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Commentary from 
Rivingtons, London, 1884



After the conclusion of the season of Epiphany the Sundays are reckoned with reference to Easter and its preceding fast.  The origin of the names which distinguish the three Sundays before Lent cannot be historically accounted for, and has received various explanations in ancient and modern times.  Pamelius considers that Septuagesima was so called in commemoration of the seventy years' captivity of Israel in Babylon, and that the other two Sundays following were named from it by analogy.  As it was so much the habit of early Christian writers to compare the forty days' fast of Lent with the forty years' sojourn in the wilderness, this derivation seems a probable one.  But the more generally received one in modern times is, that the fast of Lent being called Quadragesima, and that name being especially applied to the first Sunday in Lent, these three preceding Sundays were named from analogy, and as representing in round numbers the days which occur between each and Easter.  Septuagesima is, indeed, only sixty-three days distant from Easter, but Quinquagesima is forty-nine; and the nearly correct character of the appellation in the latter case seems to support this theory.  The second and more exact titles which were added to the old names of these Sundays in 1661 appear for the first time in Bishop Cosin's corrected Prayer Book.  The ancient titles themselves are all three found in the Lectionary of St. Jerome, and in the Sacramentaries; but there are not any analogous ones in use in the Eastern Church. 

The time and manner of observing Lent varied very much in the early Church, and these Sundays are a monument of this variation.  Each of them marked the beginning of Lent in communities which extended it beyond forty days; and Durandus states that monastic persons were accustomed to begin the fast at Septuagesima, the Greeks at Sexagesima, and the secular clergy at Quinquagesima.  It is very probable that the names themselves were adopted to mark another variation in the mode of keeping Lent.  For in some parts of the Church fasting was not permitted on Sundays, Thursdays, or Saturdays, and yet the Lenten fast was to extend to forty days.  The beginning of it was therefore thrown back to Septuagesima, the weeks from which day to Easter would include forty fasting-days.  Other churches omitted only Thursdays and Sundays, and began the fast on Sexagesima.  A third class made no omissions except of Sunday, and commenced their season of penitence two days before Ash-Wednesday, at Quinquagesima; while a fourth, perhaps the largest, limited Lent to thirty-six days, beginning it on Quadragesima Sunday. 

When these various modes of keeping Lent had been all superseded under the reforming hand of St. Gregory the Great by our present custom, the Church still retained the penitential tone of the services for these three Sundays, and they thus form a link between the joyous seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, and the deeply sorrowful one which begins with Ash-Wednesday and reaches its climax in the Holy Week.  Although some customs which were retained with this view in the ancient Church of England have been dropped in the modern, - such as the omission of the Alleluia at the beginning of Mattins, - the Scriptures of the season still mark it as one that leads up to Lent. 

The Gospels and Epistles for the three Sundays are clearly appointed with a reference to Christian self-discipline; and they seem to have been chosen with the well-known ancient classification of virtues in view, as if to show the Christian application of the truths of heathen philosophy.  Thus on Septuagesima the Epistle of the Christian strife for the mastery represents Temperantia, the Gospel of the labourers, and the penny a day, Justicia.  On Sexagesima, Fortitudo is illustrated by St. Paul's account of his sufferings for Christ's sake, and Honestas by the parable of the Sower, some of Whose good seed falls on honest and good hearts.  Quinquagesima illustrates by the Epistle the Christian complement of all natural virtue in Charity; the climax of which was reached in the submission of the Son of Man to that contumely and persecution which He predicts in the Gospel of the day.