In the traditional Roman calendar this Sunday is called Septuagesima, Latin for the “Seventieth” day before Easter. Already! It is quite early this year.
This number, 70, is more symbolic than arithmetical. The Sundays which follow are Sexagesima (“sixtieth”) and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”) before Ash Wednesday brings in Lent, called in Latin Quadragesima, “Fortieth”.
These pre-Lenten Sundays prepare us for the discipline of Lent, which once was far stricter.
Septuagesima gives us a more solemn attitude for Holy Mass.
Purple is worn on Sunday rather than the green of the time after Epiphany. These Sundays have Roman stations. The station today is St. Lawrence outside the walls. St. Gregory the Great preached a fiery sermon here, which we have, and which is read in part for Matins in the traditional Office. The traditional Office also presents three figures over the three pre-Lent Sundays, all foreshadowing Christ: Adam, Noah and Abraham.
When we want to follow what Holy Church is giving us in our sacred liturgical worship we should remember that Mass is only part of the picture. We also have the Office, the “liturgy of the hours”. They mesh together and reinforce and complete each other.
Alleluia is sung for the last time at First Vespers of Septuagesima and is then excluded until Holy Saturday. There was once a tradition of “burying” the Alleluia, with a depositio ceremony, like a little funeral. A hymn of farewell was sung. There was a procession with crosses, tapers, holy water, and a coffin containing a banner with Alleluia. The coffin was sprinkled, incensed, and buried. In some places, such as Paris, a straw figure bearing an Alleluia of gold letters was burned in the churchyard. Somehow that seems very French to me.
The prayers and readings for the Masses of these pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by St. Gregory the Great (+604), Pope in a time of great turmoil and suffering. Looking at Gregory’s time, with the massive migration of peoples, the war, the turmoil, you are reminded of our own times.
I like to imagine the Romans who were aspiring to be brought into the Church at Easter. They were brought out to St. Lawrence for today’s Mass, only to hear in the antiphons about suffering and crying out to God, and then to hear the reading in which Paul says that God wasn’t pleased with everyone who drank from the rock. “What am I getting myself into?!?” But, if throughout the Mass formulary there are grim messages, there are also signs of great hope. God does hear the cry of those who invoke him.
In the Novus Ordo of Paul VI there is no more pre-Lent.
A terrible loss.
We are grateful that with Summorum Pontificum the pre-Lent Sundays have regained something of their ancient status.
The antiphons for the first part of Mass carry a theme of affliction, war, oppression. How appropriate right now when the Obama Administration is conducting a war against the Catholic Church and against religious liberty of all Americans. We hear from 1 Corinthians on how Christians must strive on to the end of the race. The Tract (which substitutes the Gradual and Alleluia) is the De profundis.
Preces populi tui, quaesumus, Domine, clementer exaudi: ut, qui iuste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer liberemur.
This prayer, as well as the other two we will see, is in versions of ancient sacramentaries, such as the Gregorian. Our wonderful Lewis & Short Dictionary says ex-audio means “listen to” in the sense of “harken, perceive clearly.” There is a greater urgency to exaudi (an imperative, or command form) than in the simple audi. Clementer is an adverb from clemens, meaning among other things “Mild in respect to the faults and failures of others, i.e. forbearing, indulgent, compassionate, merciful.” We are asking God the omnipotent Creator to listen to us little finite sinful creatures in a manner that is not only attentive but also patient and indulgent.
We beseech You, O Lord, graciously to hark to the prayers of Your people: so that we who are justly afflicted for our sins, may mercifully be freed for the glory of Your Name.
The first thing you who attend mainly the Novus Ordo will note, is the profoundly different tone of this prayer.
It is just as succinct as most ancient Roman prayers. It has the classic structure. But the focus on our responsibility and guilt for our sins is very alien to the style of the Novus Ordo. For the most part, such direct references to our sinful state were systematically excised from the ancient prayers which survived in some form on the post-Conciliar Missale Romanum.
Muneribus nostris, quaesumus, Domine, precibusque susceptis: et caelestibus nos munda mysteriis, et clementer exaudi.
This ancient prayer was also in the Mass “Puer natus” for 1 January for the Octave of Christmas. The first part of the prayer is an ablative absolute. In the second part there is a standard et…et construction. The prayer is terse, elegant.
Our gifts and prayers having been received, we beseech You, O Lord: both cleanse us by these heavenly mysteries, and mercifully hark to us.
In the first prayer we acknowledge our sinfulness and beg God’s mercy. In this prayer we show humble confidence that God is attending to our actions and we focus on the means by which we will be cleansed from the filth of our sins, namely, the Sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross, about to be renewed upon the altar.
As the Mass develops there is a shift in tone after the Gospel parable about the man hiring day-laborers. An attitude of praise is introduced into the cries to God for help.
Fideles tui, Deus, per tua dona firmentur: ut éadem et percipiendo requirant, et quaerendo sine fine percipiant.
In an ancient variation we find per[pe]tua, turning “by means of your…” into “perpetual”. That éadem (neuter plural to go with dona, “gifts”) is the object of both of the subjunctive verbs which live in another et…et construction. Requiro means “to seek or search for; to seek to know, … with the accessory idea of need, to ask for something needed; to need, want, lack, miss, be in want of, require (synonym: desidero)”. Think of how it is used in Ps. 26(27),4: “One thing I have asked of the Lord, this will I seek after (unum petivi a Domino hoc requiram); that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life.” Quaero is another verb for “to seek”, as well as “to think over, meditate, aim at, plan a thing.” The first meaning of the verb percipio is “to take wholly, to seize entirely” and then by extension “to perceive, feel and “to learn, know, conceive, comprehend, understand.”
Notice that these verbs all have a dimension of the search of the soul for something that must be grasped in the sense of being comprehended.
The New Roman Missal – 1945:
May Thy faithful, O God, be strengthened by Thy gifts,
that receiving them they may still desire them
and desiring them may constantly receive them.
The New Marian Missal – 1958:
May Thy faithful people, O God, be strengthened by Thy gifts;
that in receiving them, the may seek after them the more,
and in seeking them, they may receive them for ever.
Saint Andrew Bible Missal – 1962:
O Lord, may your faithful people be made strong by your gifts.
By receiving them may they desire them.
And by desiring them, may they always receive them.
Just to show you that we can steer this in another direction, let’s take those “seeking/graping/perceiving” verbs and emphasize the possible dimension of the eternal fascinating that the Beatific Vision will eventually produce.
A LITERAL ALTERNATIVE:
May Your faithful, O God, be strengthened by Your gifts: so that in grasping them they will need to seek after them and in the seeking they will know them without end.
In this life, the closest thing we have to the eternal contemplation of God is the moment of making a good Holy Communion. At this moment of Mass, which so much concerned struggling in time of oppression, we strive to grasp our lot here in terms of our fallen nature, God’s plan, and our eternal reward.
I don’t believe this prayer, like Septuagesima Sunday, made it into the Novus Ordo, to our great impoverishment.