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Septuagesima: Counting down to Easter


The term Septuagesima is derived from the Latin word for “seventieth” and generally taken to refer to seventy days to Easter. Photo: PIXABAY

Today, in the Church’s calendar, it is called Septuagesima Sunday. It means we have started counting down to Easter.

The last three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, while Lent itself is known as Quadragesima, indicating forty days preparation leading to Easter Celebration.

Although in the Roman Catholic liturgical review of 1969, following the Second Vatican Council, Septuagesima and the other pre-Lent Sundays were removed from the church Calendar and the period regarded as the Ordinary Time, and also some Anglicans no longer strictly observe these Sundays, they are retained in most Prayer Books.

Septuagesima is sometimes applied to the period commonly called Shrovetide or Gesimatide (the Pre-Lenten Season) that begins on this day and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. The Septuagesima Sunday traditionally marks the beginning of preparations for Lent. In fact, it was common for some early pious Christians to begin the Lenten fast immediately after Septuagesima Sunday in accordance with the words of the First Council of Orleans. This was mainly in order to make for the forty days that our Lord fasted. Just as Sundays are not days of fasting and so the Lenten fast starts 46 days before Easter. So also in the early Church, Saturdays and Thursdays were considered fast-free days. Therefore, the forty days fast had to start two weeks earlier than today. It was Popes Gregory and Gelasius, who, to make it uniform, arranged that all Christians should begin fasting on Ash-Wednesday.

The term Septuagesima is derived from the Latin word for “seventieth” and generally taken to refer to seventy days to Easter. It is, however, uncertain how the name came about since it is actually 63 (not 70) days before Easter. It has been suggested that it is so-called because it falls within seventy days but more than sixty days before Easter, just as the following Sunday that is within sixty days is called Sexagesima, and the next one, Quinquagesima, being within fifty days. Also, according to Wikipedia, “The term is sometimes applied to the seventy days starting on Septuagesima Sunday and ending on the Saturday after Easter.” The use of seventy might also be to represent a profound mystery connected with the number. St Augustine speaks of two times: the time before Easter, representing our sojourn on earth, and the time after Easter, representing eternity. The Church often speaks of two places corresponding to these two times, Babylon and Jerusalem. Now, the Babylonian captivity lasted 70 years; and many great liturgists uphold that Septuagesima is used for the season to express this mystery.

Septuagesima alerts us of Easter and leads us to it. Easter is the Key Event of the Church around which all others revolve. The days of all the movable Feasts of the Church are determined by the Easter Day. For instance, Septuagesima is the 9th Sunday (63 days) before Easter, and when it falls on determines the number of Sundays after the Epiphany for the year. Forty days after Easter is the Ascension Day, while the fiftieth is the Pentecost, followed by the Trinity.

The Septuagesima is marked by a withdrawal, as much as possible, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be more readily impressed by the solemn warning at the commencement of Lent, by marking our foreheads with ashes.

We are reminded during this season that we are sojourners upon this earth. We are exiles and captives in Babylon and are to reflect on the dangers that beset us; dangers which arise from ourselves and from creatures. Alleluia and Gloria are suspended at this time. There were no songs of praise in Babylon: “…We sat down (reflect), yea, we wept when we remembered Zion. We hung our harps… How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land” (Ps. 137:2, 4). Thus, the Alleluia, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Te Deum — those songs of our heavenly homeland — are all to be silenced.

There should be from now, into the Lent proper, a deepening sense of penance and sombreness, culminating in Passiontide (the last two weeks of Lent), that will suddenly and joyously end on Easter Morning, when the alleluia returns and Christ’s Body is restored and glorified.

Joy cometh. Easter is coming.

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