When the Christmas season concludes in mid-January with the feast of the Baptism of the Lord, the Church begins the season known as Ordinary Time. Ordinary Time is not so named because it is dull or lacking the flare of more exciting liturgical seasons; rather, it designates time that is ordered or numbered, first through thirty-fourth, as we sojourn through the liturgical year. Ordinary Time was created after the Second Vatican Council for the new liturgical calendar, introduced with the Missal of Pope Paul VI in 1970. This new calendar swept away the previous one that for many centuries had guided the faithful through, in the words of the Liturgical Movement proponent Father Pius Parsch, “the Church’s year of grace.”
The new calendar omitted many facets of the old, but perhaps its most unfortunate omission was that of the “pre-Lent” ushered in on Septuagesima Sunday. “Septuagesima,” Latin for “seventieth,” falls approximately 70 days before Easter, and is the first of three preparatory Sundays before Lent’s official beginning on Ash Wednesday. Tradition testifies to the ancient origin of this brief anticipatory period: Septuagesima is included in the Gelasian Sacramentary, the Church’s second-oldest collection of Mass prayers composed in the eighth century; and the prayers for the Mass of Septuagesima Sunday (and its subsequent Sundays, called Sexagesima and Quinquagesima) are attributed to Pope St. Gregory the Great, who reigned from 590 until his death in 604.
The Church has always revered the penitential season of Lent as a solemnly important time of repentance and conversion before contemplating the glory of our redemption through Christ’s resurrection. Given this salience, it is fitting that Lent would have its own prelude, just as the feasts of Christmas and Easter have their own preparatory seasons. Father Parsch describes the 17-day period of Septuagesima as “a time of transition from the joyous spirit of Epiphany to one of reserve and recollection [that] conditions us for Ash Wednesday.” Lest Ash Wednesday surprise us by a sudden appearance in the parish bulletin the Sunday before, Septuagesima focuses our attention on the great spiritual battle that lies ahead, so that we may ready ourselves to wage it on the very first day.
The liturgy of Septuagesima and its two subsequent Sundays is the medium for this focus. Priests wear the penitential violet vestments of Lent for these Masses, and the Gloria and the Alleluia cease until the Easter Vigil. The collects of Septuagesima and Quinquagesima Sunday implore God to listen attentively to our prayers, to release us “from the bonds of our sins” so that “we may for the glory of Thy Name be mercifully delivered.” These prayers perfectly sum up the mystery of sin and redemption that we celebrate in Lent and Easter.
St. Paul, in three selections from his epistles to the Corinthians, shows us how to live the Christian life, appropriately culminating in the famous description of love in 1 Corinthians 13. The Gospels call us to live our Christian vocation with zeal: St. Matthew’s parable of the laborers in the vineyard invites all of us, wherever we are on our spiritual journeys, to work urgently for the salvation of our souls and those of our neighbors; St. Luke’s parable of the sower exhorts us to make our hearts fertile to receive His graces in a proper disposition; and St. Luke’s account of Christ’s prediction of His passion followed by the restoration of sight to the blind man pointedly reminds us of the trials of our own fast ahead, to be followed by the glorious triumph of Light over Darkness at Easter.
The loss of the sublime beauty of the Septuagesima season and its liturgies has created a void in the Novus Ordo liturgical calendar and the spiritual lives of the faithful. However, with the de-restriction of the preconciliar (Tridentine) Mass by Pope Benedict XVI’s motu proprio Summorum Pontificum, the old liturgical calendar, which includes the centuries-old Septuagesima season, has been restored to accompany the older rite of the mass. As more and more parishes offer the Traditional Latin Mass in the coming years, the richness, depth, and necessity of the Septuagesima season will reassert itself powerfully to the faithful and bring untold graces to the Church.
But there is no reason why the profundity of Septuagesima must be confined solely to the pre-conciliar Mass; these three Sundays can easily be incorporated into the new liturgical calendar. In the last decade, many have advocated for changes in the Novus Ordo liturgy to bring it closer to the vision of the Second Vatican Council, a movement known as the “Reform of the Reform.” Restoring Septuagesima to the new liturgical calendar is a positive step in this direction.
For centuries, new saints and feasts have been added to the Church calendar; the 20th century alone has profited from the additions of the feasts of the Holy Family, Christ the King, and Divine Mercy to the Sunday cycle. These calendar additions have enriched both the Ordinary and the Extraordinary Form of the Mass without altering the rite of the liturgy itself. Undoubtedly there are some who prefer the new calendar’s sequential reading of the synoptic Gospels in rotating years; nevertheless, even when dismantling the preconciliar calendar, the architects of the Novus Ordo saw the need to retain annually the structure and readings of the six Sundays of Lent because of their solemnity, adroit composition, and ancient roots. The Septuagesima season is no less august or beautiful, and it deserves its important function of preparing the faithful for the spiritual renewal to which Lent exhorts us each year.
In his classic meditations on the interior life titled Divine Intimacy, Father Gabriel of St. Mary Magdalen reminds us that Lent begins with the humble recognition that we all require conversion: “The lukewarm must become fervent, the fervent must reach perfection, the perfect must attain heroic virtue.” Pope Benedict’s motu proprio has reminded us of the need for Septuagesima to awaken our souls to the need for conversion and to the gravity and the splendor of the coming mystery of our redemption.
This spiritual awakening remains as necessary for today’s Catholics adhering to the new liturgical calendar as it was for our forefathers in the Faith for centuries. Incorporating Septuagesima into the new calendar will aid all of us Lenten pilgrims to strive for heroic virtue, and for the incorruptible crown that Christ reveals at Easter.
David G. Bonagura, Jr. is an associate editor of The University Bookman.