SEPTUAGESIMA SUNDAY 2020 – Pre-Lent begins! Get your head into gear.

In the new-fangled calendar Sunday is the 5th 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 ancient pre-Lenten Sundays prepare us for the discipline of Lent, which once was far stricter.

Sometimes I talk about “situational awareness”.  That involves more than just looking around right here and right now.  It also involves gaming scenarios out in your head.  That’s just smart.  Pre-Lent helps us to get our heads into the game before Lent starts.

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”.

“But Father!  But Father!,” some of you nit-picking libs are cooing.  I’ve counted the days on the calendar and … HA HA!… they don’t add up to seventy.  It was right to get rid of these Sundays, because – HA H!… the “don’t add up”!  Get it?   But no. YOU won’t get it because YOU HATE VATICAN II!”

That is the sort of logic one found in the iconoclasts of the 60s, to the impoverishment of all.

What’s the scoop behind the “seventieth”, etc?

These Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, before Lent or Quadragesima begins, are rough estimates but within certain parameters.  For example, Septuagesima is the 63rd day before Easter and, therefore, it in the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period before Easter (61st to 70th days); Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th before Easter, in the 6th (sextus) decade (51st to 60th); Quinquagesima is the 49th day, 5th (quintus) decade (41st to 50th) days before Easter.

So, the titles really do add up.

There are changes to the Church’s liturgical worship at Septuagesima and strong symbolic customs to get our attention.

Firstly, Septuagesima calls for a more solemn attitude at 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”.

Here’s a beautiful and powerful custom.

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 outside the walls for the 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.

Meanwhile, start thinking about Lent.  Be situationally aware as the liturgical year unfolds.  Get your head into the war.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

Fr. Z is the guy who runs this blog. o{]:¬)
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  1. stillsearching says:

    Thank you, Fr. Z for posting this– it was very educational and made me consider what I should be doing right now to get ready for a successful lenten season this year (rather than waiting until the Sunday before Ash Wednesday and then having to make a mad dash to the start line!)

    Also for those checking out these comments, the Benedictines of Mary, Queen of Apostles have many beautiful CDs out, but one of them is dedicated to Lent (entitled Lent at Ephesus) and it is available on Amazon through unlimited streaming or as a CD. You can click through Fr. Z’s Amazon link or through Amazon Smiles (and use the BM, QA as your designated charity!)


  3. Pingback: Septuagesima Sunday | Opus Dei today

  4. Gil Garza says:

    I stopped using the modern Lectionary and Liturgy of the Hours for my study, devotion and holy hour 7 years ago. I tried for 25 years to make it work for me. I have literally used every Catholic Bible Study program associated with the Lectionary out there. Some are excellent. None of them could keep me engaged for very long. The study and devotion of Sunday Cycle ABC, Weekday Cycle I&II and Liturgy of the Hours Cycle, was bone dry and lifelessly BORING! Ugh! I sympathize with Catholic clergy who are obliged to pray the modern Liturgy of the Hours and Mass.

    Upon your recommendation, I switched to the Traditional Breviary and Mass for daily study, devotion and weekly holy hour. I use the readings for Matins and Propers for the daily Mass using the 1962 Vatican Approved Breviary and the Missal. I use the Divinum Officium English-Latin website Tridentine settings on mobile when I’m at work. I’m a full-time working professional and father.

    The Mass has come alive! I relish each day’s Bible study which is so rich and lively! Some days are very moving! Catholic Tradition is tied together with Scripture. Catholic teaching is carefully explained.

    I’m not old enough to ever remember the Latin Mass of yesterday but now I understand why it was so important to get rid of the prayers and content of the Traditional Mass and the Breviary. Now, I understand why Catholic parishes used to have public praying/singing the Hours with Mass each day and why people would fill the pews. Now, I understand why seminaries were full.

    Our Catholic faith comes alive when you pray the Traditional Mass and Breviary together!

    100x better than the best Cycle ABC study/Liturgy of the Hours I ever had!

    You have taught me that the Traditional Breviary and Missal go together! Thank you, Fr. Z! You have transformed my spiritual life with this revelation!

  5. OrangeBlossom says:

    I’m fairly new to the TLM. I am a bit confused on the Pre-Lent. I feel that I should start thinking about my Lenten penances and begin to slowly ramp them up as Ash Wednesday approaches.
    I’ve been reading some of the older Lenten practices and I am ashamed of how much the bar was lowered.

  6. jnxt7707 says:

    It seems to me to be a sign of the times that everything must be dumbed down to somehow make it more “accessible”. Which is my main complaint about most all things after Vatican II.

    I appreciate articles like this that remind us of the old traditions. So much richness out there to be rediscovered. Thank you Father.

  7. Tom says:

    The personal ordinariates established under Anglicanorum coetibus have retained/restored Septuagesimatide despite otherwise using the modern 1969 General Calendar. (Same with ember/rogation days, or numbering Sundays after Epiphany and Trinity [following the old Northern European custom, as opposed to after Pentecost].) Proof that Pre-Lent could be restored to the broader OF, if there existed the will to do it.

    Unfortunately, our Mass lectionary was not salvaged from the old Sarum by way of the BCP, but has adopted the 3-year cycle, albeit in the RSV2CE rather than the NAB. Thus, while there are appropriate minor propers and orations for Septuagesima, the A-word dropped, no Gloria etc., the lessons do follow ordinary time. God willing, that will be fixed someday.

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