Have you ever found yourself blindsided by Ash Wednesday? One day you are going about your business, perhaps even eating the last of the candy canes and still sweeping pine needles out of the corners of the living room, when you happen to glance at the calendar on the wall and have a mini-panic: WHAT?! Lent starts TODAY? How did THAT happen? All of a sudden it’s time to figure out what you are going to give up, what you are going to sacrifice, or how you will deepen your prayer life, but darn it, how did it pop up so quickly? Or how many times have you thought to yourself, “now when do I bring my old palms to church so they can be burned? I forgot for the last 4 years but this year I don’t want to miss it“? It happens to the best of us!
The time between the end of the Christmas season and Ash Wednesday can feel like a liturgical no-man’s land. The excitement of Christmas time gives way to the somber and sobering tone of Lent. If one isn’t careful it can feel a bit like liturgical whiplash. The tradition of the Church offers to us some help as we make the transition from celebration to penance and from contemplating the joy of Christ’s birth to the sorrow of contemplating His passion.
The old and the new
After the Second Vatican Council, the seasons of the liturgical year changed slightly. In 1969 the new liturgical calendar was created and a brief period of Ordinary time was introduced after Epiphany and leading up to Ash Wednesday. Catholics who follow the old (1962) form of liturgy and the 1962 version of the Roman Calendar will notice that Epiphany begins it’s own micro-season called “Epiphanytide” during which Christmas is still celebrated and which concludes with Candlemas (the Presentation of our Lord and Our Lady’s purification). In the 1962 version of the calendar, the Sundays after Epiphany are called just that: “1st, 2nd, 3rd etc. Sunday after Epiphany.” There can be up to six of them; but here is where it gets interesting. Three Sundays before Ash Wednesday, which translates to approximately 70 days before Easter, the old calendar celebrates a now forgotten season: Septuagesima.
Septuagesima can be translated to mean “seventieth decade.” It is also the name given to the season sometimes referred to as “pre-Lent.”1 The following two Sundays after Septuagesima Sunday are called Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima and, yup, you guessed it, they mean “sixtieth decade” and “fiftieth decade” respectively. The decade in question here is not referencing the rosary though. It is a reference to groups of ten days counting backwards from Easter. If you are trying to work out the math and coming up a few days short of 70, 60, or 50, you’re not counting wrong. These numbers are approximate counts, rounded to the nearest tenth because, in a nod to our Jewish forefathers in faith who placed a heavy emphasis on numerology, whole numbers are more symbolic of completed time. During the three weeks of the Septuagesima season the priest would wear purple and there would be no Alleluia or Gloria sung during mass. One might mistake it for Lent. However during this pre-Lent time, no fasting or extra penances are expected.2 The purpose of this transition from the liturgical green worn after Epiphany to purple is to ease the faithful into the rigors of Lent. Instead of a sudden jolt into the penances and starkness of the Lenten season, Septuagesima offered (and still offers) a subtler shift into the desert of Lent and a time of intentional reflection for the faithful to help them determine how to enter into the penitential season of Lent with determination.
Ordinary time is anything but ordinary
The 1969 revisions to the Roman Missal, and subsequently the calendar, referred to the time of the “green Sundays” as Tempus per annum – “time throughout the year.” Through translations and discussions the green season became known as ordinary time. “Ordinary” in this case does not mean mundane; rather, it is commonly understood to mean the ‘counted time’ (ordinals being numbers). Those who pray the Liturgy of the Hours and who understand the intricacies of the prayers of the Mass will notice that each contain an “ordinary” and “propers.” Ordinary refers here to the prayers that are always prayed and do not change, and proper to the prayers that are “proper” to the particular season or day. It is possible that ordinary time was meant to refer in this way to the seasons of the liturgical year, as in an ‘ordinary of seasons’ punctuated by the purples, reds, and whites of the seasons of penance and feast.3 In the modern liturgical calendar the pre-Lent season of Septuagesima has been abolished and replaced by a brief foray into ordinary time before the season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday.
Learning from the past
This may all seem like some fascinating history, but what is the significance of Septuagesima for Catholics today? Do you have to be a Traditionalist or love the latin mass in order to benefit from the old tradition? The answer, of course, is no. Catholicism is rich with tradition, symbolism, and meaning. Even if you have never and will never participate in a latin mass or glance at the old calendar there is still much to be gained from knowing where we as a Church have come from. Sometimes in the rush towards the future, the lessons and wisdom of the past get lost.
Perhaps the lesson we can learn from the old calendar is that we humans need time to transition. In the busyness of every day life, in the trenches of juggling vocation, work, obligations, and emergencies we need the gentle reminder that Lent is coming. We need time to prepare our hearts and minds. We need to wrestle with our faults and decide how we are going to dig deep and prepare to go to the desert with Jesus. The pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima provides for us the opportunity to enter into Lent with conviction and intentionality and that is something from which we can all benefit.
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- Septuagesima Overview. Fish Eaters. https://www.fisheaters.com/customsseptuagesima1.html
- Foley, M. Septuagesima: The Time that the Land Forgot. New Liturgical Movement, Sacred Liturgy and Liturgical Arts: Feb. 3, 2021. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2021/02/septuagesima-time-that-land-forgot.html#.YCVXjM9KijB
- Kwasniewski, P. The Mysterious Meaning of “Ordinary Time”: Guest Article by Michael P. Foley. New Liturgical Movement, Sacred Liturgy and Liturgical Arts: Feb. 5, 2020. http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2020/02/the-mysterious-meaning-of-ordinary-time.html