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Today we begin the season of
Septuagesima. That’s a Latin word that tells us that there are
approximately seventy days before we celebrate the feast of Easter. The
Christmas season ended officially with Candlemas, this past Thursday—the
Church is asking us to divert our attention from the infant Christ, and to
begin to meditate on the works of His public life—particularly His
Crucifixion, Death, and Resurrection.
His Resurrection, as we shall see,
is a joyful event. But it is one that had to be proceeded by a period of
seeming sadness. But, then, the sadness makes the joy all the greater.
We follow pretty much the same
pattern in the liturgy of these next few months. Septuagesima, Lent, and
Passiontide are somber times—times for fasting and penance, times for prayer
and introspection, times for bringing ourselves back under the discipline so
necessary for doing God's will.
So, the Mass today, and for the
Sundays of this season, is celebrated with a great deal of restraint. The
vestments are penitential purple, the Glória in excelsis is not
recited, the alleluia is not heard before the Gospel, and we begin to phase
out the use of flowers on the altar.
But while this is a season of
restraint in the liturgy, it is also one of richness. The texts for the
Epistles and Gospels are all chosen with great care, and they provide us
with invaluable instruction that we don't hear at any other time of the
year. Today is no exception.
This morning in the Divine Office,
at Matins, we began to read the book of Genesis. We heard the story of our
creation this morning. We will soon read about the creation of Adam and
Eve—about how they were created with an abundance of God's graces—and how
they succumbed to temptation and fell from grace. We will also be reminded
of God's promise to send a Redeemer—the Seed of the Blessed Virgin Mary, who
would crush the tempter with her heel. You see, these Old Testament
readings are important, in order for us to understand the nature of God's
plan and how we fit into it.
In the Gospel today we hear our Lord
recounting one of His stories—a parable, to give us some insight into that
plan, and to tell us something about what the kingdom of heaven is like.
At first, it is one of those Gospels
that is hard to deal with. We are inclined to sympathize with those men who
worked all day long for no more pay than the latecomers. That's just human
nature, and our ideas about justice and fair play.
But when we look more deeply at this
Gospel, we see that our Lord isn't talking about exact justice at all—He's
talking about God's mercy. He's telling us that even though God promised
salvation only to His chosen people, He has decided to include us gentiles
into His plans as well. He is telling us that even though we may have been
sinners for most of our lives, He is still willing to offer us His loving
forgiveness—even though the hour is late, and we may be starting to work on
our salvation long after our fellow workers. This parable is one designed
to encourage us with the knowledge the God loves us, and it is not too late
for us if we are just willing to get to work. It is one of Mercy on God's
part, and Hope on our own part.
Again, today's Epistle is one which
has been carefully chosen to convey the message of the season.
St. Paul tells us that we are entering a contest—a race of sorts—and that it
makes little sense to enter the contest if we are not going to make the
effort to win. He describes our salvation in terms like you would use to
describe Olympic athletes—those out to win the gold medal, or at least the
silver or the bronze. He reminds us that winning athletes train long and
hard to win their medals. By reading this particular Epistle, the Church is
suggesting to us that if we are going to benefit at all form this liturgical
year, we need to get into the Lenten training which will prepare us for the
glory of Easter.
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 they were held captive for
many generations, working as slaves of the Pharao. 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
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 well
But complaining about the food was
not the people's worst offense. As they travelled 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 pleased.”
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—even putting the cattle to the sword.
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 Chaanan.
But to their descendants the promised land was almost paradisiacal—a land
“flowing with milk and honey.”
God was not pleased with those who
followed Moses, but who just, so to speak, “went through the motions,”
without following God's will in their hearts. And likewise that God is not
pleased with modern Christians—Christians in name only—hangers on, who are
really pagans, with just a thin veneer of Christianity covering their
lives—who, like their Old Testament counterparts, fail to follow God's will
in their hearts.
So today is Septuagesima—the
beginning of the penitential season. It is not yet Lent, and we are not
required to fast, and do penance, and increase our prayer life—although, we
certainly may do so if we are willing. But this definitely is a time for
developing an understanding of what it is that God expects from us. It is a
time for planning our Lenten program—how will we fast—do we need to
rearrange our schedule a bit to allow a full prayer life—what spiritual
reading will we pursue this year—what positive good works will we try to
accomplish—and so on?
This is the time to get our affairs
in order—to begin our bodily and spiritual training—so that we can strive to
win God's race.