This ancient but also annual penitential journey is necessary for us so that we arrive at Ash Wednesday, ready to think and act in genuinely Lenten terms. And in days when the emphasis in liturgy is on “celebration” this journey is a “must.”
(a) SEPTUAGESIMA : The Third Sunday before Lent (Sunday, February 4, 2007)
O LORD, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9. 24-27 The Gospel: St. Matthew 20. 1-16
By St Paul’s words from the Epistle, we are encouraged to imitate true athletes. As they prepare for contests, so we are to discipline and prepare ourselves with God’s help for doing his service in the challenging contests of life.
From our Lord’s parable of the Laborers in the Vineyard in the Gospel, we learn to let God be God and, in our working for him, to submit readily to his wisdom, grace and judgment, knowing that he always knows best.
In the Prayer, we address God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ -- and our Father by adoption and grace -- as the Lord, the One who has all authority and power. And, as it were, as sinners, aware of our condition, we speak from a distance (as is suggested by the Latin verb, exaudire, used in the original). This approach is appropriate here for we proceed fervently and humbly to ask God for a major favor. This favor is not merely to note our petition but “favourably to hear the prayers of thy people.” We recall the ten lepers of Luke 17 who “stood afar off” when they cried, “Jesus, Master have mercy on us.” And more to the point, we recall the publican of Luke 18 who stood “afar off” and “smote upon his breast” when he said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.”
Sin weakens and affects all aspects of human life, degrades the sinner, and causes a bondage of the will to sin. Guilt of sin before God causes us to deserve his condemnation and judgment. But thanks be to God the Father who sent the Lord Jesus Christ to bear our sins in his own body on the tree. Thus we cry for deliverance to the Lord our God who is good and merciful and who is glorified in the pardoning and justification of sinners.
And we end by celebrating this Lord Jesus who is now enthroned in heaven with the Father and the Holy Ghost.
(b) SEXAGESIMA : The Second Sunday before Lent (February 11, 2007)
O LORD GOD, who seest that we put not our trust in anything we do: Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The Epistle: 2 Corinthians 11.19-31 The Gospel: Luke 8. 4-15
By St. Paul’s description of his suffering for Christ as his apostle to the Gentiles in the Epistle, we are encouraged to see that it is in our weakness that we are strong—strong, that is, in the strength of Christ Jesus by his Spirit.
In the parable of the Sower and the seed from the Gospel, we are taught how the Word of God takes root in human lives and that we are called to be the persons in whom, when the Word is sown, it will grow and flourish.
In praying this Prayer, we are reminded of the apostle Paul who had very many achievements and much in terms of accomplishment as a missionary to claim. Yet he did not glory in any of these things but his glory was in the Cross of his Saviour.
God sees fully and clearly into our hearts and it is surely our desire, our hope and our aim, that, as he does, he will not see self-righteousness and pride. Let him see, we hope, that we do not put our trust in anything that we do, but put it only in him as our Father by adoption and grace.
Since we do heartily trust in God the Father through our Lord Jesus Christ. then we can humbly ask that he will so arrange the course of lives by his providential care that we shall be defended against all adversity, physical and spiritual.
We recognize that it is only as we learn not to trust in our resources, achievements and possessions that we are able to trust in God, in his wisdom, providence, love and protection, through Jesus, his Son our Lord. As St Paul put it, “When I am weak, them I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:19).
(c) QUINQUAGESIMA: The next Sunday before Lent (February 18, 2007)
O LORD, who has taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth: Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosever liveth is counted dead before thee: Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
The Epistle: 1 Corinthians 13. 1-13 The Gospel: Luke 18. 31-43
From St Paul, in the Epistle, we receive the great hymn of love/charity. God’s love to us, our love of him and of fellow creatures will survive death and will be fulfilled and expanded in the life of the age to come. For God is Love. Faith and hope will cease because fulfilled with the arrival of the glory of the age to come, but Love will continue for God as Three Persons and One Deity is Love.
From Jesus, in the Gospel, we see love in action. First of all, it is love of his Father and love for his people that led him to go to Jerusalem, where he knew that certain pain, suffering and death awaited him as he fulfilled the vocation of the Suffering Servant of God. Secondly, it was compassion for the blind man at Jericho which led Jesus to heal him by the power of God.
We observe a close connection between the Sexagesima Collect and this one for Quiquagesima. There we were taught that no trust can be put in human doing and achievement, even if it be the work of a St Paul, undergone for the Gospel’s sake – “who seest that we put not our trust in anything that we do.” Here the lesson or teaching upon which the petition in the prayer is built is that these “doings”, which break when we lean upon them heavily, are of no avail before God; they are “without charity and nothing worth.”
We recognize that genuine love – the will to do true and genuine good to other people – is not something that we can produce within our own beings, for, after all we are sinful creatures. Thus we beseech God our Father to send the Holy Ghost, who is the very Love that unites the Father and the Son in the Blessed Trinity, that he may place the divine gift of charity in our souls and lives.
The presence of this heavenly Love is “the very bond of peace and all virtues”. This statement is based upon Ephesians 4:8, “endeavouring to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace,” and Colossians 3:14, where after listing virtues, St Paul writes, “And above all these things put on charity, which is the bond of perfectness.”
And we end this Prayer in recognizing that without genuine love or charity in our souls and lives we are not spiritually alive before God and not in communion with him. St John declared that, “he that loveth not his brother abideth in death” (1 John 3:14” and St James tells us that “faith without works is dead” (2:20).
All our prayers ascend to the Father through the Son and by/in the Holy Ghost.
Having gone humbly through the mini preparation for the major season of Lent, we are now ready by God’s prevenient grace to enter into the spiritual disciplines which begin on Ash Wednesday and move into the next Sunday, Quadragesima. So we shall pray:
Almighty and everlasting God, who hatest nothing that thou hast made, and dost forgive the sins of all them that are penitent: Create and make in us new and contrite hearts, that we worthily lamenting our sins, and acknowledging our wretchedness, may obtain of thee, the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
One thing we lean afresh in the preparation for Lent and the keeping of it is that the genuine confession of sins from, a contrite heart is in fact the praise of God, for it is a supreme acknowledgement of his justice, his mercy and forgiveness. (This is one theme that modern liturgy and liturgists seem not to appreciate or to have overlooked!)