Our coming Sunday is already Septuagesima. Let’s do the technical stuff first.
Septuagesima slides around from year to year because Easter slides around because the Moon is a bit of a calendrical coquette, or as Juliet calls her, “inconstant”. Easter is early this year, 31 March. We celebrate Easter in the Western Churches on the Sunday following the first Full Moon (25 March) after the Vernal (Spring) Equinox (19 March). The earliest Easter can fall is 22 March and the latest 25 April, a span of 35 days. Next year, 2025, Easter will be on 20 April. Easter for those who follow the Julian Calendar is 5 May. By the way, there is a sky critter that we calculate called the “ecclesiastical full moon”, which has to do with a “synodic month”. But I think we’ve all had enough of everything synodic “walking together-ic”. We would rather talk about the “paschal full moon”. If you are waiting for the next earliest possible Easter, stock up: 2285, 467 years after the last time. The latest possible Easter will be in 2038, 95 years after the last time. That one we might get to see unless the Lord returns or the big asteroid Apophis changes its course.
More technical stuff so we don’t have to do it later.
The three Pre-Lent Sundays are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, respectively in Latin “Seventieth, Sixtieth, Fiftieth”, supposedly indicating the number of days before Easter, or more precisely before the Triduum before Easter, technically not part of Lent. The season of Lent is, in Latin, Quadragesima,” Fortieth”.
These names obviously indicate blocks of ten, but weeks have seven days. So how do these names make sense? Seventieth, Sixtieth, and Fiftieth, before Lent or Fortieth begins, estimates within certain parameters.
- Septuagesima is the 63rd day before the Triduum and, therefore, is in the 7th decade or 10-day period before Easter (61st to 70th days),
- Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th before, in the 6th decade (51st to 60th),
- Quinquagesima is the 49th day, 5th decade (41st to 50th) days before the Triduum.
And that, dear readers, accounts for the names of the Sundays.
Moreover, these Sundays – callously wiped out of the Church’s life in the Novus Ordo calendar – were deemed important enough to have their own Roman Station Churches.
This Sunday we gather in spirit at the Roman Station with the ancient aspirants for baptism, catechumens, at St. Lawrence outside-the-walls. The catechumens start their journey in the shadow of the deacon martyr who died over the coals on an iron grate. Message: This is serious. Blessed Ildefonso Schuster, the great liturgist and Cardinal Archbishop of Milan wrote:
It would seem that the three Masses of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima date from the time of St Gregory, since they reflect the terror and grief that filled the minds of the Romans in those years during which war, pestilence, and earthquake threatened the utter destruction of the former mistress of the world.
Sound like our times to you?
The Introit antiphon from Ps 17/18 sets the tone for the preparatory phase of the cycle:
“The terrors of death surged round me, the cords of the nether world enmeshed me.”
So sings Lawrence upon his searing grate.
So sings Christ Himself as His Passion is underway in earnest.
So sing the ancient catechumens, their first savory taste of what it is to commit to being a Christian, which means the Cross.
So sing we all?
The Epistle from 1 Corinthians on this Sunday, going back to ancient times, is about the struggle for the unperishing crown, passing through the sea to the other side in death, rising to new life, eating the manna from heaven, drinking from the rock.
One has the sense that the Church knows we need to have all the help we can get in order to have a spiritually fruitful Lent. Hence, the pre-Lent Sundays.
With the help of Pre-Lent, no Catholic who follows the Traditional calendar is ever surprised by Lent. You have no excuse. Start thinking about your Lenten discipline now.
The reminders of onrushing Lent will be obvious. On Sunday the vestments are penitential purple. The Alleluia ceases to be sung from 1st Vespers onward until the Vigil of Easter. There is even a custom of having a little funeral and burying a scroll or image with “Alleluia” until its resurrection.
The Gospel reading has the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20. The context from 19 Matthew deals with Christ’s description of His Second Coming. Also, He is more and more being harassed by the Pharisees. In the parable, a “master of the house” hires day workers for the standard day wage of a silver denarius coin. At different times during the day he goes back and hires more and then more, etc. At the end he pays them the same thing, provoking a complaint from those hired early in the day. Every parable has in it a little twist, a nimshal. In this case listening to the parable the people probably wondered why the householder didn’t just hire everyone from the start.
You know the response of the Lord to those who complained about getting the same as those hired last: “Is your eye evil because I am good?”. Yup. That’s how the Douay-Reims version has it. RSV says: “Do you begrudge my generosity?” That eye imagery is wonderful. We tend to see things the way we want to see them.
Here’s a twist of my own for the workers who were first called to work “for the Lord”, for indeed that’s the point. If the late comers received the same reward in the objective result of one denarius (entrance to eternal life), those who came first have had the opportunity, the honor, the joy, of being with the Lord even longer than the newcomers.
St. Gregory the Great (+604) once preached to the catechumens in the very Basilica of St. Lawrence where we are, in spirit, this Sunday. He spoke of the mysterious ways that God gives grace and used, as examples, his own three aunts. They had all fervently consecrated themselves to God. Two of them persisted. The third did not and ended in misery. The point: we mustn’t presume on the mercy of God. We must ask for it constantly, for ourselves and others, and then apply ourselves to the work of living and loving God, self, and neighbor. Grace and elbow grease.
In the Parable of the Sower, the harvest reaped thirty, sixty, hundred-fold. There are going to be different rewards in Heaven. The reward of Heaven is the same in that all who are in Heaven… are in Heaven. Within our eternity in Heaven, if “within” applies, our rewards will be different. In the Sunday parable of the workers, a long life of holiness, good works, and true charity (working in the sun from 6AM), and Heaven’s blessings are great. More glory is given to God. Otherwise, a life that is less than good, perhaps even awful, can be sincerely amended by conversion and repentance late in life before death. That’s not a good plan but it does happen. It is a a bad plan consciously to put off amending your life because we tend to die according to how we have lived. We are creatures of habit. If you want to be a good pianist, tennis player, Italian speaker of solider, you practice practice practice. You develop habits of prayer (devotion), habits of behavior (virtues) so when the time comes, you do not fail. Sure, some will gain that denarius at the end who looked like lost causes. And so, we rejoice with the Holy Angels at the conversion of the sinner and reflect on the unfathomable mercy of God.
Do not be presumptuous.
As pre-Lent begins, start planning. Going to confession can be a good start especially if your denarius is missing. Be the woman in Luke 15. Sweep sweep. Sweep sweep.