Every year, at some point roughly midway between Christmas and Easter, we find the Sundays in our Book of Common Prayer designated by those big “Gesima” words -- Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Originally there was also a Quadragesima Sunday but that is now called the First Sunday in Lent.
Those designations are quite different in character from the names of most special Holy Days. Christmas, Good Friday, Ascension, Transfiguration -- all these have reference to some special event which they celebrate. The “Gesima” Sundays do have reference to special religious event, but only in a calendar sort of way. What they mean is -- going forward from Septuagesima Sunday, the first one -- that they mark the Sundays which are seventy, sixty, fifty and forty days before Easter. Quinquagesima Sunday is exactly fifty days before Easter; all others are only approximations, actually a few days off by the secular calendar.
So, why are these days important? They are important because they remind us that Easter approaches and that the Lenten season of penitence, review of our lives and preparation for the Resurrection, the event that marks the gift of eternal life, are close upon us. The “Gesima” Sundays, in fact, mark a kind of pre-Lenten season, a kind of forward extension of Lent itself. These Sundays, in fact, mark a kind of divide between the joys and thankfulness of Christmas and Epiphany and the introspection of Lent to be followed by the greatest joy of all at Easter.
Beginning with Septuagesima Sunday, we are reminded that the joy of our Lord’s birth at Christmas and His being shown forth to the Gentiles at Epiphany is beginning to wind down, to be put behind us, as we contemplate the sorrows of our Lord’s coming Passion and Crucifixion and try to prepare ourselves for the greatest gift and miracle of the Resurrection, the conquest of death. It is in this sense of subdued preparation for self-examination during Lent, that the “Gesima” Sundays are traditionally marked in Anglicanism by the omission of the glad phrases and strains of the Gloria in Excelsis. The origin of the observance of these Sundays is somewhat obscure but is at least as ancient as the latter part of the seventh century, under Pope Gregory the Great. The Church of England simply continued the observance after Reformation.
The Collects, at least for Septuagesima and Sexagesima, are the ancient ones, slightly modified. They are somber Collects, with references to punishment for our sins and petitions for merciful deliverance from adversity. These Collects seem to reflect in part the temper of the times in which they were originally composed, times of barbarian invasion, of famine, war and pestilence. Well, as it turns out, after thirteen hundred years, these dangers or kindred ones are very much present with us, breathing down our necks, weighing upon our spirits.
A dual theme, however, runs through most of the “Gesima” Collects, as well as the Epistles or Gospels appointed. This dual theme is that on one hand there is danger, adversity and repentance for our sins which may be contributed to the adversity. Sin is the turning away from God which leads to sorrow and adversity. It is error, mistake, wrong-doing. It requires of us self-examination, self-condemnation, penitence and desire for forgiveness and a new start. When there is no repentance, there can be only the continuance of error (sin) and ever-growing disastrous results, culminating in spiritual damnation. Sin and damnation are unpopular words in our times, but they are realities under any name.
But the other theme of the “Gesima” propers is consolation and salvation through God’s mercy and loving-kindness. As someone has put it, part of the “Gesima” message is that “it is never too late to be damned (and) that it is never too late to be saved”.
Self-examination, repentance, turning to God for forgiveness and salvation -- these are the meanings of the three Sundays immediately preceding Lent. Seventy, sixty, fifty, forty days until Man’s Salvation bursts upon the winding sheet of death and rises into life everlasting.