Every year, without fail, the approach of Septuagesima sees Lutheran blogs and social media filled with confusion and questioning. The author has had the dubious pleasure of witnessing these discussions for the last decade or so, and the questions always seem to be the same. What, if anything, changes or disappears during Septuagesima? Are the colors changed? Are the Alleluias absent? Does the Gloria in excelsis vanish, never to be seen again until Maundy Thursday or the Vigil of Easter? The discussion is invariably filled with certainty-filled assertions of proper practice from at least four different directions, but rarely supported by citation or documentation, only declarations of adiaphoristic emancipation. The final conclusion is almost always that we are free to do as we choose. But that, of course, is precisely the problem. If you’re free to choose, what should be chosen?
Gloria in excelsis
I hope that a survey of our work so far can provide some answers. Here are some of the rubrics from various sources describing what happens to the Gloria beginning on Septuagesima. Helpful hint: non dicitur = “not said.”
ab hinc usque in Pascha Gloria in excelsis non dicitur nisi in festis sanctorum de quibus est plenum officium et in cena Domini et in sabbato sancto Paschae.
Gloria in excelsis non dicitur ab hinc usque ad Pascha nisi festum fuerit.
Gloria in excelsis non dicitur usque ad Pascha.
ab hinc usque ad vigiliam Paschae non dicitur Gloria in excelsis, nec Alleluia, nec Sequentia, nec Ite missa est, sed Benedicamus Domino.
non cantatur usque ad festum Pasce nisi sit specialiter signatum
non dicitur ab hinc usque ad Pasca nisi festum fuerit
non cantatur usque ad festum Pasce nisi sit specialiter signatum
non dicitur usque ad Pasca in dominicis et quando agitur de feria
nota ammoda usque ad festum Pasce ad missam non cantatur nisi aliud de sanctis notatum reperitur
usque ad Pasca de tempore non dicitur, sed de sanctis
non dicitur usque ad Pasca
If you just scrolled past all the Latin, then here’s the summary: no, the nearly universal consensus is the Gloria is not said from Septuagesima until Easter, except for a few feasts here and there. For the sake of completeness, it should be noted that the Lutheran Magdeburg Cathedral Book of 1613 does, in fact, retain the Gloria through Septuagesima – but also retains the Gloria for every Sunday in Lent. In short, there is no argument to be made for retaining the Gloria in Septuagesima and omitting it during Lent, and the vast majority of sources assume its omission from Septuagesima (with a few exceptions for particular feasts) until Easter.
The Alleluia, of course, can be a similarly lively topic. The three year lectionary, with which many grew up, has accustomed us to a vertiginous plunge from the mountain of Transfiguration to the depths of Ash Wednesday in a matter of days, saying farewell to Alleluias and hello to ashes in the same week. As a result, the ancient tradition of saying farewell to the Alleluia just prior to Septuagesima seems very unfamiliar to us, and we see all sorts of mental gymnastics take place in an attempt to have our cake and eat it too, keeping Septuagesima without actually keeping it. But in so doing, in refusing to give up our own pet peeves and whims and feelings, we subject yet another generation of Lutherans to the confusion that we ourselves are so desperate to escape.
A look at the traditional understandings of Septuagesima and its relation to Holy Scripture should help illuminate why historic practice forgoes the Alleluia for seventy days, beginning at Septuagesima.
As I’m sure you all know, Septuagesima is related to the Latin word for “Seventy,” and is roughly seventy days before Easter. This season of the Church’s year recalls the Biblical account of the seventy-year captivity and exile in Babylon. The beginning of the exile is recounted in 2 Kings 24 and its end in the first chapters of Ezra. The books of Daniel and Lamentations speak about this exile, but perhaps the most poignant picture of this period of captivity is found in Psalm 137:
“By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down,
yea, we wept when we remembered Zion.
We hanged our harps upon the willows
in the midst thereof
For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song;
and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying,
Sing us one of the songs of Zion.
How shall we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land? – Ps. 137:1-4
In the seventy days following Septuagesima, including the forty days of Lent, we join with these Israelites in “hanging up our harps.” As we begin to turn our faces toward Jerusalem and Holy Week, we recognize that we are, like those Israelites, not truly at home in this world beset by sin. In recognition, we set aside our Alleluias as well as the song of the angels, the Gloria in Excelsis, while we wait for the resurrection of Our Lord and the undoing of sin.
Amalar of Metz (c. 775-c. 850) begins his magisterial work On the Liturgy with a chapter on Septuagesima, and explains the season and its character most beautifully:
The number seventy calls to mind the entire period of this world in which we are exiled from the heavenly Jerusalem. The author of our liturgy placed Septuagesima among our offices so that those of us who have been exiled from the heavenly Jerusalem for sins…might show how subjects ought to live for the entire period of this age, through our way of life and by abstaining from worldly pleasures. Let us celebrate the seventy days like a captive in exile; let sorrow at our penance become joy in the Lord’s resurrection, through which we return to Jerusalem….
Jeremiah revealed that the Lord wants us to cease from expressions of joy so long as we are in Babylon, saying: “I will cause the voice of joy and of gladness to cease among you.” For this reason, neither the alleluia nor the sweet angelic hymn Gloria in excelsis Deo is sung among us during this season; instead, the tract is substituted for the alleluia….The Psalm says: “How shall we sing the song of the Lord in a strange land?” The alleluia and the Gloria in excelsis Deo are celestial hymns. Thus John in Revelation: “After these things I heard as it were the great voice of many crowds in heaven saying: alleluia.” There is no doubt that Gloria in excelsis Deo is the song of the angels. We should be seated, or humbled, while we mourn “Upon the rivers of Babylon…when we remembered Zion.”– Amalar of Metz, On the Liturgy I.1.x-xi, xvi-xvii
Interestingly enough, Lutheran Service Book 417, “Alleluia, Song of Gladness,” the hymn currently sung in both one year and three year congregations as they say farewell to Alleluia, is structured around the same understanding of Septuagesima. In its first stanza, it reminds us that Alleluia is most properly the song of heaven. In the second stanza, we exiles from Paradise are set alongside those exiles from Israel, singing “But by Babylon’s sad waters / Mourning exiles now are we.” The third stanza brings to mind our sins, and the coming season of repentance, during which we leave behind the heavenly Alleluia. The fourth stanza points us forward to where we are going: to Easter, to resurrection, and to the company of the saints and the eternal presence of God Himself, where we will sing our Alleluias without interruption or pause.
The Proper Preface historically appointed for the time from Septuagesima until Ash Wednesday is the daily preface, the one labeled as “Weekday” in LSB.
Liturgical colors don’t properly fall within the purview of a missal, or this project, but I’m sure the question will be asked, so I will attempt to offer an answer.
Lutheran Service Book appoints green for Septuagesima. It is entirely possible that this color choice is simply following the traditions of other Lutheran church bodies in the twentieth century, but it seems more likely that green for Septuagesima coincides with a general misunderstanding of the season itself, given the three-year focus of the aforementioned book.
The Lutheran Hymnal, on the other hand, appoints violet for Septuagesima, which seems to be much more in keeping with the omission of the Alleluia and Gloria in excelsis and the general traditional observation of Septuagesima. It’s also in keeping with the received tradition of the German-speaking era of the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod, as found in Friedrich Lochner’s Der Hauptgottesdienst. Therefore violet is preferred.
In summary: Once Septuagesima arrives, don’t sing the Gloria, set aside your Alleluias, wear violet.
Septuagesima versus Lent
Even before this post has been published, I can hear the faint murmurings of objection. If the Alleluia and Gloria in excelsis have already been left behind in Septuagesima, if we’re already wearing violet, then what, exactly, differentiates Septuagesima from Lent?
The simple answer is that there isn’t all that much of a difference in externals. We don’t see quite the sharp division between Ash Wednesday and what comes before it for which the three year lectionary has conditioned us. The distinctions between the two aren’t found in things like colors, but in texts and practices. The character of Septuagesima isn’t quite as much a spirit of outright penitence as Lent. Septuagesima instead tends toward simplification in preparation for the arduous forty days of Lent. The Alleluia and Gloria are quieted, the preface is reduced in length, and the Wednesday and Friday masses continue on their normal course. Apart from the services themselves, fasting for the clergy would begin at various points during Septuagesima, but the laity would not begin their fast until Ash Wednesday.
When Lent arrives, however, the services of the church become more elaborate, and, in a way, almost extravagantly penitential. The normal rhythm of Sunday masses with Epistles and Gospels for Wednesdays and Fridays intensifies, and now every day, not just Sundays, has its own full mass, with its own proper Introit, Collect, Gradual, Epistle, Gospel, and so on. To put it in perspective, the number of appointed temporal masses from Ash Wednesday to the day before Palm Sunday is equal to those from Trinity Sunday to the Friday of Trinity 12. In 2021 terms, the temporal masses for 17 February – 27 March are equal in number to those from 30 May – 27 August.
It’s difficult to comprehend what a dramatic change this would have been when most of us have become accustomed to going to church only once a week, with the exception of a Wednesday service each week during Advent and Lent, and a few extra days around Christmas and Easter. To be clear, the original compilers and users of our sources would have had daily services regardless of the season, mostly votive masses or saints days of some sort, all with their own particular themes and emphases, all individual and distinct. But having masses for forty continuous days directed toward the purpose of preparing the Church for Holy Week, with relatively few saints days breaking the cycle, is almost unimaginably intense for most of us.
In addition to the multiplication of services, the Epistles for weekdays in Lent are taken entirely from the Old Testament, and the readings at the Lenten weekday masses prior to Holy Week, whether from the Old Testament or the Gospels, include some of the longest readings in the entire lectionary. Even the Tract for Invocavit (Lent I), though much abbreviated in Lutheran Service Book, The Lutheran Hymnal, and the entire Common Service tradition, is almost the entirety of Psalm 91.
Lent, as it is laid out for us in late medieval and Lutheran usages, is not like any sort of Lent any of us have ever experienced.
It’s entirely possible that the reason we have such difficulties in distinguishing Septuagesima from Lent is that, in recent memory, we’ve treated Lent as though it were only Septuagesima. If we think that Lent is only about simplification, about cutting back a little, about changing colors and not saying a few words and forgoing chocolate for a month, then of course we won’t see the difference between Lent and Septuagesima.
Our problem is not so much that we don’t know what Septuagesima is – it’s that we’ve forgotten what Lent is.
I’m sorry to say that we can’t provide the full Lenten masses for you quite yet. We can, however, provide you with the lectionary, and if you want to observe the Lenten weekday masses along the same lines as other ferial masses, repeating the collect and minor propers from the previous Sunday, that would be a good start.
To start you off on your Septuagesimal journey, you will find below the readings for Wednesdays and Fridays in Septuagesima and Sexagesima week. Wednesday of Quinquagesima week is, of course, Ash Wednesday.
|Wed. of Septuagesima||Hebrews 4:11-16||Mark 9:29b-37|
|Fri. of Septuagesima||Ephesians 2:3b-7||Luke 9:51-56|
|Wed. of Sexagesima||Hebrews 12:3-9||Matthew 12:30-37|
|Fri. of Sexagesima||1 Thess. 2:7-20||Luke 17:20-37|
6 thoughts on “Septuagesimal Strife”
My understanding is that the original printings of TLH suggested White for the whole season of Epiphany, Green for Pre-Lent, and Violet for Lent. It was in later printings (I have heard said, under the influence of A.C. Piepkorn) that the Roman color sequence of Green for Epiphanytide, Violet for Pre-Lent and Lent was adopted. I don’t know where the earlier tradition which was adopted by LSB comes from but I think it is to be preferred as it give a more gradual change from the Epiphany (which is White because each Sunday’s lesson deals with one of Christ’s many manifestations. Green for the in-between character of Pre-Lent, and Violet for Lent. Just my two bits, good work sir, much appreciated!
That is the color scheme also found in the Service Book and Hymnal and the one my parish uses.
I think I’ve heard something along those lines, too, though I have never looked into it. Green for Septuagesima seems to be common among church bodies that adopted the Common Service, and I assume it was received into use in the LCMS with the transition to English and a desire to more closely mirror the practices of other English-speaking Lutherans. I wonder if the change between printings of The Lutheran Liturgy (TLH Altar Book) that you mentioned arose from an attempt to return to the earlier LCMS usage of violet for Septuagesima, as found in Lochner’s Hauptgottesdienst, and presumably still somewhat within living memory at the time.
This was very insightful!
LikeLiked by 1 person