The Christian Year: Septuagesima
The Christian year developed around two points: the fixed date of Christmas (December 25th) and the moveable date of Easter. The Christian year begins with the season of Advent, which looks forward to the birth of the Savior at Christmas. The calendar continues with the twelve days of Christmas and the season of Epiphany, the length of which varies from year to year, depending upon that moveable date of Easter. Advent, Christmastide, and Epiphanytide make up the Christmas Cycle, and the Church’s focus is on the mysteries of her Lord’s incarnation.
Easter is the primary feast of the Christian year, the resurrection being the very heart of the Christian faith. The Easter Triduum, the three days beginning on the eve of Maundy Thursday and extending to the Great Vigil Of Easter, comprise the most sacred days of the Christian year. During those days the Church recalls the passion, death, descent into hell, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. The season of Lent is a period of preparation for the celebration of Easter. It is marked by fasting, prayer, and almsgiving. It is a time for the members of the Body of Christ to make a serious assessment of their lives and repent of their sins. The season of Septuagesima is an opportunity to begin that assessment and prepare for the season of Lent.
Septuagesima, also known as Pre-Lent, is the time of the Christian year when the Church’s focus shifts from Christmas to Easter. The season takes its name from the first day of the season, Septuagesima Sunday, which is roughly seventy days from Easter (Septuagesima is the Latin word for seventy). At this time the Church’s mood becomes penitential. Alleluias disappear from the liturgy and the Gloria in excelsis is no longer said or sung on Sundays. The joyful Te Deum is no longer said or sung at Morning Prayer. These joyful exclamations will return when Easter arrives.
One of the themes of the Pre-Lenten season is that of exile, recalling Israel’s seventy year exile in Babylon and our first parents’ expulsion from Paradise. We are all exiles, our race having been expelled from Eden because of our sin. At this time especially, we mourn the loss of paradise and the burden of our sin. Trusting in the Lord’s mercy, we know that we will not be exiles forever, and that in time we will come to another paradise- to a place prepared for us by our Lord Jesus Christ.
The season of Septuagesima was officially a part of the Western Church’s calendar by the late sixth century, but its roots certainly go back further, although there is some uncertainty among Church historians as to when and how the season developed. The custom of the Eastern Church has always been to begin the season of Lent earlier than the West, because Saturdays and Sundays were not traditionally fast days in the East and were not included in the forty day Lenten fast. In the West, Saturday may be a fast day (but is more than often not) and so Lent began on a later date than it did in the East. Septuagesima may have arisen in order not to cause a scandal with the Eastern Church or as an attempt to have a similar period of fasting before Easter. Because of the series of disasters that fell upon Rome in the sixth century- invasion, plague, famine, and earthquakes- Septuagesima was officially instituted by the Church as a time to ask God to forgive the sins of His people and to beseech Him to relive their many distresses.
The season of Septuagesima was a universal feature of the Western Church from that time until the 1970’s and was observed by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, Lutherans, and even some Reformed churches. The Liturgical changes that swept through the churches in the late twentieth century seemingly swept away the season of Septuagesima, especially in the Roman Catholic and liberal Mainline Protestant churches. However, traditional Lutherans and Anglicans never ceased to observe the season of Pre-Lent in their calendars.
In recent years there has been a small but growing revival of the so-called ‘Gesima Sundays’. In 2014 the Polish National Catholic Church re-instituted the season. As the Latin Mass movement continues to grow in the Roman Catholic Church, so does the number of those who mark the season of Septuagesima on their calendars. There has been some interest in reviving the season of Septuagesima in the Anglican Church in North America, but the 2019 Book of Common Prayer did not make provision for its use. Nevertheless, the Church of the Advent, following the lead of the Continuing Anglican Churches, walks through the season each year and has done so since the church was officially planted. We do so humbly and in communion with the rich liturgical tradition of the Western Church. We see this brief season as a gift of time- time to examine our lives and make ourselves ready for a good and holy Lent.