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Today we begin the Septuagesima
season, a two and a half week prelude to Lent. You will notice that the
vestments are now purple, and will be in all of the Masses of the season from
now until Holy Thursday. It is not yet Lent, but the Church gives us
these few weeks to prepare ourselves for that season. For those of us
who are physically able, Lent itself should be a period of fasting and
abstinence, but more importantly it should be a time of spiritual
exercise—frequent attendance at Mass, spiritual reading, prayer, and
meditation. This period of Septuagesima is the time to prepare one's
schedule so that these things can be done without interruption—or with as
little interruption as possible.
Saint Paul's epistle this morning
compares the Lenten season to an athletic contest—a race for which the
participant must train in order to win the competition. There may be
many runners, but only the best will win. Apparently in Paul's time the
winners were crowned, instead of receiving ribbons or medals. But Paul's
mention of the race is metaphorical—the race that he is running is the race
for heaven. He urges us to train ourselves for self control.
The Lenten observance is not one of
body building, not one of weight loss, not one of quitting smoking, or any
such thing (although Lent might serve as a motivation for doing any or all of
those things). The purpose of the Lenten observance is to prepare us for
dealing with the temptations of the world. By depriving ourselves of the
innocent pleasure of life we prepare ourselves to reject those things that are
not so innocent when they come along.
The reference to “our fathers passing through the
sea” refers to the Exodus of the Jewish people from bondage in Egypt.
You are probably aware that the were held captive for many generations,
working as slaves of the Pharos. Only with the leadership of Moses and
the intervention of God were they able to leave and return to the land that
had been settled by Abraham long ago. The exodus was a long and arduous
journey through inhospitable land, with many dangers along the way. God
sustained them miraculously with food and drink—on at least one instance,
Moses was able to produce water from a the rock by hitting it with his staff.
Quite regularly, God rained a bread-like substance called "manna"
down upon them, and at other times quail.
But they were often given to
complaint, some of them even suggesting that it would be better to return to
the Egyptian bondage. As Paul wrote, “with these people God was not
But complaining about the food was not
the people's worst offense. As they traveled they encountered other
peoples—tribes of non-Jews who worshipped other Gods. In some cases
they married women from these tribes and adopted their false worship.
You have probably heard the story of them making a golden calf to worship
while Moses was away on Mount Sinai, but such infidelity was not a one time
thing. During their journey the Jews took to the worship of a number of
false “gods,” including some who demanded that they offer their children
as human sacrifices. With these people, God was definitely “not well
The Old Testament account of the
Exodus sounds rather violent, for God commanded that they destroy the people
who tempted them to false worship. There was no such thing as
"ecumenism" in God's lexicon. In fact, He even commanded that
if someone came and induced them to false worship the Jews were to destroy the
whole city from whence the tempter came.
Because of their infidelity, God kept
the Jews wandering in the desert for forty years. No one who started out
as an adult in Egypt would get to see the promised land in Channan. But
to their descendants the promised land was almost paradisiacal—a land
“flowing with milk and honey.”
The Church has us read this epistle at
the beginning of the Septuagesima season so that we might think of the time
between now and Easter as our own journey—our own Exodus from worldliness to
holiness. The time between Ash Wednesday and Easter is set aside for our
spiritual preparation, so that we can better appreciate the mysteries of our
redemption which play out during the week leading up to, and including,
Easter. If we practice some small degree of mortification during Lent,
we will be in a far better position to understand what transpired at the Last
Supper in the Upper Room on Holy Thursday, on the Cross on Friday, and at the
empty tomb on Easter Sunday morning.
Having said that, let me close with
one last bit of advice. Beyond the forty days of Lent, we ought to think
of our entire life as an Exodus through the desert of the world to the
promised land of heaven. The life of a man or a woman with God begins at
Baptism, and constitutes a journey of many years as we try to follow Christ in
this world, so that one day we may claim the prize mentioned by Saint Paul.
With “many of those” who followed Moses though the desert, “God was not
well pleased”—that suggests that He was pleased with some of
them—the ones who were grateful for their freedom from bondage, those who
appreciated the food and drink with which God sustained them in the desert,
and those who did not go astray after false “gods” and other temptations.
As we begin to prepare for the coming
Lenten season, let us resolve to be among those with whom God was well
pleased. Let us resolve to enter into the race to win the imperishable
crown of eternal life.