Today is Septuagesima Sunday, a Latin
name that tells us that we are approximately seventy days before Easter. That
is approximate, but we are indeed beginning to prepare for the Easter season.
In the very early days of the church, the season of Advent had not developed,
and this Sunday was considered the beginning of the Church’s liturgical year.
Scholars believe that the Gregorian Mass texts for Advent were not complete
until sometime later in the seventh century.
The idea of Septuagesima being the
beginning of the year is reinforced by the readings of Matins, the night office,
which began this morning with the very beginning of Genesis, the first book of
the Bible. For those of you who are not in the habit of following the biblical
readings I recommend each month in the Parish Bulletin, this would be a good
time to start—at the beginning.
The reading of Genesis is also important
for our remote preparation for Easter. It calls to mind the fact that God
created Adam and Eve in wondrous dignity to enjoy the fruits of His creation,
and to exercise stewardship over it—but, through the sin of pride, accepting the
suggestion of the Devil that through disobedience they could become “as gods”—they
fell from grace and nearly lost everything God had prepared for them and their
descendants. As we read the book of Genesis, we will witness this fall, along
with God’s promise to send a Redeemer Who would repair the situation, and we
will follow the history of Adam and Eve’s descendants (through Abraham, Isaac,
and Jacob) up until the time of the Exodus from Egypt.
The readings today suggest that we are
starting out on some sort of a journey. St. Paul starts out by referring to a
foot race—one in which h we hope to win the “imperishable crown” of heaven. He
reminds the Corinthians (and us) of the great efforts that we often make in
worldly competition, where the prize is of relatively trivial value, and urges
us to bring ourselves under discipline, lest we lose the all-important crown of
Septuagesima is our “preparation period”
for Lent, which, traditionally is a journey of bringing ourselves under
discipline, to prepare for a holy appreciation of Holy Week and Easter—and,
ultimately to prepare us for the journey through life that we intent to complete
with the Beatific vision of God in heaven. The traditional Lenten fast involves
fasting for most of the days (other than Sundays and a few saints’ days) and
abstinence from meat on about a dozen days. (If this seems strict compared to
the modern practice, consider the fact that there was a time when Catholics ate
no meat, eggs, cheese, oil, or wine for the entire forty days!) Some people
begin their fasting with Septuagesima, but most simply prepare themselves for
Lent. This is the time to arrange your schedule so that during Lent you are not
distracted by social commitments like parties and dinners. It is the time to
find some good spiritual reading.
When we get there, the Lenten observance
should be somewhat penitential—in reparation for our own sins and for the sins
of the modern world. But the Lenten discipline should also strengthen our
resolve, so that by refusing the legitimate pleasures of life we may learn to
refuse those that might be sinful.
Please understand, though, that Lent is
not about losing weight, eating less candy, or quitting smoking (although these
things may be beneficial in themselves). Our Lenten observance must be a
journey of faith in what God has revealed, and submission to all that He wills.
Saint Paul hints at this in his epistle. He writes about the Israelites
wandering in the desert from Egypt to the promised land. He likens their
passage through the Red Sea to Baptism—and their refreshment with water from a
rock, he likens, perhaps, even to Holy Communion, the refreshment of Jesus
Christ. The people had these things, and more, but the Scriptures record that
most of them grumbled and complained most of the time. Worse than the
grumbling, many fell into idolatry and fornication, often allowing themselves to
be separated from God by the pagans and the false religions they encountered on
the way. They did not believe in God as He revealed Himself to them, and they
did not make His will their own—“with most of them God was not well pleased.”
Our journey—our Lent—should be different: oriented towards the true God, toward
His true religion, directed by His Commandments and His revealed will.
The Gospel speaks of another sort of
journey—of men doing hard work, in the sun, journeying through the heat of the
Now, probably everybody, when he hears this Gospel for the first time, expects
that those who labored all day would receive more than a single denarius when it
is their turn to be paid—that seems only just. But the other side of God’s
justice is His mercy. The honest Catholic will have to admit that there have
been times in his life when he wasn’t so good—that there were times when, like
those in the desert, he rejected God’s truth and refused to do His will. The
honest Catholic can point to others who have done a far better job: to those
who were serious about the Faith from a very young age; to those who attend
Mass and receive the Sacraments more frequently; to those more devoted to
prayer and divine adoration; to those who are far more careful in keeping the
Commandments; those who more frequently perform spiritual and corporal works of
Now, there may very well be differing
degrees of reward in heaven, but we should all thank God for His mercy—that
He grants us who are penitent, the same salvation as these who have, so to
speak, “borne the heat of the day” by their enduring faith and their careful
practice of all that He asks. And the Gospel also demands that the holy not
entertain any sense of spiritual pride against the latecomers to the Faith.
Catholics should rejoice when someone is give the grace to make a deathbed
Confession or even to be baptized at death’s door; we should rejoice when
someone puts aside an evil life in their mature years; we should rejoice at the
vocation to the priesthood or religious life that comes only after years in the
Again, God is merciful as well as just.
“Many are called, but few are chosen.” We must strive to make our choosing
certain. The Church offers us the coming season of Lent to approach God in mind
and will. Let us strive to win the race, to be pleasing to God on this journey
through the desert of life, to be among those who receive the precious coin of
salvation for whatever work we do in the vineyard of God.
“Many are called, but few are chosen.”
Let us all work diligently to be among those few!