In the Church’s ancient calendar there are three Sundays before Lent, with quaint old Latin names – Septuagesima, (which means ‘seventieth’); Sexagesima (‘sixtieth’), and Quinquagesima (fiftieth). Obviously, we are in a countdown first to Lent (once known as Quadragesima, in reference to its forty days), but also ultimately to Easter itself, the great festival of our redemption. Long before we begin the observance of Lent and its corporate disciplines of fasting, prayer, and almsgiving, the Church announces its approach and invites us to prepare for it. As the Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann put it, “the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state to another. Thus, long before the actual effort of Lent is to begin, the Church calls our attention to its seriousness and invites us to meditate on its significance. Before we practice Lent we are given its meaning”. In Epiphany we considered the transformation to which we are called by the grace of Christ; now in the Sundays before Lent, we consider how this transformation cannot happen without our disciplined effort. Though good works of this kind are not the cause of grace, they are most certainly its effect, and in the lessons of these Sundays the corporate disciplines of Lent are presented in general terms in images of purposeful, fruitful, rewarding labor, of journeying and pilgrimage both outward and inward. They also address specifically the purpose of fasting (on Septuagesima), of prayer (on Sexagesima), and of almsgiving (on Quinquagesima).
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