The Guéranger Blog

Welcome to the Gueranger Blog! You have stumbled across the notebook I use to record my thoughts as I read through Dom Prosper Gueranger's 15-volume set, The Liturgical Year. I do not have any special expertise in liturgy, but I have some general knowledge of Catholic theology and an enthusiasm for Gueranger's magnum opus. Think of it as the Liturgical Year fan site!

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Discovering Septuagesima

Canisius | 04 February, 2006 05:01

I'm a novus ordo generation Catholic, and haven't been exposed to some of the old liturgical ways. My first reaction when I read about the season of Septuagesima was, "This is wierd."

After all, Lent is a time of preparation for the Easter season (or so I have been led to believe). Gueranger explains Septuagesima as a time of preparation for the holy season of Lent. Anybody else get the feeling that an infinite regress lurks in the background?

It didn't help anything when he recounted how the season of Septuagesima came about by historical accident. Apparently the Greek Church didn't fast on Saturdays during Lent, so they started their Lenten season early to bring the fast-day quota up to 40; the Western church, not to be outdone, had their monks, nuns, and clerics begin Lent early, too, even though they already fasted on those Saturday's during Lent. Once people realized that this wasn't really necessary, the pre-Lenten fast stuff was dropped, but that part of the year retained a vestigial tone of somberness. (OK, I'm simplifying what he said, but you get the gist.)

By the time I finished the rest of his essay on Septuagesima, though, I was all in favor of it. What a great idea! One of Gueranger's favorite horns to blow is the idea that the Holy Spirit guides the Church in forming the liturgy, so we can discover hidden meaning even in stuff that came about by historical accident. This is a neat case of that. His insights can be divided into the mystical and the practical.

At the mystical level, Gueranger operates on a three-level symbolism that can be handy to know even when you're not talking about Septuagesima. Most straightforwardly, the Liturgical Year marches us through the life of Christ again and again: he's born at Christmas, dies and rises during the Triduum, and then throughout Advent we await his second coming. But at the same time, the Liturgical Year replays again and again the history of man: the time before Easter represents this earthly trek, while the time after Easter represents heavenly beatitude. The third level is the history of Israel: the time before Easter represents the time of bondage in Babylon, which was an image of our time on earth, while the time after represents the restoration of Israel to Jerusalem, an image of our attaining heaven.

There's a slight discrepancy here if you push it too far, I think, because the Christmas season is a period of joy at the coming of the redeemer; this doesn't jive well with saying that the whole liturgical year represents the history of mankind (which Gueranger doesn't quite say). But I think we can patch that by saying that the liturgical year replays again and again the history of the "City of God" (in St. Augustine's sense), i.e., the Church. The Church (along with her head) is born at Christmas; from the end of the Christmas season until Easter the Church is "groaning inwardly as we wait for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies" (Rom 8:23); at Easter the Church (along with her head) rises from the dead; for the rest of the Easter season, the Church (along with her head) enjoys heavenly glory. Later on, Advent comes, and we're back in the Old Testament with the ancient "City of God", waiting for the Christ to come.

So anyway, Gueranger then points out that Israel was in bondage for seventy years, and that the history of mankind (or, if you will, the "City of God") is traditionally divided into seven ages, and ties all this into the fact that this season leading towards Lent and Easter is called "Septuagesima", i.e., "seventy". Wow.

At the practical level, Gueranger seems to make a distinction between Septuagesima and Lent. Lent will be the time for fasting, abstinence, and all that: Septuagesima is a time of reflection on the reasons we have for fasting (e.g., our sins). I have certainly had the experience of getting to Lent and thinking, "OK, so what am I doing this Lent?" It would be great if I took the weeks before Lent started to figure out what my problem areas are and where I might need mortification, etc.

Today, we don't have a liturgical season called "Septuagesima" (unless you happen to attend an old-rite Mass). I think our readings at Mass still keep us situated in the life of Christ between the birth and the Passion, so that's still there. In fact, there's no reason why all the mystical symbolism Gueranger brings to bear can't still apply, except that we don't find special suggestions of the somber mood in the liturgy. That doesn't mean that we can't interpret the time between Christmas and Lent as Gueranger does. At the practical level, I certainly think we should still use this time in the Gueranger suggests.


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