Saturday, January 23, 2016

Septuagesima Reconsidered

As with so many liturgical celebrations that derive from antiquity, the traditional Masses for the three, now-suppressed, pre-lenten Sundays reflect the Stational churches appointed for those days. Not surprisingly, given the ancient lenten focus on preparation for baptism, the stational church for Septuagesima Sunday was that of Saint Lawrence Outside the Walls. In fact all three of the pre-lenten stational churches are outside the ancient city - Saint Paul's Outside the Walls on Sexagesima Sunday (hence the rare reference to Saint Paul in the Collect) and Saint Peter's in the Vatican on Quinquagesima Sunday. It is as if the Roman Church's journey toward Lent was given a geographical analogue in its journey into the city - a fitting motif for those preparing to enter the Church!

In the popular Daily Missal I used as a child, the introduction for Septuagesima Sunday said nothing about the catechumens. (It had after all been a millennium or more since the de facto disappearance of the catechumenate in the Latin Church.) Instead the introduction spoke of how the Sunday Mass contained "a solemn note of sorrow" in view of the fall of Adam. The sorrow was certainly evident from the purple vestments, the omission of the Gloria, and above all the end of the Alleluia. Penitential purple suggested repentance for sin, and sin recalled Adam;s fall, of course. Beyond that, the connection with the story of Adam would have been less clear to me at that time, since I would hardly have known that Septuagesima Sunday was then the day to begin reading from Genesis in the first Nocturn at Matins in the Divine Office. But, again, since purple equalled penance and penance was because of sin, the connection was not completely obscure even to an otherwise liturgically ignorant elementary school kid like me.

But the Introit certainly did set a certain tone. From Psalm 17 (as it then was, psalm 18 now): The terrors of death surged round about me, the cords of the neither world enmeshed me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; from his holy temple he heard my voice. Septuagesima this year would fall a mere one month after Christmas Eve, but words like that were a clear signal that Christmas was left behind and Lent just around the corner. (Historically, of course, that tone recalled Septuagesima's Gregorian-era origins, reflecting what Pius Parsch called "the period of the migration of nations, an age of war, tumult, and suffering."

Having been ordained decades after the suppression of Septuagesima, I have never had the opportunity to celebrate its Mass or preach on it. The Gospel was the powerful parable (Matthew 20:1-16) of the laborers in the vineyard. (In the present Pauline liturgy, that Gospel occurs every third year on the 25th Sunday in Ordinary Time, cycle A, and annually on the Wednesday of the 20th Week in Ordinary Time.) The Gospel's the last shall be first message must have resonated with the pagan newcomers to the Church. As the Church's center of gravity shifts southward now, that same message must likewise resonate with the growing Church in Africa, for example, in contrast to the moribund Church in Europe - and with the growing Latino presence in the otherwise shrinking American Catholic Church. And it is certainly a very fitting message in this Holy Year of Mercy. In language we would do well to relearn in this Jubilee year, the ancient Septuagesima collect petitioned that we, now justly punished for our sins, might be mercifully delivered for the glory of God's name (ut, quit juste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer libremur).

We will never get Septuagesima back, but we can still certainly recover its spirit, especially in this Year of Mercy.

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