Today is Septuagesima Sunday, the beginning of “Pre-Lent,” the first of three Sundays before Ash Wednesday.
I have long been fascinated by this segment of time carried forward from earlier days, earlier rituals and seasons of the Church. Our present worship of God is thus punctuated by the past, to form a whole in our own time, enriching us all the more with the Communion of Saints stepping into our lives throughout the year.
Septuagesima’s lessons are about time, running the race to receive an “incorruptible crown” (St. Paul, I Corinthians, 9:24+, BCP 119). Our lives are this race through time to the end of our own time and our passage through judgment into Eternity. Just so, Christ tells us a parable in the Gospel appointed for this day, where the workers in the vineyard are paid for the day they work, dawn to dusk, and question those who only work the last hour. Should they receive the same pay? Our Lord says, essentially, it’s up to my goodness and not of your concern. We too, who work in the vineyard from an early age, might resent those who enter the Kingdom at the last minute, on their deathbed. But we learn today that it’s up to Our Lord’s goodness and judgment and not of our concern.
The parable is also about envy, as our preacher pointed out this morning. A right and ordered attitude, formed by an informed conscience, educated in the pew and at the altar rail, tells us not to be envious. Indeed, one of the Ten Commandments given to Moses is, “Thou shalt not covet.” Envy of course is desire to be like someone else; covetousness is the desire to have what they have. Close cousins, to be sure.
We have been given life, a circumscribed length of time on this Earth. This is a wondrous gift, this time from conception to cradle to grave. It is up to us to judge ourselves in preparation for Judgment in Eternity. We are called to clean out our hearts, to make a new and right heart within. This is enough of a challenge, to remove the beam in our own eye. We do not need to remove our neighbor’s beam.
But we can point the way. In love we encourage others to judge themselves rightly, inform their consciences, in the pew and at the altar rail and the confessional. We keep the church doors open, the candles lit, the hymnbooks ready, and we welcome our brothers and sisters traveling through time alongside us.
And so both lessons today are about time and how to see ourselves in this space granted, this time in which we have been placed. The times seem tumultuous to many of us, and it may very well be that we are witnessing a great shift in the world order, as well as a diminishing role for the Church. As Joseph Ratzinger (later Benedict XVI) wrote in 1970 in his profoundly prophetic Faith and the Future (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2009) the Church will become smaller and more spiritual, and this faithful flock will offer something new to men and women who have forgotten God and in their loneliness “feel the whole horror of their poverty.” We are seeing this played out today.
We don’t begrudge the late converts but celebrate and give thanks for their new life within.
And as we look ahead to Ash Wednesday and the full realization of our mortality, we begin to consider where we may have gone astray, in thought, word, or deed, where we need to repent and clean out our hearts, to make them right with God. We consider what rule we might keep, what to add to our hours on Earth and what to remove. Fasting and abstinence apply to all of our doings – perhaps less TV, more Psalms; less this, more that. A spiritual fast as well as a physical one. A fast that mysteriously becomes a fulfilling feast.
As we move through Pre-Lent and into Lent, then into Passiontide and Easter, we educate our souls by informing our consciences. We do this by our own faithful presence before the Real Presence, so that we see ourselves as Our Lord sees us. Only then can we approach the mystery, majesty, and miracle of Christ’s death and resurrection. Only then can we fully partake of Eternity in Time today, the Word made flesh among us, now and always.