Yet earth was very good in days of old,
And earth is lovely still:
Still for the sacred flock she spreads the fold,
For Sion rears the hill.
Mother she is, and cradle of our race,
A depth where treasures lie,
The broad foundation of a holy place,
Man’s step to scale the sky.
She spreads the harvest-field which Angels reap,
And lo! the crop is white;
She spreads God’s Acre where the happy sleep
All night that is not night.
Earth may not pass till heaven shall pass away,
Nor heaven may be renewed
Except with earth: and once more in that day
Earth shall be very good.
Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894
Betwixt and between the delights of tossing - and then, all importantly, devouring - tasty pancakes on this day colloquially known in these islands as ‘Pancake Day’ a deeper spiritual significance is to be found. At the heart of this final day of Pre-Lenten Septuagesimatide preparation is of the essence. Though today is more widely known as Shrove Tuesday, it doesn’t immediately evoke in the popular mind its true origin in the ancient practise of confessing and being forgiven - being shriven - for one’s sins today. But that’s what today surely ought to be about for Christians, at least: the knowledge of the absolute necessity of being right with God before we enter into the great and solemn season of Lent; a time of reform and renewal, which, like any good endeavour, first requires proper preparation and planning. Whether North American pancakes with sausages and maple syrup, or English crepes with lemon and sugar, the point of such feasting is predicated on a joyful farewell to the delights of our usual condition before we get down to serious business. And sin - and the need to be shriven of it - is central to that. A clean slate, as it were, before we receive the blessed ash tomorrow and are reminded that dust we are, and unto dust we shall return. So if we truly wish to celebrate the culinary delights of this day’s merriment, our souls ought to be as willing as our bodies to receive those good things that God so desires us to have. Go to confession!
‘For our religious life Lent is a season of tremendous significance; it is the Church’s forty day retreat, the time par excellence for spiritual reform and interior renewal. As baptised penitents we enter the arena with Christ in order to share in His resurrection at Easter. The Lenten liturgy is as luxuriant as spring itself; no other season of the entire year is so rich in liturgical texts. We who wish to make the liturgy our guide to piety will devote ourselves during Lent to the task of intensifying our religious life in accordance with the spirit of Mother Church.
The purpose of Pre-Lent is to condition ourselves for the proper observance of Lent, since every good work needs due preparation. During the few days left before Ash Wednesday we should arrive at a definite answer to the serious question, “How am I going to keep Lent this year?” A liturgical parish will also take counsel with its leader on the problem, “What can we as a body do this Lent?” Perhaps a word of caution is needed here: do not undertake too much lest you find it impossible to continue after a brief but over-zealous beginning. No one cares to be like the man in the Gospel who began to build a tower and then could not finish it, thus incurring the scorn of his neighbours. Therefore, not too much; but some specific resolutions whereby this Lent will be different from previous years are necessary.
…What shall I do about fasting? Do not underestimate the value of this holy discipline; the liturgy speaks of it in terms of the highest respect… Each one should determine exactly how much and what he will eat at breakfast and supper; whether he can give up afternoon coffee; how often during the week he will abstain from desserts, and so on. Fasting in the wider sense – abstinence from our favourite action – should likewise be on the agenda.
…Closely related to fasting is almsgiving. Our alms for Christ’s poor brethren we lay upon the altar at the Offertory of the Mass. And what of our prayer life? Certainly we will devote more time to the Church’s official prayer book, the Breviary; perhaps it would be good to say certain Hours at very definite times and with special fervour’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
O Lord, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee; through Jesus Christ thy Son our Lord, who liveth and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. – Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘This most lovely collect was introduced into the Prayer Book in 1549 to set before us in the plainest terms our proper aim in the forthcoming season of Lent. We are to use this opportunity not in order to acquire some of the more rare and exquisite graces of the Christian life, but to make sure of our competence in the most fundamental virtue of all.
We are not left in any doubt about the unique importance of charity. Both the beginning and the ending of the collect assure us of that. Jesus himself has taught us that “all our doings without charity are nothing worth”, and we know that without it an otherwise healthy person is reckoned as dead in the eyes of Christ.
It would be difficult to find words that put more strongly the position that for Christians the law of charity is the primary law of life, the standard to which all other regulations must conform. No other success in the sphere of living is of any lasting value unless it is permeated by the spirit of charity.
…One would be terrified if one felt that this charity was something one had to acquire for oneself: the consequences of not attaining it are so disastrous. Happily, however, we are told that this is not something we must win for ourselves. It is a gift. All we have to do is to reach out our hands and accept it, and then let it have its way with us. And so we pray that the Holy Spirit may pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity’.
from Reflections on the Collects, 1964
by William Wand KCVO, 1885-1977 (Bishop of London 1945-1955)
One step more, and the race is ended;
One word more, and the lesson’s done;
One toil more, and a long rest follows
At set of sun.
Who would fail, for one step withholden?
Who would fail, for one word unsaid?
Who would fail, for a pause too early?
Sound sleep the dead.
One step more, and the goal receives us;
One word more, and life’s task is done;
One toil more, and the Cross is carried
And sets the sun.
Christina Rossetti, 1830-1894
Rossetti’s poem is based on the traditional Epistle, found in the Book of Common Prayer and the Extraordinary Form, appointed for Septuagesima from 1 Corinthians 9:24-27: ‘Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things: now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown, but we an incorruptible. I therefore so run, not as uncertainly; so fight I, not as one that beateth the air: but I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection, lest that by any means, when I have preached to others, I myself should be a cast-away’.
‘The season [of Septuagesima] 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.
The number seven is the basis of all these mysteries. We have already seen how the holy Church came to introduce the season of Septuagesima into her calendar. Let us now meditate on the doctrine hidden under the symbols of her liturgy. And first, let us listen to St. Augustine, who thus gives is the clue to the whole of our season's mysteries. “There are two times”, says the holy Doctor: “one which is now, and is spent in the temptations and tribulations of this life; the other which shall by then, and shall be spent in eternal security and joy. In figure of these, we celebrate two periods: the time before Easter, and the time after Easter. That which is before Easter signifies the sorrow of this present life; that which is after Easter, the blessedness of our future state... Hence it is that we spend the first in fasting and prayer; and in the second we give up our fasting, and give ourselves to praise”.
The Church, the interpreter of the sacred Scriptures, often speaks to us of two places, which correspond with these two times of St Augustine. These two places are Babylon and Jerusalem. Babylon is the image of this world of sin, in the midst whereof the Christian has to spend his years of probation; Jerusalem is the heavenly country, where he is to repose after all his trials. The people of Israel, whose whole history is but one great type of the human race, was banished from Jerusalem and kept in bondage in Babylon.
Now, this captivity, which kept the Israelites exiles from Sion, lasted seventy years; and it is to express this mystery, as Alcuin, Amalarius, Ivo of Chartres, and all the great liturgists tell us, that the Church fixed the number of seventy for the days of expiation. It is true, there are but sixty-three days between Septuagesima and Easter; but the Church, according to the style so continually used in the sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.
The duration of the world itself, according to the ancient Christian tradition, is divided into seven ages. The human race must pass through the seven ages before the dawning of the day of eternal life. The first age included the time from the creation of Adam to Noah; the second begins with Noah and the renovation of the earth by the deluge, and ends with this the vocation of Abraham; the third opens with this first formation of God's chosen people, and continues as far as Moses, through whom God gave the Law; the fourth consists of the period between Moses and David, in whom the house of Juda received the kingly power; the fifth is formed of the years which passed between David's reign and the captivity of Babylon, inclusively; the sixth dates from the return of the Jews to Jerusalem, and takes us on as far as the birth of our Saviour. Then, finally, comes the seventh age; it starts with the rising of this merciful Redeemer, the Sun of justice, and is to continue till the dread coming of the Judge of the living and the dead. These are the seven great divisions of time; after which, eternity.
In order to console us in the midst of the combats, which so thickly beset our path, the Church, like a beacon shining amidst the darkness of this our earthly abode, shows us another seven, which is to succeed the one we are now preparing to pass through. After the Septuagesima of mourning, we shall have the bright Easter with its seven weeks of gladness, foreshadowing the happiness and bliss of heaven. After having fasted with our Jesus, and suffered with Him, the day will come when we shall rise together with Him, and our hearts shall follow Him to the highest heaven; and then after a brief interval, we shall feel the Holy Ghost descending upon us, with His seven Gifts. The celebration of all these wondrous joys will take us seven weeks, as the great liturgists observe in their interpretation of the rites of the Church. The seven joyous weeks from Easter to Pentecost will not be too long for the future glad mysteries, which, after all, will be but figures of a still gladder future, the future of eternity.
Having heard these sweet whisperings of hope, let us now bravely face the realities brought before us by our dear mother the Church. We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin. If we love our country, if we long to return to it, we must be proof against the lying allurements of this strange land, and refuse the cup she proffers us, and with which she maddens so many of our fellow captives. She invites us to join in her feasts and her songs; but we must unstring our harps, and hang them on the willows that grow on her river's bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem. She will ask us to sing to her the melodies of our dear Sion: but how shall we, who are so far from home, have heart to “sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” No, there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves forever.
These are the sentiments wherewith the Church would inspire us during the penitential season which we are now beginning. She wishes us to reflect on the dangers that beset us; dangers which arise from ourselves and from creatures. During the rest of the year she 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 pilgrims absent from our Lord, let us keep our glad hymn for the day of His return. We are sinners, and have but too often held fellowship with the world of God's enemies; let us become purified by repentance, for it is written that “praise is unseemly in the mouth of a sinner”’.
from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB, 1805-1875
O Lord God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing 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 and reigneth with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen. - Collect for Sexagesima, Divine Worship: The Missal.
‘The Collect (in the original) recalls the Station at the Basilica of St Paul, as does the Epistle [in the Book of Common Prayer]. Our Epistle is considerably shorter, and our Collect leaves out “by the protection of the doctor of the Gentiles”, and instead prays that “by thy power”. It is taken from ancient sources, mostly St Gregory (AD 590).
The Collect contains a timely caution for the Christian about how to enter his Lenten fast. He is to fast, but he is to see that he puts no trust in this or anything else he does. All is dependence must be on God.
Our Collect reminds us once again of the near approach of Lent. On Ash Wednesday we begin Lent and we keep our bodies under complete control of our souls… Should we be extra pleased with ourselves because we have denied ourselves in Lent? No, the Collect warns us that we must not put our trust in anything that we do. We must depend only on God’s power’.
from Teaching the Collects, 1965, by H.E. Sheen
‘To effect a transition from the joyous spirit of Christmas time to the sober and serious character of Lent, the Church has inserted a period of mental conditioning before Ash Wednesday, Pre-Lent, as this period may be called, consists of three Sundays, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima, i.e., the seventieth, the sixtieth, and the fiftieth day before Easter. These numbers do not, of course, result from accurate calculation, but because the first Sunday in Lent was called Quadragesima the three previous Sundays received the name of the nearest round figure… These three Sundays may be regarded as a prelude to the entire Easter season.
The liturgy of Pre-Lent with its magnificently constructed Mass formularies dates from the time of Pope St Gregory the Great; perhaps the saint himself was responsible for their composition. In content they reflect the period of the migration of nations, an age of war, tumult, and suffering’.
from The Church’s Year of Grace, 1953, by Pius Parsch, 1884-1954
Father Parsch reflects on the image (above): ‘The design attempts to illustrate Septuagesima’s leading themes. At the bottom we see what happened in paradise: our first parents are driven from the garden by the cherub with flaming sword. Behind them remain the tree of life and the lily of innocence. In their path are thorns and thistles, and beside them a hissing serpent. But there is still room for hope – already the Sun of redemption shines from afar. In the centre picture our heavenly Father is inviting all of us into His vineyard. At top the station saint, Lawrence, encourages us to fight the holy battle for the good of God’s kingdom by waving to us with crown and palm’.
‘The three Sundays preceding Lent are called Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Actually they are not the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days before Easter as their names would indicate. These titles seem to have been arbitrarily chosen for the sake of round numbers, in keeping with the much older term of Quadragesima (fortieth) which denotes the first Sunday of Lent.
The preparatory time of pre-Lent was established by the practice of the Greek Church, which started its great fast earlier than the Roman Church did. We find the pre-Lenten Sundays mentioned as early as 541, in the fourth Council of Orleans. At the time of pope Saint Gregory I (604) they were already celebrated in Rome with the same liturgical Mass texts that are used today.
The spirit of pre-Lent is one of penance, devotion, and atonement, the Sunday Masses and the liturgical rules reflecting this character. The Gloria is omitted, purple vestments are worn, and the altars may no longer be decorated with flowers.
In ancient times, when the law of abstinence was much stricter and included many other foods besides meat, the clergy and a good number of the laity started abstaining progressively during the pre-Lenten season, until they entered the complete fast on Ash Wednesday. After Quinquagesima (i.e., the last Sunday before Lent) this voluntary fasting began with abstinence from meat; consequently, this Sunday was called Dominica carnevala (Farewell-to-meat Sunday), from which comes the word “carnival”. Another, more scholarly, explanation of the derivation of carnival is that it comes from the Latin Carnem levare (carnelevarium) which means “withdrawal” or “removal” of meat.
The Oriental Church, too, abstained first from meat, but began on Sexagesima (the second Sunday before Lent), which is called “Meatless” (apokreo, in Greek; miasopust, in Slavic). With Quinquagesima the Eastern Church began (and still begins) the abstinence from butter, cheese, milk, and eggs. Thus in eastern Europe that day is called “Cheeseless Sunday” (syropust).
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). An old English sermon of the eleventh century exhorts the faithful thus: “In the week immediately before Lent, everyone shall go to his confessor; and his confessor shall so shrive him as he then may hear by his deeds what he is to do”’.
from The Easter Book, 1954, by Fr Francis Weiser SJ, 1901-1986
‘The grave maternal voice of the Church will soon be heard, inviting us to the Lenten penance; but she wishes us to prepare for this laborious baptism by employing these three weeks in considering the deep wounds caused in our souls by sin. True the beauty and loveliness of the Little Child, born to us in Bethlehem, are great beyond measure; but our souls are so needy that they require other lessons than those He gave us of humility and simplicity. Our Jesus is the Victim of the divine justice, and he has now attained the fulness of his age; the altar, on which he is to be slain, is ready: and since it is for us that he is to be sacrificed, we should at once set ourselves to consider what are the debts we have contracted towards that infinite Justice, which is about to punish the Innocent One instead of us the guilty.
The mystery of a God becoming Incarnate for the love of his creature has opened to us the path of the Illuminative Way; but we have not yet seen the brightest of its Light. Let not our hearts be troubled; the divine wonders we witnessed at Bethlehem are to be surpassed by those that are to grace the day of our Jesus’ Triumph: but that our eye may contemplate these future mysteries it must be purified by courageously looking into the deep abyss of our own personal miseries. God will grant us his divine light for the discovery; and if we come to know ourselves, to understand the grievousness of original sin, to see the malice of our own sins, and to comprehend, at least in some degree, the infinite mercy of God towards us, we shall be prepared for the holy expiations of Lent, and for the ineffable joys of Easter.
The Season, then, of Septuagesima is one of most serious thought... [T]he Christian, who would spend Septuagesima according to the spirit of the Church, must make war upon that false security, that self-satisfaction, which are so common to effeminate and tepid souls, and produce spiritual barrenness. It is well for them, if these delusions do not insensibly lead them to the absolute loss of the true Christian spirit. He that thinks himself dispensed from that continual watchfulness, which is so strongly inculcated by our Divine Master, is already in the enemy’s power. He that feels no need of combat and of struggle in order to persevere and make progress in virtue (unless he have been honoured with a privilege, which is both rare and dangerous), should fear that he is not even on the road to that Kingdom of God, which is only to be won by violence. He that forgets the sins, which God’s mercy has forgiven him, should fear his being the victim of a dangerous delusion. Let us, during these days, which we are going to devote to the honest unflinching contemplation of our miseries, give glory to our God, and derive, from the knowledge of ourselves, fresh motives of confidence in Him, who, in spite of all our wretchedness and sin, humbled himself so low as to become one of us, in order that he might exalt us even to union with Himself’.
from The Liturgical Year by Dom Prosper Guéranger OSB, 1805-1875
Septuagesima – seventy days
To Easter’s primrose tide of praise;
The Gesimas – Septua, Sexa, Quinc
Mean Lent is near, which makes you think.
Septuagesima – when we’re told
To ‘run the race’, to ‘keep our hold’,
Ignore injustice, not give in,
And practise stern self-discipline;
A somewhat unattractive time
Which hardly lends itself to rhyme.
But still it gives the chance to me
To praise our dear old C. of E.
So other Churches please forgive
Lines on the Church in which I live,
The Church of England of my birth,
The kindest Church to me on earth.
There may be those who like things fully
Argued out, and call you ‘woolly’;
Ignoring Creeds and Catechism
They say the C of E’s ‘in schism’.
There may be those who much resent
Priest, Liturgy, and Sacrament,
Whose worship is what they call ‘free’,
Well, let them be so, but for me
There’s refuge in the C of E.
And when it comes that I must die
I hope the Vicar’s standing by,
I won’t care if he’s ‘Low’ or ‘High’
For he’ll be there to aid my soul
On that dread journey to its goal,
With Sacrament and prayer and Blessing
After I’ve done my last confessing.
And at that time may I receive
The Grace most firmly to believe,
For if the Christian’s Faith’s untrue
What is the point of me and you?
But this is all anticipating
Septuagesima – time of waiting,
Running the race or holding fast.
Let’s praise the man who goes to light
The church stove on an icy night.
Let’s praise that hard-worked he or she
The Treasurer of the PCC.
Let’s praise the cleaner of the aisles,
The nave and candlesticks and tiles.
Let’s praise the organist who tries
To make the choir increase in size,
Or if that simply cannot be,
Just to improve its quality.
Let’s praise the ringers in the tower
Who come to ring in cold and shower.
But most of all let’s praise the few
Who are seen in their accustomed pew
Throughout the year, whate’er the weather,
That they may worship God together.
These, like a fire of glowing coals,
Strike warmth into each other’s souls,
And though they be but two or three
They keep the Church for you and me.
Sir John Betjeman CBE, 1906-1984
Next Sunday is Septuagesima, the beginning of that period of Pre-Lent, consisting of three Sundays that precede and prepare the Church (according to the Ordinariate and Extraordinary Forms of the Roman Rite) for the great penitential season of Lent. The liturgical character of this period anticipates Lent by omitting the Alleluia and the Gloria from Mass, and the Te Deum from the Divine Office, and by clothing the church and her ministers in violet.
The ancient hymn below, translated by the eminent Anglican hymnographer, John Mason Neale, may be sung on this Sunday before Septuagesima, so as to emphasise the bittersweet loss of the Alleluia from the Sacred Liturgy; a word dear to the hearts of Christians, that will not now be heard again until the Easter Vigil. Here follows Neale’s own explanation:
‘The Latin Church, as it is well known, forbade, as a general role, the use of Alleluia in Septuagesima. Hence, in more than one ritual, its frequent repetition on the Saturday before Septuagesima, as if by way of farewell to its employment. This custom was enjoined in the German Dioceses by the Council of Aix-la-Chapelle, in 817: but various reasons render it probable that the following hymn is not of earlier date than the thirteenth century. The farewell to Alleluia in the Mozarabic rite is so lovely that I give it here. After the Alleluia Perenne, the Capitula are as follows:— “Alleluia in heaven and in earth; it is perpetuated in heaven, it is sung in earth. There it resounds everlastingly: here sweetly. There happily; here concordantly. There ineffably; here earnestly. There without syllables; here in musical numbers. There from the Angels; here from the people. Which, at the birth of Christ the Lord, not only in heaven, but the earth, did the Angels sing; while they proclaimed, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”. The Benediction:— “Let that Alleluia which is ineffably sung in heaven, be more efficaciously declared in your praises. Amen. unceasingly sung by Angels, let it here be uttered brokenly by all faithful people. Amen. That it, as it is called the praise of God, and as it imitates you in that praise, may cause you to be enrolled as denizens of the eternal mansion. Amen”. The Lauda:— “Thou shalt go, O Alleluia; Thou shalt have a prosperous journey, O Alleluia. R. And again with joy thou shalt return to us, O Alleluia. V. For in their hands they shall bear thee up; lest thou hurt thy foot against a stone. R. And again with joy thou shalt return to us, O Alleluia”’.
Mediaeval Hymns and Sequences, 1867, edited by John Mason Neale, 1818-1866
to the tune Tantum Ergo, The English Hymnal, no. 63
Fr Lee Kenyon
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