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Hallo again to all.

The philatelic lectionary.In the traditional lectionary of the western church, the three Sundays before Lent are distinct from both Epiphany and Lent. They form their own mini-season of Pre-Lent, guiding us gently between the marvels of Epiphanytide and our own readiness on Ash Wednesday to say with George Herbert, "Welcome, dear feast of Lent." These three Sundays cover eighteen little days of liturgical time: Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima. Their Latin names mean that each Sunday is, respectively, about 70, 60 and 50 days from Easter. The Roman communion abolished them in 1969, and they disappeared without the firing of a shot; we are not aware of the formation anywhere of a Society for the Preservation of the Gesimas. They are still on the official calendars of some churches in the Anglican Communion, but they have more or less disappeared from the main stream of our liturgical life outside of church-stamp collections and the still-popular hymn 'Advent tells us Christ is near.'*

The philatelic lectionary.We do not know anyone who ever looked forward with strained anticipation for one or another of the Gesimas as his or her favourite Sunday in the year, but it strikes us in retrospect that they may have contained a valuable point about churchly life: we can always prepare ourselves for what lies ahead by patience and confidence, and sometimes this can even take the form of preparation for preparation. Lent, after all, is a season in which to prepare ourselves for Easter. But can we really go directly from noise and feasting to quietness and religious discipline at the flip of a switch? We do not know many whose lives of prayer and activity are so malleable. It is a liminal on-the-borders season like Pre-Lent with its Gesimas that allows us to think for a time longer than the Ash Wednesday service what our Lenten life will be, and where we hope it will take us.

The philatelic lectionary.As any good teacher, cook or athlete understands, there is little sense in preparing for something of a sudden, unless one has already prepared to prepare. One must read before making lesson plans; make a recipe and go to market before getting out the pots and pans; and woe to the runner who fails to stretch before warming up. In a Christian context, one can decide beforehand what one's Lenten efforts will be, but if the Amazon book orders are not made in time, books may not arrive before Lent has gone ahead at real speed. Likewise, places for extra quiet and prayer and service cannot usually be carved out of schedules on the spot. The carving has to happen before the real work of preparation can take place. The presence of the Gesimas' preparation-for-preparation in the church calendar since at least the eighth century would make the case against this being a particularly modern problem. We tend to think of ourselves as generally busier than the ancients, and so excused from the strength of their devotion, but three Gesimas call us to take stock of that excuse and to evaluate it in terms of the very Easter from which they are named. While we lump them together as 'Pre-Lent,' their own names are taken not from their relation to Lent, but from their hopeful focus on how far they are from Easter. This is a reassuring and lovely thing written into the old calendar, and its loss is not a small thing.

The philatelic lectionary.The philatelic lectionary.Surely this Gesima logic—the idea that preparation requires preparation—can be taken too far: after all, there is always a new holyday for which to prepare during the Christian year. (We can see something of this tendency in Eastern Orthodoxy, where 'little lents' have grown up before the Dormition and the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul. This may work in an Orthodox liturgical context, but it is not how Anglicans and other western Christians have tended to measure out the ecclesiastical year.) A preparatory season for the Ascension or Pentecost or All Saints Day would turn the calendar into a jumbly mess in short order. No matter the name of the Sunday on pew-sheets, lectionaries and calendars, though, the practical ancient wisdom of the Gesimas is a helpful, gracious guide to walking through the young year carefully.

Welcome, dear feast of Lent.

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Last updated: 26 February 2006

* Advent tells us Christ is near; / Christmas tells us Christ is here! / In Epiphany we trace / all the glory of his grace.
Those three Sundays before Lent / will prepare us to repent; / that in Lent we may begin / earnestly to mourn for sin.

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