What is the origin of the beautiful traditional names
Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima for the Sundays before
Lent, and why were they dropped?
The names were probably established by about the seventh
century. The name Quadragesima was given to the first Sunday in the
40-day fast of Lent. Quinquagesima was given its name, by analogy,
because it is exactly 50 days before Easter.
The Sundays Sexagesima and Septuagesima, although lying 57 and
64 days respectively before Easter, were similarly given their
names representing 60 and 70 days. In the Western Church, these
Sundays were a preparation for Lent: "alleluia" was forbidden in
service time, and the Alleluia in the mass was replaced by the
Tract, usually verses from the Psalms. Purple vestments were
Practically, the three Sundays represented an extension to Lent,
and the longer period was often called "the Greater Lent". These
days did not feature in the Eastern Church. The names, although
having a certain beauty, had no real logic to them.
Two parallel developments took place in the second half of the
20th century. The first was as a result of the Second Vatican
Council, in which the Calendar and Missal were revised. Lent
started on Ash Wednesday; the "-gesima" Sundays became part of
Ordinary Time, not a pre-penitential season.
The second, in non-Roman Catholic Churches, followed on from the
1967 report of the Joint Liturgical Group, which proposed a
nine-week pre-Easter season. This was adopted in the Alternative
Service Book 1980, in which the three "-gesima" Sundays were called
the Third, Second, and First Sundays before Lent.
With the advent of Common Worship, and its adoption of
the Common Lectionary (albeit modified), a similar calendar/
lectionary has resulted in the designation of these Sundays as so
many Sundays before Lent, the number depending on the date of
(The Revd) John Chamberlin
North Shields, Tyne and Wear
It may be that the names were simply chosen as a numerical
series in line with what had become the established Quadragesima of
the 40 days' Lent in the calendar of the Western Church. But there
are more ways than one of counting the days to Easter, and in the
earlier centuries this was done in the different rules by which the
pre-Paschal fast was organised.
It is suggested by many competent liturgical authorities that
Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima at one time reckoned
the respective dates on which some churches - or maybe groups -
began the 40 days of their Lent, excluding not only Sundays, but
also Thursdays and Saturdays as fast-free days. Under those
circumstances, it would have been necessary to make the beginning
of Lent several weeks earlier in order to fit in 40 days of
This would explain the origin of Septuagesima as the 70th day
before Easter. It was only when the Latin titles were given to the
three Sundays before our Ash Wednesday that they became inaccurate
Some spiritual writers latched on to Septuagesima and found
mystical meaning in its 70th reference. This was imagined to
represent the seventy years of the Babylonian Captivity, and
applied to Christians, exiled until their restoration at Easter.
Amalarius of Metz (780-850) quoted the Introits: on Septuagesima
Sunday "the sorrows of death surrounded me . . . and in my
tribulation I will call upon the Lord", and, exactly 70 days later
on Saturday in Easter Week: "the Lord brought out his people with
joy and his chosen one with gladness," to embrace a true
Septuagesimal experience. The same idea finds expression in the
medieval hymn "Alleluia, dulce carmen" , which used to be
sung in the week before Septuagesima, which has the line: "By
Babylon's sad waters, mourning exiles now are we."
The "-gesima" complex is seen by liturgists as a serious
anomaly: a season of preparation for a season of preparation. The
names have become not only misleading but unintelligible to modern
worshippers. Many have remarked that there is no merit in naming
Sundays after inaccurate Latin calculations.
(Canon) Terry Palmer
[The Latin hymn that Canon Palmer quotes is no. 63 in The
English Hymnal, but he does not quote the EH
translation, by J. M. Neale. Editor]
Is it possible for a parish to release itself from a
relationship of patronage with a particular body or individual (for
example, because of different views on women's ordination)? If so,
what is the process?
Out of the Question, Church Times, 3rd floor, Invicta
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