Counting to Easter

Counting to Easter

With Christmas now well behind us, can Lent be far off? Thanks to the vagaries of the calendar, Lent and Easter will arrive relatively early this year (Ash Wednesday on February 14 and Easter on March 31 respectively). Early or late, however, they remain the centerpiece of the Church’s yearly cycle, as the mysteries they celebrate stand at the center of the Christian life. In a sense, life is the very heart of Easter. As the great Pius Parsch [The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume 2] put it, « Whereas at Christmas Christ manifested Himself primarily as light, He now [at Easter] manifests Himself in the Church and in the soul as life. »

In the old calendar that the Church faithfully used for some 1500 years, today would have been Septuagesima Sunday, the first of three special Sundays – SeptuagesimaSexagesima, and Quinquagesima – that marked off these weeks as a distinctive pre-Lenten season. Those lovely Latin names meant the 70th, the 60th, and the 50th day before Easter. Some 1200+ years ago, Charlemagne (who died on this date in 814) is said to have asked why Sundays that were seven days apart were being numbered as if they were ten days apart. A very good question! But even he, King of the Franks and Western Roman Emperor that he was, couldn’t get an answer to this question! (Arithmetic aside, the supposedly 70-day Septuagesima season was traditionally seen as a symbolic season of exile – analogous to the biblical 70-year Babylonian Exile.)

Septuagesima wasn’t quite Lent, of course. Notably, the traditional Lenten prohibition against the solemnization of marriage did not yet apply until Ash Wednesday, which was why my parents were married 77 years ago on February 15, on what was then the Saturday before Quinquagesima Sunday – the last Saturday  before Ash Wednesday.) And, of course, that season coincided with the festive, pre-Lenten Carnival, culminating on Shrove Tuesday/Mardi Gras – a season stereotypically associated with un-Lenten excess and pancakes. (Hence the photo above.)

The Septuagesima season did, however, already share some of Lent’s liturgical features – in particular, purple vestments, no Gloria, and, most notably, no Alleluia. For centuries, the Saturday before Septuagesima was the day when Alleluia was said or sung for the last time at the end of Sunday’s First Vespers, after which it was not heard again until the end of the Easter Vigil service on Holy Saturday morning. In the Middle Ages, the omission of the Alleluia was popularly ritualized by mock funeral rites in which the people, would « bury » the Alleluia (presumably to await its resurrection at Easter). At a time when people’s ordinary lives still somewhat followed and reflected the rhythm of the liturgical seasons, these practices alerted people visually and otherwise that Lent was on its way. 


In the current calendar, however, Lent starts suddenly on Ash Wednesday, without any preparatory period. But then, of course, the contemporary Lent lacks the strict fasting that so strongly characterized the traditional Lent. So, perhaps not much preparation is needed now! 

In today’s still strangely unending liturgical warfare, there are fanatics who totally disparage the way the Church worshipped for over 1500 years, and others who seem convinced that the Church’s worship reached a state of perfection with the 1568 Breviary and the 1570 Missal, to which any improvement is inconceivable and from which all alteration might as well be a sign of the apocalypse. Both positions are absurd, of course. The problem with trying to stake out a plausible position somewhere in between those extremes, however, is that it requires one to make intelligent judgments about which aspects of the post-Tridentine arrangement it may have been wise for the Church to alter and which it may have been less wise for her to change. 


Perhaps the best case to be made for eliminating pre-lent from the calendar was that Septuagesima suffered from an inherent in-betweenness – being a little like Lent but not quite Lent yet. Ambiguity is always a challenge, and the bureaucratic mentality that created the current calendar apparently had very little appreciation for ambiguity. 


On the other hand, the three now completely lost Sundays each had a magnificent Mass formulary dating back to Pope Saint Gregory the Great’s time, and their Roman stational churches – St. Lawrence Outside the Walls, St. Paul’s Outside the Walls, St. Peter’s – attested to their importance, particularly in terms of the catechumenate. Perhaps, the desire to homogenize traditional liturgical variations that seems to have motivated so much of the reform may have been misplaced. Maybe more discernment might have separated valuable variations from merely antiquarian customs. Its arithmetic may have been off, but the Septuagesima season was liturgically rich, and those riches are now largely lost forever.


Of course, the liturgy is not a museum-piece. More significant than the loss of a liturgical season is the fact that it hardly matters – that people’s lives no longer reflect the rhythm of the liturgy.  In an earlier age, all those visual and other variations in the liturgy aided the community in letting the liturgical seasons facilitate faith’s connection with the rhythms of ordinary life. Today now that that connection has been almost completely severed, even if Septuagesima somehow were to be providentially restored, how much notice would it even get? The real challenge for today is to relearn how to make a connection between faith and ordinary life in our radically unprecedented circumstances.

Image: Pieter Aertsen, “The Pancake Bakery”, 1560.