This past Sunday, we began the historical season of Septuagesima. Still celebrated in the traditional form of the Roman rite, this is a period of three weeks in preparation for Lent. Septuagesima comes from the Latin word for “seventieth” and likewise the two following Sundays, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, come from the Latin words meaning “sixtieth” and “fiftieth”, respectively. The Sundays are so named because of their proximity to Easter Sunday. Septuagesima is seventy Sundays before Easter, and so on. Quadragesima, then, meaning “fortieth,” is the first Sunday of Lent. The solemn season of Septuagesima was instituted by Holy Mother Church in order to prepare the faithful for the even greater solemnity of Lent. Lent is the great season of penance where we are reminded of our mortality and our need for repentance in order to gain our ultimate goal, eternal life with Christ. If we don’t take the proper time to prepare for this, we cannot fully reap the fruits of Lent and open our hearts for the celebration of Easter.
In chapter 9 of his letter to the Corinthians, St. Paul compares this life to a race that we run in order to obtain eternal life and says that just as athletes train and deprive themselves of things in order to win, so too must we subject our minds and bodies to discipline in order to gain our reward. But, he says, our reward is much greater because we seek an incorruptible crown, while the athletes in this world fight only for a corruptible one (1 Corinthians 9:24-27). This reading is actually the epistle for Septuagesima Sunday, and it is meant to put us in the frame of mind of penitents who long for that destination of eternal life and who are willing to work for it. This prepares us for the short term, in which the race that we are preparing to run is the season of Lent to get to Easter Sunday, the celebration of Christ’s resurrection from the dead and the opening of the gates of Heaven to us. But in order to run this race, which is more of a marathon than a sprint, we must prepare so that we can be spiritually and mentally fit to endure it. And so just as someone preparing to run a marathon would implement a training program in order to be ready for the race, so should Christians take advantage of Septuagesima season so to be prepared for the full “marathon” that is Lent. If we don’t take advantage of this time, we run the risk of being too weak to finish our Lenten penances and sacrifices and then, just as a runner who is not properly trained, we will not be able to truly celebrate at the finish line, which is Easter Sunday and ultimately, the end of our lives.
Sadly, the season of Septuagesima was taken off the liturgical calendar after Vatican Council II and since then, the faithful who do not attend the Traditional Latin Mass have been going into the season of Lent without really any kind of preparation. They do not get the gradual transition into the solemn season of Lent that Septuagesima provides, with the wearing of the violet vestments and omission of the Gloria and Alleluia. These things are meant to remind us that we are preparing for a season of sacrifice and penance, and that we must get ready for it. It was removed from the calendar because of its similarity to Lent and the concern that it might cause some confusion for the faithful. Well, the way to combat this is education. If we explain the purpose of Septuagesima and bring the faithful to the understanding that it’s not unnecessary and that it will enrich their spiritual journey and preparation for Lent, then the objections that are raised will die down and people will see that they are unfounded. In fact, it’s likely that they will find that it does help them prepare more fully for the season of Lent and that it enriches their spiritual life and draws them closer to Christ and His Passion. It would also help them to be able to endure the rigor of Lent by slowly easing them into it. Instead of taking the season away, we need to educate and explain the purpose and beauty of it in order to help the faithful better understand how to take advantage of it.
While Septuagesima does not carry the same penance requirements as the season of Lent does, beginning to integrate these practices into your lives during Septuagesima is what the season is for. This is the time to begin thinking about what you are going to do for Lent and to start gradually putting it into practice so that you’re not having to start cold on Ash Wednesday. Try fasting or doing your specific penance once or twice a week during Septuagesima and spending more time with God in prayer if you aren’t already in order to discern what He wants your specific Lenten journey to be. This is also a great time to go to Confession and so start Lent with a clean slate and pure heart, which will better help you to carry out your Lenten penances.
Septuagesima season is a wonderful stepping stone into the season of Lent and provides us with the opportunity to open our minds and hearts in preparation for the solemn season that will lead us into the celebration of Easter. It is a spiritual preparation for the race that we are to run in the forty days beginning on Ash Wednesday and it will help us ensure that we do not become too weak for that journey. As long as we prepare our minds and hearts properly, we can have a fruitful Lent and truly join in the joyous celebration of Easter.