The Joyce Hill Column
Counting in Tens
We think of Lent as lasting for forty days, a long period of penitence and self-denial in which we prepare ourselves for Easter. Originally, as I’ve explained before, the preparation for Easter was much shorter than this, but it had extended to forty days by the fourth century. This reflected Christ’s forty days of confrontation with temptation in the wilderness at the beginning of his ministry, as briefly alluded to in Mark 1 v. 13 and described in some detail in Matthew 4 and Luke 4. Christ’s period in the wilderness is a strong feature of our Lenten liturgy to this day, and the story inspires much of what we focus upon: inward reflection, self-denial, the combatting of temptation – all with the purpose, within the cycle of the church’s year, of sprucing ourselves up spiritually to make us ready for the celebration of Easter, with its great sense of joy and release.
When Lent first took this longer form, it began on a Sunday (what is now the first Sunday of Lent); and if you count forward from that, there are forty days until you get to Good Friday, when the Redemption begins with the Crucifixion. So, in the Latin which was the language of the Western Church before the Reformation, the Sunday that started this forty-day period was called quadragesima, ‘fortieth’ — that is, the fortieth day before the Redemption. Very soon, however, Quadragesima came to be used instead for the whole of the forty-day period, and so the Sunday itself, which was strictly the one day that was quadragesima, had to be redesignated as the First Sunday in Quadragesima (Dominica Prima in Quadragesima). Linguistically, it doesn’t really make sense. But no one was confused by it: common usage constantly changes the meaning and application of words, and that occurred in this case.
Then, in the fifth century, the practice grew up of counting fifty days before Easter, by analogy with the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost. This Sunday, the fiftieth day before Easter, was called Quinquagesima Sunday, using the normal Latin word for ‘fiftieth’. This works exactly if you count from the Sunday preceding the first Sunday in Lent, and continue up to and including Easter Day, which is a precise parallel with the fifty days from Easter to Pentecost, again using inclusive counting. In the sixth century this long anticipation of Easter was taken a step further when the Sunday before Quinquagesima Sunday came to be called Sexagesima Sunday, sexagesima being Latin ‘sixtieth’, although this ‘counting in tens’ did not work very well for Sexagesima Sunday, since it was only seven days before Quinquagesima. A similar extension, by analogy, at much the same time, also named the Sunday preceding Sexagesima Sunday as Septuagesima Sunday (Latin ‘seventieth’), although this instance of ‘counting in tens’ was even more approximate than it was for Sexagesima. In the seventh century the beginning of Quadragesima (i.e. Lent proper) was brought forward a few days, to the Wednesday before Quadragesima Sunday, so as to allow for forty fasting days in Lent (since the Sundays in Lent are not fasting days). But of course this did not affect the practice of using the term Quadragesima for the whole of the period, since ‘forty’ was still the key concept; nor did it have any impact on the use of Quinquagesima, Sexagesima and Septuagesima, which continued even after the Reformation, as you will see if you look at the Book of Common Prayer – though you will look in vain for these Sunday names in Common Worship.