Septuagesima: A funny sounding word that signals the ensuing approach of our Lenten discipline as we embark on the journey known as Pre-Lent, a mini-Lent before Lent, which is designed to ready us and gear us in the direction of the Lenten fast. As children, we might have thought ‘Septuagesima’ probably referred to a laboratory experiment or a very challenging mathematical formula found in algebra books; it actually means ‘Seventy Days before Easter.’ Beginning even now in Pre-Lent, we are mindful of the distant dawn of the Feast of Feasts, the Paschal Mystery of Our Blessed Lord’s Resurrection. By the route of these seventy days, through the Cross of Lent, we emerge victorious from the Tomb in Easter joy with Jesus Christ our Redeemer.
Holy Mother Church in her good pastoral sense recognises that we need preparatory time to adjust to the sometimes jarring painful reality of Lent, its hopeful yet real sombreness, its renewed intensity and concentration on self-denial, its self-sacrificial discipline. Pre-Lent, a liturgical season now almost entirely unique to orthodox Prayer Book Anglicanism, offers a stage-by-stage, incremental way of getting ready for Lent. Advent, Christmas, Epiphany, such a glorious trinity of celebration and feasting — the message of Pre-Lent heralded to us is this; it is now time to lay aside our seasons of festivity and equip ourselves for sacrifice, for union with Our Lord in His mysterious offering of Himself for our sake, His voluntary passion and suffering.
Pre-Lent is a time for taking stock of our spiritual lives, of beginning the process of our spiritual inventory. We must begin again to examine our souls, consciences and lives — to root out sin, to reject evil, to purge ourselves of that which does not belong to God, in short, to repent.
Only by the grace of God our Father, through Jesus Christ, in the Holy Ghost, are we saved from our sins, and only by the exercise of our free-will, our correspondence and co-operation with grace, can we enable the free gift of God’s Life within us to take hold and bear fruit. God created our freedom, and He loves and respects it as being in us an indispensable aspect of His Image. He does not want automatons or robots in His Family, His Kingdom, but sons of God in freedom, in His Likeness. He wants synergy; He wants us to love Him and worship Him in freedom and delight. Salvation is free gift; and it can be lost without perseverance, faith and obedience. Happy Pre-Lent!
Saint Paul announces that we enter into communion with God through the ‘obedience of Faith’ (Romans 1.5, 16.26). And our Book of Common Prayer asserts the theological virtue of Hope in relation to salvation: ‘I heartily thank our heavenly Father, that he hath called me to this state of salvation, through Jesus Christ our Lord. And I pray unto God to give me his grace, that I may continue in the same unto my life’s end’ (page 284).
Pre-Lent’s liturgical theme reminds us that we are saved by grace through faith, and that in the wondrous love of God, we cannot save ourselves, although God never forces us to be saved. The gift must be received, it must be used, it must be prayed, lived, experienced, actualised. On one hand, salvation, freedom from sin and union with God, is entirely the action of the divine initiative: ‘But God commendeth his love toward us, in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us’ (Romans 5.8) ‘For by grace are ye saved through faith: and that not of yourselves: it is the gift of God, not of works, lest any man should boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus unto good works, which God hath ordained that we should walk in them’ (Ephesians 2.8-10).
On the other hand, the Word of God written tells us in no uncertain terms: ‘work out your own salvation with fear and trembling’ (Philippians 2.12) ‘Faith without works is dead’ (Saint James 2.20, 26). God’s free gift of salvation in Jesus Christ, unmerited and undeserved on our part, requires and demands a life – once liberated from the power of sin and death and supernaturally regenerated in Christ – lovingly conformed and subjected to the will of God, seeking to imitate Christ, to be Christ-like.
Father Ronald Knox, the famous English priest and theologian writes,
‘Septuagesima has an epistle that warns us that it is never too late to be damned and a gospel that reminds us that it is never too late to be saved’ — fitting food for thought as we now engage in the process of preparing ourselves for the great revelation of the Risen Christ, who is always prepared to receive our repentance. The Christian life requires the acceptance of the divine gift, and good works proceeding from a living faith, if we are to be saved and go to heaven. Pre-Lent is about our response, our side of the divine-human equation; it is about the ‘D’ word: discipline.
1 Corinthians 9: Saint Paul gives us the whole Lenten theme in one fell swoop, and admonishes us to maintain discipline in our lives, without which we may slip and fall from grace. He cleverly uses the image of the arena of his day, track and boxing, to describe the process of subjecting the body to the spirit, and most importantly, to the Spirit of God. Prayer, almsgiving and fasting are exercises in self-control, and are critical to the conforming of our lives to the will of God. We can break the standards that we require of others, and thus lose our salvation. We must ever be vigilant for our own souls, ever on-guard through prayer and good works.
Real Christianity demands a real struggle, a real effort, real sacrifice. ‘Armchair Christianity’ is a deceptive impostor of the genuine article. The essence of the Christian life is ascesis, training, practice, effort, exercise. Orthodox Christianity is not only aesthetic, beautiful, it is ascetic, active.
Saint Matthew 20: Jesus Christ shows us in His parable of the labourers that God is limitless in love and mercy, forgives all sins, and, transcending all concepts of human justice, shows mercy on whom he shows mercy. The Kingdom of God is a free gift of God’s love, a pouring-out of the abundance of God’s generosity, which demands of us a proper response and a thankful return in the offering of our lives to Him. The Kingdom cannot be merited or deserved; it is given to us by Him who alone knows our own good actions and failures.
From the earliest Septuagesima sermon we possess, that of Saint Gregory the Great, the imminent reformer of the sixth century, we discover these words, more applicable today than when they were first uttered: ‘Many arrive at faith, but few are led into the heavenly kingdom. Behold many there are in the Church – they fill Churches throughout creation, yet who knows how few they are who shall be numbered in that chosen company of the elect? Behold the voices of all that proclaim Christ, but the lives of all do not proclaim Him. And many keep company with God in word, but shun Him in deed. At the call of the Lord are multiplied those without number; however, the unfaithful are mingled with the faithful, but because of their way of life they shall not merit to be partakers of the lot of the faithful. No one shall receive a Kingdom, who though formed in heavenly faith, with all their hearts seek the things of earth. Two things there are upon which we should carefully reflect. Because many are called but few chosen, the first is: let no one presume his own salvation; for though he be called to faith, whether he is worthy of the eternal kingdom he knows not. The second is: let no one presume to despair of his neighbour, who he perhaps sees lying in sin; for he knows not the riches of the divine grace.’
The days with the odd names beckon us to practice what we preach, to ‘walk the walk’ as well as to ‘talk the talk.’ Does our life, in its fruits, labours, works and prayers, match our profession? Saint Paul commands us to ‘walk worthy of our calling.’ Are we? If we are, we have the hope of being saved, of rejoicing on that heavenly shore, in that greater light, with Blessed Mary and all the Saints on that heavenly Easter Day which lasts for all eternity.
May the Lord Jesus Christ, the Suffering Servant Who fasted, prayed and gave for us men and our salvation, grant you a productive and transformative Pre-Lent.