The ‘Gesimas’

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According to Pope Saint Leo the Great, the forty days of fasting prior to Easter is of Apostolic origin. These forty days of Lent are a season of penance and preparation for the faithful as we prepare for the joyful commemoration of the Resurrection of Christ at Easter.

Lent is often seen as the time for ‘asceticism’ and asceticism originally referred to athletic rigour and competition. As you know, most professional sports also have a “pre-season” dedicated to preparing for the real season. Coaches know that their athletes need a few unofficial games to get back in the swing of things. It’s also a time for coaches to re-evaluate their strategies for the “real season.”

Centuries ago, the Greek (Orthodox) Churches began to anticipate the Great Lent by a lighter penitential pre-season prior to Lent. Pope Gregory the Great corresponded to this tradition and added three additional weeks of preparation prior to Ash Wednesday. These Sundays were called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays – Latin for “seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth.”

 This begs the question, why do we need a “pre-Lent” to prepare for “real Lent”? Greek (Orthodox) Churches began to anticipate the Great Lent by a lighter penitential pre-season prior to Lent. Pope Gregory the Great corresponded to this tradition and added three additional weeks of preparation prior to Ash Wednesday. These Sundays were called Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima Sundays – Latin for “seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth.”

The “pre-Lent” season of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima are not Lenten days per se, but they are preparatory. The idea is that we cannot quit “cold turkey” and go into “penance mode” over-night between Fat (aka Shrove) Tuesday (Mardi Gras) to Ash Wednesday. We must gradually adjust our minds, our habits, our wills, by prayerful discernment. We begin to get ready for Lent on Septuagesima, so that we’re in full swing by Ash Wednesday. Like sports players, we can make adjustments during this time so that when Lent begins, we’re ready to go.

Quinquagesima Sunday is indeed the fiftieth day before Easter (counting inclusively), but the other Sundays, “Sexagesima” and “Septuagesima,” do not correspond to the interval between these Sundays and Easter. They are simply round numbers.*

If we observe Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima as pre-Lent Season preparation, they have a psychological effect. We won’t be surprised by the coming of Lent. We won’t say: “Crikey, tomorrow is Ash Wednesday! Where did that come from?” The three Sundays of Septuagesima are like weather alerts. You know that the Holy Season is gradually approaching. Happy ‘Gesimas’ to one and all!

© Dr Taylor Marshall, February 2012

  • [Incidentally, Amalarius of Metz would have the name indicate a period of “seventy days” made up of the nine weeks to Easter plus Easter Week as mystically signifying the seventy-year Babylonian captivity. Nifty if obscure!]