Tuesday, March 1, 2016
A Lenten foreplay. . .
The invention of Pre-Lent for the Western calendar is not clear but it was clearly borrowed from the Eastern or Byzantine calendar. There the paschal season of the Church is preceded by the season of Great Lent, itself preceded by its own liturgical preparation. Great Lent is heralded by the five Sundays before its beginning, Pre-Lent. Perhaps Gregory the Great picked up the idea for Pre-Lent from Constantinople. When he returned from his visit there and was elected pope, he made some liturgical changes which some have described as Byzantinisations.
Since the 6th or 7th centuries, seventy days before the celebration of Easter was set, including both Pre-Lent and Lent, the preparation for the Paschal feast. This season of Pre-Lent, or often simply described as the time of the Gesimas, has Sundays marked with their numerical name: seventy (Septuagesima), sixty (Sexagesima), and fifty (Quinquagesima). They symbolically refer to the days respectively before Easter though it is a symbolic numbering and not an actual one.
The forty days of Lent represent the forty days and nights that Our Lord spent in the wilderness, the forty years which the People of Israel spent in exodus, and a host of other significant references to forty in the Old Testament. The seventy days before Easter, which adds Pre-Lent to Lent, parallels the Babylonian captivity of seventy years. Though in actuality there are 63 days, Dom Prosper Guéranger explained that “the Church, according to the style so continually used in the Sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.”
This Pre-Lenten season then awakens the Church to the real urgency of Lent -- to the classic time of conversion and catechesis, baptism and confirmation, repentance and right relationship. It was Paul VI said these Sundays act as the bells that summon the faithful to the church. Perhaps, we may never know the actual origins but this is what we have. The faithful are bidden to prepare for the great preparation, for the Lenten fast and almsgiving, repentance and devotion, that will prepare them for the great and holy day of Easter and its restoration of Alleluia in the joyful expression of the Resurrection of our Lord (and with Him our own hope of glory).