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Old names of pre-Lent Sundays

07 March 2014


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 worn.

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 Easter.

(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 fasting.

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 computations.

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
Magor, Monmouthshire

[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 House, 108-114 Golden Lane, London EC1Y 0TG.questions@churchtimes.co.uk


Sun 22 May @ 04:29
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