”Do you not know that of those who run the race, only one wins the prize?
As you came into church this morning it was obvious that something had changed. The festive colored vestments we have seen through the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany have given way to the purple color which the Church uses to mark Her seasons of penance, reflection, and preparation. Today we begin the Septuagesima season – a sort of pre-Lenten season, which will ultimately prepare us for Easter. The name “Septuagesima” suggests that Easter is about seventy days hence.
Both Septuagesima and Lent have a twofold purpose. First to recall the events of the history of our salvation, beginning with the creation and fall of mankind, and concluding with our Lord’s sacrificial death and resurrection. Every catholic ought to be knowledgeable of these thing, for they relate fundamentally to our reason for existence and to the way in which we can hope to spend eternity. The second purpose of the season is bring about any adjustment in our own way of living that may be necessary to fit ourselves into God’s plan of salvation. These two purposes are very similar, and we can think of the first, the redemption, as the universal public plan of God for all mankind – and the second as our own private and personal effort to fit our own salvation into the greater scheme of things.
Already, this morning, those of us who pray the Divine Office began once again to read the first book of the Bible, Genesis. In a few weeks, as we begin Lent, almost every day the readings at Mass will speak to us about the public life of our Lord. We will take up again the custom of making the stations of the Way of the Cross to relive our Lord’s final hours. Ultimately, the Masses of Holy Week will bring to mind the events of His last few days in Jerusalem. In this way, we will be intellectually and emotionally prepared for Easter, the feast of our Lord’s resurrection and our redemption.
Saint Paul’s Epistle this morning relates more to our own personal preparation – the things that we should do beyond taking part in the public exercises of Lent. He uses the metaphor of an athlete in training to win a race. The athlete must make significant sacrifices to prepare himself – his native skills and physical endowments are not enough – he must go into training, perfecting his abilities through repeated practice. It is much the same for us in Lent: we are called to practice our approach to God by bringing our mental and physical abilities under control, so that we can use them for holiness. It is a time to shake off self indulgence, and to accustom ourselves to voluntarily giving up some of the innocent pleasures of life, so we are prepared when not so innocent temptations enter our lives. Fasting and abstinence and generosity to the poor are the time tested methods of this Lenten training, even if they have fallen out of use in much of the Church and the world around us.
Yet, it would be foolish to think that we can make a good Lent with nothing else than our own efforts. If you are following the Mass in a hand missal, you read the entrance hymn in your own language while you heard it sung in Latin:
That is from Psalm 17, and the imagery of it is quite beautiful; you might go home and read the rest of it. But the point is that in our spiritual endeavors, we must “Call upon the Lord” to help us with those things which are far beyond our power, the things which “surge round about” us as though we were caught in some sort of spiritual whirlpool. And “from His holy temple, He will hear our voice. Essentially, we are saying that a successful Lent must include private prayer, as well as the communication we can enjoy with God only by means of a good Confession and the frequent reception of Holy Communion.
The Gospel reminds us of the same thing. Our personal efforts are good and important, but we are dependent on God and cannot rely solely on our own labors. Like the householder in the Gospel, it is God who determines the degree of our reward – and His determination may not be based on outward effort made by us and those around us. He may reward equally for unequal effort if He chooses – we may see “the fist become last” and vice a versa. Again, it makes sense for us to keep up a good relationship with the one making the rewards.
Today there are seventy days before Easter, and in two and a half weeks, Lent will start. Generous souls may well take advantage of the opportunity to begin the practices of Lent sooner: the fasting, abstinence, prayer, good works, spiritual reading, Confession, Communion, attendance at Mass, and so forth. Maybe a few more will begin some of those things, so they are “up to speed” by Ash Wednesday. All of us should be sure that during the next few weeks we make the arrangements that will enable to start Lent properly. That may mean things like finding some good spiritual book or books; it might mean planning meals and shopping for Lenten foods; it might mean some changes to the accustomed schedule so that we are not expected by our friends to participate in more worldly things, and so that we have made time to say a daily rosary, and to attend Mass and the Stations of the Cross, and so forth. This is the time to get ready, if nothing else.
Finally, let me remind you that Septuagesima and Lent represent an opportunity. Those seventy days will go and never come again. We can spend them wisely and be well prepared to rejoice with our Lord at Easter time; we can spend them wisely and be well prepared for our eternity – or we can spend them foolishly, like the pagans for whom God and eternity do not matter or even exist. That choice is for us to make – but no matter which we choose, those seventy days will go and never come again.
“Know that of those who run the race,
only one wins the prize?