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Septuagesima: Preparing our Hearts for Lent
Returning to the Church's traditional observance of pre-Lenten penance.
In the first several centuries of the Church’s existence, the Greek Catholics would observe a period of preparation leading up to the season of Lent. During this “pre-Lent,” the Greeks would start practicing some lighter penances to prepare for the heavier penances of Lent. This “pre-Lent” would last for three or four weeks before Ash Wednesday, which started the Great Fast of Lent. Some Eastern Catholic Rites, as well as the Orthodox Churches and the Anglican Church, still observe this “pre-Lent.”
Around the year 600 A.D., Pope St. Gregory the Great decided to incorporate this practice into the Latin Rite. Thus were started Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Simply put, these are the three weeks leading up to Lent in the Latin Church. Their names come from the Latin words for “seventieth,” “sixtieth,” and “fiftieth.” Since the First Sunday of Lent (traditionally called Quadragesima) is forty days before Easter, these three Sundays mark seventy, sixty, and fifty days before Easter, respectively.
During the revisions made to the Church’s liturgical calendar after the Second Vatican Council, these three Sundays preceding Lent became part of Ordinary Time. However, the other forms of the Roman Rite, the Ordinariate and the Extraordinary Form, still observe Septuagesima.
The season of Septuagesima gives us, the faithful, an opportunity to start preparing – spiritually, mentally, and even perhaps physically – for the season of Lent. Rather than waking up on Ash Wednesday surprised that it’s already Lent, we can use these three Sundays preceding it to prayerfully discern how we shall observe the holy season. We do not necessarily need to start all our strict penances the day after Septuagesima Sunday, but it might be a good idea to add a light penance or extra devotion to our daily prayers during this week, gradually increasing them each week until Ash Wednesday, when we begin our full Lenten observances.
In the 1962 Roman missal, the Church has selected certain Gospel passages to help the faithful begin preparing for the holy season of Lent. On Septuagesima Sunday, the Gospel is the parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16). This parable is a beautiful topic for meditation while preparing for Lent; its last line, “many are called, but few are chosen,” serves as a reminder for us to strive to hear and answer God’s call and draw closer to Him during Lent.
The Gospel on Sexagesima Sunday is the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15), a reminder for us to keep our hearts from becoming like the rocky and thorny ground. The Gospel on Quinquagesima Sunday, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, sets the stage for the beginning of Lent. In this Gospel passage, which tells of Jesus healing of the blind man in Jericho (Luke 18:31-43), Our Lord and His disciples are journeying to Jerusalem, where, He says, he shall endure His Passion.
Even if we do not attend a form or rite of the Mass that observes the beautiful season of Septuagesima, we can still meditate on these Gospel passages each week leading up to Lent. Perhaps we can make this a part of our pre-Lenten preparations: meditating on these three Gospel passages and allowing the Holy Spirit to open our hearts this Lenten season, to be able to greet the Risen Lord on Easter Sunday with a heart made more holy through prayer and sacrifice.
In closing, there is a quote from St. Azelie Martin, the mother of the Little Flower, that I think is especially fitting for the season of Septuagesima:
“I want to become a saint; it will not be easy at all. I have a lot of wood to chop, and it is as hard as stone. I should have started sooner, while it was not so difficult; but, in any case, better late than never.”
During this season of Septuagesima, may we begin to chop the stone-hard wood in our hearts so that we may have a most blessed and fruitful Lent.
Marshall, Taylor. “How Saint Gregory the Great Prepared the Church for Lent (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima).” At Dr. Taylor Marshall. February 7, 2012. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://taylormarshall.com/tag/septuagesima.
McCain, Paul T. “What’s a Gesima? The Church Prepares for Lent.” At First Things. January 31, 2010. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://www.firstthings.com/blogs/firstthoughts/2010/01/whats-a-gesima-the-church-prepares-for-lent.
Miller, Jennifer Gregory. “What Is Septuagesima? (And Why It’s No Longer in the Current Calendar).” At Catholic Culture. February 14, 2020. Accessed January 30, 2022. https://www.catholicculture.org/commentary/what-is-septuagesima/.
New Advent. “Septuagesima.” At The Catholic Encyclopedia. 1912. Accessed January 29, 2022. https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13721b.htm.
Wroblicky, Theodore. “How the Byzantine Churches (Catholic and Orthodox) Prepare for a Spiritually Fruitful Lent and the Resurrection of Our Lord God and Savior Jesus Christ ICXC.” At St. Sophia’s Ukrainian Greek-Catholic Church. January 13, 2010. Accessed January 29, 2022. http://www.stsophiaukrainian.cc/resources/lententriodion/.