January 20, 2008
vol 18, no. 35

The Story of Septuagesima
Abbe Dom Prosper Gueranger

    Encompassing the History, Mystery and Practice of the Liturgical Season of Septuagesima, the wise and holy abbot provides the nourishment necessary to properly prepare our bodies, minds and souls in concert with what is expected of the Mystical Body of Christ in preparation of the Lenten Season.

      Editor's Note: Because the Liturgical Season of Lent, which officially begins with Septuagesima Sunday, we have decided to bring you excerpts (the excerpts below are taken from Volume 4, pages 1-14) from the most traditional and practical Catholic source available and that is the inspired and motivating words of the esteemed Abbot of Solesmes Dom Prosper Louis Pascal Gueranger, renowned for his masterful work The Liturgical Year, which is often considered the Summa for the Church's Liturgy in History, Mystery and Practice. It is in those areas that we feel it is important to address in order to help readers live as better Catholics in knowing, living, and applying their Faith to the fullest and giving to Christ and His Blessed Mother all that they can. Few capture the essence as this humble but brilliant abbot who is known simply as "the Gardener of the Canticles of Eternity."

    "The duration of the world itself, according to the ancient Christian tradition, is divided into seven ages. The human race must pass through seven ages before the dawning of the day of eternal life. The first age included the time from the creation of Adam to Noah; the second begins with Noah and the renovation of the earth by the deluge, and ends with the vocation of Abraham; the third opens with this first formation of God's chosen people, and continues as far as Moses, through whom God gave the Law; the fourth consists of the period between Moses and David, in whom the house of Juda received the kingly power; the fifth is formed of the years which passed between David's reign and the captivity of Babylon, inclusively; the sixth dates from the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, and takes us on as far as the birth of our Savior. Then, finally, comes the seventh age; it starts with the rising of this merciful Redeemer, the Sun of Justice, and is to continue till the dread coming of the Judge of the living and the dead. These are the seven great divisions of time; after which, eternity."

The History of Septuagesima

    The season of Septuagesima comprises the three weeks immediately preceding Lent. It forms one of the principal; divisions of the liturgical year, and is itself divided into three parts, each part corresponding to a week: the first is called Septuagesima; the second, Sexagesima; the third, Quinquagesima.

    All three are named from their numerical reference to Lent, which, in the language of the Church, is called Quadragesima, that is, Forty, because the great feast of Easter is prepared for by the holy exercises of forty days. The words Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima, tell us of the same great solemnity as looming in the distance, and as being the great object towards which the Church would have us now begin to turn all our thoughts and desires, and devotion.

    Now, the feast of Easter must be prepared for by forty days of recollectedness and penance. Those forty days are one of the principal seasons of the liturgical year, and one of the most powerful means employed by the Church for exciting in the hearts of her children the spirit of their Christian vocation. It is of the utmost importance that such a season of grace should produce its work in our souls-the renovation of the whole spiritual life. The Church, therefore, has instituted a preparation for the holy time of Lent. She gives us the three weeks of Septuagesima, during which she withdraws us, as much as may be, from the noisy distractions of the world, in order that our hearts may be more readily impressed by the solemn warning she is to give us at the commencement of Lent by marking our foreheads with ashes.

    This prelude to the holy season of Lent was not known in the early ages of Christianity: its institution would seem to have originated in the Greek Church. Besides the six Sundays of Lent, on which by universal custom the faithful never fasted, the practice of this Church prohibited fasting on the Saturdays likewise; consequently their Lent was short by twelve days of the forty spent by our Savior doing penance in the desert. To make up the deficiency, they were obliged to begin their Lent so many days earlier, as we will show in our next volume.

    The Church of Rome had no such motive for anticipating the season of those privations which belong to Lent; for, from the earliest antiquity, she kept the Saturdays in Lent (and as often during the rest of the year as circumstances might require) as fasting days. At the close of the sixth century, St. Gregory the Great alludes, in one of his homilies, to the fast of Lent being less than forty days, owing to the Sundays which come during that holy season. 'There are', he says, 'from this day (the first Sunday of Lent) to the joyous feast of Easter, six weeks, that is, forty-two days. As we do not fast on the six Sundays, there are but thirty-six fasting days…which we offer to God as the tithe of our year.(1)-{The sixteenth Homily on the Gospels.}

    It was, therefore, after the pontificate of St. Gregory, that the last four days of Quinquagesima week were added to Lent, in order that the number of fasting days might be exactly forty. As early, however, as the ninth century, the custom of beginning Lent on Ash Wednesday was of obligation in the whole Latin Church. All the manuscript copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary, which bear that date, entitle this Wednesday In capite jejunii, that is to say, the beginning of the fast; and Amalarius, who gives us every detail of the liturgy of the ninth century, tells us that it was, even then, the rule to begin the fast four days before the first Sunday of Lent. We find the practice confirmed by two Councils, held in that century. (1)- {Meaux and Soissons.} But, out of respect for the form of divine service drawn up by St. Gregory, the Church does not make any important change the Office of these four days. Up to the Vespers of Saturday, when alone she begins the Lenten rite, she observes the rubrics prescribed for Quinquagesima week.

    Peter of Blois, who lived in the twelfth century, tells us what was the practice in his days. He says: 'All religious begin the fast of Lent at Septuagesima; the Greeks, at Sexagesima; the clergy, at Quinquagesima; and the rest of Christians, who form the Church militant on earth, begin their Lent on the Wednesday following Quinquagesima.'(2)- {Sermon xiii.} The secular clergy, as we learn from these words, were bound to begin the Lenten fast somewhat before the laity; though it was only by two days-that is, on Monday, as we gather from the Life of St. Ulric, bishop of Augsburg, written in the tenth century. The Council of Clermont, in 1095, at which Pope Urban II presided, has a decree sanctioning the obligation of the clergy to begin abstinence from flesh-meat at Quinquagesima. This Sunday was called, indeed, Dominica carnis privii, and carnis privium sacerdotum, that is, priests' carnival Sunday; but the term is to be understood in the sense of the announcement being made, on that Sunday, of the abstinence having to begin on the following day. We shall find, further on, that a like usage was observed in the Greek Church on the three Sundays preceding Lent. This law, which obliged the clergy to these two additional days of abstinence, was in force in the thirteenth century, as we learn from a Council held at Angers, which threatens with suspension all priests who neglect to begin Lent on Monday of Quinquagesima week.

    This usage, however, soon became obsolete; and in the fifteenth century, the secular clergy, and even the monks themselves, began the Lenten fast, like the rest of the faithful, on Ash Wednesday.

    There can be no doubt that the original motive for this anticipation - which, after several modifications, was limited to the four days immediately preceding Lent-was to remove from the Greeks the pretext of taking scandal at the Latins, who did not fast fully forty days. Ratramnus, in his Controversy with the Greeks, clearly implies it. But the Latin Church did not think it necessary to carry her condescension farther, by imitating the Greek ante-lenten usages, which originated, as we have already said, in the eastern custom of not fasting on Saturdays. (1)- {The Gallican liturgy had retained several usages of the oriental Churches, to which it owed, in part, its origin: hence, it was not without some difficulty that the custom of fasting and abstaining on Saturdays was introduced into Gaul. Until such time as the Churches of that country had adopted the Roman custom, in that point of discipline, they were necessitated to anticipate the fast of Lent. The first Council of Orleans, held in the early part of the sixth century, enjoins the faithful to observe, before Quadragesima (as the Latins call Lent), and not Quinquagesima, 'in order', says the Council, 'that unity of custom may be maintained.' Towards the close of the same century, the fourth Council held in the same city, repeats the same prohibition, and explains the intentions of making such an enactment, by ordering that the Saturdays during Lent should be observed as days of fasting. Previously to this, that is, in the years 511 and 541, the first and second Councils of Orange had combated the same abuse, by also withdrawing from the faithful the obligation of commencing the fast at Quinquagesima. The introduction of the Roman liturgy into France, which was brought about by the zeal of Pepin and Charlemagne, finally established in that country the custom of keeping the Saturday as a day of penance; and as we have just seen, the beginning Lent on Quinquagesima was not observed excepting by the clergy. In the thirteenth century, the only Church in the patriarchate of the west, which began Lent earlier than the Church of Rome, was that of Poland; its Lent opened on the Monday of Septuagesima, which was owing to the rites of the Greek Church being so much used in Poland. The custom was abolished, even for that country, by Pope Innocent IV in the year 1248.}

    Thus it was that the Roman Church, by this anticipation of Lent by four days, gave the exact number of forty days to the holy season, which she had instituted in imitation of the forty days spent by our Savior in the desert. Whilst faithful to her ancient practice of looking on the Saturday as a day appropriate for penitential exercises, she gladly borrowed from the Greek Church the custom of preparing for Lent, by giving to the liturgy of the three preceding weeks a tone of holy mournfulness. Even as early as the beginning of the ninth century, as we learn from Amalarius, the Alleluia and Gloria in excelsis were suspended in the Septuagesima Offices. The monks conformed to the custom, although the Rule of St. Benedict prescribed otherwise. Finally, in the second half of the eleventh century, Pope Alexander II enacted that the total suspension of the Alleluia should be everywhere observed, beginning with the Vespers of the Saturday preceding Septuagesima Sunday. This Pope was but renewing a rule already sanctioned, in that same century, by Pope Leo IX, and inserted in the body of Canon Law.(1)-{Cap. Hi duo. De consec. Dist. 1}

    Thus was the present important period of the liturgical year, after various changes, established in the cycle of the Church. It has been there upwards of a thousand years. Its name, Septuagesima (seventy), expresses, as we have already remarked, a numerical relation to Quadragesima (the forty days); although, in reality, there are not seventy but only sixty-three days from Septuagesima Sunday to Easter. We will speak of the mystery of the name in the following chapter. The first Sunday of Lent being called Quadragesima (forty), each of the three previous Sundays has a name expressive of an additional ten; the nearest to Lent, Quinquagesima (fifty); the middle one, Sexagesima (sixty); the third, Septuagesima (seventy).

    As the season of Septuagesima depends upon the time of the Easter celebration, it comes sooner or later according to the changes of that great feast. January 18 and February 22 are called the 'Septuagesima keys', because the Sunday, which is called Septuagesima, cannot be earlier in the year than the first, nor later than the second, of these two days.

The Mystery of Septuagesima

    The season upon which we are now entering is expressive of several profound mysteries. But these mysteries belong not only to the three weeks which are preparatory to Lent: they continue throughout the whole period of time which separates us from the great feast of Easter.

    The number seven is the basis of all these mysteries. We have already seen how the holy Church came to introduce the season of Septuagesima into her calendar. Let us now meditate on the doctrine hidden under the symbols of her liturgy. And first, let us listen to St. Augustine, who thus gives us the clue to the whole of our season's mysteries. 'There are two times', says the holy Doctor: 'one which is now, and is spent in the temptations and tribulations of this life; the other which shall be then, and shall be spent in eternal security and joy. In figure of these, we celebrate two periods: the time before Easter, and the time after Easter. That which is before Easter signifies the sorrow of this present life; that which is after Easter, the blessedness of our future state… Hence it is that we spend the first in fasting and prayer; and in the second we give up our fasting, and give ourselves to praise.'(1)- {Enarrations; Ps. Cxlviii}

    The Church, the interpreter of the sacred Scriptures, often speaks to us of two places, which correspond with these two times of St. Augustine. These two places are Babylon and Jerusalem. Babylon is the image of this world of sin, in the midst whereof the Christian has to spend his years of probation; Jerusalem is the heavenly country, where he is to repose after all his trials. The people of Israel, whose whole history is but one great type of the human race, was banished from Jerusalem and kept in bondage in Babylon.

    Now, this captivity, which kept the Israelites exiles from Sion, lasted seventy years; and it is to express this mystery, as Alcuin, Amalarius, Ivo of Chartres, and all the great liturgists tell us, that the Church fixed the number of seventy for the days of expiation. It is true, there are but sixty-three days between Septuagesima and Easter; but the Church, according to the style so continually used in the sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.

    The duration of the world itself, according to the ancient Christian tradition, is divided into seven ages. The human race must pass through seven ages before the dawning of the day of eternal life. The first age included the time from the creation of Adam to Noah; the second begins with Noah and the renovation of the earth by the deluge, and ends with the vocation of Abraham; the third opens with this first formation of God's chosen people, and continues as far as Moses, through whom God gave the Law; the fourth consists of the period between Moses and David, in whom the house of Juda received the kingly power; the fifth is formed of the years which passed between David's reign and the captivity of Babylon, inclusively; the sixth dates from the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, and takes us on as far as the birth of our Savior. Then, finally, comes the seventh age; it starts with the rising of this merciful Redeemer, the Sun of Justice, and is to continue till the dread coming of the Judge of the living and the dead. These are the seven great divisions of time; after which, eternity.

    In order to console us in the midst of the combats, which so thickly beset our Path, the Church, like a beacon shining amidst the darkness of this our earthly abode, shows us another seven, which is to succeed the one we are now preparing to pass through. After the Septuagesima of mourning, we shall have the bright Easter with its seven weeks of gladness, foreshadowing the happiness and bliss of heaven. After having fasted with our Jesus, and suffered with Him, the day will come when we shall rise together with Him, and our hearts shall follow Him to the highest heavens; and then after a brief interval, we shall feel the Holy Ghost descending upon us, with His seven Gifts. The celebration of all these wondrous joys will take us seven weeks, as the great liturgists observe in their interpretation of the rites of the Church. The seven joyous weeks from Easter to Pentecost will not be too long for the future glad mysteries, which, after all, will be but figures of a still gladder future, the future of eternity.

    Having heard these sweet whisperings of hope, let us now bravely face the realities brought before us by our dear mother the Church. We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin. If we love our country, if we long to return to it, we must be proof against the lying allurements of this strange land, and refuse the cup she proffers us, and with which she maddens so many of our fellow captives. She invites us to join in her feasts and her songs; but we must unstring our harps, and hang them on the willows that row on her river's bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem.(1)-{Ps. Cxxv.} She will ask us to sing to her the melodies of our dear Sion: but how shall we, who are so far from home, have heart to 'sing the song of the Lord in a strange land'?(2)-{Ps. Cxxxvi.} No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.

Practice During Septuagesima

    The joys of Christmastide seem to have fled far from us. The forty days of gladness brought us by the birth of our Emmanuel are gone. The atmosphere of holy Church has grown overcast, and we are warned that the gloom is still to thicken. Have we, then, for ever lost Him whom we so anxiously and longingly sighed after during the four slow weeks of our Advent? Has our divine Sun of justice, that rose so brightly in Bethlehem, not stopped His course, and left our guilty earth?

    Not so. The Son of God, the Child of Mary, has not left us. The Word was made Flesh in order that He might dwell among us. A glory far greater than that of His birth, when angels sang their hymns, awaits Him, and we are to share it with Him. Only, He must win this new and greater glory by strange, countless sufferings; He must purchase it by a most cruel and ignominious death: and we, if we would have our share in the triumph of His Resurrection, must follow Him in the way of the cross, all wet with the tears and the Blood He shed for us.

    The grave, maternal voice of the Church will soon be heard, inviting us to the Lenten penance; but she wishes us to prepare for this 'laborious baptism,' by employing the three weeks in considering the deep wounds caused in our souls by sin. True, the beauty and loveliness of the little Child born to us in Bethlehem, are great beyond measure; but our souls are so needy that they require other lessons than those He gave us of humility and simplicity. Our Jesus is the Victim of the divine justice, and He has now attained the fullness of His age; the altar, on which He has to be sacrificed, we should at once set ourselves to consider what are the debts we have contracted towards that infinite justice, which is about to punish the innocent One instead of us the guilty.

    The mystery of a God becoming Incarnate for the love of His creature, has opened to us the path of the illuminative way; but we have not yet seen the brightest of its light. Let not our hearts be troubled; the divine wonders we witnessed at Bethlehem are to be surpassed by those that are to grace the day of our Jesus' triumph: but, that our eye may contemplate these future mysteries, it must be purified by courageously looking into the deep abyss of our own personal miseries. God will grant us His divine light for the discovery; and if we come to know ourselves, to understand the grievousness of original sin, to see the malice of our own sins, and to comprehend, at least in some degree, the infinite mercy of God towards us, we shall be prepared for the holy expiations of Lent, and for the ineffable joys of Easter.

    The season, then, of Septuagesima is one of most serious thought. Perhaps we could not better show the sentiments, wherewith the Church would have her children to be filled at this period of her year, than by quoting a few words from the eloquent exhortation, given to his people, at the beginning of Septuagesima, by the celebrated Ivo of Chartres. He spoke thus to the faithful of the eleventh century(1)-{Twelfth Sermon for Septuagesima} "We know," says the apostle, "that every creature groaneth, and travaileth in pain even till now: and not only it, but ourselves, also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body."(2)-{Romans Viii. 22, 23} The creature here spoken of is the soul, that has been regenerated from the corruption of sin unto the likeness of God: she groaneth within herself, at seeing herself made subject to vanity; she, like one that travaileth, is filled with pain, and is devoured by an anxious longing to be in that country, which is still so far off. It was this travail and pain that the psalmist was suffering, when he exclaimed: "Woe is me, that my sojourning is prolonged!"(3)-{Ps. Cxix}. Nay, that apostle, who was one of the first members of the Church, and had received the holy Spirit, longed to have, in all its reality, that adoption of the sons of God, which he already had in hope; and he, too, thus exclaimed in his pain: "I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ."(4)-{Phil. 1. 28} … During these days, therefore, we must do what we do at all seasons of the year, only we must do it more earnestly and fervently: we must sigh and weep after our country, from which we were exiled in consequence of having indulged in sinful pleasures; we must redouble our efforts in order to regain it by compunction and weeping of heart … Let us now shed tears in the way, that we may afterwards be glad in our country. Let us now so run the race of this present life, that we may make sure of "the prize of the supernal vocation."(5)-{ibid., iii. 14} Let us not be like imprudent wayfarers, forgetting our country, and preferring our banishment to our home. Let us not become like those senseless invalids, who feel not their ailments, and seek no remedy. We despair of a sick man who will not be persuaded that he is in danger. No: let us run to our Lord, the physician of eternal salvation. Let us show Him our wounds, and cry out to Him with all our earnestness: "Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, for my bones are troubled."(1)-{Ps. Vi. 3} Then will He forgive us our iniquities, heal us of our infirmities, and satisfy our desire with good things'(2)-{Ps. Cii. 3, 5}

    From all this it is evident that the Christian, who would spend Septuagesima according to the spirit of the Church, must make war upon that false security, that self-satisfaction, which are so common to effeminate and tepid souls, and produce spiritual barrenness. It is well for them if these delusions do not insensibly lead them to the absolute loss of the true Christian spirit. He that thinks himself dispensed from that continual watchfulness, which is so strongly inculcated by our divine Master,(3)-{St. Mark xiii. 37} is already in the enemy's power. He that feels no need of combat and of struggle in order to persevere and make progress in virtue (unless he have been honored with a privilege, which is both rare and dangerous), should fear that he is not even on the road to that kingdom of God, which is only to be won by violence.(4)-{St. Mark xiii. 37} He that forgets the sins which God's mercy has forgiven him, should fear lest he be the victim of a dangerous delusion.(5)-{Ecclus. V. 5.} Let us, during these days which we are going to devote to the honest unflinching contemplation of our miseries, give glory to our God, and derive from the knowledge of ourselves fresh motives of confidence in Him, who, in spite of all our wretchedness and sin humbled Himself so low as to become one of us, in order that He might exalt us even to union with Himself.

    January 20, 2008
    vol 19, no. 20