Although little noted in our contemporary liturgical observance, Septuagesima Sunday once marked an important point in the Church’s year. In the middle ages, some religious began the Lenten fast at Septuagesima, not forty days but up to seventy (as the word indicates) days before Easter. Before Lent properly began, there was a ‘little Lent’, a time of preparation for the penitential season. Even though we no longer observe this ‘little Lent’, there are good reasons at least to mark the day. My attention was drawn to the Church’s bygone practice in a homily I heard a few years ago, which has shaped my attitude to Lent (and in good measure to the spiritual life more generally). Lent is a time of preparation for Easter, but the mode of our preparation is not prescribed with rigorous detail. (More to come on what is specifically asked of the faithful during Lent.) We choose to give up things we enjoy, or take on things which will challenge us.
Marking Septuagesima Sunday gives us a chance to consider prayerfully how we ought to observe Lent. Waiting until Ash Wednesday to make our minds up won’t prepare us adequately for this important period in the liturgical year and in our own spiritual lives. Nor ought we to regard our Lenten observance along the lines of New Year’s resolutions, which once blown tend to be tossed aside until next year. We may well stumble in our striving for true penitence. But God’s grace abounds during Lent, and we are invited to get up and try again, as many times as we fail. So we can take on something that is a challenge, something we are not certain we can do. Still, struggling through Lent, depending on God’s grace, might be just the right way to prepare for the celebration of Christ’s victory (which is also our own) at Easter.