Ready for Lent?

The history of Septuagesima With Septuagesima Sunday, we begin to prepare for the Holy  Triduum and the celebration of  Easter. This was the last liturgical season to be added to the  calendar, dating from around  the time of Pope St. Gregory the  Great (590-604), in whose sacramentary we find the texts of the  Masses for the three Sundays of this season, respectively named  Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and  Quinquagesima—meaning literal ly, the seventieth, sixtieth and fiftieth days before Easter. These are round numbers since in fact, Septuagesima Sunday occurs 63  days before Easter; Sexagesima,  56 days prior; and Quinquages ima, 49 days prior. The first  Sunday of Lent is itself called  Quadragesima, meaning fortieth,  although it falls 42 days before  Easter. 

The reasons for this pre-Lenten season are both historical and symbolic. The symbolism, as the name Septuagesima suggests,  is that this period of roughly 70  days’ preparation for Easter corresponds to the 70 years that the  Jewish people spent in captivity in Babylon, waiting for their deliverance so that they could return to Jerusalem and the Promised Land. Here, the Jewish race represents the whole of mankind held captive to sin, exiled from the Promised Land of heaven,  and prey to all the miseries of the present life. 

The historical reason for a  pre-Lenten season is tied to the observance of the Lenten fast,  which over the course of history.

LITURGY was anticipated in different ways to ensure, as much as possible,  that the total number of fast days would be exactly forty, despite the non-observance of Sundays and, in the case of the Eastern  Church, of Saturdays. 

Various ways of observing the  Lenten fast from the earliest times, the  Church has fasted in prepar ation for Easter, the greatest  feast of the liturgical calendar  and the first to be celebrated on a fixed date. The fast was of approximately forty days, in imitation of the fast that our Lord undertook before beginning his  public ministry. Christ our Lord  fasted for forty days prior to giving us the New Law, just as Moses fasted for forty days before giving  us the Old Law. Accordingly,  the Church Fathers interpreted the number forty as symbolic of penance and of fidelity to God’s commandments.  

At first, the number forty was observed only approximately.  Until the close of the fifth century, the Lenten fast began on  the Monday following the First Sunday of Lent. Pope St. Gregory  the Great alludes to this in one of  his homilies: “There are,” he says,  “from this day (the first Sunday of Lent) to the joyous feast of  Easter, six weeks, that is, forty-two days. As we do not fast on  the six Sundays, there are but  thirty-six fasting days, which  we offer to God as the tithe of  our year.”  

Soon afterward, the fast was extended backward to Ash Wednesday  in order to bring the period of fasting to a full forty days. This  became of obligation in the whole  Latin Church as early as the ninth century. 

For the Greeks, meanwhile, Saturday was a sacred day on which  they could not fast. Subtracting  Saturday and Sunday from the six  weeks of Lent, they fell ten days  short of the full forty days’ fast.  To compensate, the Greeks extended their fast back two weeks prior to the first Sunday of Lent,  namely, to Sexagesima Sunday. In the meantime, religious monks  and nuns undertook to fast even earlier, so as to always be some what more mortified than people of the world. Peter of Blois  writes in the 12th century: “All  Religious begin the Fast of Lent  at Septuagesima; the Greeks,  at Sexagesima; the Clergy, at  Quinquagesima; and the rest of  Christians, who form the Church  militant on earth, begin their  Lent on the Wednesday follow ing Quinquagesima.” (Sermon xiii). Dom Gueranger assures us,  however, that in the 15th century  this usage had become obsolete,  so that all the Latins, monks and  clergy included, began their fast on Ash Wednesday together with  the rest of the faithful.

Suppression of the Alleluia While there is no longer any  fasting during the pre-Lenten  season of Septuagesima prior to  Ash Wednesday, the penitential  character of the Septuagesima  season is made evident by the use  of violet vestments, the removal  of flowers from the altar, and the  suppression of the organ, of the  angelic hymn Gloria in exclesis  Deo and of the Alleluia. Dom  Gueranger remarks: 

“Even as early as the beginning  of the 9th century, as we learn  from Amalarius, the Alleluia  and Gloria in excelsis were  suspended in the Septuagesima  Offices…Finally, in the second  half of the 11th century, Pope  Alexander the Second enacted,  that the total suspension of the  Alleluia should be everywhere  observed, beginning with the  Vespers of the Saturday preceding Septuagesima Sunday.”  The liturgist Pius Parsch explains, “The expression [Alle luia] comes from the Hebrew  Hallelu-Yah and means ‘Praise  Yahweh (God).’ But even in the  Old Testament it had already lost its literal meaning and had  become a cry of joy. In the Book  of Tobias we read, ‘In the streets  (of the heavenly Jerusalem)  Alleluia is sung’ (Tob. 13:22).  In this sense the first Christians  received the word and used it as  a song of joy, of heaven, and of  resurrection.”  

As Septuagesima marks the  beginning of the Church’s preparation for the Sacred Triduum,  and this preparation requires that  we forget for a time about the  joys of our Lord’s Resurrection in  order to do penance for our sins  and compassionate our Lord in  his sufferings, the suppression of  the Alleluia is particularly severe,  admitting of no exceptions from  beginning to end. Durandus, a  medieval liturgist, writes, “We  desist from saying Alleluia, the  song chanted by angels, because  we have been excluded from  the company of the angels on  account of Adam’s sin. In the  Babylon of our earthly life, we  sit by the streams, weeping as  we remember Sion. For as the  children of Israel in an alien  land hung their harps upon the  willows, so we too must forget  the Alleluia song in the season of  sadness, of penance, and bitter ness of heart (Ps. 136).”  

This is part of the hidden beauty  of Septuagesima: a season that  we should try to enter into with  our whole heart and make our  own. It is a tragic beauty, bitter-sweet. “Ought not Christ  to have suffered these things  and so, to enter into his glory?”  (Luke 24:26) The same condition  applies to us, the members of  the Mystical Body, as to its Head,  Christ. We, too, must suffer with  Christ and for Christ if we wish to  obtain a participation in his glory.