In many places around the world, Carnival or Mardi Gras celebrations will be in high gear this Sunday, as people live it up during the final days before Lent starts. I wasn’t aware that for centuries the Church has called it Quinquagesima Sunday, the last of three Sundays before Lent that were designated as a time to prepare for the penitential season.
Mardi Gras, or Fat Tuesday, is named for the custom of slaughtering and feasting on the fatted calf as the last indulgence before fasting and abstinence begin on Ash Wednesday. It’s the climax of Carnival (which means literally, taking away flesh) a festive season starting at Epiphany in many countries.
In England the day before Ash Wednesday is called Shrove Tuesday–the final day of Shrovetide (taken from the word “shrive” which means to confess). It refers to the week before Lent when the laity was encouraged to go to confession, according to the Anglo-Saxon “Ecclesiastical Institutes.” Germans celebrate Fastnacht, the eve of the fast.
Even centuries ago, Carnival and Mardi Gras revelry tended to get out of hand and the Church tried to check the excesses, especially in Italy. In the 16th century, Forty Hours of prayer was established on the final days of Carnival, partly to draw Catholics away from dangerous occasions of sin and also to make reparation for sins committed.
In 1747, Pope Benedict XIV granted a plenary indulgence for those who participated in Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament during three days of Carnival.
This leads me to Quinquagesima Sunday. The Latin word for 50th, it marks exactly 50 days before Easter. In the past, it was observed as the third of a three-week countdown starting two weeks earlier with Setuagesima (70th) Sunday followed by Sexagesima (60th) Sunday, referring to the approximate number of days until Easter. The numbers are more symbolic than actual mathematical realities.
This isn’t meant to be a lesson in Latin ordinal numbers (Lent itself is called Quadragesima meaning 40th) but to make us aware of the time period we’re entering.
Something like Carnival was probably already going on when Greeks in the early Church practiced a pre-Lenten penitential season to get in the right frame of mind for Lent. Early Christian communities followed the Greek tradition when they named the three “gesima” Sundays for the start of their Lenten fasts. When Pope St. Gregory the Great made the practice of Lent uniform in about 600, he marked these Sundays as reminders of the approach of Lent so Catholics could prepare. Clergy wore violet vestments on these Sundays.
While the Church no longer observes the “gesima” Sundays as part of the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, they are still found in the 1962 Roman Missal and are observed as part of the Extraordinary Form. They’re a good reminder that we should start thinking about Lent now so it doesn’t take us by surprise before we’ve had a chance to prepare mentally and spiritually.
There’s nothing wrong with killing the fatted calf on Mardi Gras but it’s even better to be ready for what comes on the day after: an opportunity to grow closer to the Lord through prayer, fasting and almsgiving as we prepare to commemorate His Passion and Resurrection.