Sunday, 15 February 2015

More on the Loss of Septuagesima

"...Babylon, that city which plots our ruin..."

About a year ago, I wrote here on the problems with the post-conciliar abolition of the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesima. This season was traditionally a time of preparation for the coming season of Lent, during which we do penance for our sins, in mourning for the death of Christ which we ourselves have inflicted upon him. The three weeks prior to Lent, though not a season of obligatory penance, nonetheless serve to prepare Christian minds for the entrance into the strictly penitential season. While penances have not yet begun in this season, the penitential spirit now begins to take its place in the souls of the worshipers.

But there is also a profound symbolism connected with this season which was lost in the post-conciliar reform. The liturgical year repeatedly presents us with opportunities to consider the history of salvation insofar as it is effected through each of the mysteries celebrated.. One of the significant ways in which this is accomplished is by a renewal and repetition of the imagery of the seven days of creation. The fathers of the Church, based firmly in scriptural footing, understood the number seven to be fundamental for understanding all of human history as directed towards eternal salvation. The concept of the eighth day was accordingly understood as a sign of salvation itself. This concept of the eighth day is firmly rooted in scripture. Circumcision in the Old Testament, which prefigured Baptism, was accomplished on the eighth day by the command of God. The Resurrection of Christ occurred on the first day of the week - the day after the sabbath. The number eight thus signifies resurrection, new life, the renewal of creation, and so, ultimately, eternal salvation itself. The patristic tradition, exemplified by St. Augustine in The City of God, divides all of human history into seven ages. The seventh age, corresponding to the seventh day, signifies a final resting in God in this life, but not yet the eternal life of the beatific vision. This eternal life is the eighth day, a never ending day.

This numerological symbolism manifests itself liturgically in many ways, such as in the division of the traditional liturgical year into seven seasons: Advent, Christmas, Septuagesima, Lent, Passiontide, Easter, and Pentecost. Moreover, within this framework itself there are many other indications of the deep symbolism of the numbers seven and eight. A notable example is the celebration of octaves - eight day prolongations of the celebrations of certain feasts. Before the reforms of the 20th century, octaves were a common feature of the liturgical calendar. This symbolism also appears in the period between Easter and Pentecost. The number seven has many other significant meanings in the life of the Church (seven sacraments, seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, etc.), and could take a treatise all by itself.

It dawned on me when reading Dom Gueranger that the time comprising Septuagesima through Easter is another particular manifestation of this symbolism within the liturgical year. Septuagesima Sunday marks the seventieth day (7 x 10) before Easter itself. In this season we enter into a renewed commemoration of the mystery of salvation and its working through history. The word Septuagesima signifies the number seventy, in commemoration of the seventy years of the Babylonian captivity - itself a symbol of the captivity of man in sin. The Church adapts the symbolism of seventy years to the period of forty days plus the three weeks of Septuagesima - not an exact equality (it amounts to 63 days), but the essential idea of the numerological symbolism is preserved. Lent itself is also named Quadragesima. Hence, the period from Septuagesima symbolically constitutes a reverse countdown, so to speak, to Easter day, which marks the end of the seventy days. We are aware in a special way, during this time, of our captivity in sin, and the history of our salvation is presented for our contemplation in a specially vivid way. The collects of this period begin to remind us ever so poignantly of the darker realities of our fallen nature.

The Collect of Septuagesima Sunday:
The prayers of your people, we beseech you, O Lord, graciously hear, that we who are justly afflicted on account of our sins may be, for the sake of your name, mercifully set free.
The Collect of Sexagesima Sunday:
O God, who see that we trust in no deed of our own: mercifully grant that we may be defended against all hostile forces by the protection of the Doctor of the Gentiles. [There is a special devotion to St. Paul expressed in the liturgy of this day.]
The Collect of Quinquagesima Sunday (which is today):
Our prayers, we beseech you, O Lord, mercifully hear: and, when we have been freed from the fetters of our sins, protect us from every misfortune.
This rich theology and spirituality of the liturgy - with all its deep biblical and patristic symbolism of the seven days and their culmination in the eternal eighth - is quite lost in the liturgy of Pope Paul VI. The traditional symbolism of man's bondage in sin, from which he is freed by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, and reborn into eternal life on the eighth day, is now quite botched and distorted. As a consequence, that continuous contemplation through the liturgical year, previously facilitated by the ancient liturgical tradition, is now crippled and maimed.

This is a classic example of where the rationalistic concerns of the liturgical reformers were given precedence over the theology already inherent in the traditional liturgy. Rationalism subjects everything in the liturgy to human scrutiny, and the suitability of liturgical elements is judged in the cold light of the principles of "reason." The reformers considered Septuagesima to be superfluous, and unnecessary backward extension of Lent (which, of course, it is not). "Reason" would demand that such a thing be done away with; so they did away with it. They thought that by eliminating Septuagesima they could "restore Lent to its full importance" (in the words of Archbishop Bugnini). Lauren Pristas argues persuasively that quite the opposite is true, since one does not really tend to prepare for what is not important - as the Church does in the preparatory season of Septuagesima. Moreover, Septuagesima fits into the symbolic framework of the number seven, something worth preserving in and of itself. But the ancient tradition of the Church was not well enough esteemed. Rationalism prevailed, and the Church lost yet another of the riches of her venerable liturgy.

I close with a brief meditation from Dom Gueranger, from his own treatise on the Mystery of Septuagesima:
We are sojourners upon this earth; we are exiles and captives in Babylon, that city which plots our ruin. If we love our country, - if we long to return to it, - we must be proof against the lying allurements of this strange land, and refuse the cup she proffers us, and with which she maddens so many of our fellow captives. She invites us to join in her feasts and her songs; but we must unstring our harps, and hang them on the willows that grow on her river’s bank, till the signal be given for our return to Jerusalem [Ps. cxxv]. She will ask us to sing to her the melodies of our dear Sion: but, how shall we, who are so far from home, have heart to sing the Song of the Lord in a strange Land? [Ps. cxxxvi]. No, - there must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves for ever.


  1. A notable Post. Thank You.

    The tremendous destruction wrought throughout The Church, and within her Liturgy, during the Post-Conciliar age, indeed makes one weep.

    However, constant Prayer will prevail.

    " . . . and know that I am with you, even unto the end of time. And the Gates of Hell shall not prevail against it (The Church)."

    Another "Seven". There are Seven layers of skin in the human body:

    The Dermis;
    The Epidermis;
    Stratum Basale;
    Stratum spinosum;
    Stratum granulosum;
    Stratum lucidium;
    Stratum corneum.

    in Domino

  2. Christ rose on the eighth day and appeared to St Thomas and the brethren again on the eighth day of the new week!