Older calendar practices remind us that it’s never too early to prepare for Easter
We’ve all been in the stores and seen the Easter decorations, even though it’s only late January. We’re not even past St. Valentine’s Day yet — although red hearts started appearing the day after Christmas.
While it might seem a little early to prepare for Easter, in the tradition of the church, it hasn’t always been too early to start preparing for Lent in January. In fact, in the past, what you might call “the prequel to Lent” has begun as early as Jan. 18. (That’s based on the earliest date on which Easter can fall, which is March 22.)
This coming Sunday, Jan. 31, would have once been called Septuagesima Sunday. Septuagesima means “70th” and refers to being the 70th day before Easter Sunday.
70, 60, 50... 40
When they were commonly celebrated in the Western church, Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays were a countdown to Lent, a way of knocking on the door of Lent. While they were eliminated from the church’s liturgical calendar in 1969, these “70th,” “60th” and “50th” days before Easter are still marked by some traditionalist Catholics.
Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima all got their names because of their relationship to the Latin “Quadragesima,” which literally means “fortieth” and was a term used to refer to the season of Lent.
Lent, as a season of 40 days, started in the early church as a way of commemorating the 40 days our Lord fasted in the desert before beginning his public life. The first followers of Christ celebrated Easter every Sunday. As time passed, these early Christians began to practice a form of penitential preparation for that Sunday feast day. It was a form of Lent, if you will, each week. Called the Pascha fast — for the Greek word for the Hebrew Passover — it lasted 40 hours, from Friday to Sunday and the celebration of the Lord’s Supper.
As the years passed, celebrating the Pascha, or Easter, as a special annual event became common. However, every Sunday was, and remains, a celebration of the Lord’s resurrection.
Those entering the church as new members, the catechumens, were baptized at the Easter Vigil, just as they are today. Prior to their baptism, catechumens underwent a period of preparation and training in the faith that eventually lasted 40 days.
Other Christians desired to join with the catechumens in this annual preparation and, by the fourth century, a true Lenten season of 40 days of fasting, prayer and almsgiving in preparation for the Easter celebration seems to have been common. It can be found noted in the writings of the Council of Nicea in 325 A.D.
Carnival time anyone?
Later, preparing for Lent led to customs such as Shrove Tuesday, which we know as Mardi Gras. Often associated with Mardi Gras is “carnival,” a season of revelry held before Lent in many countries. However, “carnival” is really a Lenten term that comes from two Latin words — “carne lavere” — or “taking away the flesh.” Abstaining from meat is a Lenten practice.
Besides Shrove Tuesday — whose name comes from the practice of confessing one’s sins, or being “shriven” — there were also Shrove Monday and Shrove Sunday. Collectively, these three days became Shrovetide, which began on Quinquagesima Sunday (the 50th day before Easter).
Now, for the number conscious, Jan. 31 is not exactly 70 days before Easter; it is 69. And Quinquagesima Sunday is really 49 days before Easter. So you have to remember that Easter counts as the 50th day from Quinquagesima Sunday. It’s sort of a beginning and an end, all wrapped together.
In a similar way, the feast of Pentecost is the 50th day of Easter. Pentecost comes from another Greek word and means “50th day.”
This mirror imaging of 50 days before and after Easter was intentional when we marked a Quinquagesima Sunday; One season of 50 days of preparation balancing 50 days of celebration.
But why 70 days and a Septuagesima Sunday?
The sources are not quite certain on that. However, the consensus is that the 70 days were meant to commemorate the 70 years of the Babylonian Exile. This time, in the sixth century B.C., was when the Jews were driven from their homeland and the Temple lay in ruins. The sorrow of the Exile, also called the Babylonian Captivity, was followed by joyous return to Jerusalem and the rebuilding of the Temple there.
Recalling those 70 years of exile during our own preparations for Lent was meant to remind us that, as a pilgrim people, the church of Christ is ever in exile. And by remembering the joy of the rebuilt Temple — where God dwelt on earth — we were meant to recall the joy of the Temple rebuilt in the body of the risen Christ. Easter, and every Sunday celebration, still reminds us that we share in Christ’s resurrection now and will share in it eternally through our own resurrections through him.
Sources: Catholic Encyclopedia;
; fisheaters.org; the Merriam Webster Dictionary; The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism; and the Modern Catholic Encyclopedia