Every year, at some point roughly midway between Christmas and Easter, we find the Sundays in our Book of Common Prayer designated by those big “Gesima” words — Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Originally there was also a Quadragesima Sunday but that is now called the First Sunday in Lent.
Those designations are quite different in character from the names of most special Holy Days. Christmas, Good Friday, Ascension, and Transfiguration — all these have reference to some special religious event. Beginning with Septuagesima Sunday, they mark the Sundays which are seventy, sixty, and fifty, days before Easter. Quinquagesima Sunday is exactly fifty days before Easter; all the others are approximations, actually a few days off by the secular calendar.
So, why are these days important? They are important because they remind us that Easter approaches and that the Lenten Season of penitence, review and preparation for the Resurrection, the event that marks the gift of eternal life, are close upon us. The “Gesima” Sundays mark a kind of Pre-Lenten season, a forward extension of Lent itself. These Sundays mark a divide between the joys and thankfulness of Christmas and Epiphany and the introspection of Lent, to be followed by the greatest joy of all at Easter.
Beginning with Septuagesima Sunday, we are reminded that the joy of our Lord’s birth at Christmas and His being shown forth to the Gentiles at Epiphany is beginning to wind down, to be put behind us, as we contemplate the sorrows of our Lord’s coming Passion and Crucifixion and as we try to prepare ourselves for the greatest gift and miracle of the Resurrection, the conquest of death. It is in this sense of subdued preparation for self-examination during Lent, that the “Gesima” Sundays are traditionally marked in Anglicanism by the omission of the glad phrases and strains of the Gloria in Excelsis. The origin of the observance of these Sundays is somewhat obscure, but is at least as ancient as the latter part of the seventh century.
The Collects for Septuagesima and Sexagesima are the ancient ones, slightly modified. They are somber Collects, with references to punishment for our sins and petitions for merciful deliverance from adversity. These Collects seem to reflect in part the temper of the times in which they were originally composed, times of barbarian invasion, of famine, war and pestilence. After thirteen hundred years, these dangers, or kindred ones, are very much present with us, weighing upon our spirits.
Self-examination, repentance, turning to God for forgiveness and salvation — these are the meanings of the three “Gesima” Sundays preceding Lent. Seventy, sixty, and fifty, days until Man’s Salvation conquers death and rises into life everlasting. —The Fellowship of Concerned Churchmen