Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays are the names given to the three Sundays that come before the season of Lent in the traditional Christian liturgical calendar. They mark the transition period between the season after Epiphany and the beginning of Lent. Let’s take a deeper look at what each of these Sundays signifies:
Septuagesima Sunday is exactly 70 days before Easter. The term “Septuagesima” comes from the Latin word meaning “seventieth,” and this Sunday signals that the Easter season is approaching. In the traditional calendar, Septuagesima Sunday marks the start of a period known as the “Gesimas” – the three Sundays before Lent. Starting on Septuagesima, the Alleluia is no longer said or sung during the liturgy, as it is seen as a joyful verse that will return at Easter. The liturgical color is violet, representing penitence.
The readings and prayers on Septuagesima Sunday have a penitential tone, reminding the faithful that “the time is short” (1 Corinthians 7:29) and exhorting them to increased prayer, fasting and almsgiving in preparation for the Lenten season of purification that is drawing near. The Gospel reading is taken from Matthew 20:1-16 and tells the parable of the laborers in the vineyard, reminding us of God’s abundant grace and how the last shall be first and the first shall be last in the kingdom of heaven.
Sexagesima Sunday is two Sundays before Ash Wednesday and the start of Lent. The name comes from the Latin word meaning “sixtieth,” though it’s not exactly 60 days before Easter. Sexagesima signals that the faithful are now within 50 days of Easter Sunday. The liturgical color remains violet.
The Gospel reading for Sexagesima Sunday is Luke 8:4-15, the parable of the sower who went out to sow his seed. This parable reminds us to strive to be fertile soil for God’s word and to avoid the pitfalls represented by the rocky ground, thorns, and bird-eaten seeds. The Epistle continues Saint Paul’s teachings on charity from 1 Corinthians, explaining that our earthly works, even those done in charity, will pass away, but God’s love is eternal. The prayers and readings encourage spiritual fruitfulness as Lent approaches.
Quinquagesima Sunday is exactly 50 days before Easter; the name comes from the Latin for “fiftieth.” It is the last Sunday before Lent begins. The liturgical color is still violet. At this point, we are less than a week away from Ash Wednesday and the start of the 40-day Lenten fast.
The Gospel reading is Luke 18:31-43 and gives the account of Jesus prophesying His passion and death as well as healing the blind beggar Bartimaeus. This foreshadows the suffering and resurrection of Holy Week to come after the Lenten pilgrimage. The Epistle is 1 Corinthians 13, Saint Paul’s famous discourse on the excellence of love. The readings remind us that Christ will endure the cross before rising again at Easter – and we are called to walk with Him carrying our own crosses during the Lenten season.
The three Gesima Sundays help transition and prepare the faithful from the joyous season after Epiphany to the penitential season of Lent. They remind us that Easter is approaching, so we must begin purifying our hearts through prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. By meditating on the Gospel readings about laborers in the vineyard, seeds and sowers, and Christ’s passion, we adopt a Lenten mindset of humility, fruitfulness, and sacrificial love. The liturgical color purple reinforces our need for spiritual discipline and repentance. Through the three pivot points of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, we engage in the seasonal work of shifting our focus from Christ’s coming at Advent and revelation at Epiphany to following our Lord on the way of the Cross toward Easter joy.
Significance and History
The three Gesima Sundays have been celebrated since at least the sixth century, though the exact origin is difficult to trace. Pope Gregory I (540-604 AD) preached sermons on these Sundays, evidence that they were observed in Rome at that time. The Gelasian Sacramentary from the eighth century provides Mass prayers for the three Sundays as well. The Gesima Sundays were retained after the reforms of Vatican II in the 1962 and 1970 Missals. However, the 1969 calendar reform moved the Gesimas to the weekdays after Epiphany, replacing them with the Sundays of Ordinary Time on the old dates.
Nevertheless, the Gesimas continue to be celebrated in some Anglican and Lutheran churches as well as in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The Book of Common Prayer includes Septuagesima as a minor observance. Celebrating Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima provides a meaningful transition into Lent and gives the faithful time to spiritually prepare, making the sacrifices of the Lenten fast more fruitful. The symbolic turning from festivity to preparation to penance allows for a deeper experience of the pivot from Good Friday sorrow to Easter joy.
In addition to the liturgical color purple and the exclusion of singing or saying the Alleluia, the Gesima Sundays featured some unique elements particular to the transitional pre-Lenten period:
- The Gloria Patri was omitted after the Introit and the Lavabo.
- The Gloria in excelsis was omitted as well.
- Tracts from the Psalms and Gradual replaced the Alleluia verse before the Gospel reading.
- The Ite missa est at the end of Mass was replaced with a Benedicamus Domino.
- “alleluia” was omitted as well from the dismissing antiphon.
These omissions and substitutions help mark the Gesimas as bridging from the joyful Ordinary Time to the more austere season of Lent. The absence of the Gloria and Alleluia serve as powerful reminders that the faithful are entering a period of penitence, humility, and spiritual preparation as Lent approaches.
Prayers and Readings
In addition to the Gospels already mentioned, here are some of the prayers and Epistle readings traditionally associated with these Sundays:
- Epistle – 1 Corinthians 9:24-27; 10:1-5 – run the race to obtain the prize
- Prayer – Mindful of our sinfulness, O God, we ask that you bless this season of repentance and purify us by these heavenly mysteries.
- Epistle – 2 Corinthians 11:19-33; 12:1-9 – Saint Paul’s labors and weaknesses made strong in Christ
- Prayer – O Lord, we beseech you, graciously hear our prayers and unloose the bonds of our sins.
- Epistle – 1 Corinthians 13:1-13 – the excellent way of love
- Prayer – O Lord, we implore you, give us your grace so that we may begin the sacred Lenten fast with appropriate piety.
The collects implore God for the grace to enter Lent well-prepared through repentance, prayer, and charity. The Epistles remind us to strive for spiritual excellence while admitting our weakness without Christ. Together, the Gesima prayers and readings turn our gaze to Easter and urge us to walk more closely with the Lord on the way of the Cross.
Celebrating the Gesimas Today
While the Gesimas are not part of the post-Vatican II Ordinary Form Calendar, they can still hold value for Catholics who desire a deeper preparation for Lent. Some ideas include:
- Pray the Gesima collects privately.
- Meditate on the Gesima readings in the week(s) before Lent.
- Listen to music for the Gesima Sundays.
- Study art depicting the three Sundays.
- Look for a local Extraordinary Form Mass to attend on the Gesimas.
- Start Lenten fasting practices early, on Septuagesima Sunday.
Reviving the Gesimas in some small way can help recapture the power and beauty of this pre-Lenten preparation. Consulting earlier missals and prayer books provides wisdom from centuries of traditional liturgical observance.
Whether celebrated in the liturgy of the church or within private devotion, Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays form a bridge into the penitential season of Lent and the joy of Easter that follows Christ’s suffering and resurrection. These three pivot points guide us on the passage from ordinary time through purification to redemption and new life in the risen Christ.