The Second Sunday before Lent: Sexagesima

Sexagesima Sunday: Prudence, Fortitude, Faith


Sexagesima continues the pattern established for the pre-Lenten season by setting before us the virtues of prudence, fortitude (or courage), and faith.[1] Prudence is practical wisdom, that forward-looking virtue that considers our calling as children of God and the future as it has been revealed to us and directs our actions accordingly.[2] Fortitude stands in the middle between cowardly fear and rash daring, bravely soldiering on despite dangers and sufferings.[3] Both these virtues will, however, miss the mark without the illumination of faith, that virtue which is a gift of God that illumines the intellect to see truths human reason cannot attain unaided and that directs the will towards the good, enabling belief.[4]
            In this epistle lesson, we learn of prudence primarily through an exposition of its opposite vices. The vices which St. Paul here reproves are imprudence and negligence; these vices have opened the Corinthians to exploitation through the other perversions of prudence: guile and fraud. In the previous chapter, St. Paul appears to be worried that, because he dealt with the Corinthians gently and humbly (despite being an apostle), some slandered him and undermined his authority. “For his letters, say they, are weighty and powerful; but his bodily presence is weak, and his speech contemptible. (II Cor. 10:10)” The Corinthians have failed to think through the full implications of his authority and teaching; they have failed to give his message the regard it was due. This negligence led to inconstancy as they were made susceptible to the guile and fraud of false teachers. Satan (as C.S. Lewis reminds us well in The Screwtape Letters) is not fool – at least as regards his war against mankind. A few verses before our epistle text, St. Paul warns, “For such are false apostles, deceitful workers, transforming themselves into the apostles of Christ. And no marvel; for Satan himself is transformed into an angel of light. Therefore it is no great thing if his ministers also be transformed as the ministers of righteousness; whose end shall be according to their works.”
            It is because Satan and his ministers take great care and thought to deceive and destroy us that St. Peter warns, “Be sober, be vigilant; because your adversary the devil, as a roaring lion, walketh about, seeking whom he may devour. (I Peter 5:8)” Prudence involves looking for the traps and temptations of the enemy in order to avoid them wherever possible. It involves testing teachers against the teaching of Scripture as the Bereans did with St. Paul’s message. Lest we fall into the sin of inconstancy and mistreat the ministers of God as the Corinthians mistreated St. Paul, we must not give in to gossip and defamation which goes against their character and their service to us. Thus, the author of the epistle to the Hebrews writes, “Obey them that have the rule over you, and submit yourselves: for they watch for your souls, as they that must give account, that they may do it with joy, and not with grief: for that is unprofitable for you. (Hebrews 13:17)” If we sin against prudence by turning away from the faithful ministers of God, we open ourselves up to the deception of false teachers.
            Prudence is also proactive in guarding against sin and in preparing us for our calling as the servants of God who know that the day of judgment is coming. Here prudence makes use of Scripture, as we see in our gospel text: “The seed is the word of God.” The prudent man guards the treasure of God’s word committed to him and brings it to fruition in a godly life. Psalm 119:11 states, “Thy word have I hid in mine heart, that I might not sin against thee.” Our Lord, himself, answered Satan’s temptations with quotations of Scripture. Verse 105 states, “Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.” In Scripture we are shown the perfect law of liberty that is the inheritance of the children of God; obedience to that law is another path to prudence as we read in Psalm 111:10, “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom: a good understanding have all they that do his commandments: his praise endureth for ever.” In cultivating prudence, we approach each situation with the knowledge that we are subject of the kingdom of heaven and are subject to its laws; we act then in accordance with those laws that we may be accounted true subjects, not goats among the sheep or tares among the grain.
            In regretfully recounting his many sufferings for the sake of the gospel, St. Paul gives us a picture of the virtue of fortitude. He was beaten and thrown in prison, he was in great dangers while travelling, he suffered hunger, thirst, and cold, he was physically and emotional exhausted by his labors – especially his daily and unending concern for the churches to whom he ministered. In one sense, then, fortitude is “the form of every virtue at the testing point, which is the point of highest reality” as C.S. Lewis has his devil Screwtape inform his nephew. Lewis continues, “A chastity or honesty, or mercy, which yields to danger will be chaste or honest or merciful only on conditions. Pilate was merciful till it became risky.”[5] Lewis also sees the connection between a sin against fortitude – cowardice – and a failure of love. His devil writes, “But hatred it best combined with Fear. Cowardice, alone of all the vices, is purely painful – horrible to anticipate, horrible to feel, horrible to remember; Hatred has its pleasures. It is therefore often the compensation by which a frightened man reimburses himself for the miseries of Fear. The more he fears, the more he will hate. And Hatred is also a great anodyne for shame.”[6] The cowardly man will begin by hating the courageously virtuous, he will go on to despising the virtues and finally himself.
            Considered in another way, fortitude is that virtue of “deliberate facing of dangers and bearing of toils.”[7] In this way, fortitude is similar to the virtue of temperance expounded on Septuagesima Sunday; both virtues attack things that hinder our wills from choosing to do what is right. Temperance aims to strengthen the will against being drawn astray by pleasures, while fortitude strengthens the will against difficulty and fear of danger. This is the fortitude we see exemplified in the life and ministry of St. Paul. This is the fortitude we see in our Lord who, led by the Holy Ghost into the desert, fasted forty days and nights and confronted and defeated Satan for our sakes. This is the fortitude we see in our Lord who “when the time was come that he should be received up, he steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem. (St. Luke 9:51)” Fortitude is saying “nevertheless not my will, but thine, be done,” though saying it brings bloody tears of agony.

We must approach our war against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil with this virtue of fortitude. This we are taught in the earliest moments of our initiation into the life of the Church. In the baptismal office we promise that we will “obediently keep God’s holy will and commandments, and walk in the same all the days of [our lives].” We are marked “with the sign of the Cross, in token that hereafter [we] shall not be ashamed to confess the faith of Christ crucified, and manfully to fight under his banner, against sin, the world, and the devil; and to continue Christ’s faithful soldier and servant unto [our lives’] end.” Finally, the virtue of fortitude directs us to look past our difficulties and trials towards the purpose of God. “For which cause we faint not; but though our outward man perish, yet the inward man is renewed day by day. For our light affliction, which is but for a moment, worketh for us a far more exceeding and eternal weight of glory; While we look not at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen: for the things which are seen are temporal; but the things which are not seen are eternal. (II Cor. 4:16-18)”

St. Paul’s teaching, cited above, points us to the central virtue of Sexagesima Sunday: faith. It is the theological virtue of faith that distinguishes Christian prudence and fortitude from the virtues praised by pagan teachers and philosophers. Regarding prudence, St. Paul is neither a gnostic seeking salvation in hidden knowledge nor a pagan philosopher glorying in complexities of human reason. Instead St. Paul declares “the preaching of the cross is to them that perish foolishness; but unto us which are saved it is the power of God. (I Cor. 1:18)” A truly prudential understanding requires the gift of faith: “But the natural man receiveth not the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness unto him: neither can he know them, because they are spiritually discerned. (I Corinthians 2:14)”
            Christian fortitude also depends upon faith. St. Paul’s fortitude was based in his faith in the promises of God. He writes to the Philippians, “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.  But if I live in the flesh, this is the fruit of my labour: yet what I shall choose I wot not. For I am in a strait betwixt two, having a desire to depart, and to be with Christ; which is far better: Nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. (Philippians 1:21-24)” Near the end of his life, he wrote to St. Timothy, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing (II Tim. 4:7-8)” The eleventh chapter of the epistle to the Hebrews lists many heroes whose faith inspired their fortitude. Christian fortitude is no stoicism, nor is it inspired by earthly glory; it looks instead to a greater kingdom.
            Our Lord’s fortitude established the same pattern. Isaiah wrote of him, “I gave my back to the smiters, and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair: I hid not my face from shame and spitting. For the Lord God will help me; therefore shall I not be confounded: therefore have I set my face like a flint, and I know that I shall not be ashamed. (Isaiah 50:6-7)” Christians exhibit fortitude because we trust God is on our side; “If God be for us, who can be against us? (Romans 8:31). Christians exhibit fortitude because they trust in the promises of God; “Now unto him that is able to do exceeding abundantly above all that we ask or think, according to the power that worketh in us, Unto him be glory in the church by Christ Jesus throughout all ages, world without end. (Ephesians 3:20-21)”
            Faith begins as God illumines a man’s intellect enabling him to see what he could not, because of sin, see on his own. The writer to the Hebrews thus writes, “Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” As St. Paul teaches man cannot know these things without the illumination of the Spirit of God. The will must then see this revealed truth as good and desire to hold to it through belief.[8] Like the other virtues, though dependent on grace, faith requires the participation of the believer. We must grow and cultivate our faith. We must pray with the father of the demon possessed boy, ““Lord, I believe; help my unbelief! (St. Mark 9:23-25)” We must pray with the apostles, “Increase our faith! (St. Luke 17:5)”

Anglican theology has embraced the need for a lively faith which St. James teaches, “Even so faith, if it hath not works, is dead, being alone.” The homily on “The True and Lively Faith” written to be preached in all the churches in England after the reformation sums this up in a single elephantine sentence.[9] True faith consists in belief in the articles of faith, trust and reliance upon God, true repentance, obedience and service to God, love of God and neighbor, and “in eschewing evil and doing gladly all good works.” This true faith is clearly not the result of a one-time event, but is to be the constant work of a whole lifetime, involving prudence, fortitude and all the other virtues.
            The nature of the work of faith is seen in the parable of today’s gospel. The seed, we are told, is the word of God. It is the illumination of the intellect which is the beginning of faith. But more is required. The person must take hold of the gift of faith and bring it to fruition. He keeps from being the trampled ground of the wayside by placing his trust in God, for it is then that Satan cannot snatch him away, for our Lord declares “no man is able to pluck them out of my Father's hand. (St. John 10:29).” He keeps from being stony ground by holding fast to hope and by turning to God in sorrow and repentance when he surrenders to temptation. He keeps from being thorny ground by turning away from the cares, and riches, and pleasures of this life and turning instead to bringing forth the fruit of charity through the love of God and neighbor. This is lively faith.
            Yet we must not be tempted to think that we can become the good soil through our own efforts. We must not forget that faith is a gift from God. And so our collect reminds us “that we put not our trust in any thing that we do.” We must not be like the Pharisee, confident in our own goodness. We must not enter Lent hoping to better ourselves by our own efforts and sufferings. We must enter Lent in the spirit of the Publican who cried, “God be merciful to me, a sinner.” Our Lord reminds us, “So likewise ye, when ye shall have done all those things which are commanded you, say, We are unprofitable servants: we have done that which was our duty to do. (Luke 17:10). We work, in Lent, to eradicate sin through repentance and through cultivation of the virtues, but we do not work in our own strength for, as the second Lenten collect reminds us, “we have no power of ourselves to help ourselves.”

[1] Common Prayer: A Commentary on the Prayer Book Lectionary Vol. 2: Septuagesima to Easter Eve.

[2] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II, Q47, A1.

[3] Ibid., Q123, A1.

[4] Ibid., Q4, A1.

[5] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, Chapter 29.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II, Q123, A2.

[8] Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II, Q4, A1.

[9] And [lively faith] is not only the common belief of the Articles of our faith, but it is also a true trust and confidence of the mercy of God through our Lord Jesus Christ, and a steadfast hope of all good things to be received at God’s hand: and that although we, through infirmity or temptation of our ghostly enemy, do fall from him by sin, yet if we return again unto him by true repentance, that he will forgive, and forget our offences for his Son’s sake, our Savior Jesus Christ, and will make us inheritors with him of his everlasting Kingdom, and that in the meantime until that kingdom come, he will be our protector and defender in all perils and dangers, whatsoever do chance: and that though sometime he doeth send us sharp adversity, yet that evermore he will be a loving Father unto us, correcting us for our sin, but not withdrawing his mercy finally from us, if we trust in him, and commit ourselves wholly unto him, hang only upon him, and call upon him, ready to obey and serve him. This is the true, lively, and unfeigned Christian faith, and is not in the mouth and outward profession only: but it liveth, and stirreth inwardly, in the heart. And this faith is not without hope and trust in God, nor without the love of God and of our neighbors, nor without the fear of God, nor without the desire to hear God’s word, and to follow the same in eschewing evil, and doing gladly all good works.”

Jason Patterson