Septuagesima is both the name of the third Sunday before Lent as well as the season itself that runs from this day up until Ash Wednesday. The other Sundays in the Season of Septuagesima are Sexagesima Sunday and Quinquagesima Sunday. In some places, a custom of observing a fast of devotion, in anticipation of and in preparation for the Great Lenten fast, was observed as Father Weiser mentions in his “Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs”:
“This preparatory time of pre-Lent in the Latin Church was suggested by the practice of the Byzantine Church, which started its great fast earlier, because their ‘forty days’ did not include Saturdays. Saint Maximum (465 AD), Bishop of Turin, mentioned the practice in one of his sermons. It is a pious custom, he said, to keep a fast of devotion (not of obligation) before the start of Lent.”
Dom Guéranger mentions where and how the fast of Septuagesima began, noting that the law of custom governed this fast in certain places but not universally:
“The first Council of Orleans, held in the early part of the 6th century, enjoins the Faithful [of Gaul] to observe, before Easter, Quadragesima, (as the Latins call Lent,) and not Quinquagesima, in order, says the Council, that unity of custom may be maintained. Towards the close of the same century, the fourth Council held in the same City repeals the same prohibition, and explains the intentions of making such an enactment, by ordering that the Saturdays during Lent should be observed as days of fasting. Previously to this, that is, in the years 511 and 541, the first and second Councils of Orange had combated the same abuse, by also forbidding the imposing on the Faithful the obligation of commencing the Fast at Quinquagesima. The introduction of the Roman Liturgy into France; which was brought about by the zeal of Pepin and Charlemagne, finally established, in that country, the custom of keeping the Saturday as a day of penance; and, as we have just seen, the beginning Lent on Quinquagesima was not observed excepting by the Clergy. In the 13th century, the only Church in the Patriarchate of the West, which began Lent earlier than the Church of Rome, was that of Poland its Lent opened on the Monday of Septuagesima, which was owing to the rites of the Greek Church being much used in Poland. The custom was abolished, even in that country, by Pope Innocent the fourth, in the year 1248.”
Eastern Catholic Rites still do this to an extent. For instance, Cheesefare Week is the week preceding the Great Lent in Eastern Christianity. It is the last week during which dairy products and eggs are permitted before the strict fasting period of Lent begins. Meatfare Week is the week immediately preceding Cheesefare Week. During this week, Eastern Christians traditionally consume meat for the last time before the Lenten fast.
Septuagesima is an appropriate time for us to begin preparing our bodies for the upcoming Lenten fast by incorporating some fasting into our routine. Fasting on Wednesdays, Fridays, and even Saturdays at this time will help make the transition to a true Lenten fast easier on the body.
Want to learn more about the history of fasting and abstinence? Check out the Definitive Guide to Catholic Fasting and Abstinence.