Our preparation for Easter takes place through three distinct periods or steps. The first is the Gesima Sundays, followed by Lent and Passiontide. These three Gesima Sundays before Lent are focused on the grace of God and examine that grace from three perspectives:
Septuagesima (meaning “about 70 days” to Easter)
Grace is undeserved.
The collect for this Sunday implores God to graciously hear us, who are justly punished for our sin, so that we may be delivered by His goodness. The goodness of God is emphasized in the parable of the vineyard workers in the day’s Gospel (St. Matthew 20.1-16). All the laborers receive the reward because of the goodness of the landowner and not because of their own labor or merit. We prepare for Easter by remembering that Christ alone is good and Christ has borne the heat and burden of the day for us so that we might have that goodness for free.
Sexagesima (meaning “about 60 days” to Easter)
Grace is passively received.
In the collect for this Sunday we pray that God would see that we put not our trust in anything that we do and that He would mercifully defend us by His power. The Gospel is the parable of the sower from St. Luke 8.4-15. The seed of God’s Word is passively received. It transforms bad soil into good and noble hearts. We pray that this would happen to and for us by God’s grace in Christ, who died the seed planted in the grave that will sprout to eternal life on Easter Day.
Quinquagesima (meaning “50 days” to Easter)
Grace is not easily understood.
On the Sunday before Ash Wednesday we hear in the Gospel (St. Luke 18.34) Jesus predict His passion, death, and resurrection. We also hear that the disciples “understood none of these things: and this saying was hid from them, neither knew they the things which were spoken.” We pray then that God would be gracious and patient with us and grant faith in Christ and understanding to us despite our many sins and our hard hearts.
The three Gesima Sundays take on the character of Lent. The “Alleluias” and Greater Gloria are dropped, the color is violet, providing a progression into the more intense ceremonies and denials of Lent and Passiontide. Why? This is not a “burden” to overcome before Easter’s joy. It is our joy to have our attention to what our Lord Jesus has done for us in procuring our salvation gently brought into sharper focus through the disciplines of greater fasting, almsgiving, and meditation upon God’s Word.