But the number of Sundays after Epiphany depended upon the date of Easter and varied considerably. Easter is celebrated after the first full moon following the vernal equinox. The dating of Easter has a long and disputed history which will a make for an interesting discussion down the road; for our purposes here, Easter can fall anywhere between March 22 and April 25. It was not unusual for us Buffalonians to play in snow during Easter break when Easter was early; by contrast I can recall late April Easter vacations with temperatures in the 80’s.
Prior to 1970 the Church observed an 18-day “pre-Lent” with purple vestments and suppression of the Gloria and other signs of rejoicing. The three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday were purple penitential Sundays with rather challenging names: Septuagesima Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagestima Sunday. This little season was sometimes referred to as the “season of Septuagesima.” The names are numerical: 70th, 60th, and 50th days before Easter respectively, though the math is a little suspect here. I was pleasantly surprised to find a rather good discussion of these three Sundays in Wikipedia.
Wikipedia picked up on one of the more challenging aspects of this little Lenten warm-up for catechists and theologically inventive altar boys. The feasts of Epiphany and the Baptism of the Lord were fixed feasts on January 6 and 13 respectively. They were not, as today, celebrated on Sundays unless they fell on Sundays. Wikipedia reports that the earliest possible date for Septuagesima Sunday was January 18, when Easter occurred on March 22 in a non-leap year. Thus, for us kids who attended and served daily Mass, there were rare occasions when only five days transpired between the liturgical observance of the Incarnation and the penitential trappings of the Redemption. In some years you could really overdose on intensity. As mentioned above, the reformed Catholic calendar eliminated these three Sundays, replacing them with the Ordinary Time liturgies. Some portions of the Anglican and Orthodox Churches maintain a vestige of this season in their yearly observances.
I always wondered about the good sisters who taught our religion classes and would ask: “Class, what Sunday is next Sunday?” “Quinquagesima Sunday, Sister.” “And how do we spell that, class?” “Uh, Q-U-I-N-Q-U…mumble mumble…etc. etc.” Even bullies in my class quivered at the challenge. Catechists have always had a tough time of it. How did your teacher explain the multiple subtleties of the January 1 Holy Day, “The Feast of the Circumcision?”