Running the Race

Ash WednesdayToday is Septuagesima Sunday. I have read many confusing explanations for the term Septuagesima Sunday. The simplest one I have found comes from the classic work, The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, Eds. F. L. Cross and E. A. Livingstone (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 1957, 1997):

“Septuagesima (Latin for ‘the seventieth [day before Easter]”). The third Sunday before Lent and hence the ninth before Easter. The name, which first occurs in the Gelasian Sacramentary [mid-8th century], seems not very appropriate, as the Sunday indicated is in fact only 64, and not 70, days before Easter; but perhaps it was coined by reckoning back the series ‘septuagesima’, ‘sexagesima’, ‘quinquagesima’, from Quinquagesima Sunday, which is exactly 50 days from Easter.”

Simple? One way or another, I find the three weeks preceding the beginning of Lent a fascinating tradition. I’m grateful that a few Anglicans still observe this little season, at least those that follow the traditional 1928 Book of Common Prayer, dating to 1662, which in turn translates missals dating to the eleventh-century Sarum (Salisbury) rite and even earlier monastic hours.

Often called Pre-Lent, these three weeks bridge Epiphanytide and Lent. They help us focus on what is coming, to consider how we might observe Lent in this year of 2015. And of course Lent prepares us for Easter. So we enter the deep heart of Christianity in these weeks. We travel from Christmas to Easter, from birth to death to resurrection, mirroring our own journeys of birth to death to resurrection.

I have been focusing intensely this last week on finishing up my early draft of The Fire Trail. And I did indeed finish it. I printed it and boxed it and put it in the mail to a local editor who will help me improve the story from many perspectives, using many writers’ tools. We will sculpt the manuscript, adding and deleting, journeying to final submission to my publisher. I have been running a race to the finish, ignoring phone calls and putting off the dentist (that one was easy).

The Epistle assigned to Septuagesima is St. Paul’s letter to the church in Corinth. Paul says to run a race to receive the price by striving for mastery of the body. Every athlete knows this prescription to be true, that the mind must train and direct the body to do its will, must educate the “muscle memory.” The Super Bowl athletes running down the field at this moment know this to be true. Concentration and subjection of the flesh lead to winning the crown.

Corinth was known for the Olympic games; Paul uses an apt metaphor. But he is speaking of Heaven of course, not so much a competition as a preparation for seeing God face-to-face. Will we be ready at the end of the course assigned to each of us? 

C. S. Lewis writes of the divide between Heaven and Hell in his brilliant fantasy-parable, The Great Divorce. He describes Heaven as being painfully real to the wraiths visiting from Hell on their tour bus. They have little substance to them. The blades of grass in Heaven cut into their ghostly feet. Most want to return to Hell. They do not choose to stay in Heaven.

At the end of our earthly race, we want to be so real that we can see in Heaven’s light, walk on the so-real grass, join in the joyous songs of praise. But how do we run this race? Septuagesima helps us, by calling us to train our minds to discipline our bodies, to order our wills. In such discipline lies freedom to do more, love more, to live the life that God intends each one of us to live.

I’m a little winded from my own race this week. But then The Fire Trail is about such discipline, about what defines our humanity as opposed to our bestiality, about the jungle versus the civilized, about the wild versus the tame. It is about the place for custom and tradition in a free society, and the vital role that history plays in the conscience of a nation. It is about the sexual revolution and its destruction of marriage and family. It is, in the end, about what makes a civilization civil, and how we choose to live with one another, charitably and safely, freely and respectfully.

The course to Easter is set before us. We begin to consider considering our own hearts and minds and bodies. What to add, what to take away. What to permit, what to deny. In this way one day we will become strong enough to walk on real grass in blinding light with glorious song. In this way we will learn how to love.

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