February 8, 2015, Septuagesima Sunday
There are two major feasts in the Church year which have seasons of fasting and feasting and even other feast days associated with them: Christmas and Easter. For the Church in the West, the first day on the calendar that’s related to, or reckoned by, Christmas is the first day of Advent, which is the fourth Sunday before Christmas (the Western Church also decided to make this the first day of the liturgical calendar altogether). The East is a little different in that their Advent-like fasting season starts a whole 40 days before Christmas. But both have a fasting season before Christmas, and both have a Christmas season that leads to January 6th, which in the West celebrates the Epiphany to the Gentiles (the Magi) and in the East celebrates the Trinitarian Theophany at Jesus’ baptism. But did you know that for both East and West the last day that’s date is reckoned by Christmas is the Presentation of the Lord in the Temple? This is always February 2nd, because that’s always 40 days after December 25th. And when did Jesus get presented in the Temple? 40 days after he was born.
The other major feast day by which other days and whole seasons are reckoned is, of course, Easter. Easter is very significant to a whole chunk of the calendar, because The Ascension always comes 40 days after Easter, and Pentecost always comes 50 days after Easter. And in the West again, Trinity Sunday always comes right after Pentecost, and every Sunday from then until Advent is numbered from there. So Easter governs its own season, two major feast days, and every Sunday of ordinary time until Advent.
The time before Easter is also governed by it, though. We know that Lent (for us in the West) is the forty days preceding Easter beginning on Ash Wednesday. For our brothers and sisters in the East, Lent begins on what they call Clean Monday, and goes until the beginning of Holy Week, which is technically not counted in their 40 day Lenten period. But did you know that both East and West have in their calendars a three week period before Lent begins in order to begin preparing for Lent? That brings me to today and why I’m talking about all of this at all. The pre-lenten season begins today. This Sunday is the first day of this calendar year that is reckoned by Easter of this year.
Since Ash Wednesday is 40 days before Easter, the three Sundays before it are somewhat clumsily each named for being closest to the 50th, 60th, and 70th day before Easter. So the Sunday closest to the 50th day is called “Quinquagesima”, the Sunday closest to the 60th day is “Sexagesima”, and the Sunday nearest the 70th day (today) is called... “Septuagesima”. The names aren’t important, though. What is important is that the Church in both the East and the West has realized the importance of not only a Lenten season, but a pre-lenten season as well. Beginning this Sunday, the Scriptures are intentionally chosen to highlight certain themes, the liturgical color changes to the more somber violet, the “alleluias” are excluded from the liturgy until Easter. The fasting doesn’t begin until Lent, but in the calendar, we orient ourselves toward the cross and resurrection today.
I know we usually think of Lent as the preparation for Easter, so we might wonder why there’s this need to prepare to prepare. But if we think of Lent more as a journey that we take -- a journey to the cross with Jesus -- then it makes a lot of sense to prepare for that journey as you’d prepare for any journey. The Lenten road has to be traveled with a good deal of resolve and intentionality: our eating changes in Lent and we need time to plan out how we’re going to do that. Our devotions, prayer, and bible reading hopefully are increased, and that takes planning beforehand if we’re going to take it seriously. Increased alms giving and charitable acts are supposed to be a part of Lent. Those kinds of things usually take a little brainstorming to figure out how and where we can give. This pre-lenten season is the time to start thinking about how to fast, how to pray, and how to give of yourself during Lent.
But in addition to thinking about Lent as a journey, we also have to think of it as a battle. The gospel passage for the first Sunday of Lent is of Jesus’ temptation by Satan in the desert. Our 40 day Lent is to mirror Christ’s 40 day desert sojourn. That means these preceding weeks are for us to prepare for that battle. How do you prepare for spiritual battle? By confessing your sins. This pre-lent season in the West is also known as Shrovetide, of which Shrove Tuesday is the final day. “Shrove” is an old word meaning to have confessed your sins and been absolved. This sacramental confession is a way to empty your heart of any and all sins that would prefer to remain in the dark, bringing everything into the light, and depriving the devil, the accuser, of anything to accuse you of. Again, we’re used to thinking of Lent as a penitential season -- and it is -- but it’s the season where we make a concerted effort to keep a close eye on our hearts, to immediately repent at the first smudge of any sin. But in order to learn to detect and wipe clean those first smudges, it helps to first have a clean slate.
The point of sacramental confession is also that it removes any boundaries between you and your brothers and sisters, because your confession isn’t solely before God, and it’s certainly not only before the priest, but rather it’s in the context of the whole Church. Confessions are made to God, before the priest, who is the stand-in for the entire Church. This way, without announcing all of your sins to the entire congregation, you nonetheless are bringing to light the sickness-causing sins buried in your heart, in the context of the whole Church, of which you are a part. None of us belong to ourselves if we are in Christ. We belong to him, and thus, through him, to each other. In the Eastern Church there’s a wonderful, powerful tradition of asking forgiveness of every single person in your parish family on the eve before Lent, because this is a corporate endeavor, not an individual one. This forgiveness Sunday in the East is exactly the same idea as Shrove Tuesday in the West. Through forgiveness from our neighbors and absolution from our priest we are prepared to enter into the desert with Christ, watchful of our own hearts and ready to maintain a spirit of repentance throughout our journey.
So today is the day to begin contemplating your upcoming Lenten journey. Start thinking about your fast. There are rules that we follow in our Western tradition, and we’ll make sure those are available for everyone to see. Try to follow them. It’s not a magic diet plan that makes you holy. Half the point of fasting rules is just to help us to reap the spiritual benefits of rule-following. Now’s the time to start thinking about an intentional prayer rule, especially if you don’t already have one. Same for scripture reading. Now’s the time to start thinking about giving to a charity, serving at a homeless shelter... Maybe even visiting friends or family members that you’re usually too busy to go and see. Now’s the time to start thinking about your sins, writing them down even (and try to be specific about those -- not just general “Oh I struggle with lust...”). Think about anything you need to ask forgiveness from someone for, and do it.
And though this is a corporate journey, it’s yourself that you need to be concerned with. Our job is to encourage our brothers and sisters, but to scrutinize ourselves. Just like it was none of the business of the first laborers hired what the last hired were paid because they had already agreed to their wage, so we know our wage if we’re faithful in our work. And it’s none of our business who joins the labor and when. Our focus should be on our work, because we know that our wage is infinite communion with the blessed Trinity. That’s the beauty of an infinite wage: it’s not exhausted if the work is started earlier, and it’s not diminished if the work is started late. As St. John Chrysostom proclaims in his Paschal homily “If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward. If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings; because he shall in nowise be deprived thereof. If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness; for the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first; he gives rest unto him who comes at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who has wrought from the first hour.” But brothers and sisters, here, now, at this first hour, we’re already being called, and not to answer would be dishonest. So let’s think about the things we need to be planning for, heed the call and begin our preparation for our desert journey. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.