Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
We are just a few weeks away from the start of the Lenten season. Ash Wednesday is February 17, and then we will begin our 40 day period of fasting and penance in preparation for the celebration of the Paschal Mystery of Jesus’ Passion, Death, and Resurrection. In the meantime, we find ourselves coming down, in a way, from the high celebrations of Christmas. The holidays are in the past and the time we are living can seem very ordinary. Add to that the fact that the liturgical season is called “ordinary” (though no liturgical season is, truly, ordinary) and we can find that Lent seems to sneak up on us and leave us scrambling to come up with a good penance or spiritual practice at the last minute.
In the old liturgical calendar, we would be in the brief season of Septuagesima. This 17-day-long season includes three Sundays which are called respectively “Septuagesima,” Sexagesima,” and “Quinquagesima.” This old liturgical calendar is used in the Extraordinary Form of the Mass, which is celebrated in Latin according to the 1962 edition of the Roman Missal. Many remember this as the Mass of their childhood. If you have never experienced the Extraordinary Form, I encourage you to attend one of the Extraordinary Form Masses offered weekly here at St. Pius, on Monday or Thursday evenings at 7 PM. In the Extraordinary Form, last Sunday was Septuagesima Sunday, this Sunday is Sexagesima, and next Sunday is Quinquagesima. The name “Septuagesima” comes from the Latin word for “seventy,” indicating that we are 70 days from the celebration of Easter (and for each of the following Sundays, 60 and 50 days from Easter). It is not an exact measuring of time, as none of the Sundays are exactly 70, 60, or 50 days prior to Easter. Rather, the numbers are rounded up as symbolic approximations. This brief liturgical season looks very much like Lent: the Gloria and the Alleluia are omitted, and violet or purple vestments are worn. However, these 17 days do not include any particular fasting prescription.
At its best, Septuagesima provided a liturgical reminder that we need to prepare for Lent. The appearance of violet vestments and the change in tone of the prayers at Mass would have indicated to people that something has changed. This liturgical shift would be a reminder to prepare for Lent, to form a game plan, to consider seriously and sincerely the areas of one’s life that are in need of conversion, healing, and repentance. Septuagesima then, is a preparatory season, a propaedeutic period ahead of Lent. Like a cleanse before adopting a new diet, or a pre-workout routine, Septuagesima, understood properly, helps us prepare mentally and spiritually for Lent without the rigors of that penitential season.
There are both advantages and disadvantages to the post-Vatican II liturgical calendar’s removal of Septuagesima. Perhaps the greatest advantage of the removal was allowing the Church to focus on the penance of Lent and to allow Lent to have its original unity and significance. Since the liturgy in Septuagesima began to look very much like the liturgies of Lent, removing this season from the calendar allows the Lenten liturgies to stand out as penitential prayer, especially when accompanied by the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent. A disadvantage of this preparatory season’s removal from the calendar is the somewhat abrupt change from the Christmas Season to “Ordinary” Time to the intense fasting of Lent. If we use the analogy of a meal, this liturgical sequence is like going from an all-you-can-eat buffet to a big dinner at home to a juice fast with no transition time in between. In any event, Septuagesima is off the calendar in the Ordinary Form. To experience the liturgy of Septuagesima, come to an Extraordinary Form Mass. But even without the liturgy, we can apply the best of these 17 days to our own lives now. Consider now what the Lord is asking of you as Lent approaches. How is Jesus inviting you to a deeper relationship with Him?
As you reflect and pray with the upcoming Lenten season, remember that the Church calls us to a threefold discipline; prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Lent is a time for us to increase our prayer and our devotional life. One suggestion for prayer in Lent, in light of Pope Francis’ call for a Year of St. Joseph, is the Consecration to St. Joseph, written by Fr. Donald Calloway (you’ll find the book readily available on Amazon). This consecration begins on Feb. 16 (Mardi Gras) and ends on the feast of St. Joseph, March 19. With this consecration, you will grow in devotion to St. Joseph, and, of course, to our Lord! The discipline of fasting includes food and drink, of course. It teaches us to mortify our appetites and so gain a greater sense of control and respect for those things that motivate our actions. Fasting can also be applied to things we enjoy, such as television, music, social media, video games, and the like. Setting aside those time-consuming activities can give us more time for prayer and help us to realize what is most essential in our lives. Almsgiving applies most especially to our charity to the poor. In its literal form, it means giving money to the less fortunate or to charities. Expanded, almsgiving includes volunteering in service to the poor, donating food or clothing, and giving generously of one’s expertise. All of these disciplines are meant to be offered to God prayerfully both for our own personal growth in holiness, and as a penitential sign of our sorrow for our sin. We do well to remember that the Lenten discipline is not an either-or proposition – it is not prayer OR fasting OR almsgiving. Rather, a fruitful, holy Lent will include all three disciplines. Before we begin that holy season, then, let us take time to reflect and pray, asking God to inspire in us good and healthy spiritual disciplines and practices so that the upcoming journey to the Paschal Mystery can be lived fully and well by every member of this family of faith.