The three Sundays before Lent begin with Septuagesima, continue with Sexgesima, and conclude with Quinquagesima. They each put us in orbit around the theme of Easter. Septuagesima places us 70 days away from Easter, Sexagesima, 60, and Quinquagesima 50 days. The numbers don’t add up precisely, but that is besides the point. This is not about mathematics so much as about theology.
The Lord said unto Adam, Of the tree which is in midst of paradise thou shalt not eat, * for in the day that thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die.
The Lord said unto Noah: The end of all flesh is come before me: * make thee an ark of wood, that thereby the seed of all flesh may be saved.
Mighty Abraham, the father of our faith, * offered a burnt offering upon the altar, instead of his son.
These are the 1st Vespers antiphon on the Magnificat of the three pre-Lenten Sundays. Father Pius Parsch insists that these three Sundays are “propaganda” in the best possible sense of that word. They proclaim the essence of the Gospel story which finds its core in the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Creation and Fall, Divine Judgment and Salvation, Salvation by Faith in the sacrifice of the Cross. The Breviary readings for these Sundays and the days of the week following are calibrated to proclaim this story.
The Kingdom of Heaven is like unto a man that is an householder: * which went out early in the morning to hire laborers into his vineyard, saith the Lord.
The householder saith unto the laborers, Why stand ye here all the day idle? They say unto him, Because no man hath hired us. * Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, I will give you.
The Septuagesima Gospel is highlighted by the antiphons on the Benedictus and the Magnificat of the 2nd Vespers. We are all called as hired laborers into the Lord’s vineyard. Young or old, male and female, everyone. The proclamation of the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ is every Christian’s job. There are, of course, different ways to do so. Most of us can at least, or ought to at least, manage to proclaim the Gospel of Jesus Christ by how we live. We proclaim by what we do and do not do. Our very lifestyle ought to be an exegesis of the gospel of Jesus Christ.
When much people were gathered together unto Jesus, and were come to him out of every city, he spake by a parable: * A sower went out to sow his seed.
“Unto you it is given to know the mysteries of the kingdom of God, * but to others in parables,” said Jesus unto his disciples.
Sexagesima: The seed sown is the “word of God” – scripture. Our proclamation, even by how we live our lives, is an exegesis of scripture. This is why the legends of the saints are read on their feast days. They are an interpretation of scripture made by our lifestyles. The sower of the seed is God (the Father). The word he sows is contained in the Bible, but is even more than that. It is Jesus Christ – the Son of the Father. The Son is sown in our hearts and whether the seed grows (whether or not Christ is formed in us) depends on our response. The different soils into which the seed falls are the different kinds of responses that we could give to hearing (receiving) the word of God (seeds) proclaimed (sowing).
Behold, we go up to Jerusalem, and all things that are written by the Prophets concerning the Son of Man shall be accomplished: * for he shall be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitted on; and they shall scourge him, and put him to death; and the third day he shall rise again.
And Jesus stood, and commanded him to be brought unto him, saying: “What wilt thou that I should do unto thee?” And he made answer: “Lord that I may receive my sight.” * And Jesus said unto him: “Receive thy sight; thy faith hath saved thee.” And immediately he received his sight, and followed him, glorifying God.
Quinquagesima: The seed sown needs the soil of faith to do its work. Salvation is, as Protestants remind us, by faith. But it is not mere faith that the Lord is seeking in response to His message. The Lord is looking for repentance, an about-face. A radical re-orienting of our lives. Where we have until now been oriented toward vice, we are now to be oriented toward virtue. Repentance entails a complete change of lifestyle. Christianity is an all-or-nothing kind of thing, as Roman Catholics remind us. The life of faith is a life that glorifies God.
The gospel antiphons also give us some insight into what the fall has resulted into, and what the cure will effect in us. By the fall we have become blind. Blindness is an allegory for ignorance. We have become ignorant of God. The gospel provides a way to heal the blindness, to regain the knowledge of God. To become knowers of God rather than ignoramuses of God. Digging a little deeper the Christian faith tells us that as human beings we are created after or in the image of God. The fall (Septuagesima) distorts this aspect of our being. We become fragmented internally and incapable of knowing ourselves such as we really are and incapable of knowing the world in which we live as it really is and, most importantly, we are incapable of knowing God such as he is really is.
As created in or after the Image of God – Evagrius tells us – we are logikoi (reasonable or more precisely logos-like beings). This comes from the Greek word logos which can mean “reason” but also “word” such as the logos or word of God thereby indicating the Second Person of the Trinity. The fall causes a “falling-apart” of our being. We become divided into nous (that part of us wherewith we maintain some relation to God and whereby some – distorted – knowledge of God remains possible), the thumikon (that part of us whereby we can become agitated), and the epithumikon (that part of us with which we desire). The thumikon and epithumikon are the means by which our nous (the part which “knows”) has the ability to know things. When thumikon and epithumikon function erratically (which is caused by the fall) the knowledge the nous has is equally distorted. Faith – specifically Christian faith – heals the thumikon and epithumikon so that by faith we are indeed, both, healed and saved at once! By faith we know ourselves, the world in which we live, and God. Once again we are logikoi or after/in the image of God. This process is what the Eastern part of the church calls deification or theosis.
The life of faith that glorifies God is the kind of life in which our being is gradually (by grace) restored. Healed. Virtues (God’s list of do’s for us) also medicine to us, just like vices (sin) are the devil’s poison for us. To live virtuously is not an extra to faith. Virtuous living is what the life of faith is. Belief and practice are united in faith. This is a life-long process. The question is not so much where we find ourselves on this life-long journey, but whether we continue – in grace – to make progress.