A few thoughts about Septuagesima and its prayers for Holy Mass, excerpted from articles I wrote for The Wanderer, to which you can subscribe for an online edition.
The Roman Station is St. Lawrence outside-the-walls.
In the pre-Conciliar calendar the time after Epiphany or Season of Epiphany, could be longer or shorter depending on the date of Easter. When Easter falls early, some of the texts for Sundays Masses after Epiphany are bumped to the end of the year. The time after Epiphany and the time after Pentecost are both called the tempus per annum, “the time through the year”. That terminology remained in the Novus Ordo to describe the two parts of “Ordinary Time”.
This Sunday, however, we begin the Tempus Septuagesimae, "the time of Septuagesima".
In the traditional Roman calendar this Sunday is called Septuagesima, Latin for the “Seventieth” day before Easter. This number is more symbolic than arithmetical. The Sundays which follow are Sexagesima (“sixtieth”) and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”). 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 through the year. The pre-Lent Sundays have Roman Stations. The 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. Pre-Lent is particularly a time for preaching about missions and missionary work, the evangelization of peoples.
With the Novus Ordo 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.
NB: 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 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 long time readers of this column will note, as well as you who attend mainly the Novus Ordo, 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.