The Sunday Before Lent - Quinquagesima
The Scripture lessons and the collect for Quinquagesima Sunday turn our attention, in these last days before Lent begins on Ash Wednesday, to the ultimate purpose and end of all our labors – love. The discipline St. Paul taught on Septuagesima and the sufferings he detailed in our Sexagesima epistle – and the disciplines and sufferings we are to undergo – will all be for nothing if they do not bring us to love. Love is the perfection of all the virtues and unites them that their exercise may be pleasing to God. The gospel lesson points us to the coming weeks of Lent, “Behold, we go up to Jerusalem;” during Lent, we are, in a sense, going up to Jerusalem with our Lord, preparing ourselves to truly see his passion, death, and resurrection. This journey must be, as our Lord’s was, a journey of love, or we shall fail to understand Christ’s work.
We have seen how the lessons and collects of the previous two Sundays have instructed us in the virtues which we are meant to develop as we seek to eradicate the sin in our lives, particularly in this Lenten season. We have examined the cardinal virtues (named from the Latin word for “hinge” since all the other natural virtues may be grouped around them) of temperance, justice, fortitude, and prudence. We have seen how they are incorporated into Christian life by the theological virtues of hope and faith. Yet, they are not themselves enough. St. Paul teaches that the wisdom of understanding human and angelic tongues and which extends even to the divine gift of prophecy is nothing without love. The practice of justice and temperance needed in sacrificial giving to the poor is nothing without love. The fortitude that is necessary for martyrdom is worthless unless animated by love. Even faith, without which it is impossible to please God as the writer to the Hebrews teaches us, does not avail without the virtue of love.
We are instructed in the Mosaic law, “thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thine heart, and with all thy soul, and with all thy might (Deut. 6:4)” and “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself (Lev. 19:18). Our Lord affirms these as the two greatest commandments. St. John teaches us that that greatest commandment is impossible to fulfill unless we can also fulfil the second: “He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love…. If a man say, I love God, and hateth his brother, he is a liar: for he that loveth not his brother whom he hath seen, how can he love God whom he hath not seen? (I John 4:8, 20)” St. Paul elaborates on this principle in our epistle lesson and connects love to the other virtues, “Charity suffereth long, and is kind [fortitude]; charity envieth not [justice]; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up, doth not behave itself unseemly [prudence], seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked [temperance], thinketh no evil; rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth; beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things. (I Cor. 13:4-7)”
This word, charity, has a different connotation for us. When we hear “charity” we likely think of financial gifts, of non-profit organizations, and of the Salvation Army bells at Christmastime. The word love itself has become too vague, meaning, more often than not, romantic or sentimental feeling. This word for St. Paul, as demonstrated by the passage quoted above, is an active virtue that bears fruit in the avoidance of evil and in good works. The virtue of love is inherently self-sacrificial as our Lord taught with his words and with his life: “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends. (St. John 15:13)”
Our gospel lesson illuminates this self-sacrificial virtue and points us to its proper functioning. Our Lord, consumed with love for his creation, begins his final trip to Jerusalem where he will “be delivered unto the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and spitefully entreated, and spitted on: And they shall scourge him, and put him to death: and the third day he shall rise again. (St. Luke 18:32-33)” Love led our Lord to his death. “Herein is love, not that we loved God, but that he loved us, and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. (I John 4:10)” But this grand and glorious mission, this demonstration of God’s love for the whole world, is also a mission and a love for each person individually. Hearing the blind man’s entreaty, our Lord pauses in his way and responds to the man with mercy and love. The blind man receives again his sight and gives praise to God.
Before we are able to show forth this kind of love, we, like the blind man, must have our eyes opened so that we may see ourselves as we truly are. John Keble writes in one of his Quinquagesima sermons of the blindness that sin causes. “And in the next place, if we have not been very particular with ourselves in time past, how can we be sure that we are not even now under the dominion of some grievous sin, blinding our mind’s eye, and hindering us from truly judging of ourselves? so that we have need of deep thought, and earnest prayer, over and over again, before we can so much as find out our grievous sins: much more, before we can properly repent of them.” We, like the blind man must pray that our eyes might be opened to see our hidden sins and that we may see and remember the coming day of judgement. “If our eyes were but really opened to see what is fast coming upon us; death and judgement, heaven or hell; Christ on His throne, the saints and Angels around Him, the graves opened and the dead raised, the judgement set and the books opened: surely we should think little in comparison of the trouble and anguish of confessing our sins here, whether it be to God or man, with the comfortable hope of having them forgiven and cured, for Jesus Christ’s sake, and by the help of His Holy Spirit.”
Confidently trusting in the love of our Lord, we work during Lent that our eyes may be opened to see our sins and to prepare ourselves for our Lord’s coming. We pray with the psalmist, “Consider and hear me, O Lord my God: lighten mine eyes, lest I sleep the sleep of death (Psalm 13:3).” We seek out the places where sin has made strongholds in our hearts and we look for times when we have not been loving to our neighbors so that we may make them right. We follow our Lord to Jerusalem, taking up our cross and dying daily so that we may more and more be made partakers of his resurrection life.
In the collect for Quinquagesima, we beg God to “Send thy Holy Ghost, and pour into our hearts that most excellent gift of charity, the very bond of peace and of all virtues, without which whosoever liveth is counted dead before thee.” In baptism we are given and sanctified by the Holy Ghost; we are born again unto a new life. This new life of the Christian is a spiritual life that is a participation in the life of God through the Holy Ghost. St. John writes of this, “Hereby know we that we dwell in him, and he in us, because he hath given us of his Spirit. (I John 4:13). It in and through the Holy Ghost that we are able to love as Christ loved us. In the school of charity, the love of our neighbors teaches us about the love of God; we learn to love God by loving our neighbors. “If we love one another, God dwelleth in us, and his love is perfected in us. (I John 4:12)” This life of love which is ours in the Holy Ghost gives us the wisdom to see our neighbors as God sees them.
Our labors in this Lenten season are, ultimately, a labor to increase our love for God and for our neighbor. We seek to remove the sinfulness that refuses, hinders, or blinds of to opportunities to practice sacrificial love. In so doing, we fail to live the new life given us in our baptisms. It is through the practice of sacrificial love for others and through defeating sinful attachments to the things of this world that we are able to enjoy and love this world as Christ did. It is then that we are able to love God with all our hearts, souls, minds, and strength. Without this love, Lent is valueless.
 St. Matthew 22:36-40.
 John Keble, Quinquagesima Sermon, http://www.lectionarycentral.com/quinquag/Keble.html.
 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, II.II. Q43, A2.