Question: In another week there will be three Sundays left before Ash Wednesday and the beginning of Lent–the former “Gesima” Sundays. What is the origin of this pre-Lenten observance, and why did it disappear in the newer (1970s) liturgical books?

Answer: Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Episcopalians/Anglicans before c. 1970 observed a three-week pre-Lent season with Sundays named Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima—seventy days, sixty days, fifty days. These Sundays were a countdown to Easter. Lent itself in the Roman tradition was called simply Quadragesima—the Forty Days. The Sundays weren’t actually 70 days, 60 days, 50 days; these were rounded figures.

There are different theories about the origin of this three-week season which seemingly extended Lent back by three weeks. Both point to the sixth century. One theory is the influence of the Byzantine Church, which observes an eight week Lent because in the Eastern tradition Saturdays (the Sabbath) as well as Sundays (the Lord’s Day) do not count as fast days (although during Lent they are partial fast days). Another theory is that with Lombard invasions that devastated Italy popes called for an extended time of fasting and penitence that eventually became a regular observance and was exported into Western Europe along with Roman liturgical books in the seventh and eighth centuries.

In Byzantine practice the faithful eased into the Lenten fast by giving up one food item after another from one’s diet. In the Western Church these three weeks were a time of voluntary fasting rather than obligatory fasting. As in the East, the Western faithful might ease into fasting by begining to abstain from meat on Sexagesima and butter, milk, cheese, and eggs on Quinquagesima.

However, this fasting time bumped into Carnival time with its feasting during the week before the beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. Carnival means “farewell to meat” and this time of feasting and celebrating before the austerities of Lent made sense in terms of consuming meat and food items one abstained from during the great fast. Carnival has been one of the great festival times in many countries.

Carnival in Trinidad 2016

The last day of Carnival is Mardi Gras, the day before Ash Wednesday. “Mardi gras” means “fat Tuesday.” It was a day on which to consume all the fat in the house. For us it has become a day of pancakes and sausage and merrymaking. There are a number of Mardi Gras celebrations around the world, of which one of the most well known is in New Orleans.

This day is also known as Shrove Tuesday, the day on which one was “shriven” or confessed one’s sins. There is an obvious tension between easing into Lent and celebrating Carnival before the beginning of the penitential season. A sixteenth century painting by Pieter Brüghel the Elder (1526/1530 – 1569), entitled “The Fight Between Carnival and Lent” (1559), is posted above this article.

Liturgically the pre-Lent season acquired a penitential character, especially in the Roman Catholic Church after the Council of Trent. Purple vestments were worn and the Alleluia, Gloria in excelsis, and Te Deum laudamus were suppressed. In fact, there were ceremonies for “burying the Alleluia” on the Eve of Septuagesmia. This usually meant that a banner with the word “Alleluia” on it was carried in a funeral procession before Vespers by choir boys as the hymn Alleluia dulce carmen (“Alleluia, song of sweetness”) was sung. In the Eastern Church the Alleluia is not suppressed during Lent. Martin Luther also thought that “Alleluia” should be the perennial song of the church. Lutherans observed the ‘gesima Sundays with their traditional liturgical propers, but usually retained green vestments and paraments and texts of praise until Ash Wednesday.

Why were the ‘gesimas dropped in the reformed Roman Catholic calendar and lectionary in 1969? Here I can only speculate. I think there was a general aversion to worship with a penitential character during the 1960s. The liturgical buzz word was “celebration.” Nine weeks of penitence seemed excessive.

But the seasons also changed their character. Lent acquired a catechetical emphasis related to the preparation of candidates for Baptism at Easter and the previous emphasis on penitence and the Passion of Christ diminished. Holy Week focuses on the Passion of Christ. The Sundays after the Epiphany were newly understood as “ordinary time” right up to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday. The American Lutheran and Episcopal versions of the reformed Roman Catholic calendar and lectionary placed the event of the transfiguration of Christ on the Sunday before Ash Wednesday rather than on the Second Sunday in Lent. Either way, it is understood as a way of anticipating the resurrection of Christ on the other side of Lent. (The transfiguration had been an Epiphany season text in older Lutheran lectionaries.) Other Protestant Churches followed this practice in the Revised Common Lectionary.

Was there a value to the ‘gesimas that has been lost? In a sense, yes. Lent tends to catch people unawares today and they haven’t made the preparations needed to begin the Lenten disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. Also, Lent, Holy Week, and Easter are busy times liturgically for clergy and pre-Lent gave them a chance to prepare. There had also been a custom of clergy retreats during these weeks for personal preparation. Sometimes these weeks were called “clerical Lent.” This accounts for the hue and cry against the suppression of the ‘gesimas by many clergy and some lay people in the 1970s.

I don’t expect to see a return to Sundays with Latin names. But some have begun calling Transfiguration “the Sunday before Lent.” Without a change in the lectionary we could also designate the “Second Sunday before Lent” and even the “Third Sunday before Lent” as a way of reminding people that “the solemn time is coming” and they had better get organized for it in their homes and personal lives as well as in the life of the congregation. A properly observed Lent will require dietary and schedule changes for the faithful. And, in terms of the new catechumenal emphasis in Lent, pastors, catechists, and congregants need to prepare themselves spiritually and practically for the hard work of making new Christians. Pre-Lent is the time to “round up” those catechumens who are ready to undergo the Rite of Election at the beginning of Lent.

Pastor Frank Senn

Painting of the Election of the first four Catholic catechumens in Uganda in 1888 by a Ugandan artist.