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What is Septuagesima Sunday?

Updated: Jan 30

A few years ago I learned about the 'gesimas, Septuagesima Sunday in particular, and became completely fascinated with the previous liturgical season known as Pre-Lent. I do have a post from 2020 that I wrote here if you'd like to read more about the basics regarding these weeks, along with a few ways to live liturgically.

As I revisited this topic, I began to discover even more information that I found intriguing and thought I'd share it with you. For a more practical start, this is a season that begins on different dates each year depending on the date of Easter. As a quick reference, here are the dates for the next four years.

Septuagesima Sunday

2023 February 5

2024 January 28

2025 February 16

2026 February 1

And for a fun fact, Septuagesima began in the 6th century!

What is Pre-Lent?

Pre-lent are the three weeks that lead up to Lent and begin with Septuagesima, then Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. It is a season that was intended for feasting and fasting. This period of time prompts us to enjoy the delights of life before our days of fasting start, and also signals us to ready our hearts and minds as we begin to enter into Lent. This season was so highly valued that Dom Prosper Guéranger, O.S.B., devoted an entire volume of his work, The Liturgical Year, to Septuagesima. He refers to Septuagesima as a season of “transition, inasmuch as it includes the period between two important Seasons, – Christmas and Lent.” You can see in this image that the three weeks of Pre-Lent are like stairs that gradually bring us closer to fully living the Lenten season.

From a more practical standpoint, and as I stated in the previous post, given the busyness and chaos of most of our modern day lives I believe we need this even more. Before I began to live liturgically I didn't think any differently, but when I really sought to actively engage in each season, I realized that being thrust into Lent from Ordinary Time was very challenging. In fact, when I look at most of my Lenten experiences, I feel like I'm not as prepared for such a profound season as I would like to be. Suddenly we are fasting, abstaining, and I'm seeking to pick and then remember what I gave up, along with any added prayer that I was desiring. I truly think it would be more helpful to be prompted by the Church and my Catholic community, to begin preparing for Lent as a whole.

Carnival Season

The weeks prior to Lent were also known as Carnival Season to many Catholic cultures and countries across the world. The word carnival comes from the Latin carnelevarium which means the removal of meat. During these weeks of celebration Catholics would need to consume all remaining meat and animal products, such as eggs, cream, and butter, before the six-week Lenten fast. There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the laws of fasting and abstinence were wildly different and far more strict from what we practice now and you were to abstain from all the items listed above and then some. Second, before in home refrigeration, these perishable items would not have lasted through the weeks of Lent when they were not being eaten and therefore would have spoiled. The best thing to do was to use these ingredients to make delicious food. In honor of this practice I make skillet queso, a very meaty chili, and pancakes.

Carnival celebrations such as balls, masquerades, parades, and parties happened throughout Pre-Lent in the spirit of feasting. However, this can't go without mention, that many of the saints rightfully did not approve of what the Carnival season became. Many Catholics saw this as an excuse to overindulge beyond any sense of virtue and fall into mortal sin. I think it's important to note again that these weeks are meant for feasting, but also intentional preparation for fasting and prayer. Think of the stair steps to Lent again.

I must say that I do appreciate this approach as I have always felt a bit of liturgical whiplash from Shrove Tuesday, also known as Fat Tuesday, or Mardi Gras. Even when I was younger I remember thinking, "so I'm supposed to party and have fun on this day, but I'm also supposed to go to confession, spend time in prayer, and make sure that I am prepared for Ash Wednesday?" It's not impossible, but it certainly makes for a day of juggling a wide range of liturgical action. If we treat these weeks as time for that enjoyment, then when we get to Shrove Tuesday, we won't feel as if we have to cram everything into one day.

The Numbers Don't Add Up

The other thing that I found curious is that in two different ways, the numbers don't make sense. Septuagesima means seventieth, sexagesima means sixtieth, and quinquagesima means fiftieth. I initially thought that this was a way to countdown to Easter, but as I began going through the calendar with my little pointer finger, 1..2..3..4..5..6.. I realized that didn't make sense. The Church knows this too, so where did these titles come from?

The rich symbolic and theological tradition of the Church is where we must begin to better understand the titles of these weeks. The first Sunday of Lent is called Quadragesima (fortieth). As we know the Lenten season is a period of 40 days that are meant to imitate Jesus' forty days of fasting and prayer in the desert. Hence, the three Sundays prior to Quadragesima Sunday were named after round numbers 50, 60, 70.

Learning this also answered my second point of confusion as to why these numbers were counting by tens when there are only 7 days in a week.

Final Thoughts

Whether or not you observe this Old Calendar season, I see it as a beautiful part of our Catholic liturgical tradition. And while we don't have to choose to live out the weeks of Pre-Lent like we used to, knowing about it enriches our faith by seeing who we are as Catholics in full view, and allowing that to impact the way that we engage in it. Perhaps you follow the Novus Ordo calendar but appreciate the meaning of these things, then take what you can and apply it to your life so that your Lent is more imbued with prayer, fasting, and almsgiving.

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