Monday, January 29, 2018

The "Gesima Sisters" and Preparing for Lent

Now that we are approaching February 2 and the Feast of the Purification/Presentation, it is time to begin thinking about Lent, Holy Week, and Easter.

Some of you reading this will remember the three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday being known as the ‘Gesima’ Sundays: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. They formed a sort of “semi-season” of preparation before Lent in the ancient Western Calendar, with carefully-chosen readings emphasizing our need for salvation and the essential disciplines toward that end. The names related roughly to the number of days before Easter; seventy, sixty, or fifty days before Great Day. One priest I worked with used to speak lovingly of “the Gesima Sisters” and their annual visit.

Following the trend of Western liturgical revisions in the 20th century, the current  Prayer Book swept these observances away. The focus today in the Liturgical Calendar is on Epiphanytide as a time of Theophany (the showing-forth of Christ as Son of God) and the mission of the Church to share the Gospel to all peoples.

As valuable as this focus is, there remains a very real need for all Christians to prepare for Holy Lent. When we defer that work until the days immediately prior to Ash Wednesday, our Lenten observance will likely be very shallow--more a matter of avoiding chocolate than learning to forsake sin, love God and neighbor, or receive and share forgiveness.

To that end, during these three last Sundays of the season, we are focusing on classic themes and practices for preparation for the full observance of a Holy Lent:

- Sermons on rekindling a Holy Desire for God, humility, and forgiveness of others
- A Lenten Rule form will be set out (with a detachable commitment form) with instruction for considering your Lenten discipline.
- A list of key Lenten practices with explanations will be in the Tidings (our parish newsletter)
- The "Lenten Table" in the narthex offers a rich variety of materials, free for the taking, for your Lenten devotion.

As part of this Lenten preparation, the Last Sunday after the Epiphany (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday) will witness our annual “Farewell to Alleluia,” where we will "bury Alleluia" behind the altar, expressive of our coming Lenten fast of this word in the Liturgy. Alleluia is then "resurrected" at Easter.

While the Gesima Sundays are no longer officially part of the Church Year, my own sense is that eventually, a pre-Lenten time of dedicated preparation will re-emerge. In addition to being an ancient part of the Calendar, it simply reflects a wise and holy practice. For us to enter into Lent with true openness of heart and mind, thoughtful preparation is essential.

The 17th century priest and poet George Herbert's poem on the season begins: "Welcome, dear feast of Lent." He was aware of how this great fast was actually a rich feast of sacred knowledge and love through careful ascesis, prayer, study, and works of mercy. How may one say this without having done some examination of conscience, or considered the distance between our current way of life and that set forth in the Gospel? Should we enter one of the most important times in the Church Year, complete with all of its elaborate liturgies and traditions, having done less preparation than secular people put into their Christmas or Halloween decorations?

In the end, our Lenten preparation will always be an expression of what we believe that season is really about. If it is simply a period of dreariness, external to one's life and renewal, then we will want as little to do with it as possible. It will be all carnival and shrovetide pancakes with us. If it is vital and central to our living discipleship, we will continue the venerable practice of turning from  Christmas and Epiphanytide celebrations toward the Paschal Mystery by observing these days with intentionality, eagerness, and hope.

May the "Gesima Sisters," in one form or another, grace your days ahead as we prepare for that "dear feast of Lent" -- a feast of spiritual growth, if we but let it be.

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