The Super Bowl is over and the next great commercial social event is St. Valentine’s Day, but Easter candy is already sharing shelf space with Valentine’s candy in our stories. We are in a transitional time in our liturgical year too. Last Christmas seems a long time ago.
Before the reform of the liturgical calendar in late 1960’s, there was a name for this transitional time: Septuagesima. For three Sundays, the Church adopted a pre-Lenten period and in parishes where the Extraordinary Form is celebrated today, those Sundays are observed. The priest wears violet vestments, the Gloria is omitted, and the Tract replaces the Alleluia before the Gospel. The loss of the Alleluia, as the liturgical scholar Dom Gueranger explains, reminds us of our situation: “During the rest of the year [the Church] loves to hear us chant the song of heaven, the sweet Alleluia; but now, she bids us close our lips to this word of joy, because we are in Babylon . . . We are sinners, and have but too often held fellowship with the world of God's enemies; let us become purified by repentance . . .”
John Mason Neale translated a Latin hymn from the eleventh century Anglo-Saxon church, “Alleluia, dulce carmen”, to be sung at the Anglican Evensong of the Saturday before Septuagesima as the Church says goodbye to the Alleluia for a time.
Alleluia, song of gladness,
Voice of joy that cannot die;
Alleluia is the anthem
Ever raised by choirs on high;
In the house of God abiding
Thus they sing eternally.
Alleluia, thou resoundest,
True Jerusalem and free;
Alleluia, joyful mother,
All thy children sing with thee,
But by Babylon's sad waters
Mourning exiles now are we.
Alleluia cannot always
Be our song while here below;
Alleluia, our transgressions
Make us for a while forego;
For the solemn time is coming
When our tears for sin must flow.
Therefore in our hymns we pray Thee,
Grant us, blessed Trinity,
At the last to keep Thine Easter
With Thy faithful saints on high;
There to Thee for ever singing
Septuagesima Sunday is on Feb. 12 this year; Sexagesima and Quinquagesima follow on the Feb. 19 and Feb. 26. The Latin names for these Sundays refer to the approximate number of days until Easter: seventy, sixty, and fifty. These Sunday liturgies are solemn, even when the Mass is sung, because the readings emphasize that like the Israelites in Babylon, we are in exile from our true country, Heaven.
This pre-Lenten preparation is also observed by the Church of England (in The Book of Common Prayer), the Anglican Ordinariate, and some “high church” Lutherans. It also corresponds in a way to the Orthodox and Eastern Rite Catholic preparation for the Great Fast of Lent with Meatfare Sunday (February 19) and Cheesefare Sunday (February 26), when they eliminate first all “flesh foods” and then all animal products — eggs, milk, yogurt, butter, and cheese — from their diets. Great Lent begins on Monday, February 27. Ash Wednesday is on March 1 this year and Catholic and Orthodox will share Easter Sunday or Pascha this year on April 16.
Although most Catholics don’t observe this pre-Lenten liturgical season, we still experience vestiges of it. Lent is still almost a month away, but like St. Patrick’s Day and March Madness, it’s already on our minds. Catholic publishers are sending email messages about Lenten resources, for example. Parishes are scheduling Lenten services, devotions, and study groups. My parish is adding a Sunday evening Mass during Lent preceded by a Parish Holy Hour and scheduling a parish mission (delivered by Monsignor Charles Pope).
Shrovetide and Mardi Gras
Catholics have also observed a period of preparing for the dietary aspects of Lent, using up the supplies of meat and meat byproducts. This period of Carnival led to some abuses as gluttony, sexual promiscuity, and drunkenness obscured the purpose of the “farewell to meat”. Rio de Janeiro in Brazil celebrates huge Carnival festivals and parades and New Orleans is famous for Mardi Gras (“Fat Tuesday”) in the Latin Quarter.
In England, however, Shrovetide emphasized the spiritual preparation for Lenten repentance. Shrovetide was the period for the confession of sins—to be shriven means to be absolved of sins—as well as to clear out the pantry of certain foods. Shrovetide and Septuagesima covered the same three weeks and Shrovetide culminated with Shrove Tuesday or Pancake Day. Like Mardi Gras in the Carnival tradition, it was the last day to use up the meat products, and pancakes, using milk, eggs, and grease for cooking was one way.
Pancake Day in England is often celebrated with a pancake race, based on the tale of an Olney housewife in 1445 who was still cooking pancakes when the bells began to ring in her parish church for the last shriving of Shrovetide. In her haste to get to the church on time she ran out of the house still carrying her frying pan with a pancake it in, covering her head with a kerchief and wearing her apron. Villages in England began to hold races, with the winner receiving a kiss of peace from the church verger (head usher).
Since 1950 the ladies of Olney, England and Liberal, Kansas hold pancake races Shrove Tuesday and the lady with the fastest time between the two cities is that year’s “world champion”. They wear aprons and headscarves and flip the pancake in their pan before and after the race.
The Liturgical Year Guides Us
The Church has given us these liturgical seasons to help us fathom the mysteries of Our Lord’s Incarnation, Passion, and triumph over sin and death. He no more suffers the agonies of the Passion during Holy Week than He does His crucifixion at each Mass which re-presents His sacrifice, although in an unbloody way. He is risen from the dead and sits at the Right Hand of the Father even as we pray the Stations of the Cross or the Sorrowful Mysteries.
As we follow the cycle of the liturgical year from Advent through Easter and Ordinary Time, we are led to become more like Jesus and imitate Him. We are in Babylonian exile even though we have been redeemed by the Paschal Mystery as we work out our salvation through God’s sanctifying grace in His Church and through His Sacraments.