SECOND PART OF THE LITURGICAL YEAR: THE EASTER CYCLE (MYSTERY OF THE REDEMPTION).[i]
I. Season of Lent
The Christmas Cycle celebrates the Mystery of the Incarnation. The Easter Cycle celebrates the Mystery of the Redemption and has the following subdivisions:
1. Season of Lent (Includes [I] Season after Septuagesima, [II] Season of Lent, and [III] Passiontide)
2. Eastertide (Begins with the Mass of the Easter Vigil and ends on the Saturday after Pentecost, a.k.a. Whitsunday)
3. Season after Pentecost (Begins with Trinity Sunday and is the longest of the Liturgical Year, extending 24-28 weeks.)
I. - Season of Lent.
Introduced by three Sundays (Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima), the season of Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends with the death of Jesus in Passion Week. The struggle between our Lord and Satan ends with the victory of the Savior at Eastertide. During the period from Septuagesima to Ash Wednesday, the liturgy speaks no more of our greatness but contemplates the misery of fallen humanity - the fatal consequences of original sin and actual sin - and the sacrifice that God asked from the faithful Melchisedech, symbol of the sacrifice that Jesus brings for the whole of humanity.
In this period we also prepare for the fasting and penance of the season of Lent. The season can be recapitulated with the words of the Preface of Lent: 'Who by this bodily fast dost curb our vices, lift our minds, and bestow strength and rewards.' Our souls are slaves of the Devil, flesh and the world. Jesus came into the world, not to be crowned king of the Jews, but to deliver us from this threefold bondage and to restore to us the divine life which we had lost.
The season of Lent ends with Passiontide (from Passion Sunday to Easter). The Judica me... and the Gloria Patri are omitted because the very ancient Masses of Passiontide date from an age before these prayers were added to the Roman Mass. The Liturgy commemorates the sorrowful events of the last week of Jesus' mortal life. On Thursday evening, He had the Last Supper with His Apostles, and on the following day He was crucified on Calvary.
'Who didst establish the salvation of mankind on a tree of the Cross, that whence death came thence also life might arise again, and that we, who were overcome by a tree, by a tree might also overcome.'
The struggle between our Lord and Satan ends with the apparent success of Satan on Good Friday. The priests are robed in vestments of mourning, and the whole Church wears an aspect of sadness. But by the sacrifice of Himself, the Son of God triumphs and gloriously comes forth from the sepulchre on Easter morning.
The three Sundays preceding Ash Wednesday are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, which mean, respectively, the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth day, that is, before Easter. They are mere names to correspond with the name of Lent (Quadragesima in Latin: fortieth); obviously they do not actually correspond with the period they indicate.
Man, victim of the sin of Adam and of his own sins, is justly afflicted, groans and sorrows encompass him.
On these Sundays the Gloria in excelsis and Alleluia are omitted, except when the Mass of a feast is said, and the purple vestments are used in preparation for Lent.
It is Jesus who, by the merits of His Passion, is to open the eyes of man as He did those of the blind man of Jericho, and deliver him alike from the bondage of sin and error.
Ash Wednesday is from a liturgical point of view one of the most important days of the year. In the first place this day opens the liturgical season of Lent, which formerly began with the First Sunday and comprised only thirty-six days. The addition of Wednesday and the three following days brought the number to forty, which is that of our Lord’s fast in the desert.
In the Old Law ashes were generally a symbolic expression of grief, mourning, or repentance. In the Early Church the use of ashes had a like signification, and with the sackcloth formed part of the public penances. The blessing of the ashes is one of the great liturgical rites of the year. It was originally instituted for public penitents, but is now intended for all Christians, as Lent should be a time of penance for all. The ashes used this day are obtained by burning palms of the previous year. Traditionally they are blessed by four ancient prayers, sprinkled with holy water and incensed, and then placed in the form of a cross on the foreheads of each of the faithful with the words: ‘Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.’ The ancient prayers of the blessing suggest suitable thoughts for the opening of Lent. They are summarized here:
‘Almighty and everlasting God, spare the penitent ... bless these ashes, that they may be a remedy to all who invoke Thy Name ... O God, who desirest not the death but the conversion of sinners, look in kindness upon our human frailty ... and bless those ashes, so that we, who know ourselves to be but ashes ... and that we must return to dust, may deserve to obtain pardon and the rewards offered to the penitent.’
[i] Remarks are abstracted from The Daily Missal and Liturgical Manual, from Editio Typica of the Roman Missal and Breviary, 1962
(Baronius Press Limited, London, 2004, in conjunction with the Fraternal Society of St. Peter, www.baroniuspress.com)