Getting ready for Lent
In the traditional Roman calendar, as opposed to the modern one, this Sunday is Septuagesima Sunday. It means seventy days before Easter during which purple vestments are worn and the Gloria and Alleluia are omitted to help get us ready for Lent. Numbers are very important and symbolic in the Bible. The number seven signifies completion and perfection. There are seven Gifts of the Holy Spirit, seven days of the week and there are seven Sacraments instituted by Our Lord. The number twelve also has meaning. In the Old Testament there were twelve sons of Jacob who led the twelve tribes of Israel, and in the New Testament there were twelve Apostles who were the source and foundation of the new Israel – the Catholic Church. The number forty is also highly symbolic – it points to a time of affliction and penance. In the time of Noah it rained for forty days and forty nights. The Jews roamed the desert for forty years until they eventually entered the Promised Land. And Our Lord Himself spent forty days and forty nights fasting and praying in the desert as He prepared to do combat with Satan.
Then seventy symbolises a time of exile. Israel was exiled for seventy years as a punishment for idolatry and for disobeying many of God’s commands and laws. Through Adam the whole human race was exiled from the Garden of Eden or Paradise for disobeying God. And so all of us, not just the Jews, are exiles under the curse of Original Sin. And even after receiving the Sacrament of Baptism which opens the gates of Heaven to us, we are still destined to spend time wondering in the wilderness, so to speak, until our earthly life ends, and then hopefully we will enter eternal life in Heaven. So this period of Septuagesima (approximately seventy days), gives us time to meditate on the fact that we are exiles. Seventy days to consider that we are the “poor banished children of Eve” until we reach the liturgical celebration of Easter which is eternal glory.
So traditionally, this period has penitential aspects and helps us to prepare for the Lenten period of forty days (Quadragesima). I think it’s a pity Septuagesima is not included in the modern calendar. We need signs and symbols to point us towards Lent and to help us prepare for it. Nowadays it can take us by surprise and ends up being less fruitful than it might be. Incidentally, Fr David has told me that Septuagesima is still observed in his Ordinariate Rite. We too, therefore, can still make good preparations for Lent. We just need to be reminded of its approach. Ash Wednesday this year falls on 2nd March.
Lent is a time of penance and mortification (dying to ourselves). Ash Wednesday and Good Friday are days of fasting and abstinence. But this isn’t enough for most of us because we are slaves to our passions. We love our comforts and pleasures. So our Lenten penances should be things that hurt us a little, but not too much. We need to keep a sense of balance. Giving up some food can be good and we can try and attend Mass an extra time in the week and say extra prayers like the Rosary or make the Stations of the Cross. You can give alms. Children could give away some toys to the less fortunate.
Penances should also be discreet and not done for show, because you lose the merit of it by taking the glory for yourself rather than giving it to God. So don’t tell other people what you’re doing. Choose a couple of things you know you can sustain for forty days as opposed to many things which you will end up doing only half-heartedly. So I recommend you begin thinking now about what you will do, so that when you receive the ashes on your forehead on Ash Wednesday you will already have a plan of action.
Fr Paul Gillham, IC