Back in February, my colleague and brother priest Fr. Mark Michael wrote a learned and helpful piece on the “Gesimas,” those three Sundays before Ash Wednesday that formed a pre- or expanded Lent in all the historic Anglican Books of Common Prayer, up to and including the 1928 American prayer book: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Following the lead of Vatican II and the liturgical movement of the 20th century, the Episcopal Church dropped the Gesimas in the 1979 Book of Common Prayer. I should add that Fr. Mark is one of many writers addressing this topic this year.
While I find myself in agreement with his characterization of penance (and how that is too often short-circuited even by the patterns of contemporary church life), I would like to offer a counterpoint to his advocacy for restoring the Gesimas. My hope is that, as this piece is appearing in Lent, the point will be made more strongly.
In sum, Fr. Michael’s very welcome point is that Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday helps make the season of Lent more coherent: Lent makes better sense with a pre-Lent, especially given the changes to the readings. I would like to suggest here that Lent and Easter make better sense with an Epiphanytide and that the changed Epiphanytide readings help do that.
Lent is the preparation.
Advocates for the Gesimas talk about those three weeks as a needful opportunity to ready one’s self and the faithful congregation for Lent. The argument runs that we need to prepare for Lent, make a game plan, and then when Ash Wednesday hits, we can get down to business. Fr. Michael, drawing from classical Catholic and Protestant approaches to penance, notes the need for the examen and facing the demands of the law in order to honestly engage repentance. Otherwise, we futz around, figure out what we’re going to do, and then only have a plan when Lent is half-finished.
The problem here seems twofold to me. First, Lent is the preparation for the paschal feast. To state the obvious, it lasts six weeks, roughly a month and a half. Moreover, all this preparation for the preparation, planning our disciplines, could make Lent into the main event. This seems a misplaced emphasis.
Second, I’m not sure why can’t we have some false starts as we work out our salvation with fear and trembling. Are we really to be in the same spiritual place on Ash Wednesday as the Wednesday in Holy Week? In the 1979 BCP we have two proper prefaces for Lent, and I would guess that most priests use the first one for early Lent and the second for later Lent. In other words, even liturgically, it seems that preparations grow and evolve over the course of the preparatory season. We get closer and closer to the main event: the emotional and spiritual roller coaster that is the Triduum and the exuberant joy that comes on Easter Day.
I also feel the need, even as a fairly traditional Anglo-Catholic, to sound a somewhat Lutheran note here: no discipline of our contrivance is going to get us there. To some extent, Easter should surprise us, much as the Incarnation caught us off guard despite all our efforts, much as the inbreaking grace of God overwhelms the sinner, much as the return of our Lord Jesus will be at an hour known only to the Father.
Are disciplines therefore bad things, the playthings of Pelagians?
No. Please do not misunderstand me. But we must be clear that our Lenten disciplines are really meant to prepare us for something else, to clear us out and ready us, to help us to feel the hard wood of the cross laid on our shoulders so as to soften our hearts and minds for the reality of Christ’s free gift once offered. These disciplines are not meant to perfect us — that task is in the hands of a gracious Savior who alone has made expiation for our sins. So, as a pastor, I say it’s fine to land on your discipline a week or so into the season. And hopefully new insights and new opportunities will come along, as we prepare ourselves for Easter. I also wonder about the need to create personalized disciplines when the church has long taught making a well-prepared confession, fasting, almsgiving, and prayer. One might add increased Scripture study and service among the poor. It is not necessary for each of us to have a deeply personalized discipline, but rather to submit to patterns of penance the Church developed long ago.
Epiphany has become a season and that is a good thing.
The real concern I have about a return to the Gesimas is the loss of something that has emerged in the past generation. Contrary to every liturgical expert I know, I want to argue that there really is an Epiphany season in which we corporately and individually face Jesus’ question: Who do you say I am? (Mark 8, Luke 9, Matthew 18)
In the old prayer books, from the 16th-century books of Cranmer to that Caroline edition of 1662 that shaped the whole Anglican world to the Scots-American tradition, Epiphany was clearly only a feast day, January 6. The period after January 6 was what our Roman Catholic friends call “ordinary time.” Then the Gesimas appeared as the three final Sundays before Ash Wednesday and the themes on those three Sundays were obviously Lenten. It was not Lent yet, but still (wink wink, nod nod) let’s think about the Passion. The preceding Sundays had been “Sundays after the Epiphany.” Then the orientation “after Epiphany” disappeared in favor of “before Lent.” Note that the final Sunday before Lent, Quinquagesima, always had Luke 18, a prophesy of Jesus’ passion for the Gospel lesson. That was true of 1549, 1928, and every book in between.
But look what we have now! In the 1979 book, from January 6 to “The Last Sunday after the Epiphany,” we have fairly consistent propers (the collects, psalms, and lessons). They come back again and again to Jesus’ identity. We see him adored by the Magi, pointing to his ultimate inclusion of the Gentiles, and likewise their gifts show him to be “king, and God, and sacrifice.” And then we see his baptism with the voice from on high identifying him as “my beloved son.”
But there is more. We hear lessons about healings, turning water into wine, instances of the messianic secret, Peter’s confession, the Sermon on the Mount (tying him back to Moses and the covenant). And then we come to that last Sunday where we see Christ on the mount with Elijah (the prophets) and Moses (the Law). The cloud surrounds Jesus and the Father says again, This is my son. Here is the payoff: Christ is the full, visible presence of God. In Matthew’s Gospel this year, the lesson even begins by referencing Peter’s confession, “you are the Christ.”
Epiphany, as a season, now has a liturgical and catechetical integrity: We are led steadily to the Mount of Transfiguration, and only after we’ve answered the Epiphany question — Who is this Jesus? — can we make our preparations for Mount Calvary. With that clear vision of Jesus the Christ, the Son of God, we are ready to take a deep breath and face deeply into our sins on Ash Wednesday and the following half-dozen Sundays. Our communities need this new season, Epiphanytide (as Fr. Michael rightly calls it). It has become a time to think and pray through that question without Lent intruding just yet. This year we’ve had a very long Epiphanytide. But many years, were we to restore the Gesimas, Epiphanytide, this season in which we see Christ clearly, would be so contracted as to be completely missed, consumed by Lent.
Let me rephrase my two arguments by venturing this thesis: If we shortchange what Epiphany, as a season, offers us (a rich Christology), then we are not really prepared for Easter (the main event) and, perhaps ironically, we might shortchange Lent by making that time an end in itself, a time for doing things, rather than a steady buildup to the paschal mystery. While arguments for the Gesimas highlight a need for a deeper sense of the demands of discipleship, I think a better understanding of Jesus’ identity puts us on the right footing for the Lenten journey.
Photo courtesy of the Rev. Scott Gunn and his awesome Flickr galleries.