Pre-Lent Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima
Septuagesima is the ninth Sunday before Easter, or the third Sunday before Lent. The name comes from the Latin word for seventieth, since the Sunday falls roughly within 70 days of Easter Sunday. The succeeding Sundays are also named for their distance from Easter: Sexagesima (60), Quinquagesima (50). Quadragesima Sunday (40) is the first official Sunday of Lent.
Septuagesima Sunday is also symbolic of the 70 years of Babylonian captivity.
“Whilst Lent mirrors the 40-year exodus of the Israelites from slavery in Egypt, to freedom in the Promised Land, Septuagesima mirrors the 70 years of the Babylonian captivity. Both lead from captivity to freedom, and so also point to salvation won for us by Christ: freedom from slavery to the Promised Land of Heaven,” Bradley said.
Septuagesima Sunday traditionally marked the beginning of some of the more somber practices that characterize the season of Lent - it was the day when the saying or singing of “Alleluia” would be suspended until Easter, and the first day that priests would wear penitential purple vestments. The last alleluias would traditionally have been sung after Vespers the previous night.
In ordinariate communities, the “goodbye” to the Alleluia takes place on the Sunday before Septuagesima, when the hymn “Alleluia, song of gladness” is traditionally sung, Bradley said.
“This is an English translation of an 11th century hymn, wishing ‘farewell’ to the Alleluia, which disappears from the liturgy until Easter, replaced instead by a Tract (verses typically of the Psalms sung instead of the ‘Alleluia’),” he said.
“The idea of ‘burying the Alleluia’ for the length of these penitential seasons is taken one step further in some places, where a depiction of the Alleluia is literally buried until the chanting of the great Paschal Alleluia during the Vigil in the Holy Night of Easter,” he added.
Septuagesima was also, in the early Church, the beginning of the Lenten fast, since according to the old liturgical calendar, Thursdays and Saturdays, in addition to Sundays, were days that Christians would not fast.
“Just as Lent today begins 46 days before Easter, since Sundays are never a day of fasting, so, in the early Church, Saturdays and Thursdays were considered fast-free days. In order to fit in 40 days of fasting before Easter, therefore, the fast had to start two weeks earlier than it does today,” Catholic author Scott P. Richert noted in a 2018 article for ThoughtCo.
Farewell to meat, cheese, fun: Septuagesima-tide, Carnival, and Shrovetide
Septuagesima Sunday traditionally kicks off a season known by various names - Septuagesima-tide, or Carnival (typically the name for more worldly celebrations during this time), or Shrove-Tide (particularly in Anglican traditions). The point of the season, Bradley said, is to prepare well for Lent.
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“Pope Saint Paul VI is said to have described the progressive move toward Lent in Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, like church bells that call the faithful to worship, 15, 10, and 5 minutes before Mass,” Bradley said.
“Each week in the lead-up to Lent is a nudge that the great and holy fast is around the corner, and our preparations for this should intensify.”
These days were also practical for Christians in pre-refrigeration days - they would use the pre-Lenten season to use up the rich, perishable foods such as meat and cheese that they had in their house before Lent began, and the unused foods would spoil, Michael P. Foley, Catholic author and associate professor of Patristics at Baylor University, noted in a 2011 article.
Days of preparation for Lent are also found outside the Roman liturgical traditions, Bradley said.
“For example, in the East Syrian liturgy (as celebrated by the Syro-Malabar Catholic Church), the week before Septuagesima is marked by Moonnu Nombu, which recalls Jonah remaining three days in the belly of the whale. Moonnu Nombu is a short, three day fast, in preparation for the coming major fast of Lent.”
In Byzantine and Orthodox traditions, they even have designated “meatfare” and “cheesefare” Sundays, which focus on clearing the house of meats and dairy, respectively.