30 January 2010

The Mystery of Septuagesima

For many monastic communities as well as those who attend the Extraordinary Form of Mass, this evening at First Vespers will begin the time of Septuagesima. It is a Latin term which means “seventieth” signifying seventy days until Easter, although that is not literally true. The time of Septuagesima is intended to be a time of preparation for the season of Lent. Without Septuagesima, it is difficult for us creatures and our weaknesses, to dive into a period of mourning and penance beginning with Ash Wednesday; a time of preparation seems fitting. During this time of preparation, at Mass purple vestments are worn and the Gloria in Excelsis Deo is absent; at Matins the Te Deum is not said unless there is a feast. The scriptural Readings or Lessons at Matins are from the beginning of the book Genesis, recalling man’s fall from grace. The “alleluia” is omitted from both Mass and Office. The Benedictine priest and abbot of Abbaye de Solesmes, Dom Prosper Louis Pascal Guéranger (1805-1875), explains this preparatory period in detail in “The Liturgical Year.” Here’s an excerpt.

The Season, upon which we are now entering, is expressive of several profound mysteries. But these mysteries belong not only to the three weeks, which are preparatory to Lent; they continue throughout the whole period of time, which separates us from the great Feast of Easter. The number seven is the basis of all these mysteries. Let us listen to Saint Augustine, who thus gives us the clue to the whole of our Season’s mysteries. “There are two times, one which is now, and is spent in the temptations and tribulations of this life; the other which shall be then, and shall be spent in eternal security and joy. In figure of these, we celebrate two periods: the time ‘before Easter’ and the time ‘after Easter.’ That which is ‘before Easter,’ signifies the sorrow of this present life; that which is ‘after Easter,’ the blessedness of our future state. Hence it is, that we spend the first in fasting and prayer; and in the second, we give up our fasting, and give ourselves to praise.”

The Church, the interpreter of the Sacred Scriptures, often speaks to us of two places, which correspond with these two times of Saint Augustine. These two places are Babylon and Jerusalem. Babylon is the image of this world of sin, in the midst whereof the Christian has to spend his years of probation; Jerusalem is the heavenly country, where he is to repose after all his trials. The people of Israel, whose whole history is but one great type of the human race, was banished from Jerusalem and kept in bondage in Babylon.

Now, this captivity, which kept the Israelites’ exiles from Zion, lasted seventy years; and it is to express this mystery that the Church fixed the number of Seventy for the days of expiation. It is true, there are but sixty-three days between Septuagesima and Easter; but the Church, according to the style so continually used in the Sacred Scriptures, uses the round number instead of the literal and precise one.

After the Septuagesima of mourning, we shall have the bright Easter with its Seven weeks of gladness, foreshadowing the happiness and bliss of Heaven. After having fasted with our Jesus, and suffered with Him, the day will come when we shall rise together with Him, and our hearts shall follow Him to the highest heavens, and then after a brief interval, we shall feel descending upon us the Holy Spirit, with His Seven Gifts. The celebration of all these wondrous joys will take us Seven weeks, as the great Liturgists observe in their interpretation of the Rites of the Church: the seven joyous weeks from Easter to Pentecost will not be too long for the future glad Mysteries, which, after all, will be but figures of a still gladder future, the future of eternity.

Having heard these sweet whisperings of hope, let us now bravely face the realities brought before us by our dear Mother the Church. 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. There must be no sign that we are content to be in bondage, or we shall deserve to be slaves forever.

These are the sentiments wherewith the Church would inspire us, during the penitential Season, which we are now beginning. She wishes us to reflect on the dangers that beset us, dangers which arise from our own selves, and from creatures. During the rest of the year, she loves to hear us chant the song of heaven, the sweet Alleluia! -- but now, she bids us close our lips to this word of joy, because we are in Babylon. Let us keep our glad hymn for the day of His return. We are sinners, and have but too often held fellowship with the world of God’s enemies; let us become purified by repentance.