Have you ever wondered about the three Sundays before Lent? This current season is called Pre-Lenten Season, and consists of the Sundays Septuagesima, or the third Sunday before Lent; Sexagesima, or the Second Sunday before Lent; and Quinquagesima, the Sunday before Lent, which begins on Ash Wednesday, February 14 this year. Here to shed light on the subject is contributer
Georges Staelens of Belgium.
By the Waters of Babylon COPLEY FIELDING
The "Gesimas" are high seasons in the Northern Lutheran Churches; for instance, in the Church of Sweden, Sexagesima is "Reformation Sunday." The "Gesimas" are still present in most of the Old-Catholic Churches of the Union of Utrecht, to which the author belongs.
by Georges Staelens
1928 Book of Common Prayer Includes Transitional Season
The pre-Lenten season in Western Christianity in started by the Septuagesima, the third Sunday before Lent. The 1928 Book of Common Prayer (BCP) has, beginning on page 118, the Pre-Lenten Season, composed of three Sundays (with subsequent weeks): Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. These three Sundays are so important, that in the Tables of Precedence on page li in the 1928 BCP, it is stipulated that they have precedence over any other Sunday or Holy Day, even Candlemas, which is still a Dominican feast! In spite of the importance given to the Gesimas in the 1928 BCP, they have been eliminated from recent books, except in the Scandinavian and other Lutheran Churches, and also in some Old-Catholic Churches.
In this article, I shall first introduce the pre-Lenten season in the Church catholic, then I shall present the theological meaning and importance of the Gesimas. Finally, I shall criticise the modern move of their removal.
What Brings Us to This Season?
It appears that in the fourth century BC, the Christians of the region of Nineveh invented a three- day fast, three weeks before Lent, in remembrance of the Ninevites’ fast which is recorded in the biblical book of Jonah. This fast soon spread throughout the whole Orient; for instance, saint Ephrem practised it and wrote hymns for it. All the Oriental Churches still keep that season up to this day.
In the Græco-Roman territories, Christians have associated this season with the captivity of Babylon. In fact, Septuagesima means "70th," and, occurring more or less 70 days before Easter, it gives to the chain of seasons (Septuagesima + Lent + Passiontide) the figure of the 70 years of Babylonian captivity.
In the Byzantine rites, during the pre-Lenten Sundays, at matins, the third nocturn is Psalm 137, "By the waters of Babylon," followed, verse by verse, by long mournful alleluias (in the East, alleluia is a song of mourning, rather than of joy). In the West, the same trend is followed, as, during the first evensong of Septuagesima Sunday, the Church performs the farewell to alleluia. The Magnificat antiphon "Hymnum Cantate" is comprised of verses of Psalm 137, interspersed with alleluias. The hymn Alleluia Dulce Carmen, "Alleluia, Song of Gladness»," is sung, and the decorum is turned to purple.
But besides these few exoticisms, the old cathedral and monastic uses prescribed that the book of Genesis be begun on Septuagesima morning. The English BCP of 1662 kept on with the same practice. If the English prayer book begins the reading of Genesis in the beginning of the civil year for the weekdays cycle, nevertheless, the Sunday cycle of readings for matins and evensong – intended to provide shorter readings for the Sunday-only churchgoers – still keeps the beginning of the Bible incursion with the creation on Septuagesima, with the Fall and Noah on Sexagesima, and with Abraham on Quinquagesima.
By Grace Alone
The scriptures used for the Mass on the Gesimas give us a unique picture, and they are the same readings in the whole West, including Rome: the 1662 BCP, and the 1928 BCP, as the three Gesimas are, in fact, the proclamation of the three sola, which Fr Martin Luther had only to discover and let the people discover. Septuagesima preaches the salvation sola gratia, "by grace alone." The Gospel reading at Mass, in the parable of the vineyard, tellsl us that, whenever we get to know Christ, either in our young years (early in the morning), or at the end of our earthly life (about the eleventh hour), salvation is the same for everyone. Salvation is not acquired by good works, but by the grace of God. The householder calls everyone, from the morning to the end of the day, and in the end he gives everyone one penny; not less, not more. In salvation – contrarily to the merit – there is no distinction, but equality. The vinemaster calls the workers not because he needs them, but because they need him to help them out of their idleness. The collect of Septuagesima keeps on with the same topic: We are sorry for our offences, and are saved by God’s goodness.
The following week, Sexagesima addresses salvation sola scriptura, or rather solo sermone, "by the word alone." The Gospel reading will tell us about the word of God that is sown, but which bears fruit, or bears not, depending on the hearers. The introit antiphon anticipates Easter, saying: "Up, Lord!" and Psalm 44 which follows continues the same topic: "We have heard with our ears, O God, our fathers have told us," etc. The idea is that we have heard God’s word, and by it we are saved. The collect – which in the different BCP represents the pre-Reformation variant of Ely – resumes the topic of salvation by grace alone: "We put not our trust in any thing that we do," but are defended by God’s power.
The Gospel reading of Quinquagesima shows us our Lord and God and Saviour Jesus Christ saying to the blind man: "Thy faith hath saved thee." This is salvation sola fide, "by faith alone."
Also, on this Sunday, did the Church proceed to the final inscription of the postulants to the catechumenate. The blind man of the Gospel is the figure of every not-yet-baptised person, because the baptism is also named “lightening” or “illumination,” especially in the early Church. The epistle of Quinquagesima, I Corinthians 13, or the “Hymn of Love” was a final warning and programme of the Christian life, for those who were to begin this journey.
1928 Prayer Book Retains Rites of Preparation
The theological importance of the Gesimas made of them the feast of the Reformation in Sweden, and kept them in the Church year, in spite of the trends of modernity. But why have they vanished in the revised books of the rest of the West? Probably, when people do not understand something, they utterly reject that thing. As the liturgists of the second half of the 20th century saw Lent as just a “preparation” for Easter, and not a real season of fasting and abstinence, worthy for what it was in itself, the idea of a “preparation of a preparation” seemed absurd to them.
This leaves many of today's churches with disturbing liturgical practices. For instance, one can see online ( https://youtu.be/UsiOFVF1dFA ) an Episcopal parish that is trying to reconcile the ancient practice of the Gesimas with a modern lectionary that ignores this season. While the attempt at keeping on with the tradition, while bowing to some prescription of authority, is praiseworthy, the result is deplorable.
What about the ecumenical field? The deletion of the Gesimas in the modern Western books has only widened the gap with the other Churches. When Lutherans have such important a season for their theology, should we just extend Epiphany themes? When Syrians, Assyrians, Copts, Armenians, Ethiopians, and Erythreans – either in their original land, or even among us – keep a season of penance and fasting, is it an ecumenical act that we make rejoicing celebrations, with no historic support at all? When the Byzantine-rite Christians – both here and in the East – prepare for Lent in the mournful singing of the Babylonian captivity, should we tell them that we are cooler, and that we're looking forward to Mardi Gras?
Georges Staelens graduated in 2001 from the Eastern-Orthodox Theological Seminary of Baia-Mare. He earned a licence en théologie from Saint-John-the-Divine Theological Institute of Brussels; a Diploma in Ministry at the Université Catholique de Louvain and another Diploma in Ministry at the Université de Strasbourg. He is enrolled at the Catholic University of Ukraine, in order to obtain a MA in ecumenism. His field of research is comparative liturgy, and he is writing an MA thesis on the revision of the Book of Common Prayer. He translates hymns and other liturgical material. He has published the Hymnaire Traditionnel en français, and is preparing a new book, based on the BCP 1662, which will be called Bréviaire. He works as a train conductor.