Browse Our Articles & Podcasts

Forgotten Customs of Septuagesima

Brethren: Know you not that they that run in the race, all run indeed, but one receiveth the prize. So run that you may obtain. And every one that striveth for the mastery refraineth himself from all things. And they indeed that they may receive a corruptible crown: but we an incorruptible one. I therefore so run, not as at an uncertainty: I so fight, not as one beating the air. But I chastise my body and bring it into subjection: lest perhaps, when I have preached to others, I myself should become a castaway (1 Cor. 9:24-27 as taken from the Epistle on Septuagesima Sunday).

Septuagesima is the ancient period of time observed for two and a half weeks before the start of Lent. Celebrated on the Third Sunday before the First Sunday in Lent, Septuagesima is both the name of this third Sunday before Lent’s beginning as well as the season itself that runs from this day up until Ash Wednesday. The season of Septuagesima comprises the Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. The Fourth Council of Orleans in 541 AD documents the existence of this season.

This time, informally called “Pre-Lent,” is a time for us to focus on the need for a Savior. It is a time to prepare a Lenten prayer schedule so that we can determine which extra devotions and Masses we will go to in Lent. It is a time to begin weaning ourselves from food so that we may more easily observe the strictest fast during Lent.

A Season of Penance Before Lent Shown in the Church’s Liturgy

Starting with First Vespers of Septuagesima, which is prayed on the Saturday evening before Septuagesima Sunday, the Alleluia ceases to be said until we proclaim our Lord’s resurrection. There is no exception. At first Vespers of Septuagesima Sunday, two alleluias are added to the closing verse of Benedicamus Domino and its response, Deo gratias, as during the Easter Octave. Starting with Compline, the word Alleluia is no longer said until the Easter Vigil and the proclamation of the Lord’s Resurrection. As a result, many monasteries and some parishes began the custom of physically burying a banner with the word alleluia and only unearthing it on Easter. Some places also adopted rather elaborate farewell to alleluia ceremonies. Fr. Scott Haynes from the Archdiocese of Chicago writes on this custom:

Pope Alexander II decreed that the dismissal of the Alleluia be solemnly marked on the eve of Septuagesima Sunday (i.e., three Sundays before Ash Wednesday) in the chanting of the Divine Office by inserting Alleluias in the sacred text. This custom also inspired the creation of new hymns sung at Vespers honouring the Alleluia… This burial of the Alleluia was nicknamed the deposition (i.e., “the giving on deposit”). Curiously enough, gravestones in Catholic cemeteries traditionally had the inscription Depositus, or simply “D,” to indicate a Christian’s burial. When this term indicates the burial of the Alleluia or of the faithful departed, the Christian belief in resurrection is clear. As we bury those who have been “marked with the sign of faith,” (Roman Canon), and as we enter into the fasting of Lent, we do not silence our tongues because of despair or permanent loss. Rather, we do so with confidence that what has been deposited into the earth—our dead, our Alleluia—will rise again.

There are other noticeable changes in the Church’s liturgy with the beginning of Septuagesima. Violet vestments are worn, except on feasts, from Septuagesima Sunday until Holy Thursday. As during Advent and Lent, the Gloria and Te Deum are no longer said on Sundays. The readings at Matins for the first week of Septuagesima are the first few chapters of Genesis, telling of the creation of the world, of Adam and Eve, the fall of man and resulting expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and the story of Cain and Abel. In the following weeks before and during Lent, the readings continue to Noah, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. The Gospel reading for Septuagesima Sunday is the parable of the Workers in the Vineyard (Matthew 20:1-16).

On the connection of this ancient season with Lent, the great Liturgist and author of The Liturgical Year, Dom Gueranger observed:

The season upon which we are now entering is expressive of several profound mysteries. But these mysteries belong not only to the three weeks which are preparatory to Lent: they continue throughout the whole period of time which separates us from the great feast of Easter.

Pre-Lenten Fasting

Septuagesima is also an appropriate time for us to begin preparing our bodies for the upcoming Lenten fast by incorporating some fasting into our routine. In some places a custom of observing a fast of devotion, in anticipation of and in preparation for the Great Lenten fast, was observed as Father Weiser mentions in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”:

This preparatory time of pre-Lent in the Latin Church was suggested by the practice of the Byzantine Church, which started its great fast earlier, because their ‘forty days’ did not include Saturdays. Saint Maximum (465 AD), Bishop of Turin, mentioned the practice in one of his sermons. It is a pious custom, he said, to keep a fast of devotion (not of obligation) before the start of Lent.

As we are on the threshold of the beginning of the holy season of Lent, we should in a special way recall the importance of observing some penance even in the days before Lent. To this end, the 13-minute video on the importance of penance in Septuagesima via Sensus Fidelium would be worthwhile to reflect upon.

Paczkis, Pancakes, & Carnival on Shrove Tuesday

For those who plan to keep the true Lenten fast (i.e., fasting for all forty weekdays of Lent and abstaining from all meat and all animal products all forty days of Lent and on all Sundays), Fat Tuesday represents one last day of merriment. Unfortunately, this day has grown into a debaucherous celebration by many who hardly fast at all during Lent. For this reason, while we can observe Fat Tuesday by enjoying food – including Polish paczkis which are customarily eaten on this day – we should ensure that our merriment never turns to gluttony. Some cultures – like the English – adopted the custom of eating pancakes on Fat Tuesday – earning it the nickname of “Pancake Tuesday.” This custom, like the Polish one, was observed because for centuries the use of any lacticinia (i.e., animal byproducts like cheese, butter, milk or eggs) was forbidden for the entirety of Lent. We should consider adopting a similar observance this year with our Lenten fast.

The practice of observing Carnival celebrations was based on the approaching Lenten fast. The word “carnival” comes from the Latin words “carnis” (meaning meat or flesh) and “vale” (the Latin word for farewell). Carnival then became the last farewell to meat since meat was never permitted at all during Lent until the liberalizing changes of Pope Benedict XIV in 1741. Lent was always a season of complete abstinence for centuries.

The name “Shrove Tuesday” also expresses the ancient practice of the faithful to go to Confession on the day before Ash Wednesday. Ælfric of Eynsham’s “Ecclesiastical Institutes” from c. 1000 AD states: “In the week immediately before Lent everyone shall go to his confessor and confess his deeds and the confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do [in the way of penance].” Father Weiser similarly remarks, “In preparation for Lent the faithful in medieval times used to go to confession on Tuesday before Ash Wednesday. From this practice, that day became known as ‘Shrove Tuesday’ (the day on which people are shriven from sins).”

(To be precise, in Poland itself, Catholics would eat “pączki” on Fat Thursday, not Fat Tuesday (when they traditionally eat herrings). It is today still a universal custom throughout Poland, although most people have no idea of this Pre-Lent period. The reason was that from Quinquagesima Sunday, Poles could not eat lacticina (e.g. dairy products) and on Friday and Saturday you fasted. Thus, the Thursday between Sexagesima and Quinquagesima was the last day to eat “pączki” in Poland.)

Make it a resolution to go to Confession on Shrove Tuesday or the weekend before. Since none of our penance done in the state of mortal sin earns merit for us, starting our Lenten penance in the state of sanctifying grace is of the utmost importance.

40 Hours Devotion & Reparation to the Holy Face

Unfortunately, Carnival season over time grew to that of excess. Dom Guaranger wrote of the excesses and sinfulness of Mardi Gras in his own time.  And how much worse it is in our own times than his, who lived from 1805 to 1875:

How far from being true children of Abraham are those so-called Christians who spend Quinquagesima and the two following days in intemperance and dissipation, because Lent is soon to be upon us! We can easily understand how the simple manners of our Catholic forefathers could keep a leave-taking of the ordinary way of living, which Lent was to interrupt, and reconcile their innocent carnival with Christian gravity; just as we can understand how their rigorous observance of the laws of the Church for Lent would inspire certain festive customs at Easter.

Even in our times, a joyous carnival is not to be altogether reprobated, provided the Christian sentiment of the approaching holy season of Lent be strong enough to check the evil tendency of corrupt nature; otherwise the original intention of an innocent custom would be perverted, and the forethought of penance could in no sense be considered as the prompter of our joyous farewell to ease and comforts.

While admitting all this, we would ask, what right or title have they to share in these carnival rejoicings, whose Lent will pass and find them out of the Church? And they, too, who claim dispensations from fasting during Lent and, for one reason or another, evade every penitential exercise during the solemn forty days of penance, and will find themselves at Easter as weighed down by the guilt and debt of their sins as they were on Ash Wednesday ‒ what meaning, we would ask, can there possibly be in their feasting at ‘Mardi Gras.’

As a result of the excesses of Fat Tuesday and the carnival season, the Church instituted the practice of observing the 40 Hours Devotion. Father Weiser remarks:

In order to encourage the faithful to atone in prayer and penance for the many excesses and scandals committed at carnival time, Pope Benedict XIV, in 1748, instituted a special devotion for the three days preceding Lent, called ‘Forty Hours of Carnival,’ which is held in many churches of Europe and America, in places where carnival frolics are of general and long-standing tradition. The Blessed Sacrament is exposed all day Monday and Tuesday, and devotions are held in the evening, followed by the Eucharistic benediction.

The Church also instituted the Votive Feast of the Holy Face of Our Lord Jesus Christ Deformed in the Passion for the Tuesday after Quinquagesima (i.e., Fat Tuesday) as a means of making reparation for the sins of Mardi Gras. In fact, our Blessed Lord Himself asked for such reparation to His Holy Face in apparition to Mother Pierina in 1938:

See how I suffer. Nevertheless, I am understood by so few. What gratitude on the part of those who say they love me. I have given My Heart as a sensible object of My great love for man and I give My Face as a sensible object of My Sorrow for the sins of man. I desire that it be honored by a special feast on Tuesday in Quinquagesima (Shrove Tuesday – the Tuesday before Ash Wednesday). The feast will be preceded by novena in which the faithful make reparation with Me uniting themselves with my sorrow.

To this end, the praying of the Golden Arrow prayer during Septuagesima has become an annual custom for some families.

Prepare a Lenten Resolution Plan During Septuagesima

Lent, with its three-fold foundation of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, provides Catholics a grace-filled opportunity to atone for sin. To this end, Lent has been called the “tithe of the year.” Preparing for Lent requires a plan for Lenten penance with all three pillars. To start your preparation see a list of 20 Pious Practices for Lent and consider adopting some of them. Commit to your resolutions by writing them down on a Lenten preparation guide, ensuring you cover prayer, fasting, and almsgiving to a greater degree that required by Church law.

In a follow up article on the forgotten customs of Lent, we will highlight various customs and traditions – including those of ecclesiastical law regarding fasting – that have been virtually forgotten even by priests.


Photo by Allison Girone, used with permission. 

Popular on OnePeterFive

Share to...