Treasures of the Liturgy: Septuagesima and Lent

From Liturgical Catechism by Rev. M. S. Canon McMahon (1930)

What is the Paschal Cycle?

The Paschal Cycle is that portion of the liturgical year which extends from Septuagesima to the close of the Octave of Pentecost.

To what does the Paschal Cycle owe its transcending importance?

The Paschal Cycle, which is the pivot of the liturgical year, owes its importance to the fact that it centres round the Easter festival, the solemnity of solemnities, the feast of feasts, which celebrates the mystery of the Resurrection of Our Saviour, the central mystery of the liturgy, the basic truth of the Christian faith.

Into what periods may the Paschal Cycle he subdivided?

Into three, viz.:

  • The Septuagesimal period, from Sunday in Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday.
  • The season of Lent, from Ash Wednesday to Easter Sunday.
  • The season of Easter, from East- er Sunday to the close of the Octave of Pentecost.

Septuagesimal Period

What is the general character of the Septuagesimal Period?

It is essentially a time of preparation for Lent calculated to attune the mind to the deep earnestness and austerity of the Lenten season.

What are the leading ideas evolved in the liturgy of this period?

Septuagesima Sunday reminds us of sin and its consequences. The Lessons of the Divine Office begin with the Book of Genesis, the story of man’s fall, while the Gospel of the Mass reminds us that, if we are to obtain a heavenly reward, we must not remain idle, we must work in the vineyard of the Lord to which we have been called of God's free will.

Sexagesima teaches the necessity of suffering (Epistle) and of keeping the word of God (Gospel) if our work is to bring forth fruits worthy of penance.

Quinquagesima points out the dispositions necessary for carrying out God’s work in its analysis of true charity (Epistle) and in stressing the need of unbounded confidence in God (Gospel).

What are the liturgical characteristics of this preparatory period?

Violet vestments are prescribed and the Gloria in excelsis (and the Te Deum in the Divine Office) omitted in Masses of the period.

The Alleluia is dropped after the twofold repetition of it which is joined on to the Benedicamus Domino of Vespers of the Saturday before Septuagesima Sunday. It is not sounded in the liturgy again until the close of the Epistle of the Holy Saturday Mass. In the Missal the place of the Alleluiatic verse is taken by the Tract and in certain ferial Masses of Lent is left unoccupied.

How are the names Dominica in Septuagesima, in Sexagesima and in Quinquagesima  accounted for?

Those names are formed in analogy with the Latin name for Lent—Quadragesima. Quadragesima means the fortieth day (that is before the Pasch). By a figure of speech the name Quadragesima was given to the whole period of forty days devoted to the sorrowful preparation for the Christian Pasch. Sundays in Lent were (and are still) called Dominica prima, secunda, in Quadragesima—the first, the second … Sunday in the period of forty days before the Pasch. For various reasons, churches (e.g. the Church of Rome and the Church of Jerusalem) differed as to the time when the Lenten season should begin. By some, the Lenten preparation began with the Sunday before our First Sunday in Lent, and that Sunday became Dominica in Quinquagesima (Sunday within the period of fifty days’ preparation for the Pasch). A further shifting forward led to Dominica in Sexagesima (or the period of sixty days), and a further still to Dominica in Septuagesima (Sunday within the period of seventy days)—fifty, sixty and seventy being used as round numbers (cf. Thurston).

Others find in Septuagesima an analogy to the seventy years captivity which the Israelites had to endure in penance for their sins.

What circumstances may be cited as leading to the divergence of practice as to the opening of Lent?

The Latin Church fasted six days in the week—Sunday being not a fast day on account of its relation to the Resurrection. The Greek Church fasted only five days—Saturday and Sunday being both excluded. In the Greek Church it took, therefore, eight weeks to make forty fast days. In the Latin Church it took six weeks and four days.

To whom is attributed the introduction of the Septuagesima season?

To Pope Pelagian I (560), or to his successor. Pope John III (573).


What is the origin of the word Lent?

Lent comes from an old English word, lenten, meaning spring—the season of Lent coinciding with the season of spring.

What is Lent itself?

Lent is a time of preparation for the Christian Pasch.

What is meant by the Christian Pasch?

The Christian Pasch is the commemoration of the Passion, Death and Resurrection of Our Saviour. The three days—Good Friday, Holy Saturday and Easter Sunday—thus form, in the words of St. Augustine, a sacred triduum bound together by the two great realities in the economy of Man’s Redemption, viz. the Passion and Resurrection of Christ. Christ “by dying hath overcome our (spiritual) death, and by rising again hath restored our life (of grace and blessedness) ” [the Paschal Preface].

How long did that preparation for the Christian Pasch originally last?

For a period of forty days, from the first Sunday in Lent to Good Friday, the beginning of the Christian Pasch. The Secret of the Mass of the First Sunday in Lent opens with these words: “We solemnly offer the Sacrifice of the beginning of Lent."

From what aspect then is Christ viewed in the Paschal Cycle?

Christ is regarded in the Paschal Cycle in His character as Destroyer of sin and Giver or Source of life eternal.

In view of this aspect of Christ, what is the corresponding duty which the liturgy imposes on us?

We must depart from the ways of sin and by entering into union with Christ receive the life of grace which conducts us to life eternal. We must die to sin with Christ upon the Cross that we may rise with Him to a new life of grace on Resurrection morning.

How is this departure from sin and this union with Christ brought about?

It was first effected in our baptism, when, in the language of St. Paul, we were buried with Christ in the font and rose from the font with Him to a new life of grace.

Lent was the time of preparation for baptism—a resurrection to a new life. The departure from sin and the union with Christ are constantly effected when we do penance for sin and are restored to grace. Lent was the special time of preparation of public sinners for absolution from sin—a resurrection of the soul from death to life.

What, then, is the key to the understanding of the Lenten liturgy?

Knowledge of the preparation of the Catechumens for Baptism on Holy Saturday and of public sinners for absolution on Holy Thursday. This twofold preparation impregnates the liturgy of the first four weeks of Lent.

What of the remaining weeks of Lent?

Those are devoted to the manifestation of the growing hatred of the Jews against Our Divine Lord, and to the consideration of His Passion, Death and Resurrection.


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