What Are Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays?

Astronomical Clock On Church
Astronomical Clock On Church. Bora Tosun Stone / EyeEm / Getty Images

No longer officially marked by the Catholic Church, Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday, and Quinquagesima Sunday still show up in some liturgical calendars. What are these Sundays, and what's so special about them?

The Third Sunday Before Ash Wednesday: Septuagesima Sunday

Septuagesima Sunday is the third Sunday before the start of Lent, which makes it the ninth Sunday before Easter. Traditionally, Septuagesima Sunday marked the beginning of preparations for Lent. Septuagesima and the following two Sundays (Sexagesima, Quinquagesima; see below) were celebrated by name in the traditional Roman Catholic liturgical calendar, which is still used for the traditional Latin Mass.

Where Does the Name Septuagesima Come From?

No one is quite sure why Septuagesima Sunday bears that name. Literally, Septuagesima means "seventieth" in Latin, but contrary to a common error, it is not 70 days before Easter, but only 63. The most likely explanation is that Septuagesima Sunday and Sexagesima Sunday derived their names from Quinquagesima Sunday, which is 49 days before Easter, or 50 if you include Easter. Quinquagesima means "fiftieth."

The Front Porch of Lent: Easing Into the Lenten Fast

In any case, it was common for early Christians to begin the Lenten fast immediately after Septuagesima Sunday. Just as Lent today begins 46 days before Easter, since Sundays are never a day of fasting, so, in the early Church, Saturdays and Thursdays were considered fast-free days. In order to fit in 40 days of fasting before Easter, therefore, the fast had to start two weeks earlier than it does today.

In the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass, starting on Septuagesima Sunday, neither the Alleluia nor the Gloria are sung. They do not return until the Easter Vigil when we mark the triumph of Christ over death in His Resurrection.

The Second Sunday Before Ash Wednesday: Sexagesima Sunday

Sexagesima Sunday is the second Sunday before the start of Lent, which makes it the eighth Sunday before Easter. Traditionally, it was the second of the three Sundays (Septuagesima is the first and Quinquagesima is the third) of preparation for Lent.

Sexagesima literally means "sixtieth," though it falls only 56 days before Easter. It most likely takes its name from Quinquagesima Sunday, which is 49 days before Easter, or 50 if you count Easter itself.

The Last Sunday Before Ash Wednesday: Quinquagesima Sunday

Quinquagesima Sunday is the final Sunday before the start of Lent, the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which makes it the seventh Sunday before Easter. Traditionally, it was the third of the three Sundays (following Septuagesima and Sexagesima) of preparation for Lent.

Quinquagesima literally means "fiftieth." It is 49 days before Easter, or 50 if you count Easter itself. Similarly, Pentecost Sunday is said to be 50 days after Easter, but the number is calculated by including Easter in the count.

The Fate of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays

When the Roman Catholic liturgical calendar was revised in 1969, the three pre-Lenten Sundays were removed; they are now denominated simply as Sundays in Ordinary Time. Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday, and Quinquagesima Sunday are all still observed in the celebration of the traditional Latin Mass.