The Journey BeginsToday we begin the great annual journey to the Pasch of the Lord. It is a laborious ascent marked by four phases: first Septuagesimatide, a period of three weeks; then Holy Lent itself, stretching from Ash Wednesday until Passion Sunday; then Passiontide, by means of which we enter the heart of the sacred liturgy: the Sacred Paschal Triduum. Already, the liturgy begins to school us in austerity and penance: as of Vespers last evening, the heavenly chant, the very sound of paradise on earth, the Alleluia, has been silenced. We took leave of the Alleluia with a deep regret, burying it in the immaculate Heart of the Mother of God, who will keep it for us until, at the Paschal Vigil, she restores it to us in all its purity and brightness. At Holy Mass, in place of the Alleluia, we are given the Tract, a psalm to prepare us for the hearing of the Holy Gospel. Already the priest has donned the violet vestments that bespeak compunction of heart and symbolise the dark night into which our sins have plunged us: the night of faith, of tears, of waiting for the light to break on the eastern horizon.
Listening to the Word of God With Septuagesima we enter into a season of intensive listening to the Sacred Scriptures. The poor Protestants who think that Catholics have no exposure to the Bible are woefully ignorant of the sacred liturgy of the Church: always, but especially in this season of the year, in Lent, and in Passiontide, the sacred liturgy is a deep immersion in the Word of God. The Holy Masses of this season were composed in symbiosis with the lessons from the Old Testament that are read at Matins; the Mass and Divine Office thus form a comprehensive design that reveals to us the mystery of Christ.
The Mystery of Christ Revealed Today, the story of Adam points to Christ, the New Adam, in whom we begin afresh. On Sexagesima, the story of Noe will point to Christ, the true Noe who saves us in the ark of His Church. On Quinquagesima, the story of Abraham will point to Christ, the father of the New Covenant, the true Lamb fulfilling Abraham's prophetic words to his son Isaac, "God will provide himself a victim for an holocaust, my son" (Genesis 22:8). On the First Sunday of Lent, we will probe the mystic meaning of Psalm 90 by praying it repeatedly with Christ in the desert. On the Second Sunday of Lent, we shall hear the story of Jacob pointing to Christ the true Jacob. On the Third Sunday of Lent, we shall hear the story of the chaste and provident Joseph in Egypt, pointing to Christ the true Joseph who provides us with the Bread of Life. On the Fourth Sunday of Lent, we shall consider Moses, who points to Christ the true Moses, our redeemer, our lawgiver, our intercessor.
Inspired by the Holy Ghost, the Church has so crafted the texts and rites of Holy Mass and of the Divine Office, that by means of the sacred liturgy we are introduced to the very mysteries of Christ, not as a mere pious onlookers, but as participants and actual beneficiaries of the grace won for us by His Passion. Today's liturgy lingers over the tragedy that is original sin and its shattering consequences. With Adam and Eve, fallen, and then cast out of Paradise, we pray from the depths of our distress:
The sorrows of death surrounded me, the sorrow of hell encompassed me: and in my affliction I called upon the Lord, and He heard my voice from His holy Temple. (Psalm 17)
Original Sin and Redemption The horror of original sin contrasts with the splendour of the redemption wrought by Christ. We seem to hear, as if in counterpoint above the chants of today's Mass, the sublime poetry of the Exultet: "O truly needful sin of Adam, which was blotted out by the death of Christ! O happy fault, that merited for us so great a Redeemer!"
Into the Vineyard The Father, taking pity on humankind exiled from the garden, is not defeated. In place of paradise lost, He offers us a vineyard and calls us to labour in making it fruitful. Some He calls at the break of day, others at the third hour, others at the sixth and ninth hours, and still others at eleventh hour. Herein we see the inexhaustible mercy of God ever inventing ways to draw us into His vineyard and to pay us richly, well beyond all human notions of measure and justice. At Easter, Saint John Chrysostom will, in his timeless sermon, proclaim the mercy of the Father bestowed upon us in the resurrection of Christ:
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. And he shows mercy upon the last, and cares for the first; and to the one he gives, and upon the other he bestows gifts. And he both accepts the deeds, and welcomes the intention, and honors the acts and praises the offering. Wherefore, enter you all into the joy of your Lord. (The Paschal Sermon, Saint John Chrysostom)
Runners in the Race Saint Paul speaks to us today of the runner in the race. To whom does God award the prize? To the toddler taking tiny steps? To the muscled youth proud of his swift, long strides? To the elder with his walking stick, pausing every few steps to catch his breath? To the dancer who makes her way forward with graceful leaps, and turns, and pirouettes? To the invalid pushed along in his wheelchair by a faithful friend? In this race we run not so much by movements of the feet as by the movement of the heart. And so we say in the Gradual, "The poor man shall not be forgotten to the end: the patience of the poor shall not perish forever" (Psalm 9:19).
Focused on the Face of Christ If I were to propose a prayer for Septuagesimatide and for all the weeks of Lent and Passiontide that lie ahead of us, it would be the Communion Antiphon of today's Mass, Illumina faciem tuam super servum tuum:
Make Thy face to shine upon Thy servant, and save me in Thy mercy: let me not be confounded, O Lord, for I have called upon Thee. (Psalm 30:17–18)
This is the prayer with which the worker of the first, third, sixth, ninth, and eleventh hours can respond to the invitation of the Lord of the vineyard. We go into the vineyard, trusting not in ourselves, but in the light of His face, and in His mercy, and His readiness to attend to us in all our needs. And this is the prayer of the runner in the race: he looks not to himself, nor to his feet, nor to the road beneath them, but to the glorious Face of Christ which shines in the distance, becoming closer with every step.