Lent is an intense penitential period in the Christian tradition, lasting forty days. It is characterized by intensified fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, the basic obligations of all Christians. While the Eastern and Western Churches calculate different beginning and ending dates for Lent, the purpose of this period is the same for both churches. Lent prepares Christians for the following Easter season, a time of celebration also forty days in duration. The Easter season is then followed by Pentecost, the beginning of the Christian Church.
Many Christian denominations have also adopted a preparatory period before Lent. Many church leaders recognized it was extremely difficult to simply “flip the switch” and begin the austerity demanded during Lent. The purpose of a Pre-Lenten period was to ease Christians into the more ascetic Lenten practice.
The Roman Catholic Church had a seventeen-day period of pre-Lenten preparation that began on the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. This Sunday and the two succeeding Sundays were known as Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima Sundays respectively. The entire seventeen days is also referred to as the Septuagesima or Shrovetide. The liturgies of these Sundays took on a distinctly Lenten tone, with the Alleluia and Gloria prayer omitted from the Mass, a practice that continued until Easter Sunday. The liturgical color for this period was violet, reminding everyone a fast period was coming.
The celebration of the Septuagesima was suppressed after Vatican II. The reformed calendar relegated the aforementioned Sundays to Ordinary Time, with green being the liturgical color. Septuagesima is still maintained by Traditionalist Catholic groups such as the Society of Saint Pius X and in the extraordinary form (“Tridentine”) Mass. These groups either have rejected the reforms of Vatican II or have received permission from Rome to continue observance of the Septuagesima. The Polish National Catholic Church has recently restored the Pre-Lenten Sundays to its liturgical calendar but uses rose vestments for this period instead of the green vestments of Ordinary time. It too omits the Gloria and Alleluia prayers until Easter Sunday.
The Eastern Churches following the Byzantine traditions include the three Sundays before Lent as part of the Triodion, the liturgical service book for the Lenten, Pre-Lenten and Holy Week (not counted as part of Lent in the Byzantine tradition) periods. Each week ramps up the fasting requirements preparing the laity for the forty days of Lent. The third Sunday before Lent is the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee. No fasting or abstinence is permitted during this week as a reminder to be humble and not boast of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving. The second Sunday before Lent is known as Meatfare Sunday. it is the last day meat may be eaten until Easter Sunday. The Sunday before Lent is known as Cheesefare Sunday, or the last day dairy products may be consumed. Eastern Lent begins on the Monday immediately following Cheesefare Sunday and many will attend Forgiveness Vespers that Sunday evening.
Any discussion of the Pre-Lenten period would not be complete without mentioning Carnival, a counter-tradition to those described above. Everyone is familiar with the Mardi Gras, a period of feasting beginning at the Epiphany and lasting until Shrove Tuesday, the day before Ash Wednesday. A similar concept exists in some parts of Eastern Christianity, where the period is called fashengy. Some conjecture this tradition arose from pagan times. Needless to say, many ecclesiastical authorities have not rushed to embrace this particular pre-Lenten tradition!