One of the distinctive elements of our life in the personal ordinariates is the calendar which regulates our celebration of the liturgical year as a particular community within the wider Catholic Church. For the next three weeks will we differ from the celebrations in many diocesan parishes, where they continue with the Sundays of the year or Ordinary Time, and ourselves embark on the pre-Lenten season of Septuagesimatide. The apostolic constitution Anglicanorum cœtibus indicates that the liturgical books approved for our use by the Apostolic See are amongst the principal means by which legitimate elements of our Anglican patrimony are to be retained in the Catholic Church, both ‘as a precious gift nourishing the faith of the members of the Ordinariate and as a treasure to be shared’ (AC III). As we begin this distinctive season, then, it is worth asking how this treasure might offer us (and, perhaps, others) that nourishment of faith, and so bring us to a deeper, more sincere knowledge of the mystery of our salvation in Christ.
As we know, Lent (at least in the Roman rite) is a season of forty days and nights that marks not only Our Blessed Lord’s own temptation in the wilderness, but also the forty years of the exodus in the desert, as the People of God journeyed toward the Promised Land. This is acknowledged by the Church when, in her mother tongue, she calls the season of Lent tempus quadragesimæ. On the three Sundays preceding Lent, starting today, the Church has traditionally marked the progression toward Easter by counting, not just the forty days of Lent but Septuagesima (70), Sexagesima (60), and finally Quinquagesima (50); in a practical way, enabling her children to prepare for the discipline of Lent by easing out from the comforts we have acquired in the celebration of Christmas and the Epiphany, and setting our sights on the restraint of the approaching fast.
But this is not simply a practical or external exercise. One liturgical commentator, Amalar of Metz, attributes a spiritual significance to this pre-Lenten time by drawing a parallel, not just between the forty days of Lent and the exile of God’s chosen people, but also the seventy days and the Babylonian captivity, which itself lasted seventy years. Another author, the great Dom Prosper Guéranger, writes that these seven weeks preceding Easter contrast with the seven weeks of joy that follow, just as the seven sorrows of Our Blessed Lady contrast with the seven gifts given by the Holy Ghost at Whitsun. So these days, the ‘gesimas’ (as they are known), provide us with something exterior and interior; something practical and spiritual, as the Church opens for us the great wealth of her sacred tradition, and bids us by external signs unite more fully spiritual significance of the events of the Lord’s passion.
Observing the distinctive external character of these days is thus important if we are to be able to identify the spiritual fruits on offer. A good athlete exercises for an important race with preparation that is both steady and gradual. So too our preparations for the celebration of Easter are incremental. In Lent we cut back entirely by fasting, abstaining, and depleting our liturgical celebrations of every external sign of joy; in this pre-Lenten season we gently begin that restraint, replacing the usual gospel acclamation with a Tract, omitting the singing of Gloria in excelsis, and clothing the Church’s ministers in mournful violet, thereby creating something of a half-light before the coming darkness of our Lenten penance and the subsequent light of the resurrection. In one of his many retreats Archbishop Fulton Sheen remarked that, in his earthly life, Our Blessed Lord spent thirty years preparing, three years ministering, and only three hours redeeming—so our gradual retreat from the world in this season, and our solemn and purposeful preparation for the events of salvation which we will experience once more in the great ceremonies of Holy Week and Easter, is not arbitrary or to something be taken lightly, rather it is a profound invitation by the Church, founded on biblical principles revealed in the life of Our Lord himself.
How, then, are we to keep these three weeks? Certainly we are not yet in Lent and so we are not yet bound to begin the rigours of the Lenten discipline, but we may use this time to begin to consider: How shall I keep Lent this year? What reading will guide me through this holy season? How can I plant the cross more firmly in my life, by fasting and mortification, that I might share also in its fruits? More, though, I would suggest that these weeks before Lent are designed for our humiliation. We will hear over and over again in Lent of the one who emptied himself by taking the form of a slave; the one who humbled himself and became obedient even unto the death of the cross (Phil. 2: 7-8). In order that that sacred season may truly be one in which we share in the passion of the Lord, then, we too must humble ourselves; we must begin to bend down low in these days, so that we may take up the heavy load of the cross on ourselves in the coming days of Lent. Just as the sacred liturgy is gradually paired down before us in these weeks, so our lives should begin to be stripped of excess—materially and spiritually—in order that our bare selves may be less encumbered, and so more free to endure the weight of the passion that, with Our Lord himself, we must undergo.
We can achieve this in two very practical ways: first, by making a thorough examination of conscience and a good confession. By spending time with the Lord in the tabernacle and seeking a new honesty with him, we can begin to see how we have contributed to his suffering. He calls us to repentance; in these days of preparation for Lent let us take that call seriously. Secondly, by putting in writing now how we will keep Lent, and establishing some method of accountability—either with a friend, or parent, or spouse, or by speaking with a priest. We can take consolation that we will arrive at the Easter feast, but the journey is characterized by the Lord’s temptation in the wilderness, the forty years of the exodus, and the seventy year of the Babylonian captivity; if we are to remain faithful, providing ourselves with a map and something of a travel companion is essential.
As we begin this preparation for the great Lenten fast, then, let us be attentive to the ‘sweet whisperings of hope’ which the Church utters to us in this preparatory season; less us be attentive those sounds of encouragement and urgency, and so begin to hush the noise of our busy lives, that we may fix our sights unswervingly on the goal of Easter; not just the feast itself, but the eternal life which, by the passion, death, and resurrection of Christ, it offers.