Pre-Lent in Christian Liturgies: An Ancient and Universal Custom

This article was originally published by Henri de Villiers on his blog the Schola Sainte-Cécile. It is translated and published here with permission.

SeptuagesimeIn all of the ancient Christian liturgies there is a period of preparation for the great fast of Lent, during which the faithful are readied for the coming of this major period in the liturgical year so that they can gradually enter into the ascetic practices that they will observe until Easter.

This preparatory period of Lent lasts for three weeks in the majority of rites. In the Roman Rite, these three Sundays are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. These names come from an ancient counting system, and refer to the period of ten days in which each of these Sundays falls. They precede the first Sunday of Lent (Quadragesima).

Churches following the Syrian and Coptic traditions have preserved a more ancient arrangement that includes shorter periods of fasting: the Fast of Nineveh and the Fast of Heraclius. The origins of the period of Pre-Lent in other rites can probably be traced back to these.  

Reminders of human frailty, meditation on the last things, and also prayers for the dead are recurrent elements in this liturgical period.

Inexplicably, the modern rite of Paul VI suppressed the time of Pre-Lent in its liturgical year, despite its antiquity and universality.

The Origins of Pre-Lent: The Fast of Nineveh

The word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time, saying, 2 “Get up, go to Nineveh, thatJonas & la baleine great city, and proclaim to it the message that I tell you.” 3 So Jonah set out and went to Nineveh, according to the word of the Lord. Now Nineveh was an exceedingly large city, a three days’ walk across. 4 Jonah began to go into the city, going a day’s walk. And he cried out, “Forty days more, and Nineveh shall be overthrown!” 5 And the people of Nineveh believed God; they proclaimed a fast, and everyone, great and small, put on sackcloth. 6 When the news reached the king of Nineveh, he rose from his throne, removed his robe, covered himself with sackcloth, and sat in ashes. 7 Then he had a proclamation made in Nineveh: “By the decree of the king and his nobles: No human being or animal, no herd or flock, shall taste anything. They shall not feed, nor shall they drink water. 8 Human beings and animals shall be covered with sackcloth, and they shall cry mightily to God. All shall turn from their evil ways and from the violence that is in their hands. 9 Who knows? God may relent and change his mind; he may turn from his fierce anger, so that we do not perish 10 When God saw what they did, how they turned from their evil ways, God changed his mind about the calamity that he had said he would bring upon them; and he did not do it (Jonah III).

Jonas est rejeté par la Baleine devant NiniveThe whale spewed Jonah out on dry land near the city of Nineveh. In order to commemorate the fast of the Ninevites, the churches of Syria instituted a fast from the Monday of the third week before Lent (corresponding to the Monday of the Roman Septuagesima). These days of fast are called Baʻūṯá d-Ninwáyé in Syriac, which we could translate as the Rogation (or Supplication) of the Ninevites. It seems that this fast initially lasted a whole week, or more precisely from Monday to Friday, because fasting on Saturday and Sunday is unknown in the East (though it was possible to extend a period of abstinence without fasting into these two days). Later the Fast of Nineveh was reduced to three days: Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday (and Thursday became a “day of the thanksgiving of the Ninevites” in the Syro-Chaldean rite). Traditionally the fact that the fast lasts three days is explained by the three days Jonah spent in the whale. The very strict Fast of Nineveh is still practiced by the various Aramaic churches, in both the oriental tradition (the Chaldean, Assyrian, and Syro-Malabar Churches) and the western (the Syriac Church). During these days, the book of Jonah is read (by the Assyro-Chaldean, on the third day). This fast has remained very popular, and certain faithful go so far as not to eat or drink during the three days. Alone among the churches of the Syriac tradition, the Maronite Church no longer observes the Fast of Nineveh properly speaking, though (as we shall see later) it has adopted the arrangement of three Sundays of preparation for Great Lent.


Les neufs saints syriens qui évangélisèrent les campagnes d'Ethiopie au VIème siècle
The nine saints of Syria who evangelized Ethiopia

The Coptic Church of Egypt, as well as the Ethiopian Church, received from the Syrian Churches the practice of the Rogations of the Ninevites. In the Egyptian Coptic liturgy, these three days of rogation in memory of the fast of the Ninevites (also called the “Fast of Jonah”) strictly follow the liturgical customs of Lent (the Mass is celebrated after Vespers, the hymns are chanted in the Lenten tone and without cymbals, the readings are read from the Lenten Lectionary). The Fast of Nineveh was adopted by the Coptic Church of Egypt under the 62nd patriarch of Alexandria, Abraham (or Ephrem) (975 † 978), who was of Syrian origin. It is possible that the adoption of the Fast of Nineveh in Ethiopia was more ancient. (The first bishop of Aksum, St. Frumentius, was a Syrian and the Church of Ethiopia was reorganized in the 6th century by the nine new Syrian saints, who contributed greatly to the evangelization of Ethiopia.) The Fast of Nineveh (Soma Nanawe) is very severe in the Ethiopian Church and no one can be dispensed from it.



Saint Grégoire l'Illuminateur et le baptême de l'Arménie
St. Gregory the Illuminator and the Baptism of Armenia

When was the Feast of Nineveh adopted by the Syriac Churches? There is some evidence it was probably practiced in very ancient times. St. Ephrem, a deacon of Edessa, composed several hymns on the Feast of Nineveh (in which it appears that the fast lasted a week and not three days as today). The Armenian Church has a Fast of Nineveh that lasts five days: it begins on the same Monday as in the Syriac Churches (the third Monday before the start of Lent) and ends on the following Friday (when they recall Jonas’s appeal to the Ninevites), or a complete week (the Armenians never fast on Saturday or Sunday). The fast and abstinence of these days is severe, similar to that of great Lent. Armenian authors claim that it was instituted by St. Gregory the Illuminator after the general conversion of the Armenians in 301. Probably St. Gregory the Illuminator only renewed a custom that was already common among the neighboring Syriac Christians.


The Origins of Pre-Lent: The Week of Quinquagesima, the Fast of Heraclius, and Cheesefare Week

In the East as in the West, the week immediately before Lent very early takes on a penitential character. A first abstinence from meat begins then. Recall that in the primitive Church Christians followed a strictly vegetarian diet during the whole of Lent. In the week immediately before Lent (in Latin Quinquagesima, in Byzantine Tyrophagy), meat is no longer consumed but dairy products, eggs and other animal products are still consumed.


Le Christ au désert servi par les Anges - Philippe de Champaigne
Christ in the Desert ministered to by the Angels – Philippe de Champaigne

Lent lasts for seven weeks in the East and six weeks in the West. In the East, where neither Saturdays nor Sundays are fasting days (apart from Holy Saturday), this makes for a Lent with 36 days of fast. In the West, where Saturdays but never Sundays are fasting days, the number (before Gregory the Great) amounted to the same 36 days. To compensate for missed fasting days and to reach the symbolic number of 40 (the 40 days of Christ’s fast in the desert) while making room for the possible occurrence of feasts that dispense the fast (principally the Annunciation), pious Christians chose to anticipate the official beginning of the Lenten fast by one week.


La communion de saint Grégoire le Grand
The Communion of St. Gregory the Great

The abandonment of meat in the week before Lent is attested in the West at an early date. The Sunday of Quinquagesima is called in the ancient Latin books “Dominica ad carnes tollendas” or “Dominica ad carnes levandas” (hence the name Carnival), which indicates that they began to remove meat from their diet on the day after this Sunday, before passing to a strictly vegetarian diet on the next week. The first Sunday of Lent is called “in capite jejunii” (at the beginning of the fast). Recall that before St. Gregory the Great, Roman Lent did not begin until the Monday following the first Sunday of Lent (an arrangement conserved among the Ambrosians and Mozarabes). St. Gregory caused the fast to begin on the Wednesday of Quinquagesima to make for a round number of 40 days of fasting (nevertheless, to this day the Roman Rite maintains the order of offices of Quinquagesima after Ash Wednesday, and the rubrics proper to Lent do not come into force until the first vespers of the first Sunday of Lent).



Saint Léon le Grand
St. Leo the Great

The Liber Pontificalis attributes the institution of Quinquagesima Sunday to St. Telesphorus, the 8th pope reigning from 125 – 136/138. This attribution may be legendary, but since the part relating to Pope Telesphorus was written under pope St. Hormisdas (514 † 523), we can infer that the custom was already immemorial at that time such that it could be plausibly attributed to such an ancient pontificate. The Leonine Sacramentary contains a Mass for Quinquagesima. its texts are said to have been written under pope Vigilius around 538.


In the East, there is very early evidence for the existence of Cheesefare Week one week before Lent. The pilgrim Egeria (Itinerary 27.1) reports that in Jerusalem it had been customary since the 4th century to add an eighth week of penance. In the 5th – 6th centuries the Georgian lectionaries, witnesses to the liturgy of Jerusalem at this period, have proper readers for the two Sundays before Lent.

In the 6th century, St. Dorothy of Gaza claims that the institution of a week of penance before Lent was already ancient and did not originate in her day:

“Subsequently the Fathers deemed it good to add another week as a preparation to dispose those who are about to enter the fasting period, and to honor these fasts with the holy number forty days that Our Lord himself fasted” (Dorothy of Gaza, Spiritual Works, XV, 159).


L'empereur Héraclius défait l'empereur perse Chosroès
Emperor Heraclius defeats the Persian emperor Khosrow

The custom of a week of penance immediately before the start of Lent, attested before the 6th century (St. Severus of Antioch counts it in his description of Lent), would later be sanctioned by several official decisions in the 7th century under the reign of Heraclius. The origin of the Fast of Heraclius is uncertain. The majority of authors say it is related to the events of the war between the Roman byzantine Empire and the Persian Sassanid Empire from 602 – 628, during which the Jewish populations of Palestine rebelled against the Christians and the rule of Constantinople, and allied themselves with the Perisan troops. As a result of the war, Jerusalem fell into Persian hands, \ the relic of the True Cross was taken to Persia, and 90,000 Christians were massacred. In 629 when jerusalem had been retaken and Heraclius entered in triumph, all the Christian churches including the Holy Sepulcher had been destroyed. The Emperor ordered the massacre of the Jewish rebels, despite having promised them amnesty. In penance for this perjury, the patriarch of the Church of Jerusalem instituted a week of fast before the beginning of Great lent. The fast initially lasted for only 70 years, but remains to this day in the form of the Fast of Heraclius among the Copts of Egypt and Ethiopia.


This is the most widely-accepted explanation, but there is another: Heraclius ordered his troops to observe a week of abstinence from meat and a reduced consumption of dairy during the sixth year of the war against the Persians, in order to implore God for victory. It is possible that both explanations are true, and more than probable that they only justified an already existing custom. In the following century, St. John of Damascus writes that Lent is preceded by one preparatory week (The Holy Fast, 5).

The institution of a week of mitigated fasting just before Great Lent, observed at a very early date in both East and West, had two virtues, one symbolic and the other practical. On one hand, these days of partial fast were seen as a compensation to attain the number of 40 true days of fasting. On the other, it facilitated the transition into the strict vegetarian diet of Lent.

The Synthesis of the Fast of Nineveh and the Week without Meat: The Extension of Pre-Lent to Three Weeks

In the 6th century in both East and West, the custom of having one week of abstinence from meat before the start of Lent was already well-established. Only the 24th canon of the Council of Orleans in 511 proscribed the observance, a proof e contrario that the practice had extended into Merovingian Gaul already before that date. Several Churches in the East added the Fast of Nineveh in the third week before Lent. Henceforth it was tempting to tie these two periods together, and to extend Pre-Lent to three weeks.

Eglise arménienneIt is possible that in the East this liturgical bridge between Lent and the Fast of Nineveh took place first in Armenia. The Armenian period before Lent is called Aratchavor. It spans three Sundays. Septuagesima is called Barekendam (or last meat day). The first week is strict and dedicated to the Fast of Nineveh (instituted by St. Gregory the Illuminator in the 4th century). The second and third week are less marked by penance, and there is only fasting on Wednesdays and Fridays.


Sacramentaire de Charles le Chauve : folio 3 r° : saint Grégoire le Grand dicte ses livres liturgiques à ses scribes, sous l'inspiration du Saint-Esprit
Sacramentary of Charles the Bald, folio 3 r°: St. Greogry the Great dictates his liturgical books to his scribes under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit.

In Rome, the 6th century witnessed the addition of two more Sundays before Quinaquagesima: Sexagesima and Septuagesima. The Epistolary of Victor of Capua (546) proves that Sexagesima Sunday existed in this period. The ancient Gelasian Sacramentary (Vat. Reg. 316) contains proper prayer texts for Septuagesima and Sexagesima. The stations for these three Sundays were fixed under Popes Pelagius I (556 † 561) and John III (561 † 574) in the basilicas of Saint Laurence, St. Paul, and St. Peter. We have the homilies given by St. Gregory the Great for Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. Further, it is likely that St. Gregory refashioned the liturgies of these three Sundays to accentuate their penitential character. The most ancient known Roman lectionary, the Lectionary of Würzburg (produced in the first half of the 6th century) which was used in Gaul and corresponds to the structure of the Gelasian Sacramentary, shows that the readings we use today for the three Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, were already in use. Most medieval diocesan variants of the Roman Rite also included special readings for Wednesdays and Fridays during these three weeks, a reminder that these fasting days once included special liturgical stations.


Pre-Lent also exists in the Ambrosian tradition. The three Sundays have the same name as in the Roman Rite: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. But note that the Alleluia is not suppressed (not until Quadragesima Sunday, the eve of the start of the fast). The texts used for these three Sundays are very different from those of the Roman Rite, which would not be the case of Septuagesima had not been a very ancient feature of the liturgy in Milan or had been borrowed from Rome. For example, there is the beautiful Transitorium of the Mass for Septuagesima, which proclaims the theme of this special time before Lent:

Convertímini * omnes simul ad Deum mundo corde, & ánimo, in oratióne, jejúniis & vigíliis multis : fúndite preces vestras cum lácrymis : ut deleátis chirógrapha peccatórum vestrórum, priúsquam vobis repentínus supervéniat intéritus ; ántequam vos profúndum mortis absórbeat : & cum Creátor noster advénerit, parátos nos invéniat.

(Convert all of yee to the Lord, with a pure heart and soul, in prayer, in fastings and many vigils. Pour out your prayers with tears to remove the condemnation merited by your sins, before death comes suddenly upon you; before the abyss of death swallows you. And when our Creator comes, may he find you ready.)

As is the case in Rome, the Sundays of Quinaquagesima and Sexagesima were instituted earlier than Septuagesima. Note also this particularity of the Ambrosian tradition: on the last Sunday after Epiphany–which precedes Septuagesima–we find the systematic reading of Matthew 17:14 – 20, about the healing of the lunatic son, which ends with the verse proclaiming the start of Pre-Lent:

But this kind does not come out except by prayer and fasting.”

If we keep in mind that in Rome before Gregory the Great (end of the 6th century), Lent began on the Monday following the first Sunday of Lent (as is still the case in Milan and Toledo), and make this Sunday coincide with the Sunday preceding Byzantine Lent (Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam), then here are the correspondences between Roman and Byzantine pre-Lent:

Roman Rite

Byzantine Rite

Septuagesima Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee
Sexagesima Sunday of the Prodigal Son
Quinquagesima Sunday of the Last Judgment
Last day of meats
First Sunday of Lent Sunday of the Expulsion of Adam

In this period, the Byzantine rite opted to read Gospels that prepare the faithful for Lenten penance. The order of these three weeks is attested in the Typikon of the Great Church (9th – 10th centuries); the absence of more ancient liturgical documents prevents us from being able to specify a more exact date for this ordering. Note that during the week after the Sunday of the Publican and the Pharisee, as a result of complex medieval polemics, the Byzantines completely suppressed all fasting, even the customary Wednesday and Friday fasts, in order to distinguish themselves from the Armenian fast of this same week.

Only a few rare rites, isolated from the general current of Christendom by the progress of Islam, did not develop the three weeks of pre-lent. Thus the Hispano-Mozarabic Rite did not develop from the primitive, pre-6th century stage of one Sunday of preparation (Quinquagesima). This Sunday is called ‘Dominica ante carnes tollendas,’ indicating that Lent was preceded by a week when meat but not dairy or other strictly non-vegetarian foods was cut back. Egypt and Ethiopia have both the Fast of Nineveh and the Fast of Heraclius, but not joined into one period of Pre-Lent. Among the Ethiopians, however, the Sunday corresponding to Latin Sexagesima–though reckoned liturgically as part of the time after Epiphany–is fixed in relation to the following Sunday (Quinquagesima–Za-Warada or Qabbaka som): it is Bridegroom Sunday (Zamana Qebbala Mar’awi)(because the antiphons use texts from Matthew 25:1-13). It also marks the end of the time when marriages are permitted. Finally, the Assyro-Chaldeans have only the Rogations of the Ninevites and have no equivalent to Quinquagesima.

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