What’s a Gesima? The Church Prepares for Lent
In the traditional liturgical Church Year, this Sunday and the two following are known as “gesima” Sundays, and the three Sunday period we are now in, is known as pre-Lent. What is the meaning of “gesima” and why a three week “pre-Lent.” Here’s a great article by my friend Terry Maher explaining what’s going on at this point in the historic Church Year.
There’s been some joyous events these last few weeks — the birth of Jesus, his naming and circumcision, the first Gentiles to find him, and his baptism. On various dates and combinations from place to place through the ages, the Christian Church has offered its members celebrations of these things in its church year.
But a change is coming, one already present amid the joy. We know as we celebrate his birth that he was born for us so he could die for us. We know as his blood was spilled in circumcision, putting him under the Law, his blood would be spilled on the Cross, to redeem us from under the Law. We saw that the Gentiles who found him had to return by a different way, as the way of all who find him is different afterward. And after his baptism, Jesus will spend forty days in the desert before beginning his public ministry, wherein he will be tempted to make himself into the various false Messiahs into which Man makes him anyway so often. We will soon imitate those forty days for our own devotion with the season of Lent, on the way to the Cross, without which Easter is but another metaphor or myth. A change is coming.
So the church provides a transitional time between the first and second of its three great seasons, as the joyous events from preparing for his birth to his baptism, Advent-Christmas-Circumcision-Naming-Manifestation-Baptism, now turn to the literally deadly serious reason why they happened, sin and our redemption from sin. Just like with the Christmas related season, this has taken various forms in various places and times but within the same general pattern, and the universal practice of the Christian Church since ancient times (well, until 1960s Rome messed with it, but we’ll get to that) has been to provide a transition from the beginnings of Jesus’ earthly life to the end of it.
So, Septuagesima is 70 Days, Sexagesima is 60 Days, Quinqagesima is 50 Days. Simple. Right? Sure…but…what are all these “gesimas” about, pronounced “jeh-see-mah,” emphasis on first syllable. Glad you asked.
Septuagesima is simply another word for Seventy Days, that’s all. The modern English word is derived from Middle English in turn from Old French in turn from the actual Late Latin word septuagesima meaning seventieth day. The septua- part is the same prefix for seven or multiples by ten of seven seen in other English words — septet, an ensemble of seven; septuagenarian, someone in his 70s; the Septuagint, the translation into Greek of the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy scholars — and the -gesima part derives from the Latin for days, dies.
With the Seventieth Day, or Septuagesima, the change is apparent on various levels. The white vestments of Christmastime joy give way to purple or violet of repentance; the joyful exclamation Alleluia and other joyful expressions like the Te Deum and the Gloria (there ain’t no This Is The Feast) are not used, and the readings, especially if one follows the hours of prayer, the Divine Office, begin their way through the sorry history of Man from his creation and fall on, which the Holy Saturday liturgy will recapitulate.
On Septuagesima itself, the Gospel reading is Matthew 20:1-16, the story of the workers in the vineyard, wherein we see Man the same as from the start in Eden, trying to impose his ideas of what is right on to God’s, this time arguing over whether the same wage is fair for those who worked all day, those hired at the last, and everyone in between, as if we deserved anything from God and it were not his to give and not ours to presume or demand anyway. So we argue with God and each other over the denarius rather than taking in in gratitude from him who owed us nothing! Kind of the whole problem in a nutshell.
The Eastern Church uses the following on its five Sundays in the Pre Lenten Season: 1) the story of Zacchaeus, 2) the Publican and the Pharisee, 3) the Prodigal Son, 4) the Last Judgement, and 5) the Sunday of Forgiveness.
The world, which has ever had its early Spring celebrations, has in many lands timed them on Lent, so pre-Lent attains a nature as opposite from its Christian meaning as Advent has become the gift buying and partying season before Christmas. At the beginning of Lent, fasting in some form is observed, usually involving abstaining from meat, and the most likely origin of the the name for the worldly face of all this, carnival, is a farewell to meat (flesh), from the Latin root carne- for meat or flesh (as in carnivore) and vale, good-bye (as in valedictory). In most but not all places, Septuagesima is the start of carnival season, to end just before Lent starts on Ash Wednesday. As the church prepares for the penitential season of Lent the world enjoys the flesh, in all senses of the word.
In the Western Church, in most denominations that follow a liturgical calendar, the transitional pre-Lenten period has been abolished altogether! And not only is this important transition dropped, the period of time it formerly took is simply counted as Ordinary Time. That would be bad enough if ordinary here meant what ordinary ordinarily means. Ordinary here means the literal meaning of ordinary, which is, something that has no particular name or identity but is simply numbered. So in the novus ordo and the various adaptations of it, this significant time of transition from the Christmas cyle to the Easter cyle simply ceases to exist, in numbered anonymity, in the face of nearly two millennia of Christian observance in varying forms, and the continuing observance of those who do not follow suit. Well, when you’re the Whore of Babylon, you do stuff like that, maybe even have to do stuff like that. Not a lead for the church of Christ to follow.
Actually, at first in English Lent itself followed the Gesima pattern and was called Quadragesima, meaning forty days, the duration of Lent in the West, which was also the name of the first Sunday in Lent, a word that then just meant Spring. This still survives in other languages. For example in Spanish the word is Cuaresma for Lent. No word yet on whether Rome can get languages like Spanish to quit calling Lent after a pattern it has abolished. The world, though, seems securely attached to its traditions; Carnival season will endure though Pre-Lent is done in. Who knows? Maybe the next council can get Ash Wednesday moved to the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, for “pastoral reasons” of course, like they jacked around the date of Epiphany, or move it to the Monday after and call it reclaiming our ancient Greek roots.
The Eastern Church still has its Pre Lenten Season.
In the Western Church, the earliest Septuagesima can fall is 18 January and the latest 22 February. This year, 2009, it’s 8 February. Join the Christian Church, East or West, in this transition, whatever your church body may have chosen to do, as we turn to the preparation for Lent, the observance of that for which he whose birth we recently celebrated came to die and then rise again, and the Easter and Pentecost joy to follow in anticipation of the eternal joy of heaven!
We start with learning from the workers in the vineyard not to haggle over the denarius but understand whose it is and that it is a gift, or, from the call of Jesus to Zacchaeus, who collected taxes for the foreign oppressors, that he doesn’t have to climb a tree to see him, that he is coming to his very house — which btw produced more grumbling about what is right and just — after which Zacchaeus repented and made restitution to his brethren. The Son of Man has indeed come to seek and save the lost — don’t worry about being seeker-sensitive, HE is the seeker — whether that be those who cast aside their own people for power or those who are idle because they are not hired, as we all seek our own gain first by nature and are all “unemployable” before the justice of God, who shows us mercy instead in Christ Whom He has sent.
Here are the readings for the three Sundays of Gesimatide. It has been noted that the three correspond with the three “solas” of the Lutheran Reformation.
Septuagesima Sunday, “70 Days”.
Psalm 18:5,6,7. Verse Psalm 18:2,3.
O Lord, we beseech Thee favourably to hear the prayers of Thy people that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by The goodness, for the glory of Thy name, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Saviour, who liveth etc.
1 Cor 9:24 – 10:5.
Matthew 20:1-16. The Workers in the Vinyard. Sola gratia, by grace alone.
Sexagesima Sunday, “60 Days”.
Psalm 44:23-26. Verse Psalm 44:2.
O God, who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do, mercifully grant that by Thy power we may be defended against all adversity, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, who liveth etc.
2 Cor 11:19 – 12.9
Luke 8:4-15. The Sower and the Seed. Sola scriptura, by scripture alone.
Quinquagesima Sunday, “50 Days”.
Psalm 31:3,4. Verse Psalm 31:1.
O Lord, we beseech Thee, mercifully hear our prayers and, having set us free from the bonds of sin, defend us from all evil, through Jesus Christ, Thy Son, Our Lord, who liveth etc.
1 Cor 13:1-13.
Luke 18:31-43. Healing the Blind Man. Sola fide, by faith alone.