February 17, 2019: SEPTUAGESIMA SUNDAY
February 17, 2019: SEPTUAGESIMA SUNDAY
(THE SHROVETIDE / PRE-LENTEN SEASON BEGINS)
“Make thy face to shine upon thy servant; save me in thy mercy. Let me not be confounded,
O Lord, for I have called upon thee.”
(Ps, xxx. 17, 18)
SEPTUAGESIMA is a Latin word, which signifies the seventieth, and is said to be applied to this Sunday, from its being the seventieth day before the Octave-day of Easter. Or, perhaps, as the first Sunday in Lent is called Quadragesima, or the fortieth day; so the three Sundays immediately preceding, (to distinguish them from others, as they serve for a preparation to Lent) have the name of the three tens that follow Forty; hence they are called Quinquagesima, or the Fiftieth, Sexagesima, or the Sixtieth, and Septuagesima, or the Seventieth.
But whatever may be the origin of the name, it is certain the Church begins on this day to enter into those sentiments of penance, which ought to accompany and sanctify the fast of Lent. It is for this reason she lays aside her joyful notes of Alleluia, Te Deum, and Gloria in excelsis; and instead of the Alleluias at Mass, she uses the Tract, so called because it was sung in a slow, mournful tone. It is thus the Church of Christ prepares us, as it were by degrees, for the penance of Lent, during which time we are to take part in the sufferings of Christ, that we may partake of his glorious resurrection.
Mercifully hear, we beseech thee, O Lord, the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly afflicted for our sins, may mercifully be delivered for the glory of thy name. Through our Lord Jesus Christ, thy Son, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, God, world without end. Amen.
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 a forty-days' 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 the 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. The practice of this Church being never to fast on Saturdays, the number of fasting-days in Lent, besides the six Sundays of Lent, (on which, by universal custom, the Faithful never fasted,) there were also the six Saturdays, which the Greeks would never allow to be observed as days of fasting: so that their Lent was short, by twelve days, of the Forty spent by our Saviour in the Desert. To make up the deficiency, they were obliged to begin their Lent [some] days earlier.
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 of Lent, (and as often, during the rest of the year, as circumstances might require,) as fasting days. At the close of the 6th 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.” (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 9th 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, call this Wednesday the In capite jejunii, that is to say, the beginning of the fast; and Amalarius, who gives us every detail of the Liturgy of the 9th 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 (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 in 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 12th 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.” (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 10th century. The Council of Clermont, in 1095, at which Pope Urban the Second presided, has a decree sanctioning the obligation of the Clergy beginning 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 13th century, as we learn from a Council held at Angers, which threatens with suspension all Priests who neglect to begin Lent on the Monday of Quinquagesima Week.
This usage, however, soon became obsolete; and in the 15th 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, but 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 a full Forty days… But the Latin Church did not think it necessary to carry her condescension further, by imitating the Greek ante-lenten usages, which originated, as we have already said, in the eastern custom of not fasting on Saturdays.
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 Saviour 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 9th 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 11th century, Pope Alexander the Second 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 the Ninth, and which was inserted in the body of Canon Law.
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 [however seventy days until the Easter Octave]… 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. The 18th of January and the 22nd of February 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 hid 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.”
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 Saviour. 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 descending upon us the Holy Ghost, 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 grow on her river's bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem (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? (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.
These are the sentiments wherewith the Church would inspire us, during the penitential Season, which we are now beginning. She wishes us to reflect on the dangers that beset us,—dangers which arise from our own selves, and from creatures. During the rest of the year, she loves to hear us chant the song of heaven, the sweet Alleluia!—but now, she bids us close our lips to this word of joy, because we are in Babylon. We are pilgrims absent from our Lord (II Cor, v. 6);—let us keep our glad hymn for the day of his return. We are sinners, and have but too often held fellowship with the world of God's enemies; let us become purified by repentance, for it is written, that Praise is unseemly in the mouth of a sinner (Ecclus, xv. 9).
The leading feature, then, of Septuagesima is the total suspension of the Alleluia, which is not to be again heard upon the earth, until the arrival of that happy day, when, having suffered death with our Jesus, and having been buried together with him, we shall rise again with him to a new life (Coloss, ii. 12).
The sweet Hymn of the Angels, Gloria in excelsis Deo, which we have sung every Sunday since the Birth of our Saviour in Bethlehem, is also taken from us; it is only on the Feasts of the Saints, which may be kept during the week, that we shall be allowed to repeat it. The night Office of the Sunday is to lose, also, from now till Easter, its magnificent Ambrosian Hymn, the Te Deum; and at the end of the Holy Sacrifice, the Deacon will no longer dismiss the Faithful with his solemn Ite, Missa est, but will simply invite them to continue their prayers in silence, and bless the Lord, the God of mercy, who bears with us, notwithstanding all our sins.
After the Gradual of the Mass, instead of the thrice repeated Alleluia, which prepared our hearts to listen to the voice of God in the Holy Gospel, we shall hear but a mournful and protracted chant, called, on that account, the Tract.
That the eye, too, may teach us, that the Season we are entering on, is one of mourning, the Church will vest her Ministers, (both on Sundays and the days during the week, which are not Feasts of Saints,) in the sombre Purple. Until Ash Wednesday, however, she permits the Deacon to wear his dalmatic, and the Subdeacon his tunic; but from that day forward, they must lay aside these vestments of joy, for Lent will then have begun, and our holy Mother will inspire us with the deep spirit of penance, by suppressing everything of that glad pomp, which she loves, at other seasons, to bring into the Sanctuary of her God.
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, 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, now 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 these 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 fulness of his age; the altar, on which he is to be slain, is ready: and since it is for us that he is 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 11th century: “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 (Rom, 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: Wo is one, that my sojourning is prolonged! (Ps, cxix. 5) 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 (Philipp, i. 23). * * * 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 (Philipp, 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, Lord, for I am weak: heal me, for my bones are troubled (Ps, vi. 3). Then, will he forgive us our iniquities, heal us of our infirmities, and satisfy our desire with good things.”
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 (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 honoured 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 (St. Matth, xi. 12). He that forgets the sins, which God's mercy has forgiven him, should fear his being the victim of a dangerous delusion (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.
Taken from: The Liturgical Year – Septuagesima, Edition 1870;
The Divine Office for the use of the Laity, Volume I, 1806.
Blessed and Contemplated be the Shoulder Wound of Jesus!