To Everything, There is a Season

In the complex beauty of the Church, we find Truth.

Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1828
Thomas Cole, “Expulsion from the Garden of Eden,” 1828 (photo: Public Domain)

Oscar Wilde, during rehearsals for his 1894 play The Ideal Husband, famously quipped, “The only festival of the Church I keep is Septuagesima.” He had been criticized for having rehearsals well into Christmas Eve. His ironic observation shows great insight. Long before his deathbed conversion to Catholicism, he understood Septuagesima’s meaning. On Septuagesima Sunday, the principal reading is the third chapter of Genesis, about the fall of man. Wilde intuited his own personal fallenness and need for grace.

This year, Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima fell on Feb. 9, 16 and 23. Septuagesima is a transitional “season” between the end of the Christmas season on Candlemas/ Presentation of the Lord (this year, Feb. 2) and Ash Wednesday.

Before the liturgical changes of 1970, Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima filled the gap between Candlemas/Presentation of the Lord and Ash Wednesday. They were considered “Pre-Lent,” with violet vestments, yet fasting was optional.

The readings for the three Sundays before Lent served as a prelude. Septuagesima had the Fall of Man, with Adam and Eve expelled from Paradise. Sexagesima had Noah and the Flood. Quinquagesima had Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, his beloved son. Lent is a season of preparation for Easter celebration, but in the era before Vatican II, there was preparation for Lent itself. It was not an abrupt change from Carnival indulgence to Ash Wednesday abstinence, rather it was its own preparation for the great season of Lent. Vatican II replaced Septuagesima and its following Sundays with “Ordinary Time.”

On the Catholic Culture website, blogger Jennifer Gregory Miller argued in a post this February “What is Septuagesima? (And why it’s no longer in the current Calendar)” that this transitional season caused confusion, that it had mixed messages. It allegedly put the Church year off-kilter, losing its focus on Easter as the culmination of all feasts. It had the appearance of Lent without its substance or meaning.

Seen from the historical tradition, Septuagesima is a paradoxical, bittersweet “season.” Septuagesima means “70,” in a sense adding to the 40 days of Lent. It recalls the Israelites’ 70-year journey to the Promised Land, as well as their 70-year exile in Babylon. Catholics, and even some Protestants, such as Episcopalians, Lutherans and Presbyterians, have the custom of “burying” the Alleluia. They will take a scroll with “Alleluia” written on it, giving it the solemnities of a funeral and burial. It was a time of special commemoration in the Middle Ages. The song “Alleluia, Dulce Carmen” (“Alleluia, Song of Gladness”) is still in the official Episcopalian hymnal. Septuagesima celebrated the things Lent would be sacrificing- from meat and eggs, to the “Alleluia” itself.

Septuagesima fills a transitional role. Lent is meant to be a challenge; Septuagesima and its following Sundays are preparation for it; by giving it a personal rationale, it takes Lent beyond abstract theology. It eases people into an ascetic mentality, but not all at once. The focus is still on Easter.

The readings for Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima focus on the Old Testament in preparation for the New. They are recapitulated at the Easter Vigil. The Fall of Man, Noah’s Flood, and Abraham’s sacrifice are catastrophes that point the way to Our Lord. Adam and Eve lose their innocence, are exiled from Eden, yet God promises a savior (Genesis 3:15). Noah and his family survive the devastating flood, yet there is a new covenant (Genesis 9:8-17). Finally, God commands Abraham to sacrifice his beloved son Isaac. Since Abraham did not withhold his only son from God (Genesis 22;12), he is greatly blessed (Genesis 22:15-18).

Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima translate from the Latin as 70, 60 and 50 respectively. These Sundays served (and in some parishes following the pre-1970 liturgical calendar still serve) as a countdown to Lent. Countdowns give people an awareness of time — be it a two-minute warning in football or the final 10 seconds of a cooking competition. Countdowns keep time from merely passing. It is about making the most of every minute. The three weeks leading to Lent were a “season” of their own, albeit a transitional one, until Ordinary Time replaced them.

When Ordinary Time supplanted Septuagesima and its companion weeks, it was simplification. The time of preparation for Lent was replaced with a quick change from feasting to fasting. People were no longer eased into the sobriety of Ash Wednesday. “Ordinary Time” minimalizes the interval between Christmas celebration and Lenten ascetism. The sense of time is flattened. Simplification, by nature, is biased.

In this case, it is about doing the very minimal: retain the readings but erase the “season” that makes the readings into a coherent, holistic theology. When everything is cut down and simplified, it comes as no surprise that people question whether Lenten fasting and abstinence is applicable to Sundays, or whether faux meats like Impossible Burger are permissible. Life is naturally complex. When one looks at the Holy Trinity, God Himself is beyond our limited understanding. Our understanding and mentality have been simplified until complexity seems pointless and confusing.

While some parishes and dioceses still keep Septuagesima, this Lent reminds us of the wisdom (Ecclesiastes 3:1): “To everything there is a season, and time for every matter under heaven.” Even intricacy and density have their place, and the old calendar gave them their due.

Oscar Wilde’s longtime fascination with the Church and his commemoration of Septuagesima shows how the Church understands human nature. Wilde famously said, “The Roman Catholic Church is for saints and sinners alone — for respectable people, the Anglican Church will do.” He appreciated the Church’s nuanced complexity.

In his prison memoir De Profundis, he wrote:

Even for us, there is left some loveliness of environment, and the dullness of tutors and professors matters very little when one can loiter in the grey cloisters at Magdalen, and listen to some flute-like voice singing in Waynfleete’s chapel, or lie in the green meadow, among the strange snakespotted fritillaries, or watch the sunburnt noon smite to a finer gold the tower’s gilded vanes, or wander up the Christ Church staircase beneath the vaulted ceiling’s shadowy fans, or pass through the sculptured gateway of Laud’s building in the College of St. John.

In the complex beauty of the Church, we find Truth.