The Pre-Lenten Season and Septuagesima Sunday


Since the sixth century (and likely earlier) the western Church has used the three Sundays before Ash Wednesday as a time of preparation for Lent. During this time the Church turns from her celebration of Christmas and Epiphany and sets her eyes upon the Cross. The Scripture lessons and collects of this season speak to us of the virtues in which we are to grow during our Lenten penitence. We are reminded that in order actually to turn away from sin, we must pursue holiness of life.

Septuagesima Sunday propounds the virtues of temperance, justice, and hope.[1] St. Paul teaches the importance of temperance in this Sunday’s epistle text through the use of an athletic metaphor. An athlete practices self-discipline and eliminates needless distractions as he sets his eye on the prize. Temperance is, according to Christian teaching, the virtue that brings the passions under the rule of reason, which directs them towards accomplishing man’s proper end – right relationship and worship of God.[2] It is not that these passions and desires are in themselves evil; rather they are not meant to control us, and they lead us astray when they do. The Christian practices temperance so that he is not distracted from his pursuit of God by focusing instead on earthly gratifications. St. James speaks of this process, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death (1:14).” St. Paul is cognizant of this danger, and pursues temperance lest he himself “should be a castaway.”

Temperance is, thus, tied to a healthy fear: a fear of disordered affections and the inner turmoil that they bring.[3] But Christian temperance must also go beyond the natural virtue of temperance so highly praised by virtuous pagan philosophers; it aims at more than mere happiness and tranquility. The Christian understands that right reason itself depends on knowing God. Proverbs 9:10 teaches, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Temperance rightly begins with an acknowledgement of God’s sovereignty over his creation – all that is belongs to him. We are merely stewards, entrusted with the manifold and wondrous gifts of God in the world that we might use them to know and worship God and to teach others to do the same. Temperance fears abusing or misusing the gifts of God, making them ends in themselves. This is the way of death, the way of missing the heavenly prize of the incorruptible crown spoken of by St. Paul. Right reason leads to temperance because it is foolishness to exchange a heavenly and eternal reward for earthly and perishable pleasures.

This godly fear is not, however, in conflict with Christian hope; instead fear and hope support each other.[4] Fear leads us to hope for, as we see that we are unable to help ourselves, we are lead to rely upon God’s help. In hope we remain fixed upon God for our fear tells us that there is no other safety. St. Paul writes to the Corinthians of the hope we may have in God: “There hath no temptation taken you but such as is common to man: but God is faithful, who will not suffer you to be tempted above that ye are able; but will with the temptation also make a way to escape, that ye may be able to bear it (I Cor. 10:13).” God promises us the strength to practice temperance and a reward for our labors. This reward, the incorruptible crown of eternal life, is the second source of the Christian’s hope.

Our gospel lesson continues the theme of working for a reward. Here too our hope in encouraged. God is presented to us as an incredibly generous employer who will certainly give the reward he promises. Once again we are lead to hope both in God’s gracious assistance to us – he is the one who supplies us with the employment of our Christian lives – and in our eternal reward. Both depend not upon our own insufficient efforts, but in a faithful acceptance of the gift that God has given to us. This is our hope. This is what inspires us to labor until the day’s end, to remain faithful unto death. God is faithful and just to give what he promised, justice demands that we do the same.

We practice the virtue of justice when we give others whatever is rightly due to them. Our Lord spoke of this when tested by the Pharisees: “Render therefore unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's; and unto God the things that are God's (St. Matthew 22:21).” The laborers in the vineyard practiced justice by working diligently for the man who hired them; we practice justice towards God when we are diligent in his service. At our baptisms we promised to “keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days” of our lives. As our Lord teaches in the Sermon on the Mount, right worship and justice toward God depends on just treatment of our fellow man (St. Matthew 5:23-4).

The Christian virtue of justice, aided by temperance, goes beyond giving each man his due; it is also opposed to the vices of envy and covetousness.[5] These vices lead us to look at the gifts God has given to others, to prefer them over the gifts God has entrusted to us, and to desire that the gifts of others might be made our own. This we see in the attitude of the first-hired laborers. When we engage in envy and covetousness, we are unjust in our attitude towards God; we have failed to recognize that graciousness of his gifts and to see that we are unworthy even of the ones we possess, let alone those entrusted to others. We have allowed earthly things to turn our eyes away from the heavenly prize God promises to all who labor in service to him. And we do this often, do we not?

Our collect for Septuagesima reminds us of our own unworthiness and the justice of the punishments that we experience in this life. We are punished by the effects of sin that we must labor and strive against. Practicing temperance, justice, hope, and the other virtues are no longer natural to us; we must work hard to make them habitual. Because of sin we are constantly distracted with temptations that would turn our eyes away from the hope of eternal life. We must enter the Lenten season aware of this, lest we be like the Pharisee who declared his righteousness and whose prayer was not heard. We must instead be like the penitent publican who begged for God’s mercy, for only in mercy will we be delivered. This is the attitude that this pre-Lenten season is meant to instill in us. We work, in repentance and contrition, for temperance within ourselves and for justice in our relation with God and our fellow men. We work in hope, keeping our eyes fixed on the reward of the incorruptible crown that God has promised for those who walk in his ways.

-Rev’d Matthew Maule, Curate

[1]Common Prayer: A Commentary on the Prayer Book Lectionary

Volume 2: Septuagesima to Easter Eve.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II. Q141. A1.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II-II. Q19. A9.

[5] Common Prayer: A Commentary on the Prayer Book Lectionary

Volume 2: Septuagesima to Easter Eve.

Jason Patterson