Thursday, January 21, 2016

Remembering Septuagesima

In the old calendar, this coming Sunday would be Septuagesima Sunday. The Latin name means 70 - as in 70 days before Easter - although, in fact, Septuagesima is the 9th Sunday before Easter, which mathematically makes it more like 63 days. Arithmetic never seems to have figured too seriously in the naming of those pre-lenten Sundays. For starters, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, despite meaning 70, 60, and 50 respectively are obviously only seven - not ten - days apart. It is said that the Emperor Charlemagne sought an explanation, and not even he could get one. If not even he could get one, who am I to ask?

Arithmetic aside, the pre-lenten season of Septuagesima was one of the genuine treasures of the traditional liturgy of Christianity's 1st and 2nd millennia - now virtually lost in the bureaucratic reform of the late 1960s. To those who paid attention to such things, Septuagesima's arrival was instantly noticeable. The visible cue was, of course, the resumption of the penitential purple vestments last worn in Advent. Verbal cues, which obviously required paying much more attention, were the omission of the Gloria and the suppression of the acclamation Alleluia. (and the replacement of the Alleluia and its psalm verse by a longer Tract, a series of verses from a psalm, which when sung were some of the longest chants in the Liber Usualis.) The suppression of the Alleluia was even considered significant enough to merit mention in the Roman Martyrology's entry for Septuagesima Sunday! All this reflected the profound change of mood as the Church shifted from the Christmas cycle to its Lenten-Easter cycle. Pius Parsch called Septuagesima "a period of mental conditioning before Ash Wednesday."

In earlier eras, when the liturgical year was in fact people's real year, the discontinuance of the  Alleluia was most certainly noticed. Pius Parsch quoted a medieval author, who wrote of the annual Septuagesima suppression of the  Alleluia as parting "from a dear friend, one whom we embrace and kiss on the lips, brow and hand many times before he leaves on an extended journey." Imagine an era - a long-ago and long-lost era - when's the Church's liturgy mattered enough and anyone cared enough to talk like that!

There is little purpose in repeating the arguments, pro and con, concerning the suppression of Septuagesima after its millennium and a half of faithful service to the Church. It is, however, worth noting how timely - and especially fitting for our tortured time - our now abandoned Septuagesima season would be, if we still had it today. To quote Pius Parsch again: "The liturgy of Pre-Lent with its magnificently constructed Mass formularies dates from the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great; perhaps the saint  himself was responsible for their composition. In content they reflect the period of the migration of nations, an age of war, tumult, and suffering."

Before Sunday, I hope to look a little more deeply into the liturgy of Septuagesima Sunday itself, and its timeliness - if not for the happy-clappy Church of  the late 1960s, then certainly for the struggling and serious Church of the 21st century.

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