My mother is a church organist, and my brothers and I spent many Saturday afternoons roaming freely around the church’s dusty corners while she worked out her footpedals and chose her stops for the next morning’s selections. Sometimes, when rehearsal was finished, we would help her find the numbers for the hymnboard that hung over the pastor’s chair.
The wooden box that held the hymn numbers also had a section for the words that made up the Sundays and festivals of the Church Year. We were Reformed, but the liturgy’s patterns were still important for us, and I knew most of the words on the black cards well enough: Advent and Lent, Christmas and Pentecost, New Year and Harvest Home.
The longest cards, though, at the back of the stack, were always a bit of a puzzle. They were shinier and less crinkled than the others, and obviously hadn’t been used in a long time. The names were certainly unusual: Quinquagesima, Septuagesima, Sexagesima. Young boys have rather vivid imaginations; I wondered just what kind of religious undertakings were intended for such occasions. Exotic ones, to be sure. Mother didn’t really know. The names sounded Latin, she thought, and maybe someone had sent our little church the Church Year cards intended for the Catholics or Episcopalians.
John Betjeman’s mind must have run along similar tracks, since his poem “Septuagesima” takes the oddity of the name as a kind of cypher for the sundry quirks and oddities of Anglicanism. It is, he says,
A somewhat unattractive time
Which hardly lends itself to rhyme.
But still it gives the chance to me
To praise our dear old C. of E.
A gently pious and characteristically cheery paean unfolds from there, gathering the many unsung heroes of parish life:
Let’s praise the man who goes to light
The church stove on an icy night.
Let’s praise that hard-worked he or she
The Treasurer of the P.C.C.
Let’s praise the cleaner of the aisles,
The nave and candlesticks and tiles.
But most of all let’s praise the few
Who are seen in their accustomed pew
Throughout the year, whate’er the weather,
That they may worship God together.
Betjeman’s poem opens with a solid explanation of that “somewhat unattractive time” of exotic-sounding names:
Septuagesima – seventy days
To Easter’s primrose tide of praise;
The Gesimas – Septua, Sexa, Quinc
Mean Lent is near, which makes you think.
Septuagesima – when we’re told
To “run the race”, to “keep our hold”,
Ignore injustice, not give in,
and practise stern self-discipline;
Those Gesimas are number names, Betjeman recalled — Latin ones, as my mother had guessed. The words mean simply seventy (Septuagesima), sixty (Sexagesima) and fifty (Quinquagesima). They mark out the ninth, eighth and seventh Sundays before Easter. And prior to the Roman Catholic Calendar reforms of 1969, they were universally observed in Western Churches, Catholic and Protestant (at least the Protestants who used liturgical calendars).
I later learned that my mother’s theory about the church supply company’s mistaken shipment was wrong. The calendar at the back of the Hymnal of the Evangelical and Reformed Church (1941), stacked up in our pews, even included the Gesimas. But we had indeed followed in lockstep with the Roman Catholics, allowing these Sundays to vanish completely from the praying life of our congregation.
That well may have been a mistake. The cycle of liturgical time focused on the Paschal Mystery demonstrated much greater coherence, with the advantage of beginning with three weeks intended, as Betjeman says, to “make you think.” With their summons to “run the race,” to “keep our hold,” the three Gesima Sundays established a context in which Lent’s summons to repentance and Easter’s announcement of the joy of forgiveness made perfect sense.
First, Septuagesima inaugurated a season of seventy days leading to the miracle of Easter. Not seventy precisely, of course. Though it drives a certain kind of modern liturgist batty, the old monks knew precisely that nine times seven days is actually 63. But seventy is one of those great evocative Biblical numbers. God had chastised Israel for its sin by an exile of seventy years (or rather almost seventy years). In Babylon, they learned the full measure of God’s law and then turned to him in prayer and fasting, mourning for their sins. There were no songs of praise there: “as for our harps, we hanged them up upon the trees that were therein” (Ps. 137:2).
So God’s people would wear the violet of mourning from Septuagesima. The Alleluia, the Gloria in Excelsis, the Te Deum — those songs of our heavenly homeland — they would all be silenced. In prayer and fasting, mindful of God’s just demands, pleading for his abundant mercy, we too would wait until the messenger might arrive with “good tidings of good.” He “that publisheth salvation; that saith unto Zion, Thy God reigneth!” (Isa. 52:7)
The Sunday lessons and collects for the Gesima Sundays clearly announced the just demands of God’s covenant with his people. Septuagesima’s Epistle was I Cor. 9:24-27, Saint Paul’s bracing call to self-discipline and mortification: “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain.” The Gospel was Jesus’ parable of the laborers in the vineyard, with its assumed exhortation to serve the master fairly in the time he has provided. The traditional collect, pairing the texts’ summons with a deep awareness of our own failure, asks “that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness.”
Sexagesima paired 1 Cor. 11:19-31, Saint Paul’s catalogue of his heroic sufferings, his “boasts in mine infirmity,” with a prayer that God would grant “that we do not put our trust in any thing that we do.”
Quinquagesima’s readings and collect exalt “that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever lives is counted dead before thee.”
The Gesima Sundays parse just how much is expected of us. They are a school in the virtues, a summons to follow Christ completely, a vision of our graced potential. We turn to God in penitence precisely because we see our own failings in their faithful mirror. “Examine your lives and conduct by the rule of God’s commandments,” urges the Exhortation, “that you may perceive wherein you have offended in what you have done or left undone, whether in thought, word, or deed. And acknowledge your sins before Almighty God, with full purpose of amendment of life.” Self-examination is the necessary starting place for true contrition. We cannot repent truly until we understand just what is expected of us. The Catholic penitent begins with his examen, and the Protestant preacher knows the congregation must hear the Law clearly before it can receive the Gospel’s comfort.
If the Lenten season is about the “one thing necessary,” if it is a school in conversion to Christ, a grappling with the heart of his Gospel, the Gesimas are an irreplaceable beginning to that process. We examine our consciences for three weeks, we repent for four in prayer, fasting and almsgiving. As Passiontide dawns, we face the mercy-seat, where our deliverance is secured. And then Easter dawns, with all the promise of forgiveness secured, grace freely offered. Such an extended process is clearly envisioned in the climax that comes with the traditional Easter collect:
GOD, who for our redemption didst give thine only-begotten Son to the death of the Cross, and by his glorious resurrection hast delivered us from the power of our enemy; Grant us so to die daily from sin, that we may evermore live with him in the joy of his resurrection.
But pruned of the Gesimas, Lent is a far less coherent season. Ash Wednesday comes out of the blue, as congregants spent the Sunday prior contemplating the splendors of the Holy Mount. The prayer book’s litany of penitence is searching, but does a quick catalog of failings (a good part of them societal, not personal) really prepare us to sing the Miserere? Is it any wonder that some well-meaning people would end up thinking “Ashes to go” make sense in a subway station?
And what can the poor preacher make of the jumble of Sunday readings in Lent? The collects, to be sure, are mostly traditional, and point to personal conversion. But while some of the Gospels are chosen to mark Christ’s journey to Jerusalem, the Cycle in Year A is more an explication of Baptism. The Old Testament lessons, many plucked from the Easter Vigil, give a chronology of salvation history. An embarrassment of riches for the preacher, to be sure, but not easily connected to traditional hymns, prayers and devotions of the season. Smarmy sermons about how “we don’t grovel in Lent any more” only make things more confusing, leaving behind inarticulate guilt and a sense that we ought to be a bit more spiritual and productive — washed-up Pelagian longings in this most Augustinian of seasons.
Bringing back the Gesimas in some meaningful sense may help to tilt the balance in the other direction. This year’s prolonged exposure to the Sermon on the Mount in the Epiphanytide Gospels allows the preacher to speak plainly to the true cost of discipleship. Reading the Decalogue and singing a heart-rending Kyrie might open up a new focus on how our encounter with God’s grace begins in knowing the full measure of his will. There’s no rule in the current prayer book against reading the Exhortation on the Sixth Sunday after the Epiphany.
Maybe those Sundays with those long-exotic names offer something we’ve been missing the last few decades. Pulling them out again might help us to keep a more holy Lent, discovering anew God’s justice, mercy, and redemption.