The Bookends of the Paschal Cycle, Part I—Septuagesimatide: A Sensible Approach to the Desert Days of Lent
Jan 28, 2021

The Bookends of the Paschal Cycle, Part I—Septuagesimatide: A Sensible Approach to the Desert Days of Lent

When the new Roman calendar was promulgated in 1970, the paschal cycle lost a season at either end. The ancient 17-day pre-Lenten season of Septuagesimatide was suppressed; so was the similarly ancient season called the Octave of Pentecost, which had thitherto continued and prolonged Eastertide until the beginning of the first vespers of Trinity Sunday. In this series of two articles, I want to argue that these two suppressed seasons, Septuagesimatide and the Octave of Pentecost, were of great spiritual value. As I hope to show, these seasons gave the paschal cycle a stronger sense of narrative and direction than it currently has, and made it both more logical and more emotionally appealing. In both articles, I shall depict the themes and the character of the season under discussion, explain how it enriched the paschal cycle, and finally suggest how Catholics today can bring something of its traditional spirituality into the modern calendar as it currently stands. In addition, I will suggest ways that both seasons could be incorporated into the Ordinary Form in any future revision of Roman rite.

As Lent approaches, we will discuss Septuagesimatide in the present article; near the Easter season’s conclusion, we will consider the Pentecost octave.

Sombre Redundancy?

Septuagesimatide was a pre-Lenten, sombre season, designed to prepare the faithful’s hearts and minds for the rigors of Lent. But in the 1960s, some leading reformers argued that it was redundant: Lent, they said, was itself a preparatory season, and there was no need for another preparatory season directly before it.[1] Before I explain the distinctive character of Septuagesimatide, I ought first to address this argument, which has already prevailed over the season as a rationale for suppressing it. Was the idea of a pre-Lenten period redundant? Is it still?

Roman-rite readers can best answer this question by considering their own attitudes to Lent. It is the major fast of the Church, but by a quirk of liturgical history, the Roman Lent begins in the middle of a week, on Ash Wednesday. This year, we “Romans” will attend the Mass of the Seventh Sunday of Ordinary Time, a generic Sunday whose weekdays sometimes appear after Pentecost. Three days later, Ash Wednesday will be upon us. We shall celebrate one final Ordinary Time Sunday Mass with the Gloria, with Alleluias, and with the Te Deum at the Office of Readings; then in the middle of the same week we shall suddenly be in full fasting mode, joining with Christ’s struggle against Satan in his 40 days in the wilderness.

This sudden shift of liturgical atmosphere is emotionally jarring. Moreover, the Ordinary Time before Lent, being untied to the paschal cycle, does not explain or justify the rigors of Lent to the faithful, so that the shift from Ordinary Time to Lent strikes the average Mass-goer as somewhat arbitrary. Our liturgical narrative begins on Ash Wednesday. Now, to notice how odd this is, imagine a world in which the Catholic Bible began not with the Fall, but with the temptation of Jesus in the wilderness. The poor Bible-reader would be left wondering what the point of Jesus’ elaborate desert exercise was. We often feel much the same. Our motivation for Lent is not what it could be, because nothing in our Ordinary time liturgy has been designed specifically to motivate us for Lent. For we do need some mental and emotional preparation for the Lenten fast; we do need to be able to sense, intuitively, that a time of trial and penance is coming, and we need to be reminded why we fallen men need to fast in the first place.

Seventy…Sixty…Fifty…Lent!

Septuagesimatide, which lasted for the 17 days between the third Sunday before Lent and Ash Wednesday, met this need for both intellectual and emotional preparation. Its theme was the Fall of Man, and man’s utter dependence on God’s saving work in him. The season’s three Sundays before Lent were called Septuagesima (‘seventy’), Sexagesima (‘sixty’) and Quinquagesima (‘fifty’); they therefore served as a literal countdown to Lent—which is called Quadragesima, or ‘forty’, in Latin.[2]

2021: the paschal cycle in the General Roman Calendar of 1970 (AB/Wikipedia)

At Matins in the Divine Office, Septuagesimatide’s readings covered most of the first 14 chapters of Genesis. Meanwhile, the gospel readings at Mass presented the solution to fallen man’s sin: God’s boundless and wholly unmerited graces, and the Son’s sacrifice of himself. On Septuagesima Sunday, the faithful heard the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1-6); on Sexagesima Sunday, they heard the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15); on Quinquagesima Sunday, they heard Jesus’ foretelling of his passion, and the healing of the blind man (Luke 18:31-43). In tandem with these gospels, the epistles talked successively of the spiritual race and the need for ascesis (1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5); of Paul’s afflictions in the service of God (2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9); and—lest the faithful become proud or self-absorbed in the fasting days ahead—of the importance of charity (1 Corinthians 13:1-13). The three Sundays’ collects sum up these themes elegantly:

Septuagesima: “Lord, we pray, mercifully hear the prayers of your people, so that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins, may mercifully be freed, to the glory of your name. Through Our Lord….”[3]

Sexagesima: “O God, you see that we trust in no doings of our own: grant graciously that we be fortified against all adversaries by the protection of the Teacher of the Nations. Through Our Lord….”[4]

Quinquagesima: “Lord, we pray, mercifully hear our prayers, and guard us, absolved from the chains of our sins, from all adversity. Through Our Lord.…”[5]

2021: the paschal cycle in the General Roman Calendar of 1960. Septuagesimatide runs from 31st January to 24th February; the Octave of Pentecost runs from 23rd May to 29th May.

As readers will appreciate, good liturgy should nourish the hearts and minds of those who participate in it, whether they are fully committed and believing Catholics or not. As we can see, Septuagesimatide taught the faithful—and the hesitant or not-so-faithful—two extremely important and complementary lessons. First, it reminded us that we are all fallen sinners who deserve nothing of God; we will always face suffering in this vale of tears. Second, it taught us that our suffering now has a spiritual value, thanks to Christ’s sacrifice of himself. Septuagesimatide thus refuted two connected errors that have grown greatly since its disappearance, both among non-Catholics and Catholics alike: first, the idea that men deserve comfort, good health, and a basically undisrupted life; and second, the idea that all ills can and should be eliminated by better governance and science and regulations. By telling the faithful of Adam, the season explained to the faithful why they needed Christ. By helping them acknowledge Original Sin and their personal sins, and by presenting the answer to sin, Jesus, this countdown to Lent motivated the faithful to obey the priest’s injunction on Ash Wednesday with renewed zeal: “Repent, and believe the gospel.”

Septuagesimatide also prepared the faithful for Lent on an emotional level. Aesthetically, it was sombre, but not fully penitential: organ music was permitted, but no other instrumental music; the common preface was said at Mass, most seasonal parts of the breviary were as they are for ‘green’ time, and third-class feasts (roughly equivalent to memorials) outranked Septuagesimatide’s ferials; but no Gloria and no Te Deum were said on Sundays, violet vestments were used, the ‘penitential’ scheme of psalms at Lauds (and Wednesdays’ Matins) was used except on feasts, and the word ‘Alleluia’ was excluded from the liturgy, not to return before Easter. Thus the season’s aesthetics gently prepared the faithful’s feelings for Lent, letting them sense that a fast was ahead.

From East to West

As I hope I have shown, it was intellectually fitting, emotionally intuitive, and highly valuable for our liturgical year to contain the pre-Lenten preparation of Septuagesimatide. But if one were still to doubt the fittingness of a pre-Lenten period, one might also consider the non-Western rites, each of which employs a pre-Lenten period tied to the paschal cycle.

In the Byzantine rite, the five Sundays before Great Lent are named after their gospel readings. The fifth Sunday before Great Lent is the Sunday of Zacchaeus the tax-collector. In the words of the Orthodox Church in America, Zacchaeus’ desire and effort to see Jesus “begins the entire movement through Lent towards Easter.”[6] The Byzantines’ formal pre-Lenten period begins with the following Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee, which reminds the faithful that men are not saved by their own action, but by humble repentance and trust in God, of whose mercy all men stand in need. This message is then reinforced by the Sunday of the Prodigal Son. Next, the Sunday of the Last Judgement, also known as Meatfare Sunday—i.e., the last Sunday on which meat may be eaten—eases the Byzantine faithful into the full Lenten fast, and presents the Gospel of the Last Judgment. The gearing-up for full fasting continues with the Sunday of Forgiveness (Cheesefare Sunday) on the eve of Great Lent. This Sunday focuses on Adam’s exile from paradise, the mercy of God, and the need not to fast like the hypocrites (the gospel is Matthew 6:14-21: compare the similarly admonitory use of 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 on the Roman Quinquagesima Sunday).

In the Armenian Rite, the Fast of the Catechumens begins exactly three weeks before Great Lent, lasts for five days, and marks the start of the Armenian Rite’s own pre-Lenten period.[7] Churches of the West Syriac and East Syriac rites (other than the Maronite Church) also have a similar fast at this time, known as the Nineveh Fast or the Three Days’ Fast.[8]

One common theme in eastern rites’ pre-Lenten periods is prayer for the dead (as documented by Henri de Villiers[9]). In the Assyro-Chaldean rite, the Friday before Great Lent is a day of prayer for the faithful departed.[10] The Maronite Church keeps the fourth, third and second Sundays before Lent as times of prayer for the dead: successively for priests, for “the righteous and just,” and for all the faithful departed.[11] The Byzantine Rite observes a “Saturday of Souls”—a time of prayer for the dead—on the second Saturday before Great Lent. (Four more follow on the second, third, and fourth Saturdays of Great Lent, and on the day before Pentecost.[12]) Here it is worth noting that there was a hint of the theme of death in the Roman rite too; the introit for the Mass of Septuagesima Sunday was from Psalm 17:5-7: “The sorrows of death surrounded me: and the torrents of iniquity troubled me….” Since death is a result of the Fall, this pre-Lenten focus on the dead complements Septuagesimatide’s theme of original sin.

However, it is not only eastern Christians that have retained pre-Lenten seasons. Even some of our fellow western Christians have retained Septuagesimatide: forms of it exist, for example, in the Anglican Book of Common Prayer, and in Anglo-Catholic liturgies. Indeed, the personal ordinariates for former Anglicans have already incorporated the season into their ‘Divine Worship’ missal. The Sunday collects of Divine Worship’s Septuagesimatide are drawn from the Book of Common Prayer (BCP). The collects for Septuagesima and Sexagesima in the BCP (and Divine Worship) are translations of their Roman equivalents, but their collect for Quinquagesima is different: it focuses on the importance of charity, in keeping with the assigned epistle, 1 Corinthians 1:13, which is used in the BCP as in the old Roman Rite. The readings at the Divine Worship Mass are taken from the normal three-year cycle for Ordinary Time, but Divine Worship: The Office employs readings from Genesis at Morning and Evening Prayer, including the story of the Fall; other gospel readings, including a continuous reading of Matthew 15 to 24:28, develop the traditional themes of Jesus’s healing work and his prediction of his passion,[13] God’s mercy,[14] temptation,[15] and the workers in the vineyard.[16] This proper season, fitted into what is basically otherwise the calendar of the Ordinary Form, has proved very popular not only with former Anglicans, but also with many other Catholics.

Extraordinary Enrichment

What I have said so far raises two final questions. First, what might a restored, modern version of Septuagesimatide look like? Second, how can Catholics bring something of Septuagesimatide’s venerable pre-Lenten spirituality into the Ordinary Form as it currently stands, without violating either the letter or the spirit of its liturgical norms?

To answer the first: An Ordinary Form Septuagesimatide would be easy to institute. Ordinary Form Septuagesimatide Masses would need Old Testament readings, which the old Masses lack; but the readings from the old breviary could serve as these. This would integrate the themes of Septuagesimatide neatly into Mass. Furthermore, the new missal could include complementary readings for the weekdays of Septuagesimatide (which the old Masses also lack).

To answer the second: The General Instruction of the Liturgy of the Hours (GILH) offers enough flexibility for a semi-continuous reading of the first chapters of Genesis at the Office of Readings, at least in the few days before Lent. GILH 248 says that “during the ordinary time of the year, for a good reason, on a given day or for a few successive days, the readings may be selected from among those given for other days or even from other readings of the scriptures, for example, during retreats, pastoral gatherings, times of prayer for Christian unity and other things of this kind.”

Among a suitably prepared community, the days before Lent could be regarded as a preparatory time of prayer. A suitable patristic commentary on Genesis could provide the second readings of each day’s office, in accordance with GILH 250 which states that “on ordinary ferial days of the year…, a quasi-continuous reading may be taken from a work of one of the Fathers. This work should be in harmony with the spirit of the bible and the liturgy.” Here I am not suggesting ways of shoehorning a suppressed season into the current new rite, nor ways of distorting the modern rite’s distinctive spirit; rather, I am suggesting ways of following the pre-Lenten pastoral instincts embodied in the ancient season, within the designedly broad scope of the modern Office of Readings.

As we have seen, the pre-Lenten period is also a fitting and traditional time for especial reflection on sin, and for prayer for the dead. In the present form of the Roman Missal, there are two Masses “For the Remission of Sins” in the section “For Various Intentions,” and there are nine forms of the general Mass for the Dead. These Masses may always be celebrated on the weekdays of Ordinary time; priests could therefore make generous use of them in the pre-Lenten period, with homilies on Original Sin and its effects. According to the General Instruction of the Roman Missal, 347, one may use violet vestments for the Mass “For the Remission of Sins,” since it is penitential in character: this would be fittingly pre-Lenten. It might also be felicitous to celebrate the Mass “For the Promotion of Charity” in the week before Lent, since its epistle reading is a longer version of that of the old Quinquagesima Sunday, the aforementioned 1 Corinthians 13:1-13. Additionally, in parishes where Penitential Rite A (the Confiteor) is not the norm, the weeks before Lent would be a good time to use it (as would the weeks of Lent itself). Nor is there anything to prevent a mild austerity in the Masses of this period: as in the old Septuagesimatide, instrumental music could be suspended. Again, none of this would be a subversion or distortion of Ordinary Time, which after all has no specific theme, and is designed to be flexible and responsive to the faithful’s needs.

To summarise: the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesimatide prepared the hearts and minds of the faithful for Lent, meeting a currently unmet need. Furthermore, a form of Septuagesimatide could easily be incorporated into the new calendar. One hopes that someday it will be restored to the Ordinary form of the Roman Rite. In the meantime, Catholics can fruitfully incorporate some traditional pre-Lenten themes into the Ordinary Time before Lent.

  1. See also this curious comment in the official records of the first meeting of the Consilium ad Exsequendam Constitutionem de Sacra Liturgia, which notes that “the penitential character of the time of Septuagesima or pre-Lent is difficult for the faithful to understand without many explanations.” Quoted in Lauren Pristas, “Parachuted into Lent: The Suppression of Septuagesima,” Usus Antiquior vol.1 no.2 (2010), 95-109.

  2. There are various theories about why the Sundays were counted back in tens; the reason could just be that to have counted them in sevens, which would have been more logical, would also have been more awkward.

  3. Preces populi tui, quaesumus, Domine, clementer exaudi: ut, qui iuste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer liberemur.

  4. Deus, qui conspicis, quia ex nulla nostra actione confídimus: concede propitius; ut, contra adversa omnia, Doctoris gentium protectione muniamur.

  5. Preces nostras, quaesumus, Domine, clementer exaudi: atque, a peccatorum vínculis absolutos, ab omni nos adversitate custodi.

  6. “Pre-Lent,” at https://www.oca.org/orthodoxy/the-orthodox-faith/worship/the-church-year/pre-lent, accessed December 17, 2020

  7. This is explained on the website of the Diocese of the Armenian Orthodox Church in Georgia: https://armenianchurch.ge/en/kalendar-prazdnikov/description-2/february/eve-of-the-fast-of-catechumens, accessed December 15, 2020. See also the overview at the Armenian Calendar at https://soorpstepanos.files.wordpress.com/2017/02/2017_circular_calendar.pdf, accessed December 15, 2020.

  8. See, e.g. the Sacred Lectionary of the Syro-Malakara lectionary Catholic Church, at http://syromalankarausa.org/sites/default/files/epl/Panchangom%202017-18%20English.pdf, accessed December 15, 2020; the Syro Malabar calendar provided by the Syro Malabar Commission for liturgy, at http://www.syromalabarliturgy.org/MainController/Realcalender, accessed December 15, 2020; the liturgical calendar of the Archdiocese of the Syriac Orthodox Church for the Eastern United states, at https://syrianorthodoxchurch.org/archdiocese-events-calendar/, accessed December 16, 2020; and the calendar of the Coptic Orthodox Diocese of the Southern United States, at https://suscopts.org/coptic-orthodox/fasts-and-feasts/, accessed December 16, 2020.

  9. “The Universality and Antiquity of Fore-Lent,” New Liturgical Movement, Henri de Villiers trans. Gregory DiPippo, at http://www.newliturgicalmovement.org/2017/02/the-antiquity-and-universality-of-fore_15.html#.X95aJi2l1QI, accessed December 21, 2020.

  10.  See, for example, the liturgical calendar of the Chaldean Catholic Eparchy of St. Thomas the Apostle of Detroit, U.S.A., at https://chaldeanchurch.org/2020-liturgical-calendar/, accessed December 21, 2020, and the Syro-Malabar calendar cited above.

  11.  See the Maronite lectionary cited above.

  12.  See e.g. https://www.byzcath.org/index.php/about-us-mainmenu-60/about-this-site-mainmenu-70 accessed December 21, 2020.

  13.  Esp. Mt 17:1-23 on the Wednesday after Septuagesima Sunday, and Mt 20:17-end on the Tuesday after Sexagesima also Mt 21:23-end on the Thursday after the same. See the 2020-2021 Ordo of the Personal Ordinariate of the Chair of St Peter, at https://ordinariate.net/ordo, accessed January 21, 2021.

  14.  Esp. Mt 18:15-end on the Friday after Septuagesima.

  15.  Esp. 1 Cor 10:1-13 on Sexagesima Sunday.

  16.  On the Monday after Sexagesima.