To Gesima, or not to Gesima

In the last week or so there has been quite a bit of talk and agitation on the blogosphere about Septuagesima. Yesterday was, if we had been using the pre-conciliar liturgical calendar, Septuagesima Sunday. In the new liturgical calendar it was merely the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time. One might wonder what is the difference, and what, if anything, has been lost with the suppression of Septuagesima (and of Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, though not Quadragesima, which is Lent).

Literally the word septuagesima means seventieth, though that is not necessarily much help in understanding its liturgical use. Septuagesima Sunday is neither 70 days after anything in particular, nor is it 70 days before anything, though it is dated according to Easter. It is the ninth Sunday before Easter and the third before Lent. Why it is called the seventieth is not exactly clear. While Quinquagesima is, in fact, 50 days before Easter by one way of counting, and Quadragesima is in fact 40 days before Easter by another way of counting, neither Septuagesima nor Sexagesima have a corresponding accuracy. Perhaps it is a form of rounding off to the nearest -gesima?

What is somewhat clearer is that in the earliest days of the Church many pious Christians, not least the clergy (yes, pious clergy), began to fast 70 days before Easter. At various times and places other Christians began to fast 60 days before Easter, some 50, and some 40. The term Septuagesima is first found in liturgical books (that survive, at least) with the Gelasian Sacramentary, which seems to date from the 8th century in the manuscripts we still have, but is linked by ancient tradition to Pope St Gelasius I (d. 496). It was Pope Gregory who fixed the pre-Easter period of preparatory penance, Lent, at 40 days so as to bring about some consistency in Christendom.

However, Septuagesima continued to have signficance liturgically. For from this Sunday the Alleluia would cease to be sung or said until Easter (and not from Ash Wednesday, as in the modern calendar). Likewise the Gloria was not sung until Easter. While there was no fasting yet, the colour purple was used from this Sunday. It was almost-Lent, a fore-Lent. Or, as the people’s hand missals used to explain so well, it was a season of its own to prepare for Lent.

Indeed, it would not hurt to see what a few of these missals taught about the seemingly obscure season of the -Gesimas. The St Joseph Daily Missal (NY, 1959) explains that the three -Gesima Sundays marked the beginning of the second part of the ecclesiastical year, a mini-season of three weeks which “form a transition from the joy of Christmastide to the austerity of the Penitential Season of Lent”.

The Layman’s Missal (London, 1961) offers a very full set of notes. It also observes that this season moves us from Christmastide towards Easter, in part by recalling the 70 years Israel spent in captivity in Babylon. Then the notes go on to explain the more direful and dolorous tone of the prayers and chants of the season of the -Gesimas in this context of transition:

Since Christmas and Epiphany we have learned to know our Saviour and our King. It was our great joy to “see the heavens opened”, to “receive the Lord our God come in person” in order to establish at last his kingdom of justice and of peace.

God united himself with us by means of the Incarnation; and yet our state of misery is still with us:”The surging tide of death has engulfed me: the meshes of hell have entangled me”. That is because only the first page of the history of our redemption has been written. It is now our task to accept our Saviour and unite ourselves to him, in order that he may bring us out of our wretchedness and lead us all on the way to God.

… we have to aqccepot the conditions of our redemption: “Lord teach me your law”. The promise has not yet developed into victory. It is necessry fort to “bear the day’s burden” like the labourers in the vineyard…


The gospel for Septuagesima Sunday: the parable of the labourers in the vineyard

The Bible Missal (Bruges, 1962) offers a somewhat different history of the development of the -Gesimas, itself a reminder that much of the early origins of our liturgy are clouded by the passing of the centuries, leaving much for liturgists to argue about. It brings in that school of thought that emphasises the formal erection in the seventh century of Septuagesima, with its tone of being surrounded and engulfed by the tides of evil and death, as being a response to the violent onward press of the barbarians into the Roman world at that time. This missal even adds a “Theme”, namely the Sacraments. It highlights that the Sacraments are more than rituals but are intended to “change our lives”. Since sacraments are encounters with the living Christ, they should then, in this season especially, be seen as the means of our entering “completely into the Covenant between God and ourselves” established eternally in Christ, learning from the failure of Israel to embrace their now-superseded covenant.

Lastly, moving beyond the hand missals, the great popular liturgical expositor Pius Parsch (d. 1954), in his The Breviary Explained (London, 1952) described the season of the -Gesimas as a transition, but more, as a preparation for Lent, “the antechamber of the Lenten Season”, and noted that

[t]he Liturgy for these three Sundays is particularly beautiful and artistic in structure. This is true of the Mass liturgy especially.

In light of that assessment particularly, it is no surprise that many are lamenting the loss of this season of the -Gesimas. Kate at Australia Incognita feels that the season’s emphasis on perseverance amidst a sea of troubles speaks as much to us now as it did to the Church in the seventh century. Moreover, she holds that this pre-Lent season helps us better to prepare for Lent itself, to take it more seriously, than we find when Lent springs upon so suddenly on Ash Wednesday.

Fr Hunwicke’s Liturgical Notes, referenced by Kate, point to the Second Vatican Council’s explicit mandate in Sacrosanctum Concilium that “[t]he liturgical year is to be revised so that the traditional customs and discipline of the sacred seasons can be preserved or restored to meet the conditions of modern times; their specific character is to be retained”. He ruefully wonders why the season of the -Gesimas was not protected by the Council’s express desire.

There is much to recommend the restoration of the season of the -Gesimas, when one thinks about it. Certainly there are many of us who find that Lent is upon us before we have given serious thought as to how we might fruitfully participate in that sacred season, what to read and what more-than-cursory penance we might offer – in short, how to make Lent a time for true re-conversion.

At a deeper level it reminds us of one the least satisfactory aspects of the new liturgical calendar: Ordinary Time. Before the post-conciliar reform of the Calendar the Church had no concept at all of any time being ordinary. Of course, the reformers did not intend the more banal meaning of the word to apply, but for the common Catholic it does, more often than not. All time, including that we call ordinary or “throughout the year”, is salvation time. “Now is the acceptable time” says St Paul (2 Cor 6:2), “this is the day of salvation”. In the old calendar all time was labelled in reference to one of the great moments in salvation history: Advent, the season preparing for Christmas and also for the Second Coming; Christmas; Epiphany and the days counted after Epiphany; the season of the -Gesimas, easing us out of Christmastide and preparing for…; Lent, the season of re-conversion in preparation for…; Easter and the days counted after Easter; Pentecost, the feast of the establishment of the Church as the enduring and saving presence of the Body of Christ in the world, and the days counted after Pentecost.

Every day was thus anchored to salvation history. No day was ordinary, none humdrum. Every day was a call to experience more fully an aspect of our redemption, and the mystery of God’s love for us revealed in that chapter of salvation history. While the reform of the Lectionary is a far richer gift to the Church, expounding in greater detail the biblical aspects of salvation history throughout the liturgical year, nevertheless we consciously mark the time by its liturgical title, not firstly by the readings of a particular day. So, hearing a Sunday called the fifth in “Ordinary Time”, with no explicit anchorage in salvation history, will usually lead the unwary into considering that day to be, indeed, ordinary, humdrum, of no great consequence.

Could that, perhaps, be part of the reason why ours has become a Church of Christmas-Easter-wedding-and-funeral churchgoers? At least those times sound special. It is a question worth pondering.

3 thoughts on “To Gesima, or not to Gesima

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