Question: The former “Gesima” Sundays were a countdown to Easter. What is the origin of this pre-Lenten observance, and why did these Sundays disappear in the newer (1970s) liturgical books?
Answer: For those who don’t know, 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 still 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 the time of Charlemagne the bishop and liturgical scholar Amalar of Metz, writing his protracted treatise On the Liturgy in the early 800s, explored possible meanings of Septuagesima (the seventy days) using the allegorical method. He likened it to Israel’s Babylonian captivity of seventy years and offered this explanation: “The founder of Septuagesima probably had in mind the forgiveness of sins through Christ’s grace; because we have some crimes in common with the people of Israel, he substituted seventy days for the seventy years. And what they endured against their will because they were slaves, let us endure willingly for our sins, because we are free. With them, let us give up the voice of mirth and gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, and so forth.” If this weren’t enough, he pointed out that “The number seventy calls to mind the entire period of this world in which we are exiled from the heavenly Jerusalem.” He noted that the liturgy during Septuagesima gave up the Gloria in excelsis and the Alleluia.
Amalar had an opportunity to undertake an embassy to Constantinople on behalf of the Holy Roman Emperor Charlemagne. In Byzantine practice the faithful eased into the Lenten fast by giving up one food item after another in 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 beginning 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 the meat and food items one abstained from during the great fast. Carnival has been one of the great festival times in many countries.
Probably the biggest Carnival in the world is in Rio De Janeiro. It is a huge money-making extravaganza for the city attracting millions of visitors. But former evangelical bishop and current mayor, Marcelo Crivella, isn’t a fan and he slashed funding for the 2019 parade. Not to be stopped the city’s famous samba schools have been at work on their sewing machines. Anyway, the costumes don’t require a lot of cloth. As anthropologist Edward Muir says in Rituals in Early Modern Europe, carnivals are festivals of “the lower body” (that means, focused on food and sex). Popular festivals don’t depend on government permission or support.
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 the one most well known to us 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.
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.
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 Sunday “the Sunday before Lent.” Without a change in the lectionary we could also designate the previous Sunday as the “Second Sunday before Lent” and the Sunday before that as “Third Sunday before Lent” as a way of reminding people that “the solemn time is coming” when we no longer sing the happy songs (Glory to God, Alleluia) 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, making them catechumens and leading to their baptism at the Easter Vigil.
Pastor Frank Senn