The three Sundays before Ash Wednesday are sometimes known as “the -gesima Sundays.” -gesima is a Latin partial word, from Septuagesima and Sexagesima and Quinquagesima and Quadragesima. These mean 70 days, 60 days, 50 days, and 40 days, respectively, and they refer to the approximate amount of time remaining until Easter. Quadragesima is a Latin name for Ash Wednesday, when Lent officially begins, but the three Sundays before it (with increasingly ‘rounded’ approximations of the Easter countdown) form a sort of Pre-Lent season.
These three weeks were a transitional period: the Lenten spiritual disciplines had not yet begun, but some of Lent’s liturgical features were put in place, like the “burial of the alleluia” and the wearing of purple vestments. Those who practiced especially severe fasting during Lent would use these three weeks to begin the fast in stages, giving their bodies time to adjust safely to the austere self-denial that awaited.
The first Sunday’s Gospel lesson was the Gospel of the Landowner paying his workers the same, even to the 11th hour (Matt. 20). This prepared the Church for the labor of Lenten disciplines.
The second Sunday proclaimed the Parable of the Four Soils (Luke 8). This reminded us of right reception of the Word of God.
The third Sunday recounted Jesus’ announcement that he was going to Jerusalem where he’d be arrested, killed, and rise again (Luke 18:31ff). This was an apt sort of announcement that the penitential season of Lent was about to begin.
I’ve written all this in past tense because modern liturgical calendars have abolished this miniature season. Perhaps some people think it redundant with Lent; perhaps others wanted to lengthen the Epiphany season; perhaps its function in the larger scheme of the calendar was not properly appreciated by the revisionists. Whateverso it is a tradition largely gone from the Church today, observed only in the Eastern Orthodox traditions and the relatively few Anglicans who continue to use traditional prayer books.
Although we are not directly observing these special weeks of the Church year anymore, it can be beneficial to know about them. They are part of the treasure of Church Tradition that reaches back well past a thousand years, and, rightly received, can be of great benefit to our spiritual formation as we work with the Church’s calendar to learn and grow in Christ.