For the past couple years, we have been observing the One-Year lectionary in our worship services. As opposed to the Three-Year cycle we’d been using, the One-Year repeats readings every single year. The change was intentional and was primarily so that we can learn a set number of Biblical readings very well, rather than a larger number of readings only superficially.
But perhaps the most curious part of the One-Year Lectionary is nigh upon us. For three weeks before Lent, we observe the season known as “Pre-Lent” or, more traditionally, “Gesimatide.” Each of the three Sundays has a fancy Latin name that ends with “gesima.” What on earth does it mean? And why do we have this period of Sundays that doesn’t exist in the Three-Year cycle?
The practice of observing a transition period between the time of Christmas/Epiphany and Lent/Easter is ancient. Although it has been observed in different ways in the Eastern and Western churches, prior to the Second Vatican Council, the west always observed this Pre-Lent time of preparation.
The value of it is obvious when you think about Christmas and Easter together. As January ends and February begins, we move from reflecting on and celebrating the birth of the Christ child in the manger to the trial, suffering, death, and resurrection of the Lord Jesus who took on our human flesh. The gesimas give us space and time to make the transition from focusing on God who became man to the purpose for that incarnation: to die on the cross for our sins.
Septuagesima, the first Sunday in this season, simply means “seventy days,” and is roughly seventy days before Easter. Likewise, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima are approximately sixty and fifty days before Easter. You probably already know that Lent begins exactly forty days before Easter Sunday. In English, Lent used to be referred to as Quadragesima, the Latin for forty days.
But why observe this Pre-Lent time? What is its value? Why not just jump from Epiphany right to Lent? To answer that question, I would first say that we should look at the culture that we live in. We are impulsive and over-committed, quickly jumping from one activity to another, often with little time to reflect on what we are doing or why. Perhaps now more than ever, this is the case. These three Sundays, then, can provide us some space and time to do some preparation: to think about Lent and how we will observe it, to recognize and reflect on the connection between Jesus’ birth and His death, and to remember the glorious promises God made when Jesus first came into the world (He will be called Jesus because He will save His people from their sins! Matt. 1:21), which will soon be fulfilled in Holy Week.
Lutherans have also seen in the Pre-Lent season an opportunity to preach on the three Solas of the Reformation. On Septuagesima, we hear the parable of the laborers in the vineyard (Matt. 20:1-16), and we remember that none of us have earned forgiveness and a place in God’s kingdom. God gives it to us Sola Gratia (by grace alone). On Sexagesima, we hear the parable of the sower (Luke 8:4-15), and we recall that God’s power is active through His Word alone, Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone). Finally, on Quinquagesima, we hear the story of Jesus’ healing of a blind beggar (Luke 18:31-43) who clings in faith to Jesus despite the rebuke of the disciples, and we remember that we too receive the forgiveness of sins Sola Fide (by faith alone).
I pray that you are blessed as together we observe this Gesimatide and together move towards Lent and towards the cross of our Lord Jesus, who has won for us eternal salvation there that we might share in the joys of His eternal kingdom.