What is a “gesima,” anyway?

The journey to the Cross that we take by way of the Church Year isn’t a free-fall to Good Friday.

It’s more like the trek of Frodo and Sam in The Lord of the Rings, with a series of stages along the way as things getting progressively darker the nearer to the end we get—before breaking forth in glorious light.

The second stage of the journey, Lent, we know well. The third, Passiontide, goes from the 5th Sunday in Lent up to Good Friday; more on that in a future blog post. Here I’d like to talk more about the first stage, Gesimatide (aka “Pre-Lent”).

Stage 1: Gesimatide

Gesimatide begins with Septuagesima Sunday, which follows the Transfiguration of Our Lord. What, you say, is this strange thing—a “gesima”? And what is this brief season all about? So glad you asked.

Gesima comes from the Latin for “days.” Before the season of Lent was called “Lent,” it was known as Quadragesima (“forty days”) for the time from Ash Wednesday until Easter.

Following this same pattern, the three Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday go by the names of “70 days” (Septuagesima), “60 days” (Sexagesima), and “50 days” (Quinquagesima), respectively.

The math is fuzzy, but the meaning is unmistakable: we’ve begun the march toward Calvary.

The history of Gesimatide

The historic origins of Gesimatide trace back to as early as the 5th Century, and certainly no later than the 6th.

At that time there was a rash of assaults on Rome, the putative capitol of the Church in the West. The attacks elicited a more fervent desire for a penitential observance in advance of Lent.

Liturgically speaking, Gesimatide provides a kind of bridge between the joyous Christmas and Epiphany seasons and the more somber season of Lent. We are turning our face toward Jerusalem, but it remains in the distance.

The customs of the season accent this, too. While we retain the green of Epiphany, the “Alleluias” drop out of the liturgy and hymns—preparing us for the yet more solemn services of Lent.

The themes of Gesimatide

In terms of the themes for each of the Sundays in Gesimatide, there is a happy coincidence in that the Gospels broadly correspond to the three great Solas (“alone”) of the Reformation:

  • Sola Gratia (By Grace Alone), on Septuagesima
  • Sola Scriptura (By Scripture/Word Alone), on Sexagesima
  • Sola Fide (By Faith Alone), on Quinquagesima

In this way, we are able to do some “basic training” before we press on in our journey to the Cross. With each step, we draw nearer to our goal of the joyous celebration of Easter.

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