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What Is Septuagesima?

Why bother with a pre-Lent season when the whole point of Lent is to prepare for Easter?

Joseph Shaw

Until the reform of the calendar in 1969, Latin Rite Catholics observed a period of preparation for Lent: the three Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. The names are derived from Latin numbers: Lent is quadragesima, “forty,” septuagesima “seventy,” sexagesima “sixty,” and quinquagesima “fifty.” It is a (very rough) countdown to Easter.

As in Lent, during this period, the liturgical color is violet, and the readings and prayers refer to our need for conversion and penance. This season is actually older than Ash Wednesday; it is discussed in the writings of Pope St. Gregory the Great, who died in the year 604. There is a similar pre-Lent season in the calendars of the Eastern churches; it was preserved by the Anglican Book of Common Prayer and in some Lutheran calendars; it has been restored in Divine Worship, the liturgy of the Ordinariate; and it is still found in celebrations of the pre-Vatican II Mass, the usus antiquior. It is the post-Vatican II calendar, in fact, that is unusual in doing without Septuagesima.

It is often said that a period of preparation for Lent doesn’t make sense, because Lent is itself a period of preparation for Easter. This argument is not as strong as it may seem. The final period of intense study or training before an examination or athletic competition is, of course, a preparation for that exam or competition, but it does not follow that it should not itself be preceded by some preparation.

But in that case, it might be said, where do you draw the line? Are we to prepare to prepare to prepare?

There is, however, no need to draw a line at all. If you are serious about your academic progress, or your athletic career, you never give up your preparations completely, and certainly not for a prolonged period of time. As Catholics, our entire life is a preparation for death, and it should always have a penitential aspect, however much the degree of penance may fluctuate between specifically penitential seasons and festive ones.

Lent, in particular, is the Church’s major penitential season, and almost her only one. The “Lent” of Michaelmas, the penitential period before the feast of St. Michael the Archangel (September 29), during which St. Francis received the stigmata, is no longer observed; the four penitential Ember Weeks, which once sanctified the four seasons, tend to be ignored; the penitential character of the eve of great feasts has long been forgotten; Advent, the penitential season before Christmas, is too often a period of party-going and indulgence. Lent is pretty well the only annual, sustained attempt at penance Catholics are likely to encounter. Even this can be besieged by the secular world’s attempts to turn it into a chocolate-eating season. (I buy most of the family’s chocolate Easter eggs at a vastly reduced price immediately after Easter Sunday. The shops don’t seem to realize that the celebration of Easter continues until Pentecost, or even Trinity Sunday.)

For this reason, some preparation for Lent is even more important today than it has been in the past. In order to get the most out of Lent, one must think seriously about what practices to adopt, and a bit of acclimatization to these practices may well be useful. In the Eastern churches, the two Sundays before Lent are called Meatfare Sunday and Cheesfare Sunday, as they say goodbye to successive kinds of food until Easter.

The usefulness of a time of preparation for the rigors of Lent was affirmed by Pope Paul VI when the subject of Septuagesima came up during the reform of the liturgy after the Second Vatican Council. The architect of the reform, Archbishop Annibale Bugnini, himself recorded the pope’s explanation:

On one occasion Pope Paul VI compared the complex made up of Septuagesima, Lent, Holy Week and Easter Triduum, to the bells calling people to Sunday Mass. The ringing of them an hour, a half-hour, fifteen and five minutes before the time of Mass has a psychological effect and prepares the faithful materially and spiritually for the celebration of the liturgy.

The decision of the Consilium, the body set up to reform the liturgy, which was accepted by Paul VI, to abolish the season of Septuagesima was based on the argument that (as Bugnini expressed it) “it was not possible to restore Lent to its full importance without sacrificing Septuagesima, which is an extension of Lent.”

That it is legitimate to question the wisdom of this decision is confirmed by the example of the Ordinariates set up for Anglican converts, which have the season of Septuagesima in their proper calendar. Clearly, when this calendar was in preparation, the view of the Holy See went the other way: a lot of water, after all, has passed under the bridge since 1969. It is an important issue because versions of Bugnini’s argument were applied to many other things in the liturgy in addition to Septuagesima. The hope was that a simpler, starker presentation of the central messages of the liturgy would have more impact on the worshipper than what had gone before. The alternative view is that to get a message across, it needs to be pre-announced, repeated in different terms, different aspects of it brought to the fore, and surrounded by ceremonies, symbols, and popular customs that emphasize it, make it memorable, and incarnate it in the ordinary lives of the worshipper. This was, in a nutshell, the view implied by the Church’s liturgical customs over many centuries.

Readers may like to consider the key factors impeding the most fruitful use of the great season of Lent and how they can be mitigated. An experience I am sure many will have had is the sense that we have not thought carefully enough about how to mark Lent before Ash Wednesday comes round. Somehow, despite its prominence in the liturgical calendar, it can catch us unawares.

We may not, in fact, be all that keen to think through some serious, but doable, Lenten practice. Any such practice is likely to be a challenge to our natural inertia, and perhaps to our comfort. Choosing a book for spiritual reading or a guide to mental prayer; thinking about practical ways to fast and abstain; finding some charitable work—almsgiving—one can engage in—all of these things require a bit of time and effort. Any practice that requires an adjustment to our routine—getting up earlier, using our lunch break differently, going to a weekday Mass—may require not just forethought, but some experimentation. The problem is that adjusting one’s less practical Lenten resolutions halfway through the second week of Lent can feel like failing.

The answer is to do this thinking and experimentation before Lent starts, in the season of pre-Lent. The time Mass is actually beginning is not the time for us to start thinking about walking to church; likewise, Ash Wednesday is not the moment to be thinking about what to do in Lent. The three Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima are indeed like the church bells reminding us of the imminence of Mass: time to call the children, time to get your coat on, time to leave the house.

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