The English word ‘Lent’ comes from the Germanic word for spring, Lenz in modern German.  Lent is in the Western Church a season of 40 weekdays, plus six Sundays, beginning on Ash Wednesday and ending on Easter.  In the Romance languages, as in Latin, the name for this season is taken from the word for forty, for example Quadragesima (Latin) and Cuaresma (Spanish).

Since the late antique period the Church observed a period of transition to Lent after Epiphanytide.  Taken together with Lent, this Pre-Lenten period forms a period of nine weeks in which the liturgy becomes progressively more austere.  In this article I will focus on the Lenten Ferial Masses.  To do so, however, requires some attention to Pre-Lent and to some liturgical features of Lent in general.


In the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, as in the traditional Roman rite, the three Sundays of Pre-Lent are given the names of Latin numbers referring (very) approximately to the number of days between them and Easter.  The third, second, and last Sundays before Lent are called Septuagesima (seventy), Sexagesima (sixty), and Quinquagesima (fifty).  The day before Septuagesima and Pre-Lent is called ‘Alleluia Saturday’, and it is the last occasion on which ‘alleluia’ is used in any liturgy until the Mass of the Easter Vigil.  In the Mass rite this omission most notably means that the gradual between the epistle and gospel lessons does not include alleluias, as it does otherwise throughout the year on Sundays.  In place of ‘alleluia’ the gradual is followed by a ‘tract’ – some sentence or phrases, often from the psalms.  The omission of alleluias, then, is a change in rite that runs through both Pre-Lent and Lent.  The alleluias are omitted even if a feast is observed during Pre-Lent or Lent.

At Mass on Sundays throughout this same period, and on weekdays when a feast is not observed:  the color is violet, or its equivalent in Sarum and some other uses; the Gloria in excelsis is omitted; and the festal dismissal (‘Depart in peace’), which is always paired with the Gloria, also is not used.  In the Morning office the Te Deum, which also is paired with the Gloria, is not used.

These liturgical changes all begin movement towards omissions or changes that continue through Lent.  But movement towards Lent is not the same as Lent itself.  In Pre-Lent the Lenten fast does not begin, flowers may still be used, and the Sunday proper preface is not that for Lent but rather is the ‘default’ preface of the Holy Trinity.

Lent in general

With Ash Wednesday, Pre-Lenten liturgical observances are augmented by the non-liturgical observances of the season (prayer, fasting, and almsgiving) and by further liturgical austerities on Sundays and weekdays.

The late Austrian Orientalist, philologist, and scholar of liturgy, Anton Baumstark (1872-1948), was known for a theory of liturgical evolution which may, in some respects, be applied to Lent.  Baumstark’s theory includes several principles that he identified as governing the ways in which liturgy tends to develop over time.  To give a few examples, Baumstark believed that liturgies tend to develop from the austere to the more elaborate; that additions to rites tend to accumulate at their beginnings and endings; and, that older or traditional elements tend to cling more to important or special occasions.

The last point is so commonly the case that my liturgics instructor in seminary, Keith Ackerman, referred to it as ‘Baumstark’s law’, though more precisely Baumstark had several such laws or principles.  An example of important or unusual occasions retaining more primitive elements is the division of the parties of the bride and groom at weddings.  The bride’s attendants and guests typically congregate on the side of the church where a Lady chapel or Marian shrine would be located, even in Protestant buildings with no such chapel or shrine or desire for or memory of such.

Lent is likewise a special occasion, and many liturgical peculiarities cling to its Masses, some of which are particularly ancient and the total number of which increase as Lent progresses into Passiontide, Holy Week, and the Sacred Triduum.

Lent is unique among the seasons of the Church year in that it has a full proper Mass for every day of the season.  A ‘proper’ is a unique or particular set of readings, including lessons (usually an epistle and gospel), a set of three prayers or orations (a collect, secret, and postcommunion), and four ‘minor propers’ (an introit; sentences between the epistle and gospel which in Lent are a gradual and tract; a communion sentence; and a postcommunion sentence).  The season also has a proper preface that is used from Ash Wednesday until Passion Sunday (Preface of Lent) and a proper preface used from Passion Sunday through Maundy Thursday (Preface of the Cross).  The seasonal prefaces are used on Sundays and weekdays, unless on a weekday a major feast with its own proper preface takes precedence over the Lenten feria.

The omission of the Gloria in excelsis continues, as already noted, throughout Lent in Masses of the season, both on Sundays and weekdays, again except when a feast occurs of sufficient rank to take precedence over a Lenten feria.  Since the Gloria is omitted, the festal dismissal (‘Depart in peace’) which always accompanies the Gloria also is omitted in favor of ‘Let us bless the Lord’.  Though these omissions characterize Lenten Masses, they are not uniquely peculiar to Lent, since they are also made in ferial Masses in Advent and in all seasonal ferias outside Paschaltide, including, as already noted, in Pre-Lent.

  • Lenten Ferial Masses

Lenten weekdays are ‘greater ferias’, which generally take precedence over minor feast days.  When a feast day is of sufficient rank to take precedence over the Lenten feria, the feria still makes its influence felt in several ways that will be noted in a moment.

The lessons in Lenten ferial Masses have several features that deserve mention.  On Ember Wednesday and Ember Saturday in Lent, the Mass has more lessons than the standard two, with three lessons on Ember Wednesday and seven on Ember Saturday.  The same number of lessons on Wednesday and Saturday also occur in the Embertides of Advent, Whitsuntide, and September.  In addition, however, during Lent there also is an extra lesson on the Wednesday after Lent IV and the Wednesday in Holy Week.  Also, many of the lessons on Lenten ferias are unusually long.  On the Saturday after Lent III, for example, almost the entire book of Susanna is read, and in several cases almost entire chapters of Saint John’s gospel are read.  Also, when the ferial Lenten propers are considered together, one also notes that the bulk of chapters 4 to 12 of Saint John’s gospel is read, with many of the gospels being quite long.  While lessons from Matthew tend to dominate up to Lent II, lessons from John become more frequent in the later weeks.

The prominence of lessons from John’s gospel can be seen from the following list of passages with the Lenten days at which they are read:

4:5-42, Friday in Lent III

5:1-15, Ember Friday

6:1-14, Lent IV

7;1-13, Tuesday in Passion Week

7:14-31a, Tuesday in Lent IV

7:32b-39a, Monday in Passion Week

8:1-11, Saturday in Lent III

8:12-20, Saturday in Lent IV

8:21-29, Monday in Lent II

8:46-59a, Passion Sunday

9:1-38,,Wednesday in Lent IV

10:22-38, Wednesday in Passion Week

11:1-45, Friday in Lent IV

11:47-54, Friday in Passion Week

12:10-36, Saturday in Passion Week

Also, the Passion According to Saint John (19:1-37) is read on Good Friday, though it of course comes from later in that gospel than chapter 12.

In addition to these peculiarities concerning the Lenten lections, the ferial Masses also have some other notable features, some of which are remnants of primitive practice:

  • An extra prayer, the ‘oration over the people’ (oratio super populum), is added at the end of the Mass, after the regular postcommunion prayers. The celebrant says, ‘Let us pray.  Bow down before the Lord,’ and then reads the oration, which is in standard collect form.  Except for the priest’s introduction, the oration stands alone, with no preceding salutation dialogue.  The oration is given the full Trinitarian termination regardless of the number of postcommunion collects that preceded it.  These facts about the introduction to and termination of the oration signal that it is not simply an extra postcommunion collect but rather has a different origin.  In the ancient Church Mass did not normally end with a blessing, unless the bishop were present.  This Lenten prayer over the people may show the ancient form of concluding Mass, namely with a prayer.  Though the Lenten ferial Masses now do have a final blessing – like almost all other Masses apart from Requiems – the older use is retained in addition.
  • On Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays from Ash Wednesday through the Monday in Holy Week inclusive, except when a feast takes precedence, the same tract is read after the epistle and gradual:

O Lord, deal not with us after our sins : nor reward us according to our wickednesses.  Lord, remember not our old sins, but have mercy upon us, and that soon : for we are come to great misery.  (Here genuflect.)  Help us, O God of our salvation, for the glory of thy name, O Lord : O deliver us and be merciful unto our sins, for thy Name’s sake.

This tract is plainly penitential in tone, and its use on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays emphasizes the fact that in Lent these days have a particularly strong penitential character.  Likewise the genuflection, along with the introduction to the oration of the people, show that in the ancient Church kneeling was both more common in penitential seasons, and also forbidden in Eastertide.

  • Because each ferial Mass has a proper gospel lection, these lections replace the Prologue of Saint John as the Last Gospel when feast days are observed on Lenten weekdays. Normally such displacement of the Prologue of Saint John’s gospel as the Last Gospel by some other gospel lesson only occurs on those rare Sundays in Epiphanytide or Trinitytide when a major feast, such as a feast of an apostle or of Our Lord, takes precedence over the Sunday so that the Sunday is merely commemorated.  In this way even when great feasts are observed on Lenten weekdays, the Lenten feria is commemorated not only with the collect (and secret and postcommunion oration) but also with the proper gospel.
  • In seasonal Masses during Passiontide, the Gloria Patri is omitted from the introit and from the Lavabo (the portion of Psalm 26 beginning at 26:6 said silently at the handwashing at the offertory). Also, at the Preparation at the foot of the altar, Psalm 43 and its Gloria Patri are both omitted.  While the use of psalms and psalm verses in worship comes ultimately from the synagogue and is very ancient, the addition of the Gloria Patri in order to ‘Christianize’ the psalms is much later.  The omission of the doxology in Passiontide is probably an instance of ‘Baumstark’s law’.
  • From Ash Wednesday until Passion Sunday in both the Roman and the Anglican missals, three collects are used in Lenten seasonal Masses.
  1. Collect of the day (Roman and Anglican use);
  2. Collect for Ash Wednesday (Anglican) or Of the Saints (Roman);
  3. Collect of the Saints (Anglican) or For the quick and dead (Roman).

When a feast day is of sufficient rank to be observed, the pattern is:

  1. Collect of the feast (Roman and Anglican use);
  2. Collect of the Lenten feria (Roman and Anglican use);
  3. Collect for Ash Wednesday (Anglican) or Of the Saints (Roman)
  • From Passion Sunday through Wednesday in Holy Week there is only one seasonal collect. In the Roman use the collect of the day is followed by the Collect for the Church, while in the Anglican Missal the collect for Ash Wednesday continues to follow the collect of the day until Palm Sunday, with the Palm Sunday collect as the second collect until Wednesday.  In both the Roman and Anglican use, however, if a feast is to be observed in Passion Week, three collects are used:  that of the feast followed by the collect of the day with either the Collect for the Church (Roman) or for Ash Wednesday (Anglican).

Because the Ash Wednesday collect is used daily in Lent until Holy Week, it is one of the most often used collects in the Church year.  The daily recurrence of the prayer strongly ties the season of Lent together in Anglican worship.  The Advent collect is similarly important, though Advent is somewhat shorter than Lent.

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