(LifeSiteNews) — “The terrors of death surged round me, the cords of the nether world enmeshed me. In my distress I called upon the Lord; from His holy temple He heard my voice.”1
These are the dramatic and foreboding words from the Introit which open the season of Septuagesima, in which we now find ourselves once more.
But what is this new season of the Church’s year, so unfamiliar to many today?
In its most basic reality, Septuagesima is a sort of “pre-Lent.” Violet returns as the liturgical color, we cease singing the Gloria, and swap the Alleluias for the Tracts (with their familiar penitential leitmotifs that run up until Easter itself). There may even be a ceremonial “Burial of the Alleluia.”
Some might treat Septuagesima as a time to start thinking about Lent – a time to start hardening ourselves up, so that we “hit the ground running” on Ash Wednesday.
However, the season of Septuagesima is considerably richer and more interesting than a mere ante-chamber to Lent.
In fact, according to some writers, it is no less than the true beginning of the liturgical year.
What is Septuagesima?
In the previous essays on the liturgical year, we discussed how the Advent–Christmas–Epiphany cycle does not focus on the historical events in Christ’s life for their own sake. Rather, according to writers such as Fr. Johannes Pinsk, the liturgy uses those events to point to Christ’s second coming, and to the eternal consummation of the marriage feast of the Lamb.2
Throughout that cycle, the Church treats these future realities as if they were present to us already – and indeed, in a real sense, they were (and still are). She uses her present celebrations of past events to point to future realities – and indeed, she makes those future realities present to us.
For the last few weeks, we have been singing, hearing and praying the same liturgical propers each week in the last few Sundays after Epiphany. Here are some of them:
Introit: Adore God, all you His angels: Sion hears and is glad, and the cities of Juda rejoice. V. The Lord is King; let the earth rejoice; let the many isles be glad.
Gradual: The nations shall revere Your name, O Lord, and all the kings of the earth Your glory. For the Lord has rebuilt Sion, and He shall appear in His glory.
Offertory: The right hand of the Lord has struck with power: the right hand of the Lord has exalted me; I shall not die, but live, and declare the works of the Lord.
In these propers, we enter a world restored in Christ, and their repetition each week evokes permanence and resolution – a sense of having finally arrived.
But the time has come – Pinsk says – for the Church to be reminded of the tension between “already” and “not yet.” The time has come for us to be reminded of another aspect of our present state, wandering through this valley of tears and in need of salvation. He writes:
A new season has dawned, dark and foreboding, The Epiphany of the Lord recedes behind the shadows and darkness of our world in the form of misery and cast by sin over us and death, conflict and tribulation, error and self-deception.3
As the Sundays of Septuagesima approach Lent, this anxiety turns more and more into trust and confidence – but they always maintain a sense of our helplessness and dependence on God amidst danger. To this end, Septuagesima seems to be a “reset” in the tone of the liturgy – and we find ourselves in “an entirely different atmosphere, cold, stormy and threatening.”4 By contrast, there is no such break between the last Sundays after Pentecost and the start of Advent.
Although the light of the Epiphany fades into the background, we are not to conclude that its vision of the permanent victory of Christ was an illusion. On the contrary, “it is and remains a reality, indeed the decisive reality. But the Christian world is not yet ready to look upon that epiphany in all its fullness and immediacy.”5
We are “the Christian world” which is not yet ready for the Epiphany – and so, if we want to rise with Christ, then we must tread the path to Calvary that Septuagesima opens up for us.6
The start of the New Year
Fr. Adrian Fortescue, among others, suggests that because of Easter and the period of preparation beforehand, “the ecclesiastical year was counted as beginning then in the spring,” rather than in Advent.7
Seeing Septuagesima, instead of Advent, as the start of the year shines a light on the season – not least the abrupt change in the Mass and other liturgical texts – and may help us grow in love for God and contemplation of Christ’s mysteries.
At Matins on Septuagesima Sunday, the Church begins reading the book of Genesis – starting, of course, with the Creation, and then the Fall of Man. This alone, for some writers, is an argument for casting Septuagesima as the start of the liturgical year, and as a season of beginnings.8
But the reading of Genesis also reveals to us why it is that the Introit’s “terrors of death” and “cords of the nether world” are around us. It brings us face-to-face with God’s gratuitous goodness in creating all things – as well as the ignominy of the Fall, and the sorry state into which mankind descended. Guéranger explains that if we do not understand “the grievousness of the wound inflicted,” then we will not be able to understand the value of Our Lord’s Passion and Resurrection.9
So what exactly is that we learn from the Church’s reading of Genesis in this time?
The state of man
The liturgical use of Genesis in Septuagesima reminds us that we are there with Adam, disobeying God and doomed to labor for thorns, until we return to the dust. Not only that: we are there also with Cain, nursing malice towards our brother. We are there with the wicked men, who were washed away by the flood. We are there with Esau, selling away our birth right for a mess of pottage. We are there with Juda, confounded by the revelation of what we thought were secret sins. We are there with Joseph, sold into slavery in Egypt.
All this reveals to us the dire situation of man before Christ – as well as our constant tendency to slip back into these dangers, even now.
But just as importantly, reveals to us our inability to save ourselves, and our absolute need for Our Lord Jesus Christ, our one and only savior.
Through Septuagesima, therefore, the Church also teaches us that it is Christ who was promised in the Garden of Eden; it is Christ who will save us, as he saved Noah from the flood; it is in Christ that we are to be blessed, and made Abraham’s posterity in faith (like the stars of the sky); and, looking forward to the Exodus and the Passover, it is by Christ that we are to be led out of Egypt, the house of slavery. We are to be redeemed, at the cost of the firstborn and the paschal lamb’s blood, and led through water into the land which God has promised us.
Why exactly is the Church giving us these stark reminders? She wants us to understand our state, and our need for Christ. She wants us to take seriously the dangers that surround us and threaten our life with Christ – and to start again in our efforts to divest ourselves of these things.
It is to this end that the Church wants us to stir ourselves up for battle, remembering the duties and struggle of the Christian life. We find this sentiment perfectly expressed in the Mass texts at the start of this season.
The Mass texts themselves
In the Epistle for Septuagesima Sunday, St. Paul sets out the very purpose and program of this life in Christ. He uses the image of professional games to remind us that we are not playing for the mere fun of it – we are engaged in a more serious business than the most serious of athletes. He urges us to take our business more seriously than they take theirs:
Do you not know that those who run in a race, all indeed run, but one receives the prize? So run as to obtain it. And everyone in a contest abstains from all things – and they indeed to receive a perishable crown, but we an imperishable.
I, therefore, so run as not without a purpose; I so fight as not beating the air; but I chastise my body and bring it into subjection, lest perhaps after preaching to others I myself should be rejected.
Is this not a manifesto, not just for Lent, but for the whole Christian life? Pinsk comments of this Epistle:
We hear one message: ‘the Christian life does not run its course upon the sunlit meadows of the Epiphany; it is a hard struggle with much groaning and tumult. Yet at the end lies the victor crown for all eternity for those that really live from baptism and the spiritual food and the spiritual drink.’10
And yet the Epistle also contains a warning. We must run seriously in the race, competing seriously for the crown of eternal life with Christ – or stay in the horror of the Introit, sink into the degradation depicted in Genesis, and risk joining those who followed Moses in the desert, receiving untold spiritual blessings, and yet ended by displeasing God.
But Christ does not intend to leave us alone in this effort. The post-communion prayer for this Mass displays the mysterious relationship between desiring and receiving the grace of God, which is absolutely necessary for the program set out by St. Paul:
May Your faithful people, O God, be strengthened by Your gifts; that by receiving them, they may still desire them, and by desiring them, may evermore receive them.
Throughout this whole Mass, the Church returns again and again to eternal life, considering it as a prize, or as a gift, or as a wage given as a reward for labor. Nor are these sentiments reserved for Septuagesima Sunday alone – the following Sundays in this season present the same realities about what Christ expects of us, and how he will help us reach Calvary with him.
Conclusion – the Call of the King
In the Advent–Christmas–Epiphany cycle, the Church showed us the Christ who will – in the words of St. Ignatius’ Spiritual Exercises – “conquer the whole world and all [his] enemies, and [thus] enter into the glory of [his] Father.”11
There is no suggestion in the parable of the vineyard – read on Septuagesima Sunday – that the Lord of the vineyard labored with the workers whom he called. Nonetheless, this too calls to mind the same meditation from the Exercises, “The Call of the King.”
First, we have the call of the good, earthly king:
It is my will to conquer all the lands of the Infidel. Therefore, whoever wishes to join with me in this enterprise must be content with the same food, drink, clothing, etc. as mine. So too he must work with me by day, and watch with me by night, etc., that as he has had a share in the toil with me, afterwards, he may share in the victory with me.12
Then we have the call of Christ, the Eternal King, issued to all men and every person in particular:
It is my will to conquer the whole world and all my enemies, and thus to enter into the glory of my Father. Therefore, whoever wishes to join me in this enterprise, must be willing to labor with me, that by following me in suffering, he may follow me in glory.13
We have seen and lived that glory already in the previous cycle, in the coming of the triumphant, avenging King, who puts all his enemies under his feet.
But now, as Septuagesima begins, let’s not just treat this as time of idle imaginings of what we might do in Lent.
Nunc coepi – “Now I begin.” This can be a time to decide once more, and more resolutely than before, to labor with Christ, and to follow him in suffering – so that we may follow him into the glory which we have tasted over the last few months.
If we pay attention to the Church’s liturgy, and enter into it and allow ourselves to be formed by it, then Septuagesima can mark the beginning of a new year of grace.
Afterword – Septuagesima and The Babylonian Captivity
Some writers also suggest that the “sept-” part of “Septuagesima” refers to the 70 years of “The Babylonian Captivity” – and these links are only enhanced by the desperation expressed in the liturgical texts.14
Following a period of idolatry and religions syncretism – and in the face of warnings from the prophets – the Kingdom of Judah was overrun, and Jerusalem was taken by Nabuchodonosor II.
A frenzy of destruction led to the burning of Solomon’s temple and the exile of thousands of Jews. They stayed in this subjection, deprived of their altar and holy sacrifice, for 70 years – as the prophet Jeremias had foretold – until King Cyrus allowed them to return.
All this resonates with the liturgical texts, and Pinsk speculates on how they may have arisen in the Roman Church:
Whenever and however the texts of this Mass may have come into being, they were certainly not invented in the conference rooms of a Liturgical Commission; rather they grew out of terrible affliction, such as men have themselves experienced in nightly bombings and in the horrors of the encounter with a brutal soldiery.
Perhaps it was the restless age of the barbarian invasions, of the irruption of the barbarian hordes into the approaches to Rome and into the Roman Christian community itself, which first brought priest and congregation together in such a cry to God. This should not be forgotten today. Even today, priest and congregation should unite with all their hearts in this Introit.15
It is impossible to look at this Babylonian Captivity, and the agony expressed in Septuagesima’s liturgical texts, without thinking about our own situation today. However one explains it, very many of us are exiled from the churches which our grandparents or forefathers built, due to the pernicious doctrine and liturgical destruction within. In many places the sacrifice has been taken away, and replaced with something else.
But perhaps this comparison could give us hope. It is difficult to say exactly when our current situation started, but at the time of writing, it is 65 years since 1958, and 54 since 1969 – perhaps we only have 5-16 more years of this crisis to go?
In any case, these liturgical texts are timeless, and will be as relevant in times of triumph as in crisis, and whether in exile or at home. The combat and our duties in this fallen world remain always the same – as we see in the texts which the Church gives us for Septuagesima.
1 All liturgical texts taken from DivinumOfficium.com
2Fr Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957) was involved with the twentieth century liturgical movement in ways that many readers would consider regrettable. However, his works have a wealth of interesting information about the liturgical year, which I would like to share. They also contains some things which traditional Catholics might not appreciate. My purpose here is to present what is good, along with some comments, to help us appreciate the holy Roman Liturgy.
3 Pinsk 2
4 Pinsk 6
5 Pinsk 2
6 Pinsk 2
7Fortescue, Adrian. “Lessons in the Liturgy.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 9. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1910. 6 Feb. 2023 <https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/09193a.htm >. Cf. also Pinsk: “It is becoming a more and more probable opinion that what we call our Church’s Year did not originally fill out the entire span of the astronomical year; rather the feast of the Resurrection was inserted into the early part of this natural cycle, the time of preparation for this feast was gradually lengthened until the actual festal season was made to begin with Septuagesima Sunday, with the Nativity cycle being advanced to precede it. So there is no inner nexus between the last Sundays after Epiphany and the pre-Lenten season. Rather there is a break; but this break as such is not only meaningful but good and profitable.” Pinsk 6. Cf. also Bouyer 207-8 (see below).
8“Another very striking feature of the liturgical year, still present today, is that the annual reading of the Bible, in the lectio continua of Matins, does not begin on the First Sunday of Advent, but on Septuagesima, with the book of Genesis; and the reading goes on consecutively all through the following year, broken only by more or less modern modifications, the reasons for which are not always obvious.” Bouyer 207-8
9Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year Vol. IV, ‘Septuagesima’ (1949), trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB., St Bonaventure Publications, 2000, p 116
11St Ignatius of Loyola, Spiritual Exercises, n. 93., in Christian Warfare, Society of St Pius X, Winnipeg, Canada, 2009, 364.
14 Mershman writes: “Amularius, “De eccl. Off.”, I, I, would make the Septuagesima mystically represent the Babylonian Captivity of seventy years, would have it begin with this Sunday on which the Sacramentaries and Antiphonaries give the Introit “Circumdederunt me undique” and end with the Saturday after Easter, when the Church sings ‘Eduxit Dominus populum suum.’” Similarly, in discussing “The Mystery of Septuagesima”, Guéranger returns to this idea: “We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin. If we love our country, we long to return to it.” Of the Alleluia, he says: “[The Church] bids us close our lips to this word of joy, because we are in Babylon.” Mershman, Francis. “Septuagesima.” The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 13. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1912. 7 Feb. 2023 <https://www.newadvent.org/cathen/13721b.htm>. Guéranger 9