Christmastide came to a close two weeks ago with the feast of the Purification of Our Lady, Candlemas, on February 2nd. We are now approaching the 'gesima season during which we prepare for the exercises and endurance race that is Lent. My singing voice leaves something to be desired, but during Vespers this Saturday night I will sing the dismissal with the double Alleluia and the Deo gratias with the double Alleluia, my last bit of liturgical joy for the next month and a half.
In past times, and in some places now, the coming of Lent was a process of transition. The Roman tradition anticipates Lent by introducing a penitential spirit in the liturgy: violet vestments, the "burial" of the Alleluia (in the Middle Ages it was literally buried), the excision of the Gloria from the Mass on the Lord's day, and the dismissal Benedicamus Domino which we use on days of penance, almost to say Serviamus Domino. The Roman Divine Office becomes very brutal during Lent. The Office of the Dead is prayed on Mondays of Simple rank, which will be every Monday this year. As we run our course in the faith we must recall and pray for our friends who did the same with divers degrees of success. Vespers loses the Suffrages of the Saints and replaces them with what is likely the detritus of an Office for the Dead of past time, a series of intercessory prays followed by the Miserere, psalm 50.
As stated earlier, it is my private belief that the season of Advent, replete with apocalyptic tones and an emphasis on the Coming, is most appropriate to consider sin and judgment. For the non-catechumen Lent is a different story. The Masses of the 'gesima season introduce us to what we should consider during Lent. The first Sunday, Septuagesima Sunday, prescribes for the Gospel the parable of a landowner hiring servants at the various hours of the days. The jealous men who worked the entire day caterwaul at the wages of those who worked less than they. The master of the house reminds the greedy workers that he can pay them as he wishes, the "first shall be last and the last shall be first." Above all, the message is that the Kingdom of God is available to all who seek it, although many turn away: "Many are called, but few are chosen." For those who follow the Byzantine tradition this sermon will form the foundation of the greatest sermon ever given, St. John Chrysostom's Paschal sermon which is read at Mattins. The following week's Gospel pericope presents us with the parable of a sower whose seed takes root and grows according to the environment in which it is planted. And the last Sunday tells us of a blind man whose cries to Our Lord "Son of David, have pity on me" stir His compassion; Our Lord gives the man his sight and tells him "Your faith has saved you." The three considerations the Church gives us for Lent then are:
- We are all called to eternal life with God and regardless of when we accept Him and repent of our sins we are assured of the same reward as those who lived their entire lives in holiness. The stories of saints are the stories of sinners.
- The gifts of God, faith the first of them, grow and sanctify the soul according to their nurturing. Do we pray? Do we serve others? Do we help others mechanically or are acts of random kindness still a part of our lives? Mechanical prayer can be useful in keeping the mind disciplined, but the sinner must mean the prayer at some point in order to let the Holy Spirit work within the soul. Kindly the Roman liturgy varies greatly during Lent: different readings at every single Mass, different psalms at the major hours daily owing to the absence of feasts, and different collects. The Church gives the man of prayer a tool to sow his seeds in the most fecund places.
- Faith saves us and even illuminates us. The blind man must have been blinded by light when he first recovered his vision after being lost in the throes of darkness for the duration of his life. Is sin not the same thing? Conversion, in an instant or in a progression, illuminates the sinner and basks him in the light of Christ. Peter, James, and John found this light profoundly blinding when they ascended Mount Tabor with Our Lord and yet the light they saw was only a hint of the light that is Christ's Divine essence. The Hesychast Byzantine tradition calls the light of Transfiguration the "uncreated energies." The Byzantine tradition even refers to Baptism as the "Mystery of Illumination." Fittingly the last Gospel before Lent is about illumination and the last act of Lent is the Baptism of converts to Christ.
Fasting dampens the noise of earthly distractions and attunes the soul to what the Church asks us to consider during Lent. Severe penance? No. Self-inflicted brutality? No. Fasting helps us to think and pray about the three simple topics above: calling, fostering, and seeing in the faith.
Lent. It is coming.