One of the most distinctive features of the historic lectionary is the three Sundays immediately prior to Lent. These Sundays are not part of the Epiphany season, and neither are they part of Lent (which begins on Ash Wednesday). They have their own distinctive Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, from which we get the name of the season, “Gesimatide” (sometimes the season is simply called “pre-Lent”). Those who are familiar with the three-year lectionary may be confused when encountering these Sundays upon visiting a parish that uses the historic lectionary. After all, every other Sunday in the liturgical year bears an immediately recognizable English name, based on a consistent scheme of “The [nth] Sunday in/of/after [Day/Season]”: e.g. “The Second Sunday in Advent” or “The Fifth Sunday After Epiphany.” What is it about these three Sundays that merits distinction?
Gesimatide consists of the three Sundays immediately prior to Lent. Each Sunday bears the Latin word for the [very rough] number of days from then until Easter: Septuagesima (“seventy”), Sexagesima (“sixty”), and Quinquagesima (“fifty”). Indeed, this scheme continues in the Latin name for the season of Lent: Quadragesima (“forty”). As it turns out, Gesimatide is one of the most fascinating seasons in the liturgical calendar.
Gesimatide marks the point in the liturgical year at which we turn from the time of Christmas to the time of Easter. Everything from the First Sunday in Advent until the celebration of the Transfiguration on the Last Sunday after Epiphany finds the celebration of the Nativity of Christ at its center, looking either forward towards it (in the case of Advent) or back to it (in the case of Epiphanytide). Beginning with Septuagesima, we look forward to Easter. This relationship is underscored by the traditional sermon at the Easter Vigil, the Paschal Homily of St. John Chrysostom. Chrysostom directly references the Gospel for Septuagesima in his Paschal homily (the parable of the workers in the vineyard), tying it to the riches of Christ’s resurrection:
If anyone has labored from the first hour, let him receive today his just reward.
If anyone has come after the third hour, let him now be thankful that the feast is at hand.
If anyone has waited until after the sixth hour, let him not be anxious, no loss shall be his own.
If anyone has tarried until the ninth hour, let him draw near also, shedding all his doubts.
If anyone has come even at the eleventh hour, let him not be fearful because of his delay.
For the Master is bountiful and receives the last even as the first.
He gives repose to him who came at the eleventh hour just as to him who labored from the first.
The tardy are shown mercy and the timely are made whole.
To the one He gives, on the other He bestows.
He honors the deed and praises the intention.
Gesimatide is a gentle preparation for the rigors of the Lenten journey. For one does not embark upon a long journey away from home without making the appropriate preparations: reserving hotel rooms, filling the car with fuel, packing luggage, notifying friends and family, stopping the mail, and so on. Likewise, the Church cannot enter into a forty-day fast without first preparing for that fast. The purpose of the fast itself is that the faithful might learn to deny their passions so that they will better be able to resist temptation. Withholding gratification in simple matters (e.g. refusing dessert) for the length of the Lenten fast (40 days, approximately 10% of the year—literally a Biblical tithe of one’s time!) makes it less difficult to resist one’s passions when tempted to sin. Hence, the preparation of pre-Lent: to get the most out of the Lenten fast, one must not dive in head-first, but enter into it having first physically and spiritually prepared.
In Gesimatide the Gospels focus on the three “solas,” one Sunday at a time:
Septuagesima: grace alone. The parable of the workers in the vineyard (Matthew 20:1–16). The Master graciously bestows upon all who work in the vineyard the same reward, no matter how much they did.
Sexagesima: Scripture alone. The parable of the sower (Luke 8:4–15). God’s Word accomplishes that which He purposes, and is preached in its purity that all might hear and come to saving faith.
Quinquagesima: faith alone. Jesus heals a blind man and predicts His death (Luke 18:31–43). The blind man repeatedly cries, “Son of David, have mercy on me,” out of faith that Jesus will have mercy and heal him. Jesus also describes His impending death to His disciples.
Liturgically, we fast in Lent from the Gloria in excelsis (and even the Gloria Patri closer to Holy Week) and the exclamation “Alleluia,” and the paraments are violet, the color of royal mourning (a liturgical mixture of royal purple and black). The liturgical customaries tend to apply these ceremonies to Gesimatide as well, but this is problematic. When the greater Gloria and the Alleluia disappear and violet appears on Gesimatide, there is effectively no ceremonial difference between Quinquagesima and Ash Wednesday. There really ought to be a ceremonial shift of some sort. Therefore, in celebrating Gesimatide at First Lutheran, we use green paraments and retain the Gloria in excelsis (though not the Alleluia), and the annual fast from the Cimbelstern (the bells at the Sanctus) waits until Lent. We also take part in the custom, dating back to at least the 9th century, of “burying the Alleluia” by singing it as many times as possible on the Last Sunday after Epiphany, using two ancient hymns to do so: the 9th-century “Nunc cantemus” at the Sequence, and the 11th-century “Alleluia, Song of Gladness” at the dismissal.
History of Gesimatide
When the three-year lectionary was introduced by the Roman church in 1969, Gesimatide was eliminated. What was in its place depended on which liturgical tradition you followed. If you were Roman, you got the sequentially numbered Sundays of “Ordinary Time,” which proceeded from Epiphany until the Sunday immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, and then picked up again after Pentecost. If you were Lutheran or Anglican, you got a longer Epiphany season, culminating in an observance of the Transfiguration celebrated on the Sunday immediately prior to Ash Wednesday.
One of the disadvantages of the removal of Gesimatide is that the tone of the liturgy shifts so starkly between the end of Epiphanytide and Ash Wednesday. On the Last Sunday after Epiphany we are literally on the mountaintop, having seen with Peter, James, and John the very glory of the Father as revealed in His Son, with Moses and Elijah themselves in discourse with Jesus. And yet a mere three days later we begin the great fast, wearing sackcloth and ashes and mourning our sin. (This kind of shift happens on Palmarum, when the triumphant procession is followed by the Passion, but this is a much more organic shift, for the latter is the natural and inevitable result of the former.) The Gesimatide Sundays give us an opportunity to come down from the mountain—to “set our faces toward Jerusalem,” as did Jesus Himself—and to prepare for the great fast.