The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The Season of Septuagesima

The season of Septuagesima comprises the three weeks immediately preceding Lent. It forms one of the principal divisions of the liturgical year, and is itself divided into three parts, each part corresponding to a week: the first is called Septuagesima; the second, Sexagesima; the third, Quinquagesima.

All three are named from their numerical reference to Lent, which, in the language of the Church, is called Quadragesima, that is, Forty, because the great Feast of Easter is prepared for by the holy exercises of forty days. The words Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima, tell us of the same great solemnity as looming in the distance, and as being the great object towards which the Church would have us now begin to turn all our thoughts, desires, and devotion.

Now, the Feast of Easter must be prepared for by forty days of recollection and penance. Those forty days are one of the principal seasons of the liturgical year, and one of the most powerful means employed by the Church for exciting in the hearts of her children the spirit of their Christian vocation. It is of the utmost importance that such a season of grace should produce its work in our souls - the renovation of the whole spiritual life. The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us at the commencement of Lent by marking our foreheads with ashes.

This prelude to the holy season of Lent was not known in the early ages of Christianity: its institution would seem to have originated in the Greek Church. Besides the six Sundays of Lent, on which by universal custom the faithful have never fasted, the practice of this Church prohibited fasting on the Saturdays likewise; consequently their Lent was short by twelve days of the forty spent by our Savior doing penance in the desert. To make up the deficiency, they were obliged to begin their Lent many days earlier.

The Church of Rome had no such motive for anticipating the season of those privations which belong to Lent; for, from the earliest antiquity, She kept the Saturdays of Lent as fasting days. The Gallican liturgy, it is true, had retained the Greek custom; but it was abolished by the zeal of King Pepin and St. Karl the Great.

At the close of the 6th century, St. Gregory the Great alludes, in one of his homilies, to the fast of Lent being less than forty days, owing to the Sundays which come during that holy season. It was therefore, after the pontificate of St. Gregory, that the last four days of Quinquagesima were added to Lent, in order that the number of fasting days might be exactly forty. As early as the 9th century, the custom of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday was of obligation in the whole Latin Church. All the manuscript copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which bear that date, entitle this Wednesday In capite jejunii, that is to say, the beginning of the fast. But, out of respect for the form of divine service drawn up by St. Gregory, the Church does not make any important change in the Office of these four days. Up to the Vespers of Saturday, when alone She begins the Lenten Rite, She observes the rubrics prescribed for Quinquagesima week.

Peter of Blois, who lived in the 12th century, tells us what was the practice in his days: "All religious begin the fast of Lent at Septuagesima; the Greeks, at Sexagesima; the secular clergy, at Quinquagesima; and the rest of Christians, who form the Church militant on earth, begin their Lent on the Wednesday following Quinquagesima." The secular clergy, therefore, were bound to begin the fast two days before the laity - that is, on Monday, as we gather from the Life of St. Ulrich, Bishop of Augsburg, written in the 10th century. Quinquagesima was then called Dominica carnis privium sacerdotum, that is, priests' carnival Sunday, when the announcement we made that the abstinence from meat was to begin on the following day.

This usage, however, soon became obsolete; and in the 15th century, the secular clergy, and even the monks themselves, began the Lenten fast, like the rest of the faithful, on Ash Wednesday.

There can be no doubt that the original motive for this anticipation was to remove from the Greeks the pretext of taking scandal at the Latins, if they did not fast fully forty days. Whilst faithful to Her ancient practice of fasting on Saturdays, the Roman Church gladly borrowed from the Greek Church the custom of preparing for Lent, by giving to the liturgy of the three preceding weeks a tone of holy mournfulness. Even as early as the beginning of the 9th century, the Alleluia and Gloria were suspended in the Septuagesima Offices. In the second half of the 11th century, Pope Alexander II enacted that this custom be everywhere observed, beginning with the 1st Vespers of Septuagesima.

Thus was the present important period of the liturgical year, after various changes, established in the cycle of the Church. It has been there for more than a thousand years. Its name, Septuagesima (seventy), expresses, as we have already remarked, a numerical relation to Quadragesima (the forty days); although in reality, there are not 70 but only 63 days from Septuagesima to Easter. This is partly to represent a profound mystery connected with the number 70. St. Augustine speaks of two times: the time before Easter, representing our sojourn on earth, and the time after Easter, representing eternity. The Church often speaks of two places corresponding to these two times, Babylon and Jerusalem. Now the Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years; and it is to express this mystery that the Church, according to all the great liturgists, uses the name Septuagesima for this season.

Again, the duration of the world itself, according to the ancient Christian tradition, is divided into seven ages. The human race must pass through seven ages before the dawning of the day of eternal life. The first age included the time from the creation of Adam to Noah; the second begins with Noah and the renovation of the earth by the deluge, and ends with the vocation of Abraham; the third opens with this first formation of God's chosen people, and continues as far as Moses, through whom God gave the Law; the fourth consists of the period between Moses and David, in whom the house of Juda received the kingly power; the fifth is formed of the years which passed between David's reign and the captivity of Babylon, inclusively; the sixth dates from the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, and takes us as far as the birth of our Savior. Then, finally, comes the seventh age; it starts with the rising of this merciful Redeemer, the Sun of Justice, and is to continue until the dread coming of the Judge of the living and the dead. These are the seven great divisions of time; after which, eternity.

Holy Mother Church reminds us during this season that we are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin. The Church wishes us to reflect on the dangers that beset us; dangers which arise from ourselves and from creatures. During the rest of the year She loves to hear us chant the song of Heaven, the sweet Alleluia; but now, She bids us close our lips to this word of joy, because we are in Babylon.

The leading feature, then, of Septuagesima, is the total suspension of the Alleluia, which is not to be heard again upon the earth until the arrival of that happy day, when, having suffered death with our Jesus, and having been buried together with Him, we shall rise with Him to a new life. Perhaps we could not better show the sentiments, wherewith the Church would have her children to be filled at this period of Her year, than by quoting a few words from the eloquent exhortation, given to his people at the beginning of Septuagesima, by the celebrated St. Yvo of Chartres in the 11th century: " 'We know,' says the Apostle, 'that every creature groaneth, and travaileth in pain even till now: and not only it, but ourselves also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body' (Rom. 8: 22, 23). The creature here spoken of is the soul, that has been regenerated from the corruption of sin unto the likeness of God: she groaneth within herself, at seeing herself made subject to vanity; she, like one that travaileth, is filled with pain, and is devoured by an anxious longing to be in that country, which is still so far off… During these days, therefore, we must do what we do at all seasons of the year, only we must do it more earnestly and fervently: we must sigh and weep after our country, from which we were exiled in consequence of having indulged in sinful pleasures; we must redouble our efforts in order to regain it by compunction and weeping of heart… Let us not become like those senseless invalids, who feel not their ailments and seek no remedy. We despair of a sick man who will not be persuaded that he is in danger. No, let us run to Our Lord, the Physician of eternal salvation. Let us show Him our wounds, and cry out to Him with all our earnestness: 'Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak' (Ps. 6: 3). Then will He forgive us our iniquities, heal us of our infirmities and satisfy our desire with good things."

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