Septuagesima is here again! Wonderful!
For those who follow the ancient Eucharistic Lectionary which is in the classic BOOK OF COMMON PRAYER (1549, 1662, 1928 -USA) the Sunday that falls three Sundays before the first Sunday in Lent is called SEPTUAGESIMA (Latin = 70th). It is followed by Sexagesima (60th) Quinquagesima (50th) and finally Quadragesima (40th). Ash Wednesday comes between Quinqagesima and Quadragesima.
It seems that in the Latin-speaking Church in the late sixth century the faithful were not content with the forty days of Lent (beginning on what we now call the First Sunday in Lent or what used to be called, Quadragesima) as a time of preparation for the right celebration of the Pasch [Easter]. It was not long enough! So they added as a preparation for Lent a period of three weeks and called the Sundays of these weeks (by analogy with Quadragesima), Quinquagesima, Sexagesima & Septuagesima because they were round numbers. Of course, only Quinquagesima is strictly accurate in mathematical terms for there is 50 days from the Sunday before Ash Wednesday to the end of Lent.
And then to make the number of days of Lent to be exactly 40 and not to include the Sundays in Lent (because they are celebrations of the
Resurrection) the beginning of Lent was fixed for what we now call Ash Wednesday. And because this period heralded the approach of Spring, the word Lent (meaning Spring) was used in northern Europe.
The Epistle [1 Cor 9:24ff.] and Gospel [Matt. 20:lff.] for Septuagesima have been used in the West since the sixth century. The late Monsignor Ronald Knox perceptively remarked that: "Septuagesima has an Epistle which warns us that it is never too late to be damned and a Gospel which tells us that it is never too late to be saved." (The Epistles & Gospels, p. 96). How right he was!
Let us look briefly at the Epistle and the Gospel.
1. In 1 Corinthians 9:24-27 the apostle Paul makes use of illustrations from the athletic contest (Isthmian Games) and from boxing to make important points about the "running & disciplining of the Christian life." As the athlete must exercise self-discipline and be rightly focused in order to run for the prize, so also the authentic and committed Christian must exercise moral discipline and look constantly to the goal of his journey, the prize of being with the Lord Jesus Christ. Further, as the boxer is not to indulge in shadow-boxing or to throw punches aimlessly, but to make all punches count, so the Christian is to punch successfully, in this case not another but himself by constant moral and spiritual disciplinary blows.
In verse 27 he makes a very personal and profoundly challenging statement: "I pommel my body and subdue it, lest after preaching to others I myself
should be disqualified." So Knox wrote of an Epistle that warns us it is
never too late to be damned.
2. In Matthew 20:1-16 we read the Parable of the Vineyard and the Labourers and, though it presents a familiar picture of Jewish life, it is nevertheless full of surprises. The purpose of the parable is to teach how God receives people graciously into his kingdom.
The first surprise is that the employer himself (not a servant of his) goes down to the market square to recruit workers for his vineyard. And he does so not once but several times, hiring men at different times of the day.
The second surprise is that at the end of the day when the workers are paid the employer pays those whom he hired last a full day's pay. He is a generous employer.
And the third surprise is that we are told about the reaction of those who had worked all day and were paid the same as those who worked only part of the day. The answer to their complaint is that they were paid what they were promised and that this amount was good pay for a day's work.
This Parable is all about the grace of God who welcomes into his kingdom, under conditions which he alone sets, people of different kinds and achievements. To stand in the kingdom of God does not depend in any way at all on human merit but upon God's call and mercy, generosity and justice. God welcomes "late comers" as well as "early comers" into his kingdom. In the words of Knox, "it is never too late to be saved."
3. Conclusion. In terms of preparation for Lent, these two Bible readings proclaim to us two sides of the one divine coin of truth. On the one hand we cannot earn our way into God's kingdom for it is wholly and totally by grace and mercy. On the other hand, in the kingdom we are to live as befits servants of the King, that is disciplined, obedient, holy and righteous lives.
"I would not work my soul to save for that my Lord has done, but I would work like any slave for love of God's dear Son."
The Rev'd Dr. Peter Toon January 22nd 2002