Thus the tenth-century English homilist Ælfric introduced Septuagesima. Of course, Septuagesima, with Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, is absent from contemporary lectionaries, falling foul of the desire of post-1960s liturgists for 'simplified' calendars. After all, what is the point of a preparation (pre-Lent) for a preparation (Lent)?
What has been noticeable in more recent liturgical reform, however, is the partial restoration of pre-Lent. Thus both the CofW's Common Worship and the CofI's BCP 2004 have post-Presentation Sundays before Lent. Of these, two - the Second Sunday before Lent and the Sunday before Lent - have particular themes, creation and Transfiguration. What seems to be at work here is a recognition of the wisdom of the older liturgical calendar, that we do need a period post-Epiphanytide and Presentation to be oriented towards the season of penitence and fasting.
Indeed, a failure to recognise in the liturgy that we are moving towards such a solemn, significant season could be seen as actually undermining Lent - the very thing, ironically, the post-1960s liturgical reformers saw as happening in Septuagesima and the Sundays following. Losing a sense of building-up to Ash Wednesday, of readying ourselves for penitence and fasting, has not aided a renewal of the Lenten fast.
What can, then, be done within the framework of the contemporary liturgical year to retrieve something of the sense of readying ourselves for Lent?
Firstly, the last two Sundays of pre-Lent, with their themes of creation and Transfiguration, offer important opportunities for reflecting on Lent as orienting us towards the restoration and transfiguring of creation. Parish teaching should make the most of these opportunities, preparing the faithful for the season of Lent, building a sense of expectation regarding penitence and fasting.
Timothy O'Malley, Director of the Center for Liturgy in Notre Dame, tweeted yesterday about the value of "copious incense and alleluias aplenty" on the Sunday before Lent. It is a simple but effective way of ensuring that the more sombre, simplified liturgical setting of the eucharist during Lent does not go unnoticed.
Secondly, we can see Ælfric's homily for Quinquagesima concluding by explicitly urging sacramental confession:
Now a pure and holy time draws near, in which we should atone for our neglect. Every Christian, therefore, should come to his confession and confess his hidden sins, and amend according to the guidance of his teacher.
Finally, there is 'Pancake Day', as Shrove Tuesday is now known in the UK - and it is widely known. Supermarket shelves suddenly are filled with pancake-making material, primary school children make pancakes in class, and media stories on the last blow-out before 'giving up' something for Lent appear. It is distinctly odd that the Church does not make more of this.
Shrove Tuesday is a day to re-connect with the cultural remnants of approaching Lent, and a day which gives itself to explaining the Christian practice of fasting (our Muslim friends fast in Ramadan, Christians in Lent), and to extend an invitation to share in the Lenten fast.
All of which offers the possibility of a restored Shrovetide - of liturgical celebration on the Sunday before Lent which calls us to be open to transfiguration, and joyfully emphasises the liturgical elements from which we will refrain during Lent; of "the benefit of absolution, together with spiritual counsel and advice" offered in the parish in preparation for Lent, the soul's spring-time; and of Shrove Tuesday, as the day when we, with joy, ready ourselves for the Lenten fast with a filling reminder that we fast not because food and the created order are 'bad' but so we may be renewed in gratitude for them as good gift.
Perhaps, then, Lent does need Shrovetide?