Today the Church celebrates Quinquagesima (Fifty Days) Sunday, traditionally called “Carnival Sunday” because the Lenten fast for the priests began tomorrow and it was the last day the priests could eat meat (excepting Sundays) until Easter. Quinquagesima Sunday is the third and final Sunday of the season of Septuagesima (Seventy Days), which the Church has kept for more than 1,000 years as a kind of preparation for the solemn fast of Quadregesima (the Forty Days of Lent).
Septuagesima is a vitally important liturgical season because it places before our minds and hearts our depraved sinfulness whereby we have mortally wounded ourselves. In that way, it is a kind of extended meditation on our need for a Savior and on our need for Lent. The Church assists us in this meditation in various ways. As Israel was seventy years in captivity in Babylon, the Church keeps the Seventy Days (63 days is rounded to 70) of preparation for the return to Jerusalem that is Easter. While we are in Babylon, however, we cannot sing the song of the Lord on alien soil, and so we abstain from the Alleluia from Septuagesima Sunday until Easter. This places before our minds the bleak reality of our exile. By our sins, we have left our homeland. During Septuagesima, we keep focused on getting back home.
The Church assists us further by taking the Gloria away from our Sunday Liturgy and dressing her ministers in the penitential color of violet. She replaces the Alleluia with the subdued song of the Tract, and she takes away the Te Deum at the Divine Office on Sundays. All is mournful as the Church shows us our woundedness. She is preparing us for – urging us towards – the prayer, fasting, and almsgiving of Lent, through which we will die to ourselves in order to rise with Christ.
On these final days of Septuagesima, we take stock of our lives. We judge the areas where we need to grow and we select our Lenten disciplines accordingly. Each of us embraces in our intention during these holy days a specific and substantial Lenten penance in the areas of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. For example, one might commit himself during Lent to 15 minutes of mental prayer upon rising, to abstaining from desserts (except on Sundays and solemnities), and to giving $500 to the St. Vincent de Paul Society. Septuagesima is the time for us to reflect and meditate on our need for these kinds of practices in our lives. Seeing our nothingness and the horror of our sinful attachments, we are motivated to allow the Holy Spirit to purify us, beginning on Ash Wednesday.
Fr. Joseph Previtali