Saturday, February 15, 2014

Missing Septuagesima

With the Christmas season now well behind us, can Lent be far off? Thanks to the vagaries of the calendar, Lent and Easter actually arrive rather late this year (March 5 and April 20 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. Indeed, 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."

For centuries, Lent was preceded by a preparatory period of three successive Sundays - Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Those Latin names meant the 70th, the 60th, and the 50th day before Easter. Some 1200 years ago, the Emperor Charlemagne is said to have asked why Sundays that were seven days apart were being numbered as if they were ten days apart. And even he, the King of the Franks and Western Roman Emperor that he was, couldn’t get a good answer to his question! To make matters even more confusing, the kick-off Sunday - Septuagesima - although ostensibly 70 days before Easter was actually only 63 days before Easter! 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. It fact it directly overlapped with the popular time of Carnival, culminating on Mardi Gras, the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. Importantly, for example, the traditional Lenten prohibition against the solemnization of marriage did not yet apply until Ash Wednesday. (Thus my parents were married 67 years ago today, February 15, 1947, on what was that year the Saturday before Quinquagesima Sunday - the last Saturday  before Ash Wednesday.)

The Septuagesima season did, however, already share some of Lent’s liturgical features – in particular, purple vestments, no Gloria, and, most notably, no AlleluiaFor 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, singing the 11th-century hymn Alleluia dulce carmen, would "bury" the Alleluia (presumably to await its resurrection at Easter). In keeping with the exilic motif, the medieval author William Durandus (1237-1296) wrote: "In the Babylon of our earthly life we sit by the streams, weeping as we remember Sion. For as the children of Israel in an alien land hung their harps upon the willows, so we too must forget the Alleluia song in the season of sadness, of penance, and bitterness of heart." 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 that traditional calendar, tomorrow would be Septuagesima Sunday. In the new 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 quite so much preparation is needed now! The 1960s elimination of Septuagesima was likely a well-meaning attempt to highlight Lent in our modern, post-fasting time.

The reformed liturgy has served the Church well in many ways and has much to recommend it. Like all human endeavors, however, it has its limits. One of its weakest links may have been the unexpected way in which it tinkered with the traditional calendar. In any listing of its more questionable calendar revisions, the elimination of Septuagesima - whose magnificent Mass formularies, dating back to the era of Saint Gregory the Great, resonate so well with the theme of evangelization - surely should rank as among the more problematic. 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. The challenge for today is to relearn how to make the connection between faith and ordinary life in radically unprecedented circumstances.

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