This coming Sunday, as some liturgical calendars indicate, is (or was) known as Septuagesima. This is the beginning of a distinct mini-season in the traditional calendar. Although the ACNA calendar no longer retains or authorizes these three Sundays, it can be beneficial to know about them. They are part of the treasure of Church Tradition that reaches back well past a thousand years, and, rightly received, can be of great benefit to our spiritual formation as we work with the Church’s calendar to learn and grow in Christ.
The three Sundays before Ash Wednesday were known as “the -gesima Sundays.” -gesima is a Latin partial word, from Septuagesima and Sexagesima and Quinquagesima and Quadragesima. These mean 70 days, 60 days, 50 days, and 40 days, respectively, and they refer to the approximate amount of time remaining until Easter. Quadragesima is a Latin name for Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins, but the three Sundays before it (with increasingly ‘rounded’ approximations of the Easter countdown) form a sort of Pre-Lent season.
These three weeks were a transitional period: the Lenten spiritual disciplines had not yet begun, but some of Lent’s liturgical features were put in place, like the “burial of the alleluia” and the wearing of purple vestments. Those who practiced especially severe fasting during Lent would use these three weeks to begin the fast in stages, giving their bodies time to adjust safely to the austere self-denial that awaited.
The Gospel lesson on the first Sunday (Septuagesima) was the Gospel of the Landowner paying his workers the same, even to the 11th hour (Matt. 20). This prepared the Church for the labor of Lenten disciplines. The second Sunday (Sexagesima) proclaimed the Parable of the Four Soils (Luke 8). This reminded us of right reception of the Word of God. The third Sunday (Quinquagesima) recounted Jesus’ announcement that he was going to Jerusalem where he’d be arrested, killed, and rise again (Luke 18:31ff). This was an apt sort of announcement that the penitential season of Lent was about to begin.
As it happens, our Collect for the “Eighth Sunday after the Epiphany” is essentially the same as the Collect for Sexagesima Sunday, so on the very rare occasion that we get to use that 8th Sunday, we’ll have the historic Pre-Lent Sunday Collect with us, even on the correct date in relation to the beginning of Lent.
Why have the Roman Catholics and most Anglicans abolished this part of the liturgical calendar? Perhaps some people think it redundant with Lent. Perhaps others wanted to lengthen the Epiphany season. Perhaps its function in the larger scheme of the calendar was not properly appreciated by the revisionists. Whateverso it is a tradition largely gone from the Church today, observed only in the Eastern Orthodox traditions and the relatively few Anglicans who continue to use traditional prayer books.
If you want my personal opinion, which I suppose you probably already tolerate since you’re reading this article, I hold the third theory above: I believe the demise of Pre-Lent was a poorly-considered decision. Yes, it simplifies the calendar, but I don’t think such simplification was necessary. Some localities (and even the whole province of the Church of England and those influenced by their liturgical revisions of the past couple decades) have developed a sort of pre-Advent season, sometimes called Kingdomtide. Why Advent can get a new pre-season and Lent cannot is beyond me, apart from the slightly-cynical observation that modernists don’t like penitential material.
In my own congregation, I had the liberty to use the traditional calendar for three years before the ACNA calendar appeared and we conformed to it. Some people asked me about the Pre-Lent Sundays: “isn’t it redundant? If Lent is about preparation for Easter, doesn’t that make Septuagesima (et al) a preparation for the preparation?” My answer to that is a rejection of the assertion that Lent is primarily about preparation. It points and leads to Easter, yes, but it is a season in its own right. Lent focuses on penitence, purification, sin and death. Only in its final two weeks did it traditionally start sliding toward Easter. Lent, therefore, understood on its own terms and in relation to the rest of the calendar, is perfectly entitled to a three-week lead-up. And that practical consideration of having some “warning” before it starts actually helps, too.
Sadly, this probably doesn’t help much with the liturgical planning for your congregation. But if you have a regular weekday worship service, perhaps there you can make use of the Pre-Lent Sundays. Or you can always just pray an Antecommunion service with these traditional Sundays! They may be gone from the general life of the church, but that doesn’t mean that can’t live on in our private devotions.
This article was adapted from “Learning from the Liturgy: The Pre-Lent Sundays” on leorningcnihtes boc, originally posted on 4 February 2018.