As the Church moves through the Christian Year from Epiphany to Lent she passes through three Sundays, which hold strange titles for modern ears.
Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima are in fact three Latin words which indicate how far away we are from Easter – that is, 70, 60 & 50 days respectively. From the 5th Century after Christ these Sundays emerged as a preparatory cycle for Lent in the West.
The Latin names arose by analogy with Quadragesima, the first Sunday in Lent, known as the “fortieth day” before Easter. Quinquagesima is exactly fifty days before Easter but Sexagesima (60) and Septuagesima (70) are only approximations.
In Rome and the West, Septuagesima (the 70th) day before Easter was regarded as the beginning of the preparation for Easter and thus it was natural to attract to itself the theme of The Beginning, that is the Creation of the world by the Father through the Son and with the Holy Ghost. (Thus began the reading of Genesis on this day in the monastic Daily Offices.)
In the Byzantine tradition there also emerged a cycle of preparation before Lent proper, with the last two Sundays being known as “Meat-fare” and “Cheese-fare” Sundays. There is partial fasting between these two Sundays and then Lent begins on the Monday which is known as “Clean Monday,” with no meat or cheese.
In the West, in the modern post-1960’s Roman Catholic and Anglican Prayer Books, the “-Gesimas” have been abolished. However, they place worshippers today in a long tradition of regarding Lent to be so important as a preparation for Easter – the Feast of Feasts – as to require for itself a preliminary preparation. So the “-Gesimas” are a preparation for the Preparation! Septuagesima, which begins the short cycle, anticipates two chief ideas of Lent – the confession of our sin and its just punishment, and the prayer for forgiveness from God’s mercy in Jesus Christ.
In these three weeks the faithful begin to turn their minds to Lent, its solemnity and how they will keep it, in joining with their Lord in his fasting, meditating, praying and resisting temptation in the wilderness.
The original article “Those Gesimas: Septua, Sexa, Quinqua” was written by the Rev’d Dr. Peter Toon, published February, 2003. It has been reprinted with permission of the Prayer Book Society.