This year, January 24 was Septuagesima Sunday, the third Sunday before Ash Wednesday. Most churches no longer observe that Sunday, Sexagesima Sunday (the second Sunday before Ash Wednesday), and Quinquasima (the Sunday before Ash Wednesday, which is coming up). The words mean 70th, 60th, and 50th respectively, but technically only Quinquagesima is mathematically correct, truly the 50th day from Easter, while the other two are 57 and 64 days from Easter.
The 9th century liturgist Amalarius of Metz wrote that Septuagesima can mystically represent the 70-year Babylonian Captivity. (I have an informal blog post about the biblical theology here.) What's special about the captivity---otherwise known as the Exile?
In a way, it's what the whole Bible is about. The Bible begins with humankind being exiled from paradise. A few chapters later, God promises Abram (Abraham) that his descendants would live in the land of Canaan. The story of the Bible continues from there, through several books to the end of 2 Kings, to tell the story of God's people occupying the land, establishing a nation there, and finally losing the land when the Babylonians conquered them and destroyed Jerusalem in about 586 BCE. When the people return to the land about fifty years later, the Old Testament narrative concludes with the establishment of the Jewish religion and the future of God's people. For Christians, the story takes a turn with the life of Jesus, who addressed the post-exilic hope of the people with his life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension.
Connecting all this to Lent, it is the time when we think about our post-Eden mortality and our need to return to God. For instance:
* The liturgical traditions of the church have been language of exile: our longing for heaven as we struggle in the world.(1)
* Jesus’ death and resurrection happens in the connect of Passover, which points back to Egyptian slavery and that earlier “exile” of the Hebrews of Moses' time.(1)
* The exile functions in contemporary theology in postmodernism (the uncertainty and absence of God, theologies of liberation (the struggle of oppressed people for freedom), and peace churches (the theology of whole reliance upon God rather than violent means: the error of Israel and Judah in relying upon foreign powers). But ecumenism itself echoes exile-language within theological in discussions of the church and the world (the church as an eschatological community in “exile” in the world), hospitality (caring for others who are in exile in different ways), healing broken relationships, being “wounded healers” of others, and so on.(1)
The biblical Exile connects us to themes such as God’s continual concern for Israel and his continual work of redemption. The Exile was interpreted not as God’s abandonment of his people, but as one side of God’s righteousness which continues to express itself in mercy, restoration, and love. Although the church no longer stresses these three pre-Lenten Sundays, those themes of God's mercy, love and restoration are certainly part of our Lenten journey.
(1) These points are made by Peter-Ben Smit, in “Ecumenism in Exile,” World Council of Churches website, http://www.oikoumene.org/en/programmes/the-wcc-and-the-ecumenical-movement-in-the-21st-century/relationships-with-member-churches/60th-anniversary/contest/essay-ecumenism-in-exile.html)