January closes and February brings us on to the pre-penitential season that begins with Septuagesima Sunday, the very short next season in the Liturgical Year. Incredible as it sounds, we have already moved through Advent, Christmas and Epiphany!
Although many will carry the Christmas season to February 2, the feast of the Purification, Septuagesima actually falls at the end of January - this year on January 28. This is the first warning of the approaching Lenten season. The Septuagesima season lasts about two and a half weeks. As a frame of reference, it falls nine Sundays before Easter and three Sundays before Ash Wednesday.
The history of Septuagesima is rich with symbolism. Literally meaning "seventy," Septuagesima recalls the 70 years the Israelites were held captive in Babylon, but can also be applied to the broader reality of our spiritual captivity in sin, until the full redemptive act of Our Savior's Passion, Death and Resurrection Easter Sunday. The liturgy itself becomes more somber, focusing on the fall and misery of man as seen in the Propers for the season. The Alleluia verse disappears from the Gradual, replaced by a Tract. The joyful colors of the Christmas season and white vestments are changed to the violet/purple colors we saw in Advent, reminding us of the penitential season. The Gloria once again is omitted until Easter.
In previous centuries, many faithful began a voluntary fast and abstinence on Septuagesima, gradually building to the more restrictive fast in Lent. A brief respite from the voluntary fast occurred at Shrovetide, celebrated the week before Ash Wednesday.
In many European countries, Shrovetide was set aside for confession and recreation. Restrictions in Lent included eggs, butter, milk and cheese, and, because there was no way to preserve these until Easter, it was only sensible to use up any of these foods before Ash Wednesday.
Two customs in England, in fact, support this. Shrove Tuesday Pancakes (eggs, butter and milk) and Collop Monday (sliced meat and eggs fried in butter) were well known customs. The carnival atmosphere included football games played in the streets, dancing and other forms of revelry. In France, it was called Mardi Gras (Fat Tuesday).
It was to be expected that this carnival setting could be easily abused, leading to excess and scandal. In an attempt to rein in such abuses, in 1748 Pope Benedict XIV instituted the Forty Hours Devotion in honor of the Sacred Heart.
In our own time, Mardi Gras has become a major event, and the celebrations in New Orleans are well known for its weeks of revelry ending on Shrove Tuesday.
While the secular world prepares for Easter in February with candy displays featuring chocolate bunnies, egg dyeing kits, baskets and fake grass, it is important that we not blitz by the opportunities for true Easter preparation, beginning with the Septuagesima season. Adopting some of these activities is a nice way to get our minds focused for the longer penitential Lenten season. A greater consideration of the customs and practices associated with Septuagesima can be found here.