So our Mass goes back, without essential change, to the age when it first developed out of the oldest liturgy of all. It is still redolent of that liturgy, of the days when Cæsar ruled the world and thought he could stamp out the faith of Christ, when our fathers met together before dawn and sang a hymn to Christ as to a God. The final result of our enquiry is that, in spite of unsolved problems, in spite of later changes, there is not in Christendom another rite so venerable as ours. ~Fortescue
TAKEN FROM THE BULLETIN OF THE CHURCH OF THE HOLY INNOCENTS
February 1st, 2015
PRE-LENT: SEPTUAGESIMA, SEXAGESIMA, AND QUINQUAGESIMA SUNDAYS: 70, 60, 50 DAYS BEFORE EASTER
THE ROMAN RITE
The Roman rite of the Catholic Church consists of two forms: the ordinary form and the extraordinary form. The ordinary form of the Roman rite exists from 1970 and was promulgated by Pope Paul VI with a specific liturgical calendar. The extraordinary form of the Roman rite goes as far back as Pope St. Gregory the Great (540-604 AD) although the present Missal was promulgated by Blessed John XXIII in 1962. It reflects primarily the Missal of Pope St. Pius V after the Council of Trent from the 16th century.
While in the modern Roman liturgy we today celebrated the 8th Sunday in Ordinary Time and green vestments are worn, within the extraordinary form of the Mass we would have noted violet vestments, no Gloria and no Alleluia. This is because, in accordance with the calendar of the older form of the Roman rite, we have entered the pre-Lenten period, respectively referred to each successive Sunday by Septuagesima (seventieth), Sexagesima (sixtieth), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth) -- these numbers being symbolic, tied to the reference of Quadragesima (fortieth) which comes in reference to the forty days of Lent of course.
This period of liturgical time is probably that which shows forth the single most noticeable variance between the ordinary form of the Roman rite and the extraordinary form because of their respective liturgical character and characteristics.
For Catholics who have only or primarily known the modern form of the Roman calendar -- and perhaps even for some of those who worship within the context of the calendar of the extraordinary form -- it no doubt strikes one as a unique element of the older Roman calendar, and it may invite the questions, "what is it and why is it done?"
While it might seem unique to the older Roman calendar, it is worth noting that within the Byzantine liturgical calendar, they too celebrate a pre-Lenten period of similar duration. Accordingly, the pre-Lenten period is a point of unity between the Roman Liturgy (extraordinary form) and the Byzantine liturgy. Within the Byzantine liturgical calendar, their pre-Lent begins with the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee (which constitutes their 70th), continues through the Sunday of the Prodigal Son, followed by what is popularly known as Meatfare Sunday (after which fasting from meat begins), and finally Cheesefare Sunday (after which fasting from dairy products is observed). Great Lent then begins.
THE ORIGINS AND PURPOSE OF PRE-LENT
With regard to the origins of the pre-Lenten period, many liturgical writers attribute the beginnings of pre-Lent to the desire to accomplish the 40 days fast -- since there were non-fast days within the weeks of Lent proper which accordingly did not amount to 40 days of fasting. Through piety and devotion, this was extended further still. The specific time of origin is not agreed upon, but various dates surrounding the time of St. Gregory the Great in the 6th and 7th centuries are noted in various respects -- with the devotional extension of the fast being mentioned even earlier. According to Duchesne, the fourth Council of Orleans mentions Quinqagesima and Sexagesima around A.D. 541 -- albeit it by way of disapproval.
The purpose of pre-Lent seems to be the same in both the Byzantine East and more ancient form of the Roman rite; it is a period of progressive preparation and movement toward Lent and ultimately Easter Fr. Weiser, in his Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs speaks of it accordingly: The liturgical preparation for the greatest feast of Christianity -- Easter -- proceeds in five periods of penitential character. As the observance of this preparation approaches the feast, the penitential note grows progressively deeper and stricter. The first period of this season of pre-Lent, from Septuagesima Sunday to Ash Wednesday; the second extends from Ash Wednesday to Passion Sunday; the third comprises Passion Week; the fourth includes the days of Holy Week up to Wednesday; the fifth consists in the Sacred Triduum (Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday.) In these three days, which are devoted entirely to the commemoration of the Lord's Passion, the penitential observance reaches its peak, until it ends (at the Easter Vigil) in the glorious and joyful celebration of the Resurrection. (p. 154-5)
How do we see this manifested then? Within the Byzantine rite we see the progressive movement from non-fasting to the gradual tightening of the discipline beginning on Meatfare Sunday leading through until the Great Fast itself. Within the Roman rite, we see the penitential character which the liturgical rites take on during pre-Lent, before finally proceeding into Lent itself with its fast While pre-Lent is not strictly celebrated in the ordinary form of the Mass it is still a good spiritual practice to start preparing for Lent by doing acts of self-denial, increasing our prayer, and engaging in more acts of mercy towards our neighbor begging God for the grace of making a good Lent and for greater conversion to the Gospel.