The Change From Christmas Season To Easter Season.
There's been some joyous events these last few weeks -- the birth of Jesus, his naming and circumcision, the first Gentiles to find him, and his baptism. On various dates and combinations, from place to place through the ages, the Christian Church has offered its members celebrations of these things in its church year.
But a change is coming, one already present amid the joy. We know as we celebrate his birth that he was born for us so he could die for us. We know as his blood was spilt in circumcision, putting him under the Law, his blood would be spilt on the Cross, to redeem us from under the Law. We saw that the Gentiles who found him had to return by a different way, as the way of all who find him is different afterward. And after his baptism, Jesus will spend forty days in the desert before beginning his public ministry, wherein he will be tempted to make himself into the various false Messiahs into which Man so ofter makes him anyway. We will soon imitate those forty days for our own devotion with the season of Lent, on the way to the Cross, without which Easter is but another metaphor or myth. A change is coming.
So the church provides a transitional time between the first and second of its three great seasons, as the joyous events, from preparing for his birth to his baptism (Advent-Christmas-Circumcision-Naming-Manifestation-Baptism), now turn to the literally deadly serious reason why they happened, sin and our redemption from sin. Just like with the Christmas-related preparation season of Advent, this has taken various forms in various places and times but always within the same general pattern, and the universal practice of the Christian Church since ancient times (well, until 1960s Rome messed with it, but we'll get to that) has been to provide a transition from the beginnings of Jesus' earthly life to the end of it.
It's not just more Lent on top of Lent. It's a transition, and for us Lutherans especially helpful in that its focus is what we call the "solas" -- by grace alone, by Scripture alone, by faith alone. Yet, while the world's gross parody and perversion of this season, Carnival ("Mardi Gras" is just the last day!), continues unabated, the church either chucks liturgy altogether or adopts a contemporary version that omits this longstanding transition. Huh? Let's take a look.
The Transition In The West And In The East.
The Western and the Eastern Churches calculate Easter, and thus the forty days before it, differently, but the overall pattern is the same, as is a transitional period between what leads to Easter and the Christmas season just past. In the Eastern Church this transitional period is framed by five Sundays, after the last of which Great Lent begins on Clean Monday; in the Western Church it is a little over three weeks with Lent starting on Ash Wednesday. Either way, it is there.
Candlemas is the last feast dated with respect to Christmas. The 40 days of purpose, from Jesus' birth to his mother's purification in the mikveh and his presentation in the Temple, end then. Those 40 days are fixed, reckoned forward from Christmas, from 25 December through 2 February. The next 40 days of purpose are not fixed, and are reckoned backward from that to which they lead, Easter, which is not a fixed date either and reckoned differently in the West and in the East. In the West, Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent, will never be earlier than 4 February, so that always works out even if by just two days after Candlemas.
But, the transitional period, Gesimatide, can overlap with the concluding Epiphany part of the Christmas season. For the West, adding three weeks to forty days is approximately seventy days, and even with the earliest possible Easter will fall no earlier than 18 January, so Gesimatide will still always fit between the end of the Christmas cycle itself on 14 January, after the octave of the Epiphany and the Gospel portion relating the baptism of Jesus is read, and whenever Easter falls, early or late, in any given year.
What The Names Literally Mean.
Septuagesima is simply another word for seventieth, that's all. The modern English word is derived from Middle English, in turn from Old French, in turn from the actual Late Latin word septuagesima meaning seventieth. The septua- part is the same prefix for seven or multiples by ten of seven seen in other English words -- septet, an ensemble of seven; septuagenarian, someone in his 70s; the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy scholars -- and the -gesima part is the Latin -tieth suffix.
OK seventieth what? Day, that's what. So, Septuagesima is 70 Days, Sexagesima is 60 Days, Quinqagesima is 50 Days. Simple.
OK, so seventieth day of what, or from what? Easter, that's what. Except it's not exactly seventy days. Don't freak, there's a reason behind all this, and it's simple too. Like everything else about Christianity, it all stems from Easter.
Gesimatide is a transition to what we call Lent, but at first in English the word Lent just meant Spring, and what we now call Lent was called Quadragesima, meaning forty days, the duration of Lent in the West, and it's also the name of the first Sunday in Lent. This still survives in other languages. For example in Spanish the word for Lent is Cuaresma. Quadragesima (Lent) is forty days from Easter -- the Western Church does not include Sundays in the count, since every Sunday is a "little Easter". The Sundays in the Gesima season leading up to Lent just follow that pattern.
There's various theories as to why. One says that the "seventy" was to represent the Babylonian Captivity (of the Jews, not the church). It was actually Amularius of Metz (in modern NE France not too far from Trier!), a liturgist who died about 850, who said it in one of his books. Another theory says the names were to give the Sundays an easily recognisable numerical order by tens. Another theory says it came from a way to fudge on the Lenten fast but still have a fast -- if you exclude Thursdays, Saturdays and Sundays in Lent from fasting but add them on earlier you get seventy days. Personally, I'd bet on that theory -- probably some Benedictines scamming a way to fast but not make it so burdensome. "Pastoral reasons" is the current Roman phrase for such efforts.
In any case it doesn't really matter which theory is correct, the important thing is, the Gesima season is not a numerical count but derives, name and all, from Lent, fka Quadragesima. Simple.
With the Seventieth Day, or Septuagesima, the change is apparent on various levels. The white vestments of Christmastime joy give way to purple or violet of repentance. The joyful exclamation Alleluia and other joyful expressions like the Te Deum and the Gloria (there ain't no This Is The Feast) are not used. The readings, especially if one follows the hours of prayer, the Divine Office, begin their way through the sorry history of Man, from his creation then fall then going forward, which the Holy Saturday liturgy will recapitulate.
On Septuagesima itself, the Gospel reading is Matthew 20:1-16, the story of the workers in the vineyard, wherein we see Man the same as ever from the start in Eden, trying to impose his ideas of what is right on to God's, this time arguing over whether the same wage is fair for those who worked all day, those hired at the last, and everyone in between, as if we deserved anything from God and it were not his to give and not ours to presume or demand anyway. So we argue with God and each other over the denarius rather than taking it in gratitude from him who owed us nothing! Kind of the whole problem in a nutshell.
The Eastern Church uses the following on its five Sundays in the Pre Lenten Season: 1) the story of Zacchaeus, 2) the Publican and the Pharisee, 3) the Prodigal Son, 4) the Last Judgement, and 5) the Sunday of Forgiveness.
The World Has Its Own Transition Too.
The world, which has ever had its early Spring celebrations, has in many lands timed them on Lent too. But this worldly pre-Lent attains a nature as opposite from its Christian meaning as the worldly gift buying and partying season before Christmas has become from Advent. At the beginning of Lent, fasting in some form is observed, usually involving abstaining from meat, and the most likely origin of the the name for the worldly pre-Lent, Carnival, is a farewell to meat (flesh), from the Latin root carne- for meat or flesh (as in carnivore) and vale, good-bye (as in valedictory). In most but not all places, Septuagesima is also the start of Carnival season, which ends on the Tuesday just before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. Often known by its French name, Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday. So, as the church prepares for the penitential season of Lent the world enjoys the flesh, in all senses of the word.
But now in the Western Church, if one follows the lead of the Great Whore, Rome, as unfortunately many have, this transitional pre-Lenten period has been abolished altogether! And not only is this important transition dropped, the period of time it formerly took is simply counted as Ordinary Time. That would be bad enough if ordinary here meant what ordinary ordinarily means. Ordinary here means the literal meaning of ordinary, which is, something that has no particular name or identity but is simply numbered. So in the Vatican II novus ordo this significant time of transition from the Christmas cycle to the Easter cycle simply ceases to exist, in numbered anonymity, in the face of nearly two millennia of Christian observance in varying forms, and the continuing observance of those who do not follow suit. Well, when you're the Whore of Babylon, you do stuff like that, maybe even have to do stuff like that. Not a lead for the church of Christ to follow. In adaptations of the novus ordo, such as ours, the season disappears as a numbered Sunday after Epiphany.
The world, though, is securely attached to its pre-Lenten traditions. Carnival season endures, Rome and those following its lead ashcan the Gesimas. Who knows? Maybe the next Roman council can get Ash Wednesday moved to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, for "pastoral reasons" of course, like they jacked around the date of Epiphany, or move it to the Monday after and call it reclaiming our ancient Greek roots. Cuaresma. No word yet on whether Rome can get languages like Spanish to quit calling Lent after a pattern it has abolished.
The Eastern Church still has its Pre Lenten Season.
The Start Of The Church's Transition East And West.
In the Western Church, the earliest Septuagesima can fall is 18 January and the latest 22 February. This year, 2014, it's 16 February. Join the Christian Church, East or West, in this transition, whatever your church or church body may have chosen to do, as we turn to the preparation for Lent, the observance of that for which he whose birth we recently celebrated came to die and then rise again, and the Easter and Pentecost joy to follow in anticipation of the eternal joy of heaven!
We start with learning from the workers in the vineyard not to haggle over the denarius but understand whose it is and that it is a gift, or, from the call of Jesus to Zacchaeus, who collected taxes for the foreign oppressors, that he doesn't have to climb a tree to see him, that he is coming to his very house -- which btw produced more grumbling about what is right and just -- after which Zacchaeus repented and made restitution to his brethren. The Son of Man has indeed come to seek and save the lost -- don't worry about being seeker-sensitive, HE is the seeker -- whether that be those who cast aside their own people for power or those who are idle because they are not hired, as we all seek first our own gain by nature and are all "unemployable" before the justice of God, who instead shows us mercy in Christ Whom He has sent.
The Plan Of The Western Transition, Gesimatide.
Here are the readings for the three Sundays of Gesimatide. This is particularly of value for us Lutherans, because the readings for each of the three Sundays of Gesimatide correspond with what came to be called the three "solas" in the Lutheran Reformation!
Septuagesima Sunday, "70 Days". By Grace Alone. (16 February 2014)
Psalm 18:5,6,7. Verse Psalm 18:2,3.
O Lord, we beseech Thee favourably to hear the prayers of Thy people that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by The goodness, for the glory of Thy name, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Saviour, who liveth etc.
1 Cor 9:24 - 10:5.
Matthew 20:1-16. The Workers in the Vinyard. Sola gratia, by grace alone.
Sexagesima Sunday, "60 Days". By Scripture Alone. (23 February 2014)
Psalm 44:23-26. Verse Psalm 44:2.
O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do, mercifully grant that by Thy power we may be defended against all adversity, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, who liveth etc.
2 Cor 11:19 - 12.9
Luke 8:4-15. The Sower and the Seed. Sola scriptura, by scripture alone.
Quinquagesima Sunday, "50 Days". By Faith Alone. (2 March 2014)
Psalm 31:3,4. Verse Psalm 31:1.
O Lord, we beseech Thee, mercifully hear our prayers and, having set us free from the bonds of sin, defend us from all evil, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, who liveth etc.
1 Cor 13:1-13.
Luke 18:31-43. Healing the Blind Man. Sola fide, by faith alone.
[Textual note: many thanks to Matthew Carver, translator of Walther's Hymnal, recently published by CPH, for earlier comments on etymology. I have tried to incorporate those improvements in this year's version. Any remaining need for improvement is due to me.]
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