We celebrated our twenty-eighth wedding anniversary yesterday, and as I entered Saint Peter’s Church this morning my eyes were drawn to the purple altar hangings of Pre-Lent, that short three-week season in which we begin the journey of penitential sacrifice in preparation for the great festival of Easter.
Marriage too is largely that journey of love, the giving to another, the sacrifice of time and self. In the journey, of course, much is received as well, and I often think where the two overlap – in that land of giving – bliss abounds.
As I mention in my recent novel, Inheritance, set in Lent/Easter, the ancient season of Pre-lent refers to the three weeks before Ash Wednesday: Quinquagesima (fifty days before Easter), Sexagesima (sixty days before Easter), and Septuagesima (seventy days before Easter). While Quinquagesima is indeed fifty days before Easter, the latter two names are not accurate, since they actually fall on the fifty-seventh and sixty-fourth days before Easter respectively. The reasoning is unknown, but it is thought these Sundays were linked to Quinquagesima in a general way. Pre-Lent is a time to consider what I might give up and what I might take on for the forty days of my Lenten discipline, forty days reflecting Christ’s forty days in the wilderness, his time of preparation as well.
And why give something up or take something on? Such a discipline trains us to love, trains us to say yes to God’s life in us, around us, and for us. We are spiritual athletes in training. My usual sacrifice is sweets and meats, and I look forward to Sundays when my Lenten rule doesn’t apply, being a resurrection day of celebration. My Lenten rule is a real sacrifice for me, difficult and never totally successful, so that it leaves me room to grow.
A particularly wonderful rule I have recently discovered is to memorize something from the Psalms or the Prayer Offices in our Book of Common Prayer. The Venite, the Te Deum, and the Jubilate Deo (Psalm 100) from Morning Prayer have become a beloved part of my daily prayers, and during Lent I return to the Collect for Lent, “Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made…” Last year I added the touching and lovely Psalm 139, “Thou has searched me out and known me…”. I shall return to these now familiar words and this year add something else, not sure what, but I think it might be the first few lines of John, “In the beginning was the Word….” Mystifying, profound, poetic. Perfect words for my heart and soul, particularly as I go deeper and deeper into my fifth novel, researching the first century documents of Christianity.
I’ve found that these phrases learned by heart, far from becoming rote, enter me, making my conversation with God more vibrant, more living. The time and effort are repaid a thousand-fold, texturing and enriching each minute.
Indeed, the love we journey into in Lent, even now in Little Lent, trains and purifies us, but also fills and fulfills us, as we travel into the love of God himself, and meet, as St. Paul says, “the unsearchable riches of Christ.”
Today may be Sexagesima, but it is also Super Bowl Sunday, and well trained athletes compete on a field for a grand prize. We too run the race, test ourselves, train our hearts and minds. We train to love, and in the training, are loved by Love itself.