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There is no need to read the previous parts for understanding, but this article is a part of a series on the seasons of the liturgical year: Advent I; Advent II ; Advent III ; Christmas; Epiphanytide; Septuagesima.

(LifeSiteNews) — The ash marked on our forehead at the start of Lent – and the reminder that we are dust, and that unto dust we shall return – is the culmination of the season of Septuagesima. 

Both Septuagesima and Lent point towards Easter – which is the historic time of baptism, and the reception of converts. Today, we baptize throughout the year, but it is fitting that the liturgy maintain this focus as a matter of tradition. There are always some who are baptized at the Easter Vigil, and in any case, it is clear that these texts apply also to those of us who have been in the ranks of Christ’s army for years (or even decades).  

It benefits us, too, to enter into this spirit – considering what would be our state without Christ, and renewing our gratitude and commitment to our God and Sovereign Lord. 

So what is this spirit? 

The two and a half weeks of Septuagesima starts with the creation and fall of Man in Genesis, in which we are forced to recognize the desperate degradation of our race, and our need for a Redeemer. In this season, which the liturgical texts convey as one of darkness and anxiety – although increasingly giving way to trust – we are presented with the reality of the persecutions and trials which face those who want to be saved by this Redeemer. Even in the epistle of Quinquagesima, so often read today at weddings, St. Paul writes of suffering and martyrdom: 

[I]f I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

All this leads up to the Gospel reading of Quinquagesima Sunday, in which Christ proclaims his imminent Passion: 

Behold, we go up to Jerusalem; and all things shall be accomplished which were written by the prophets concerning the Son of man. For he shall be delivered to the Gentiles and shall be mocked and scourged and spit upon. And after they have scourged him, they will put him to death. And the third day he shall rise again.

In all these texts, the Church is warning her catechumens – and us – to prepare to lose everything. In baptism, they will die to sin and to the “old Adam,” but they may well find that other aspects of their comfortable lives are over as well. They may well find themselves abandoned by friends and family members – and those living in the early days of the Roman Liturgy may well have swiftly found themselves imitating Christ’s Passion through martyrdom. 

In this sense, the reception of the ashes, amidst the mourning and penitential texts of Ash Wednesday’s liturgy, marks the end of Septuagesima. We accept the sentence imposed on each of us in Adam. We are dust, and shall return to dust. We will weep over our sins, and do penance for them for the duration of Lent. We are ready and resolved – with God’s grace – to follow Christ in his passion and suffering.  

But then, just as we make all these resolutions, and seal them with the ashes, something very curious happens to the traditional Roman Liturgy. 

The First Sunday of Lent 

As the Introit of the First Sunday of Lent rings out, we hear the choir sing words from Psalm 90: 

He shall call upon Me, and I will answer him; I will deliver him and glorify him; with length of days I will gratify him.

V. You who dwell in the shelter of the Most High, shall abide in the shadow of the Almighty.1

The same psalm is sung in full for the Tract – even if, regrettably, it is often psalm-toned. Extracts of this psalm are sung for the Gradual, Offertory and Communion. The Gradual: 

To His angels God has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways. 

V. Upon their hands they shall bear you up, lest you dash your foot against a stone.

And the Offertory and the Communion: 

With His pinions the Lord will cover you, and under His wings you shall take refuge; His faithfulness is a buckler and a shield.

The liturgical writer Fr. Johannes Pinsk writes: 

The worshipers wrap themselves, as it were, in the words of this Psalm, they wind the pictures and phrases of this Psalm like cloths around head and body and so stand, robed entirely in this Psalm, before the God they have come to worship. 

But being robed in this Psalm and standing before God in such a robe means nothing else than standing in the infinite compassion of God which suffices for every situation.2

But if Psalm 90 is the psalm of God’s compassion and mercy, then what is it doing at the start of Lent, just as we have accepted the sentence of Adam’s curse, and are preparing to go to Calvary to die with Christ? 

There seems to be no other way of putting it: it all seems very un-Lenten. 

Is it just because Our Lord uses this psalm to rebuke the Devil, during his temptations? No, there seems to be more going on here. For a start, Christ merely refers to this psalm in passing, and for a particular purpose. This does not seem to be an adequate explanation as to why this psalm so fills this Mass.3 

The answer lies, according to Pinsk, in the catechumens.  

The state of the catechumens 

In the early days of the Church, those preparing for baptism knew that they were “burning their bridges” to their old, comfortable lives – they stood liable to lose family members, friends, positions, and could even be denounced, arrested and martyred.  

The liturgy of this Sunday represents the Church’s answer and comfort for the catechumen – and for us. She has shown us our state and need for a savior, warned us of what this salvation will cost us – but now, she reassures us that we are not alone. This same spirit appears in the epistle, in which St. Paul powerfully contrasts his own wretched state with what he has received in Christ: 

[I]n all things let us exhibit ourselves as the ministers of God, in much patience, in tribulation, in necessities, in distresses, in stripes, in prisons, in seditions, in labors, in watchings, in fastings, In chastity, in knowledge, in longsuffering, in sweetness, in the Holy Ghost, in charity unfeigned, in the word of truth, in the power of God;

[B]y the armor of justice on the right hand and on the left; by honor and dishonor; by evil report and good report; as deceivers and yet true; as unknown and yet known; As dying and behold we live: as chastised and not killed; As sorrowful, yet always rejoicing; as needy, yet enriching many; as having nothing and possessing all things.

Amidst the ever-growing darkness of our time – not least due to the persecution of Catholics for holding to the traditional faith, liturgy and religion of their grandparents – the Church’s liturgy asks the catechumens, and us, the question: “Do you realize that all this – the Epistle, the Propers – applies to you?”

Pinsk writes: 

The newly baptized who goes to prison: is he free or not free? He is free, unless the freedom of the children of God is but an imaginary phantom and no solid reality. 

And the martyr who sacrifices his life, pouring it out with his blood-does he die or live? He lives if there is a true life with the risen Christ.

And finally, the Christian who possesses nothing more whatsoever on this earth, who has been totally stripped and dispossessed so that he can truly call nothing more his own – is he unpropertied or rich? He is rich if the communion with Jesus Christ also includes a participation in the fullness of his life.4

Is it necessary to point out that these texts also have application to those afraid of what Lent will bring for the traditional Roman Rite? Exactly what will happen, and exactly how one should respond, are questions for another day. “To His angels God has given command about you, that they guard you in all your ways.”  

But today, we must listen, and realize that we are being taught that we are never truly poor, imprisoned or killed if we are united with the risen Christ.5

The combat in the desert 

Once we enter into this spirit, perhaps we will understand Christ’s combat with the Devil in a new light as well. Our Lord is in a situation which may appear weak, lonely, without food or necessary goods, and without the promise shown in his life so far. Opposing him is the Devil, claiming the power to distribute the kingdoms of the world to those who worship him. In this conflict, the Devil appears to be the stronger force – just as he does in his conflict with Christ’s Church.6

But the Devil is not victorious over Christ. Nor will he be victorious over the Church – and nor will he be victorious over us, if we “wrap ourselves,” as Pinsk says, “in the precious, protective and warming mantle of the compassionate mercy of God in all privations and renunciations which time brings with it for the individual and for the Church as whole.”7 

This language recalls the idea of putting on Christ and abiding in him as our strength – the latter of which is Our Lord’s own advice for his apostles in the face of trials and persecutions. 


Pius XII taught that the liturgy “is a continuous profession of Catholic faith and a continuous exercise of hope and charity” and “has the Catholic faith for its content, inasmuch as it bears public witness to the faith of the Church.”8

Throughout this series, we have seen several occasions in which the liturgy presents us with ideas and concepts that seem to be missed by many today. This particular example shows the importance of keeping a clear distinction between the four Sundays of Lent, and the period of Passiontide and Holy Week.

Flattening these periods together, and imposing our devotional understandings of what Lent should be – whether that be in our own private lives, or in our choice of hymns and chants, or anything else – deprives us of the salutary and surprising formation which we receive in the traditional Roman Liturgy – which is, as always, our “pearl of great price.”  

There is no doubt that Lent is a time for serious penance – both in terms of repentance, and mortification. This is manifested in the liturgies of Lent, including on the Sundays – and most especially by the repetition of the beautiful mourning of the Ash Wednesday tract, three times a week, and the recurring musical leitmotifs in the chant. We should take seriously the rallying cry and warning of Benedict XIV, who taught in 1741: 

The observance of Lent is the very badge of the Christian warfare. By it we prove ourselves not to be enemies of the cross of Christ. By it we avert the scourges of divine justice. By it we gain strength against the princes of darkness, for it shields us with heavenly help. 

Should mankind grow remiss in their observance of Lent, it would be a detriment to God’s glory, a disgrace to the Catholic religion and a danger to Christian souls. 

Neither can it be doubted that such negligence would become the source of misery to the world, of public calamity, and of private woe.

But observing Lent with rigor does not entail treating it as a sort of homogenous Passiontide. Lent has an atmosphere and spirit which is distinct to that of Passiontide; and the Sundays of Lent have their own spirit again. Neglecting this distinct spirit of Lent might even obscure the spirit of Passiontide for us. We should consider each Mass, and respect the Church’s own division of her seasons, lest we become inattentive to how she is forming us.  

In this example, acting as if we are already in Passiontide might cause to ignore this understanding of God’s protection for his people, “compelled to be ‘in the wilderness’ and faced with the apparent supremacy of Satan.”10

This is the sort of truth that we need to hold onto today, as the days of our exile (discussed in the previous part) grind on, as chaos continues to reign, and as the darkness grows ever deeper. 

We all know that the Sundays of Lent are something of a reprise from the season’s penances. The “un-Lenten” spirit of the First Sunday continues over the following four weeks – but rather than being “un-Lenten,” this seems to be the true spirit of the Sundays of Lent. They are all aimed at presenting the power of Christ to those about to be baptized – and to us, who perhaps will be flagging under the fast.  

But all this – and why it is such an important part of preparing for the Great and Holy Week that leads up to Easter – is a subject for another day. 


1 All the Propers are taken from https://divinumofficium.com/

2 Johannes Pinsk, The Cycle of Christ, trans. Arthur Gibson, Desclee Company, New York, 1966, 21. Fr Johannes Pinsk (1891-1957) was involved with the twentieth century liturgical movement in ways that many readers would consider regrettable. However, his works have a wealth of interesting information about the liturgical year, which I would like to share. They also contains some things which traditional Catholics might not appreciate. My purpose here is to present what is good, along with some comments, to help us appreciate the holy Roman Liturgy.

3 That said, many things in the Roman liturgy appear for prosaic reasons, and only later acquired the symbolic meanings that we might today consider normative. However, even such a prosaic origin does not exclude considerations, nor attempts to understand what may have been the intentions of providence in this inclusion. Cf. Fr Adrian Fortescue’s descriptions in The Holy Week Book, Burns, Oates and Washbourne, London, 1913.

4 Pinsk 24

5 Pinsk 24

6 Pinsk 24-5

7 Pinsk 25

8Pius XII, Encyclical Mediator Dei, 1947, n. 47. https://www.vatican.va/content/pius-xii/en/encyclicals/documents/hf_p-xii_enc_20111947_mediator-dei.html

9 Benedict XIV, Constitution Non ambigimus, quoted in Dom Prosper Guéranger, The Liturgical Year Vol. V, ‘Lent’ (1949), trans. Dom Laurence Shepherd, OSB., St Bonaventure Publications, 2000, pp 10-11.

10 Pinsk 25.

This essay was originally published in February of 2023.