WDTPRS – Septuagesima Sunday: PRE-LENT BEGINS!

While in the new-fangled calendar Sunday is the 6th in Ordinary Time, and celebrated in green vestments,in the traditional Roman calendar this Sunday is called Septuagesima, Latin for the “Seventieth” day before Easter.

The Roman Station for Septuagesima is St. Lawrence outside the walls.

These pre-Lenten Sundays prepare us for the discipline of Lent, which once was far stricter.

The 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”.

One of our frequent commentators here enriched my view of the numerical adjectives:

A fairly literal interpretation of the terms Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima:

• Septuagesima Sunday is the 63rd day before Easter and thus falls in the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period consisting of the 61st to 70th days before Easter;
• Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th day before Easter and falls in the 6th (sextus) decade consisting of the 51st to 60th days before Easter; and
• Quinquagesima Sunday is the 49th day before Easter and falls in the 5th (quintus) decade consisting of the 41st to 50th days before Easter.

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 pre-Lent Sundays also have Roman stations, just as each day of Lent does.   The station for Septuagesima is St. Lawrence outside the walls.  St. Gregory the Great (+604) 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.  PLEASE don’t say “the liturgy” when you mean “the Mass”.  Say “Mass”.

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.  This custom has been rediscovered and it is being revived far and wide.  Each year we see photos of the charming moment from more and more parishes.

The prayers and readings for the Masses of these pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by Gregory the Great, 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, catechumens.   Try to picture it…

They were brought out to St. Lawrence for today’s Mass.  In the echoing space, wreathed in smoke and shafts of light, they heard chanted antiphons about suffering and crying out to God.  Then they heard the chanted passage in which Paul says that God wasn’t pleased with everyone who drank from the rock.

These catechumens might have looked at each other and exclaimed:  “What am I getting myself into?!?”   Indeed, I think that was the intended effect of the formulary.

That’a actually a good thing to ask every day.  If you are a real Christian, you think about what you have gotten yourself into!  And more may be coming!

On the other hand, if throughout the ancient 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.  May they through “mutual enrichment” correct the Novus Ordo.

The antiphons for the first part of Mass carry a theme of affliction, war, oppression.  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 Ps 130 (older 129) the De profundis.

This has been set to music by many composers.  But the chanted version is special.


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. 

The focus on our responsibility and guilt for our sins is alien to the style of the Ordinary Form.  Such direct references to our sinful state were systematically excised from the ancient prayers which survived, in some form, in the post-Conciliar Missale Romanum.

We need them back.

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.

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.


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.

Start thinking about Lent NOW, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday.

Some sharing options...

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
This entry was posted in Liturgy Science Theatre 3000, WDTPRS. Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to WDTPRS – Septuagesima Sunday: PRE-LENT BEGINS!

  1. Pius Admirabilis says:

    To be honest, I used to embrace the reforms which did away with Septuagesima, thinking it was an unnecessary extension of Lent, and that the Novus Ordo calendar in this regard was much better, since it abolished this “devotional” season. Now, my mind has completely changed and I understand the importance of Septuagesima: to prepare us for the fasting of Lent. To use an analogy: The Novus Ordo forces us to jump into the cold water of Lent, completely unprepared. Sometimes it’s like “oh, it’s Ash Wednesday already?!”. The ancient Roman Rite, on the other hand, gives us stairs down into the cold water of Lent, so we can prepare ourselves, and get accustomed to the cold, so that our bodies can regulate its temperature, and it won’t feel as cold when we fully immerse in it. It is almost as if the ancient rite whispered to us “pst, get up, Lent is just around the corner. Do what you have to do, get ready, and make some resolutions”.
    Some holy Pope compared Septuagesima to the bells ringing, calling us to Holy Mass.

    It shows how, even without modern scholarship and scientific research, the ancient Roman Rite is just brillant in every conceivable way, being absolutely perfect for our psychology. Man, in general, doesn’t like surprises, but we like (and need) regularity, and preparation. We like to think before making some great decision, and we like some time before a great event. This is exactly what the Church gives us.

  2. Geoffrey says:

    I would like to see some form of pre-Lent restored to the Ordinary Form. I can see how the season of Septuagesima could be confusing, as it looks and sounds a little too much like Lent, and yet it is not Lent. I think it was an issue that needed to be addressed, but like so much regarding the post-conciliar liturgical reforms, the “baby was thrown out with the bathwater”.

    I would like to see the Mass texts restored, adding an additional reading, but perhaps retain the green vestments and/or Alleluia and Gloria. Make it a “sub-season” of Ordinary Time after Epiphany / before Lent.

  3. Kenneth Wolfe says:

    Sadly, the 1962 books have done away with it, but before the mid-20th century reforms, tomorrow (Saturday, Feb. 16) would have actually featured a rare anticipated Mass. The Sixth Sunday After Epiphany, which gets skipped entirely this year using the 1962 calendar, would have been offered tomorrow morning (so, obviously not “counting” for Sunday’s obligation, a 1967 invention) using the pre-1962 calendar.

  4. discipulus says:

    I understand this may be off topic, but please pray that I will even get to Observe the great feast of Easter. Presently, I’m scheduled to be on call for deliveries for all waking hours that weekend, and no one is willing to trade weekends (including a few new age-y coworkers). The (Non-Christian) management cant be bothered to cover it, nor do they seem concerned that I would miss one of the most important days in the Liturgical Year.

    Pray that somehow, through God’s grace, I can get things worked out.

    Once again, I understand this isn’t the main topic of the post.