Edited and revised from what was published on the old Athanasius Contra Mundum 12 February, 2006.
Today marks in the Traditional Church what is known as Septuagesima, or 70 days. On the Traditional calendar this does not mark the beginning of Lent, but it does mark pre-Lenten preparations. At the Holy Mass, the Gloria is omitted, as is the Alleluia, and the priest wears purple vestments to symbolize repentance and prayer.
It is one of the many sad and unfortunate losses since Vatican II that the 3 Sundays prior to Lent are suppressed, and we hear no more of them. For indeed they provide us with much to meditate on so that when we arrive at Lent we are prepared to enter the period of fasting and penance with our minds fixed on God. For if we are not centered on God, our fasting is in vain.
As I mentioned, there are 3 Sundays before Lent: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquegesima, each counting down 70 days, 60 and 50 prior to Easter. This arose because in the early Church there was a period of 70 days fast, and in other places only 40, so that eventually what happened is that Christians were legally bound to fast for 40 days (in the Latin Church starting from Ash Wednesday) while liturgically this 70 days fast was commemorated in the form of these 3 Sundays. Each Sunday liturgically applies Old Testament readings from the Breviary, with How Christ fulfills that type.
Today, the breviary lesson recounts the story of Adam and Eve, beginning with creation and ending in the fall of man on Saturday’s reading. The theme of the Mass is how Christ is the New Adam, who repairs the evil wrought by Adam. In the beginning God made a garden, and put man in the garden to tend it, which is why today the Church gives us the gospel of the labourers in the vineyard. The old St. Andrew’s Missal notes:
Thus all men are called to work in the Lord’s vineyard by sanctifying themselves and their neighbor, thereby glorifying God since sanctity consists in seeking our supreme happiness in Him alone. But Adam failed in his task. “Because thou hast eaten of the tree, whereof I commanded thee that thou shouldst not eat” God sait to him, “cursed is the earth in thy work; with labour and toil shalt thou eat thereof all the days of thy life…. In the sweat of thy face shalt thou eat bread till thou return to the earth out of which thou wast taken.”…
This Septuagesima Mass, studied in this way in the light of Adam’s fall, prepares us to begin this new period of the liturgical year and helps us to understand the sublimity of the Paschal mystery for which this season is a preparation. We should now have a clearer idea of all that Easter means and what the Church intends to remind us of when she tells us that God “who created man in a wonderful manner, more wonderfully redeemed him.”
Today the Church sings: “Circumdederunt me gemitus mortis, dolores inferni circumdederunt me: et in tribulatione mea invocavi Dominum, et exaudivit de templo sancto suo vocem meam.” The sorrow of death surrounds me, the agony of hell encompassed me: and in my tribulation I invoked the Lord, and He heard my voice from His Holy Temple.
This is because when Adam sinned he was condemned to die, but Christ who restores all things is the New Adam, and his coming and Adam’s deliverance is God’s answer to his prayer. Christ was crucified on Golgotha, and it is so named the place of the skull because tradition held Adam’s bones were buried there by Noah. Thus Christ’s blood ran from the cross and reached the bones of Adam, sanctifying them, that he might redeem the world on the bones of the man who brought about its fall.