We are now nine Sundays out from Easter.
Once again, context helps. In the course of the Church’s liturgical year, we have great cycles, such as the one we just concluded, which stretched from Advent, through Christmas, Epiphany and, in important respects, ended with the Feast of the Purification or Presentation. Advent was the joyfully penitential season of preparation for the celebration of the feasts. We now approach the other great yearly cycle that arcs from Ash Wednesday and the beginning of the more intensely penitential Lent, through Easter, to Pentecost and its Octave.
So important is Lent as a time of preparation, that Holy Church wants to help us prepare for the preparation. Consequently, the three Sundays before Lent begins, while not Lenten, are liturgically clothed in penitential purple. In a Pre-Lent, as it were, we are gently reminded to start thinking about our upcoming Lenten disciplines now. As a reminder that Lent is on the way, beginning with this Sunday, Septuagesima, the chant of the exultant Alleluia is suppressed; a more somber Tract replaces the Gradual and Alleluia. In some places there was a tradition of carrying out a little funeral ritual for the Alleluia, as a beautiful written, carved, or painted version would be buried near the church at the end of 1st Vespers (Saturday evening) of Septuagesima to wait for its own resurrection at the Easter Vigil. This old custom, rediscovered, is making a comeback.
The three Pre-Lent Sundays are Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, respectively in Latin “Seventieth, Sixtieth, Fiftieth,” supposedly indicating the number of days before Easter, or more precisely before the Triduum before Easter, technically not part of Lent, which season in Latin is Quadragesima, “Fortieth.”
You don’t have to be a post-graduate student of Higher Maths to see instantly that this doesn’t add up. I’ve often been asked in email and on the blog (fatherzonline.com) “Why the numeric names if the numbers don’t jive?”
These Sundays of Septuagesima, Sexagesima and Quinquagesima, before Lent or Quadragesima begins, are rough estimates but within certain parameters.
- Septuagesima is the 63rd day before the Triduum and, therefore, is in the 7th decade or 10-day period before Easter (61st to 70th days),
- Sexagesima Sunday is the 56th before, in the 6th decade (51st to 60th),
- Quinquagesima is the 49th day, 5th decade (41st to 50th) days before the Triduum.
And that, dear readers, accounts for the names of the Sundays.
Moreover, these Sundays – callously wiped out of the Church’s life in the Novus Ordo calendar – were deemed important enough to have their own Roman Station Churches.
This Sunday we gather in spirit at the Station with the ancient Roman aspirants for baptism, catechumens, at St. Lawrence outside-the-walls. The figure of that greatly venerated deacon martyr, who died over the coals on an iron grate, looms over the Sunday, the beginning of the catechumenal journey toward membership in Christ’s Mystical Person, the Church. The Introit antiphon from Ps 17/18 sets the tone for the preparatory phase of the cycle: “The terrors of death surged round me, the cords of the nether world enmeshed me.” So sings Lawrence upon his searing grate. So sings Christ Himself as His Passion is underway in earnest. So sing the catechumens, their first savory taste of what it is to commit to being a Christian, which means the Cross. Indeed, the Epistle from 1 Corinthians on this Sunday, going back to ancient times, is about the struggle for the unperishing crown, passing through the sea to the other side in death, rising to new life, eating the manna from heaven, drinking from the rock.
With the help of Pre-Lent, no Catholic who follows the Traditional calendar is ever surprised by Lent. Shrovetide begins. Shrove is from “to shrive,” “to give absolution to a penitent.” The priest shrives, or in the simple present, shroves, and then you are “shriven” or “shrived.” To “shrove” came to mean “partying,” which people tried to get in before Lent began. Not to be recommended. More on that later.
This Sunday we have the Parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in Matthew 20. Previously, the Lord gave His clarification about divorce, had blessed children and then invited the Rich Young Man to follow Him. We move into the so-called Fifth Narrative and Discourse in Matthew (19:2-26:1), which deals in large part with the Lord’s teaching about the Second Coming. He was on the way to Jerusalem for Passover and His Passion, enduring greater harassment by the Pharisees.
The parable is familiar. A man, the “householder – master of the house,” hires day workers for his vineyard at harvesttime, all for the same standard rate of a silver denarius coin, but at different times later and later in the day. Parables, of course, have a twist in them. What we immediately ask of this story is why the owner of the vineyard didn’t just hire all the workers at the beginning of the day? After all, it is harvesttime and everyone would know to be there at daybreak to get work. At the end of the workday, the owner paid those hired at the end of the day the same as those who were hired early. Another twist. Those hired early take it badly, thinking that they ought to receive more. The owner responds:
‘Friend, I am doing you no wrong; did you not agree with me for a denarius? Take what belongs to you, and go; I choose to give to this last as I give to you. Am I not allowed to do what I choose with what belongs to me? Or do you begrudge my generosity?’ So the last will be first, and the first last.”
That phrase, “do you begrudge my generosity” is interesting. The Greek says literally, “is your eye evil because I am good?”, which is how the Douay Version translates it.
We tend to see things the way we want to see them, rather than how the truly are. In fact, all the workers had contracted on precise terms for the work they were to do, and the master of the property was, in fact, giving what was due, even if those hired early didn’t “see eye to eye” as it were. They were caught up in their parable within the parable. Common sense is reversed. Up is down. Right is left. First is last. When it comes to the Kingdom of God you cannot force your expectations on it. God is not bound to do things the way we expect.
Why does God give this person over there all the things that I need or want? Why does God take from me the only thing I have?
If we try to put God into a box and reduce His ways to our ways, we will be left confused and disillusioned. It’s not a matter of “fairness”.
This parable has been interpreted variously. Some hold that it is about the Gentiles, late-comers, being on par with the Jews in the Kingdom (not that the track record of the Jews through salvation history was without flaws). Others see it as describing the hope of those who convert late in life. Gregory the Great (+604) took it as a strong warning not to be presumptuous.
Augustine of Hippo (+430) sees in the denarius a hopeful symbol that, no matter what our road to heaven is, and no matter what place in heaven we might have, we will all have one common coin as our reward, the Beatific Vision. In that, we will all be equal. God’s mercy is beyond anything that we can imagine. Long life of holiness and good works and true charity, like working in the sun from early morning, with heaven’s blessings is great. More glory will have been given to God. Otherwise, a life that is less than good, perhaps even pretty awful, followed by conversion and repentance late in life before death? Both paths can receive the denarius.
Let’s look again at this parable’s closing nimshal, keeping in mind, again, the context.
At the very end of the previous chapter of Matthew, in the encounter with the Rich Young Man, Christ explained how hard it is for the wealthy to enter the kingdom of heaven. The disciples were taken aback. “Who can be saved?” they cried. Peter replied, “Lo, we have left everything and followed you. What then shall we have?” Christ returned with a description of their having thrones in heaven and how those who have left everything will receive one hundred-fold, concluding,
Many that are first will be last, and the last first.
At the end of the Epistle reading Paul, recounting the struggle to win through to the end, using Exodus imagery of Moses and People, concludes today, “Nevertheless with most of them God was not pleased.”
The end of this Sunday’s Parable is connected to what went before at the end of Matthew 18. We turn to it for insight. Inherent in Peter’s plaintive question at the end of Matthew 18 is the complaint of the dayworkers hired earliest in the day. Hence, the Lord launched into this parable about the workers in the vineyard. Service of God on His terms is the point of being called, not earthly reward.
Another take away from the parable is that God is never unjust. We, however, can be unjust towards God in making rash judgments about our state in life.
Christ surely spoke this parable for all those listening. However, I imagine Matthew writing this down years later, remembering how, as He spoke, Jesus kept catching His chosen Vicar Peter’s eyes in a special way, maybe even turning directly to Him as He delivered His rabbinic nimshal, “many that are first will be last, and the last first,” driving His formational point deep into Peter’s heart.
After all, in 1 Peter 5… in ONE PETER FIVE … we read:
Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God, that in due time he may exalt you.
It is Septuagesima Sunday. Already. Start thinking about Lent now, not on the morning of Ash Wednesday. A good way to make a beginning is to GO TO CONFESSION.