Last week we said that this season of Septuagesima is intended to be our time of preparation for a good and holy Lent – a season in which we will prepare, in union with the entire Church, to observe the primary events of our Redemption: the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and Death of our Lord, and His Resurrection from the dead on Easter Sunday – and a season in which we will personally prepare our own selves so that we may, ultimately, work out our own salvation. We can say, at least generally speaking, that as members of God’s holy Church, we unite to praise Him for having redeemed all of mankind – but as individuals, we must conform our wills to the will of God, and do what He has commanded us in order to take personal advantage of that redemption.
The Gospel this morning is one of several such admonitions, each of which point to the need for our personal attention to salvation. The sower goes out and sows good seed. The seeds are like mankind, which has been redeemed, with each seed being capable of performing its God-intended function. Each seed, grown under the proper conditions, is capable of sprouting and bringing forth good fruit – each human soul, observing the proper conditions, is capable of eternal happiness in heaven with God.
The problem, of course, is that the proper conditions are not always observed. The sower may get careless and throw seeds in places where they cannot sprout or reach maturity, and even some of those sown in the proper places may be destroyed by conditions beyond his control. Some human souls get off to a bad start, through one accident or another of nature or nurture, and others may be lead completely astray by evil circumstances that just happen to crop up in their lives. The awful reality of it, demonstrated clearly in the Gospels, is that there is a genuine probability that some souls will be lost, just as some of the good seed will be wasted.
The significant difference, however, between people and seeds, is that men and women have free will, and are generally capable of acting in such a way as to change the course of their lives. The seeds have no choice but dry up, or to be eaten by the birds of the air, or whatever. People, so to speak, can “change their position in the field” – people can overcome the handicaps of heredity, or poor upbringing, or serious mistakes they have made in their lives. They can decide to stop doing the foolish and unholy things they have been doing – change their bad habits into good habits – and follow the path to salvation.
It is not a coincidence that the Church has us read this epistle of Saint Paul today in conjunction with this Gospel. I’ve always referred to it as “Saint Paul’s adventure story,” for certainly it outlines a rather breathtaking life. But it might be better to step back a bit and look at Paul’s life in a broader perspective, and think of it as a model for our own salvation.
Paul seems to have come from a good family. He inherited their Roman citizenship; received a solid rabbinical education under the noted doctor of the law, Gamaliel; and even learned a trade with which he could support himself (he was a tent-maker). Of course, where he went wrong was in his outright rejection of Jesus Christ. So outright, in fact, that he was known as one of the chief Jewish persecutors of the early Christian Church.
But God gave him an opportunity to change. God gave Paul his own Septuagesima and Lent all rolled up as one – knocking him down and blinding him as he trod the road to Damascus to persecute the Christians there. The Acts of the Apostles tell us the first part of the story – blind, he was led by friends to Damascus, where, in humble obedience to the word of God, he was baptized, and his sight was restored to him – he began to preach about our Lord immediately; had to escape Damascus, as he told us, being lowered through a window in the wall; and went to Jerusalem to join the other Apostles. Understandably, the Apostles were a bit leery of Paul, but they accepted him and sent him back to his native Tarsus – perhaps for a time of meditation and prayer before making his great missionary journeys.
There is much more to read in the Acts of the Apostles – that might be some good Lenten reading! – but today’s epistle will do for now. We see two more important characteristics of Paul’s re-ordered life, now directed toward conformity with the will of God: hard work, and prayer. Paul did not go off to a monastery somewhere, or to an hermitage to live his life in seclusion. In fact he engaged himself in a number of missionary journeys, at personal expense, hardship, and risk: in perils from enemies, in perils from false friends, and in perils from the elements of nature itself. All of this travel itself, in Paul’s time, was a pretty serious undertaking – there were no jet planes or ocean liners to take him to Spain, Italy, and Greece; no orient express to visit the cities of modern day Turkey. He speaks of “constant anxiety for the care of all his Churches.”
But in spite of nearly constant activity, Paul speaks of contemplative prayer; of being “caught up into paradise, and hearing the secret words” of God Himself. He wrote, in the plural, of “visions and revelations” of the Lord, so apparently this sort of prayer was a regular thing. His great and authoritative knowledge of Jesus Christ seems to have been directly infused; gained by personal experience , more than by study or conversation. One has to suspect that Paul lived more or less continuously in the holy presence of God – that his meditation and contemplation merely moved into the background when his mind was required to direct itself to the cares of life around him.
Paul, then, would be a very good model for our observance of holy Lent. Let us just summarize his major attributes before we close:
“Humble obedience” is the first one that I wrote down: Paul was resolved to do what God commanded him, without regard to his own will.
He was “baptized.” We might think of this as the need, in general, to receive the Sacraments frequently during Lent.
He went aside from normal things for a while, for “meditation and prayer” – equally something that we need to arrange right now in order to do it ourselves during Lent
“Hard work,” can include any number of things. We have duties in this world which we cannot and should not shirk – to our selves, our friends, our families, to our church, to the poor – all of these things ought to be done with the recollection that we are always “in the holy presence of God.”
And finally, “prayer.” And, please recall that prayer is more than the hurried recitation of some printed or memorized form. Even the Rosary is reduced to the Roman equivalent of a Chinese prayer wheel if we say it with nothing more than mindless repetition. Take time and give attention enough to mean the words you pray. Spend time in meditation, trying to picture the events of our salvation with yourself in the picture. Spend some time listening to see if God has anything to say to you in return, for as Saint Paul tells us today, the communication can be in both directions
Today is Sexagesima, meaning we have but sixty days until Easter. Let us spend those days according to Saint Paul’s example: “with a right and good heart, receiving the word with joy, holding it fast, and bearing good fruit in patience.”