The “Gesimas”

Blessed are those who thirst for righteousness

Matthew 5;6
Reflections at the end of January

The atmosphere of Christian worship changes from January to February. It begins with the feast of “Candlemas” or the Meeting of the holy family and the child Jesus with Simeon and Anna in the Temple is one of the most dramatic liturgies. It is spectacular in the setting of the larger of our Church buildings with music and symbols, turning worshippers from the Nativity with new life to the sorrow and grief of the Cross. However it also signals a special pre-Lent season that begins with a Sunday called Septuagesima. In many traditions today, as a result of Roman Catholic revisions of 1969 this special season has been discontinued. It is thankfully preserved in the Nordic Catholic Church and it is my belief, that more and more who reflect on the troubles of the present times, should restore this special time and used again positively, if not if not already in use.

In England before the 1960’s, children although at first reduced to head scratching, were fascinated by Sundays called “the Gesimas”. They were excited to pronounce – Septuagesima Sunday, the seventy days before Easter, or Sexagesima, sixty days with Quinquagesima fifty days and even Quadragesima, the Sunday that followed Ash Wednesday and marked the first Sunday of Lent.

Apparently these special Sundays have their origin in 6th century Rome at a most difficult time for Pope Gregory the Great [590–604]. The city of Rome itself had been under siege from savage Barbarians and Goths, famine, earthquakes, pillage and corruption, all made this a really bad time. Pope Gregory knew the Eastern Churches already observed an eight week lent fast and believed that the Western Church and especially the clergy, needed to adopt a greater self discipline to cope with the difficulties. Four special Sundays were established; the Pope himself created and presided in each of the principal cathedrals of Rome. Masses were held, in order of status, in the four principal cathedrals; St. Lawrence, St’ Paul’s, St. Peters and last the Bishop of Rome’s Cathedral of St. John Lateran.

From missal originating from East Anglia, around 1320 [National Library of Wales, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons]

This pre-Lent season became part of the first English Book of Common Prayer created by the Archbishop Thomas Cranmer in 1549 after the Reformation. The calendar readings and prayers were based upon the prayers and readings of the ancient “Sarum Missal” which seems to have come to Canterbury with Pope Gregory’s mission led by St Augustine [AD 596-597].Those who still use the English Book of Common Prayer, especially in the United States will be very familiar with these Sundays and be pleased that Anglicans, who were received by Rome into the Ordinariate, have returned to using this pre-Lent tradition.

Apart from returning to the ancient usage that belongs to the experience of the Western Church, these special weeks can be revived in recognition of our struggle to keep a focused faith in the present world in what Bishop Roald Flemestad calls “life in the trenches”. Our Church is aware that our duty is to avoid sleepwalking through our present difficulties as many mainstream Churches are. By adopting again a set time before Lent using the liturgical colour blue as used by the NCC, could hopefully be a constant reminder of the challenges we Christians now face, not only in the western world but for our friends in Africa who today face even greater persecution.

The reasons given for the 1960 revisions were apparently that this pre-Lent period diminished the unity of Lent which focuses on the journey Christ made to the cross. I think the restoring the Gesima Sundays could become a special time before Lent in our own journey, focusing on ourselves as disciples and labourers of Christ’s vineyard, highlighting the requirements to be alert and wary, to have self control, fortitude and the defences against our spiritual and physical adversaries, in a way that Pope Gregory had wished in his own day. Not a bad theme for our present predicament and preparation for Lent itself.

Fr. Geoffrey Neal

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