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Septuagesima Sunday: We Can Lose What We’ve Been Offered.

We move now into the entrance hall of liturgical year’s the second great cycle, stretching to Easter and beyond. This Sunday inaugurates Pre-Lent, with the “gesima” Sundays. The first cycle, Advent/Christmas brought our Savior into the world. Lent/Easter brings our Savior to His Cross and emptied Tomb. In fact, the penitential and preparatory phase of the cycle has several stages, namely, Pre-Lent, Lent, and Passiontide, which takes us into the Sacred Triduum.

In the traditional Roman calendar this Sunday is called Septuagesima, Latin for the “Seventieth” day before Easter. This number is more symbolic than arithmetical. The Sundays which follow are Sexagesima (“sixtieth”) and Quinquagesima (“fiftieth”) before Ash Wednesday brings in Lent, called in Latin Quadragesima, “Fortieth.” Quadragesima Sunday would be the 1st Sunday of Lent.

Some of you clever boots will figure out that “Seventieth” Sunday isn’t 70 days from Easter, “Sixtieth” not 60, etc. These are rough estimates within certain parameters. Septuagesima is the 63rd day before Easter and, therefore, it is in the 7th (septimus) decade or 10-day period before Easter (61st to 70th days). Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th before Easter, in the 6th (sextus) decade (51st to 60th). Quinquagesima is the 49th day, 5th (quintus) decade (41st to 50th) days before Easter. When we get to Quadragesima we are 40 days out, not from Easter, but from Holy Thursday evening, beginning of the Triduum.

These Pre-Lent Sundays prepare us for the discipline of Lent, which once was far stricter. Septuagesima gives us a more solemn attitude for Holy Mass. Purple is worn on Sunday rather than the green of the time after Epiphany. These Sundays have Roman stations. Alleluia is sung for the last time at First Vespers of Septuagesima and is then excluded until Holy Saturday. There is a tradition – happily being revived thanks to the interwebs – of “burying” the Alleluia, with a depositio ceremony, like a little funeral. A hymn of farewell is sung. There is a procession with crosses, tapers, holy water and, if possible, a coffin containing a banner or scroll with Alleluia. The coffin is sprinkled, incensed, and buried. In some places, such as Paris, a straw figure bearing an Alleluia of gold letters was burned in the churchyard. That seems very French to me.

The prayers and readings for the Masses of these pre-Lenten Sundays were compiled by St. Gregory the Great (+604), Pope in a time of great turmoil and suffering. Pre-Lent is particularly a time for preaching about missions and missionary work, the evangelization of peoples. In the Novus Ordo of Paul VI there is no more pre-Lent. A terrible loss. We are grateful that with Pope Benedict XVI’s Summorum Pontificum the Pre-Lent Sundays regained something of their ancient status.

Holy Church is the greatest expert on humanity there has ever been. In her wisdom she gave us Pre-Lent so that when Lent finally comes, we will be ready. We can’t be taken by surprise! We have several weeks to plan our Lenten discipline. Just as we should make an examination of conscience before getting into the confessional, so too we should plan out our Lent before Lent arrives.

Septuagesima is also graced with a Roman Station: St. Lawrence outside the walls. The tone is set by the setting: we are with the great martyr who, because of his faithful service to the poor was roasted on an iron grill. In this basilica for centuries the faithful heard the chanted Introit, bringing us into Pre-Lent:

Circumdedérunt me gémitus mortis, dolóres inférni circumdedérunt me: et in tribulatióne mea invocávi Dóminum, et exaudívit de templo sancto suo vocem meam.
The lamentations of death surrounded me, the pains of the nether world enveloped me: and in my distress I called upon the Lord and from His holy temple He heard my voice.

We have our Pre-Lenten task before us.

This year in these offerings we are looking at the first reading for Holy Mass, the Epistle. For the sake of completeness, the Gospel is from Matthew 20:1-16, in which Jesus told the parable of the day laborers in the vineyard. Some were hired early in the day and some later, and they all received the same wage, through the gracious will of the householder. In the core of the Gospel parable is an invitation. The householder invites the workers to labor for their reward. He makes it possible for them to gain the wage.

Here’s a possible Lenten project: be inviting. Never underestimate the power of an invitation. Invite fallen away Catholics to Mass and other parish events. If every regular churchgoer would remember to invite someone every week to come with him, imagine what an effect that could have. Many will not accept. Some will. Even if people refuse, they are still pleased that you thought enough about them to invite them. If many are doing the inviting, many will eventually come. Everyone benefits. Parishes grow. Souls are helped. You please God who will crown your deeds with His own merits. I say again: Never underestimate the power of an invitation.

The Epistle is from the Blessed Apostle Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 9:24-27; 10:1-5). It is a well-known passage:

Brethren: Do you not know that in a race all the runners compete, but only one receives the prize? So run that you may obtain it. Every athlete exercises self-control in all things. They do it to receive a perishable wreath, but we an imperishable. Well, I do not run aimlessly, I do not box as one beating the air; but I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified. I want you to know, brethren, that our fathers were all under the cloud, and all passed through the sea, and all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea, and all ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink. For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ. Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased; for they were overthrown in the wilderness.

The imagery of the athlete in training is an apt way to describe the discipline of the Catholic in Lent, or perhaps the catechumen who aspires to baptism. In fact, this pericope – which spans the division of two chapters – goes on with the Old Testament foreshadowing of the Lord’s Passion and Rising, and our perishing and rebirth in the waters of baptism.

Paul wrote to Corinthians because there were problems in the community. The conversion of many of the pagans to Christ did not result also in a conversion of their moral lives. Before this passage (e.g. ch. 5 ff.) Paul addresses some of the issues, including sexual immorality, litigiousness, marriage, giving scandal by eating food offered to idols, and so forth. He establishes his authority in ch. 9, thus leading to the first part of our pericope.

In the second part, which is our main focus for the rest of this week’s piece, Paul delves into the story of the Exodus of the people from Egypt and their sojourn in the desert for 40 years, a biblical generation. Paul is giving the Corinthians a warning. The Israelites who went out of Egypt were not the Israelites who eventually entered the Promised Land. Except for Joshua and Caleb, the generation of the original “exodists” had passed away and their children finally finished the journey. If the Corinthians insist on making the mistakes that the Israelites made in the wilderness, for example by engaging in idolatry or sexual immorality, then they were going to wind up as the Israelites did: dying and not seeing the Promised Land.

Note that Paul says that the Israelites were “baptized into Moses.” This needs unpacking.

By the image, “they were under the cloud,” Paul means the “glory cloud of God’s presence,” or Hebrew shekinah, that manifested as a “a pillar of cloud to lead them along the way, and by night in a pillar of fire to give them light” (Exodus 13:21). “Passed through the sea” is obviously when Charlton Heston said, inimitably, “Behold! His mighty hand!” and the people passed through the Red Sea. This is where Paul says, the were “baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea.” Paul is relating historical events. These things happened.

However, they also have symbolic, spiritual meaning, and that is, clearly, the effects of baptism. If the Israelites were “baptized into Moses” under the cloud and in the sea, then Christians are baptized into Christ, in the Holy Spirit and in the waters of baptism. There was Moses and there is the new Moses, Christ, who is leading a people towards the heavenly Promised Land. The original Israelites violated their journey by infidelity and immorality and were denied their goal. Will the Corinthians wind up the same?

Paul now moves in our Epistle reading from baptism to the Eucharist. The Israelites “ate the same supernatural food and all drank the same supernatural drink.” In Exodus the people were fed by the mysterious bread from heaven, the manna (Exodus 16). When they were thirsty, at Horeb God told Moses to strike the rock at Meribah (“contention”) also called Massah (“proof”) and bring forth water (Exodus 17). Paul says that what they ate and drank was spiritual and just physical. As the passing through the Red Sea foreshadowed baptism, the manna and rock-water foreshadowed the Eucharist. Does that push the imagery too far? Paul seems to think it is so, for he wrote: “For they drank from the supernatural Rock which followed them, and the Rock was Christ.”

By the way, a fuller view of the waters of Meribah and the passing of the original general comes in Numbers 20. Miriam and Aaron die in this chapter. Moses strikes the rock, twice instead of once, which results in God’s anger and Moses being denied entrance to the Promised Land. And the water-rock followed the people in the wilderness. The rock is, of course, a foreshadowing of Christ Himself.

At the end of our Epistle reading, Paul throws his haymaker at his Corinthian readers, comparing them with those who displeased God and therefore were denied the Promised Land.

It is too bad that our reading does not go on just a little bit longer. This is when Paul brings in the idolatrous orgy around the Golden Calf when Moses was on the mountain. So terrible was it that God commanded those who indulged, some 23,000, to be slain, which slaughter was the first act of the new priestly cast. The Corinthians were doing the same things that the people did around the calf and did with the daughters of Moab and the Israelites began to worship Baal (Num 25). So, in 1 Cor 10:9-13, Paul says that the punishments meted out by God because of their infidelity and grumbling about the manna., etc., were meant for the Corinthians.

We must not put the Lord to the test, as some of them did and were destroyed by serpents; nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer. Now these things happened to them as a warning, but they were written down for our instruction, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore let any one who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall. No temptation has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength, but with the temptation will also provide the way of escape, that you may be able to endure it.

And just after this, Paul writes about the “one blessing cup” and the “one bread” they partake in, manifestly references to the Eucharist (1 Cor 10:16ff.).

In the previous chapter of 1 Corinthians, just before our reading, Paul wrote: “I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor 9:22). Here we have the “all” and “many” language, reflected in the consecration of the Precious Blood at all. Christ died for all, but not all will accept the prize He won for us. He poured out His Blood for all, but in point of fact, not all will be saved. Many will be, but not all. We want that many to be as close to all as possible, but it will not be all. Our Epistle reading today gives us a sobering reminder that our bad habits can drag us back from the prize of Heaven.

We can lose what we have been offered. Our salvation is not automatic. It must be won, as Paul says with his athletic images, through great effort and suffering when necessary supported by the grace of the Sacrament, especially Baptism and Eucharist, which must never be abused or approached unworthily.

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