Septuagesima: Running, Fighting and Coming in Last
It has been our custom in the last few years to observe the –‘Gesima’ Sundays of pre-Lent at least partially. The collect and the ‘minor propers’ ( Introit, Gradual, etc. ) are of Septuagesima. We don purple and drop the Gloria and Alleluias, but we retain the readings for the Sundays after the Epiphany. However, as we prepare for Lent, it is worthwhile to read the traditional lessons of Septuagesima Sunday, because they present to us the terms under which we keep a Holy Lent. Lent is surely not just about what we do but how we do it.
The Epistle is from 1 Corinthians 9.24ff: KNOW ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. There is no way around it: Lent demands effort, the engagement of the will and subjection of our bodily inclinations: I keep under my body, and bring it into subjection. We have to run, when we would just soon walk. In the language, which St. Paul uses, mastery and temperance is never an easy thing. We can always talk our way out of the uncongenial and the inconvenient. So fight: if we are to take advantage of the Lenten opportunity we will have to be willing to fight for it, to fight above all against ourselves.
But we run and fight not uncertainly, not as one that beateth the air. We have to plan and prepare for keeping a Holy Lent: Friday Night Stations and Benediction, a Lenten book, abstinence from food and drink, prayer and works of charity, daily Mass, visits to the Blessed Sacrament, Self-examination and Confession, how, what, when, where? It is not a requirement but it is probably a good thing to write down what you intend to do and what you do not intend to do.
The Gospel for Septuagesima, Matthew 20, rightly balances all this effort and striving with grace. The Parable of the Workers in Vineyard, the workers who come at the first, sixth, the ninth and eleventh hours, not only reminds us that it is never too late but that all depends of the generosity of Divine Grace. If you keep Lent devoutly and perfectly, you will only know that you did so in utter dependence upon God. If you observe Lent half-heartedly, you will know that you depended on yourself rather than upon God. If you have a really ‘bad’ Lent, you will know that apart from Him, we can do nothing. If we come to Holy Week and Easter seeing much more clearly our own poverty, we will not come in last.
Jesus says to those who complained about the workers of the eleventh hour receiving the same wage, Is thine eye evil, because I am good? In other words, mind your own business! Do not compare what you are doing with what others do. As the Cure d’Ars famously said, the secret of holiness is being hard on yourself and easy on everybody else.