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Count Down to the Cross: 

Last Sunday was Septuagesima, this Sunday is Sexagesima, and next we have Quinquagesima. These picturesque old Latin names mean, respectively, “seventieth”, “sixtieth”, and “fiftieth”. Obviously, we are on a countdown, in which the next number is “Quadragesima” – an old name for the forty days of Lent. Lent, of course, is the six-week season of preparation for Easter, but the effort involved in the Lenten preparation itself requires preparation, and that is what these three Sundays are for. As the Eastern Orthodox theologian Alexander Schmemann said, “Long before the actual beginning of Lent, the Church announces its approach and invites us to enter into a period of pre-Lenten preparation…. the Church knows our inability to change rapidly, to go abruptly from one spiritual or mental state into 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 can practice Lent we are given it meaning.

So what is the meaning of our Lenten practice? Recall the meaning of the season just past. In Epiphany (“manifestation”) the church celebrates the manifestation of God’s glory in Christ – manifested to us, on successive Sundays, as wisdom, power, goodness, love, that he may be manifested in us, as we are transformed by him. But now we move on to the next stage in the unfolding of the Church’s year, to the disciplined effort necessary for transformation by the gospel. That’s why, on Septuagesima we hear of the labourers in the vineyard, and the athletes in competition; on Sexagesima the labours of the apostle and the patience that receives and keeps the seed to fruitful harvest; on Quinquagesima the journey up to Jerusalem, from blindness to vision; and the inward pilgrimage of growing up into the spiritual maturity of faith, hope, and charity. The images vary, but the theme is one – the transformation, the conversion of our minds, hearts and lives, does not just happen. It requires effort, exertion, purposeful discipline.

Where works are involved, however, mistaken ideas of merit – of what we may think God owes us – are not far away. This issue is addressed right away, in the lessons for Septuagesima. On the one hand, the disciplined effort of self-denial is required, as St Paul says, “lest, when I have proclaimed [the gospel] to others, I myself should be a castaway” (1 Cor 9:27). We all know the stories of Christians who put their calling into jeopardy by reckless self-indulgence and lack of self-control. If we are going to run the race to the end, we need the self-control that comes through self-denial. On the other hand, in the parable of the labourers in the vineyard (St. Matthew 20:1-16), the Lord pays a full day’s wages to all his workers, even to those who came late. And he rebukes the envy of the early-comers, who grumble at such generosity (“is thine eye evil, because I am good?”). God rewards his servants according to his free sovereign and unmerited grace: whether we come to the labor early or late, our works do not put him under obligation to us. The necessity of effort in the Christian life does not overthrow the truth that we are justified freely by grace alone, through faith, apart from works. Works are not the cause of God’s grace toward us, but its effect, and the evidence that we have received it, and been transformed by it.

Our disciplined effort and labour are done not to earn God’s favor, or to put him under some imagined obligation to us, but to bring our hearts and minds into alignment with the grace we have received. The Biblical “works worthy of repentance” are fasting, prayer, and almsgiving (Matthew 6), through which we die more fully to self, that we may live more fully unto God. We practice fasting, abstinence, and self-denial, “keeping the body under”, because if we can’t say “no” to our bodily appetites, we can’t say “yes” to God. We practice prayer, because saying “yes” to God means aligning our wills with his, in accord with his word. And we practice the giving of alms, because his will for us is charity, love of neighbour. And so through disciplined effort, we live out our baptism into Christ, dying to sin, and rising again to righteousness (Romans 6), that we may come prepared to keep the feast of his death and resurrection.

This essay by Fr. Dunbar was published in St. John’s Parish Paper on Feb. 12, 2023.