Do Thou, we beseech Thee, O Lord mercifully hear our prayers, that we being loosed from the bonds of our sins, may by Thee be defended against all adversity.
– From the Collect for the Quinquagesima Sunday
The readings for Quinquagesima Sunday, the last Sunday before we begin the Season of Lent on Ash Wednesday, remind us of the primary importance of the theological virtues of faith, hope, and charity in the Christian life, and how those virtues are necessary for a fruitful practice of Lent and preparation for Easter.
In Sunday’s Epistle, we read St. Paul’s famous hymn to charity (love). Charity, of course, as the Apostle understands it, is far more than the modern meaning of the word—to help those in need. Charity is the ultimate theological virtue. “Theological” means it is directed towards God (theos). Charity that is directed away from God, or against His will, is not actually charity; it is self-centered and destructive. And as St. Paul makes clear, charity is, quite literally, more important than anything. Conversely, without charity, nothing one does is valuable; as the Apostle writes,
If I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal. And if I should have prophecy and should know all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I should have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing. And if I should distribute all my goods to feed the poor, and if I should deliver my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing. (1 Cor 13:1-3)
Why does the Church give us this reading right before the beginning of Lent? It is to remind us that any penances we do, no matter how difficult, are useless if they are done without charity. Lent is not a physical endurance test or a contest to see who has the most willpower. Through our own voluntary sufferings, Lent should draw us closer to our suffering Lord. Only by offering up our sacrifices in charity can this be done.
Another theological virtue—faith—is emphasized in Sunday’s Gospel. A blind beggar hears that Jesus of Nazareth is approaching; he cries out in faith, “Jesus, son of David, have mercy on me!” He does not care what the people around him think; when they tell him to be quiet, he continues to cry out. He has faith that Jesus can cure him. And Jesus recognizes that faith: after healing the poor man, Jesus tells him that “thy faith hath made thee whole.”
During Lent, we must use the eyes of faith to see that our penances and sacrifices are for the good. In a modern world that tells us to seek personal pleasure at every moment, we instead recognize that denying ourselves pleasure is worthwhile. St. Cyril of Jerusalem wrote of the role of faith when fighting against the pleasures of this world. “A fiery dart of desire of base indulgence is often cast forth from the devil: but faith, suggesting a picture of the judgment, cools down the mind, and quenches the dart” (Catechetical Lectures 5:4). Only if we see beyond this world can we recognize that our earthly pleasures are fleeting, yet our earthly sufferings can be of eternal value. Faith gives us perspective.
Finally, the upcoming Lenten season is a time of hope. After all, Lent is a time of preparation for the celebration of the most hopeful event in human history: the Resurrection of Jesus Christ. Nothing gives hope more than the fact that Our Lord defeated sin and death, and that in uniting ourselves to him we too can defeat those ancient enemies. So, this Quinquagesima Sunday, pray to the Lord for an increase in faith, hope, and charity, that in dying with Christ during Lent, you might rise with him at Easter.
Eric Sammons is the Executive Director of Crisis Publications.