Why we need Gesima-tide: because Lent is about concrete practices

The observation of these days and the weeks following appear to be as ancient as the times of Gregory the Great. The design of them is to call us back from our Christmas feasting and joy, in order to prepare ourselves for fasting and humiliation, in the approaching time of Lent; from thinking of the manner of Christ's coming into the world, to reflect upon the cause of it, our own sins and miseries; that so, being convinced of the reasonableness of punishing and mortifying ourselves for our sins, we may the more strictly and religiously apply ourselves to those duties when the proper time for them comes - Wheatly on Septuagesima, quoted in Mant's Notes.

Wheatly's description of Gesima-tide summarises the wisdom of setting aside these weeks before Lent in preparation for the time of fasting and penitence, so that "we may the more strictly and religiously apply ourselves to those duties when the proper time for them comes".  If the discipline of Lent is to be taken seriously, a time of preparation is surely called for.

This is why the Eastern Church has five pre-Lent Sundays, preparing for Great Lent.  In the words of an Orthodox commentator:

The pre-lenten Sundays prepare us for our "lenten journey." They arm us with that which we need to "enter the Fast with joy," to make the most of the "time for action," for as we sing on the first day of Great Lent, "salvation is at the door." 

It is precisely because Lent is arduous, precisely because it does call us to the concrete practices of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving, that we need a time of preparation: time to prepare for changes to domestic routine and schedules to allow for additional devotional exercises; time to prepare for changes to our diet and eating habits; to prepare for the giving of money and time in service of the poor.

The Epistle and Gospel of Septuagesima are a call to prepare for the Lenten discipline.  The Epistle's "I therefore so run" quite starkly reminds us that hard work lies ahead, to prepare us for "an incorruptible" crown.  In the Gospel, the Lord's words address us - "Why stand ye here all the day idle? ... Go ye also into the vineyard" - calling us to the labour of Lent.

Sparrow notes that on Sexagesima, Epistle and Gospel call us to "Lenten Exercises ... lest we should think that there is no need of such strictness and holy violence in Religion", while on Quinquagesima because "all these bodily exercises profit little, unless we add faith and charity, or faith working by love, therefore this day the Epistle commends charity".

When in the late 20th century Anglican liturgists opted to follow the contemporary Roman approach and abandon Gesima-tide, a signal was sent.  If Lent does not require preceding weeks to prepare us for it, then it must be a gentle stroll rather than a hard race.  We obviously do not need time to prepare for changes to schedules, to diet, to our finances, because these are no longer expected of us in Lent.  The signal was given that the practices of Lenten discipline were not really all that important: Lent was more a state of mind.

The opening of words of the Gospel for Ash Wednesday, however, proclaim otherwise:

When ye fast ...

Lent is about practices: concrete, embodied practices which shape and form us because we are embodied beings.  Time, routines, food, and money are stuff by which we reveal and shape our loves, manifesting whether we are oriented towards the City of God or the city of man.  The practices of Lent re-order and re-orient time, routines, food, and money towards the Heavenly City, thus calling our heart to a more authentic love of God and neighbour.  Lent is about practices.

The serious work of Lent requires preparation.  This is the wisdom of the Gesima Sundays, a wisdom deeply embedded in the Church's liturgy, East and West.  They allow us to prepare seriously for the Lenten disciplines.  They recognise that our hearts, bodies, routines, and relationships need time to prepare for the challenges of a season of fasting and abstinence.  Without Gesima-tide, Lent can too easily become a season without serious and meaningful penitential practices: in other words, it can cease to be Lent.


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