Septuagesima, Sexagesima, Quinquagesima … the names fascinated me as a boy.
There they were in the Book of Common Prayer, the names of the Sundays before Lent. The priest at my boyhood church called them the ‘Gesima Sundays.’ For these curious sounding Sundays the colours in church had changed from green to violet. Hymns using Alleluia were avoided. Things were getting more serious. We felt we were in a new devotional period, a gradual season of transition, a season of getting ready. The names, dating from the 5th century, referred to days before Easter – Quinquagesima, for example, from the Latin for fifty – the Sunday fifty days before Easter. The names, the colour change, told us Lent was on its way.
Fashions change and many churches, following a desire to simplify and avoid arcane terminology, have stopped using these exotic sounding names. Now we are more likely to find the more prosaic ‘3rd Sunday before Lent’ or ‘6th Sunday of Ordinary time’ and the colour green remains right up to Ash Wednesday, the first day of Lent.
From one perspective this curious, and now seldom observed, season of strangely named Sundays isn’t needed. After all Lent is described as the season of preparation for Easter. Do we need a season to prepare for preparing?
I think perhaps we do. If we are to observe a holy and good Lent, and celebrate the fifty days of Easter then it will help to make plans and prepare carefully. Plans about what to do, or not to do in Lent, need thought, consideration and care. We can prepare by looking at our lives, perhaps making a confession. On an everyday level we can mark on our calendars or in our diaries what times of prayer and quiet we will be keeping. Our preparations can include about what we will read, what we will do differently, which charity we will choose to support and which church activities we will go to.
I hope we can recover the days before Lent begins as a time to slow down a little, and prepare carefully on the steps we will take to grow in, and celebrate, our faith during Lent and Eastertide.