anglicanorum coetibus, for the welcoming of Anglicans into the Church and for the erection of their three Ordinariates, now in England, the United States and Australia. Their calendar, although based on the calendar of Paul VI, restored Septuagesima and pre-Lent along with the Ember Days, Rogation Days, and the Pentecost Octave. Both Summorum and Anglicanorum provide fuel for “mutual enrichment” and a deepening of our sacred worship practices and identity.

In practical terms, pre-Lent gives us a change to “ease in” to our Lenten discipline. The important season starts us to thinking about what we going to do during Lent well before Lent and not the day after Ash Wednesday. We might think of pre-Lent as a time to map out what Lent’s journey is going to look like. That way, when Ash Wednesday rolls around, we are ready, with a plan in hand. we can hit the ground running.