Newsletter Article for the February edition of The Hillside Messenger
“Preparing for Lent”
The 1928 Prayer Book makes provision for a season called Pre-Lent before the actual beginning of Lent on Ash Wednesday. This season consists of three weeks, the weeks of Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, these names being Latin words for seventieth, sixtieth and fiftieth. These names were chosen by analogy with Quadragesima, the first Sunday in Lent, or the “fortieth day” (approximately) before Easter. Quinquagesima is exactly fifty days before Easter, while Sexagesima and Septuagesima represent approximations of the sixtieth and seventieth days before Easter Day. These three Pre-Lenten Sundays were instituted in the Roman rite in the late sixth century soon after the Lombards invaded Italy in A.D. 568, and their propers continued to be used in the medieval Missals, and afterwards were adopted in the English prayer books (p. 118, Massey Hamilton Shepherd, Jr.: The Oxford American Prayer Book Commentary. New York: Oxford University Press, 1950. Fifth printing, 1955)
Now why is it that this emphasis on Lent is so important in our liturgical tradition? The collects for the Pre-Lenten Sundays reflect the dangerous circumstances in Italy in the late sixth century, including not only the devastation by barbarians, but pestilences, famines and earthquakes.
Today someone might ask why these three Sundays of the liturgical year should still be observed, since their origin lies in the adversities faced by the Roman Church in the sixth century. What is the need for an extension of Lent by adding a Pre-Lenten season? My reply to this is that the faithful always need to be aware of their call to “to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8, NKJV). No matter how people may be prospering financially, in this modern world adversity is ever present, and we all need to deepen our trust in God and dependence on him, and to recognize that we always need God’s mercy and protection. The psalmist reminds us: “Great plagues remain for the ungodly; but whoso putteth his trust in the LORD, mercy embraceth him on every side” (Psalm 32:11, p. 378, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928).
The tone of this liturgical season is set by the Collect for Septuagesima Sunday:
O LORD, we beseech thee favourably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost ever, one God, world without end. Amen.
(p. 118, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
Admittedly, the word “afflicted” in this Collect might have been a better translation of the Latin word “affligimur” than “punished,” since the Latin word “affligo” meant “knock down,” or “dash down.” The Collect is a prayer asking God that he will mercifully hear the prayers of his people, who are being justly afflicted for their sins, and that by his goodness he will deliver them from these afflictions.
If we think that we do not need to pray along these lines because there are no afflictions that we face, we must think again. At any time, we may suddenly face adversity or affliction from which we shall need God’s merciful deliverance. Is any of us exempt from this? True enough, not every trial or affliction is a result of particular sins of our own, but we must always be ready to acknowledge that our own sins have consequences and may possibly result in afflictions. Yet we know that any afflictions we do suffer are far less than those we would have deserved as sinners, if we had not been justified, or set in a right relationship with God, by God’s grace at work in the atoning death of the Lord Jesus Christ on the cross, and by our faith in him. Anglican piety, as reflected in the historic prayer books, always acknowledges human sinfulness and responsibility for sin, but expresses trust in the grace of God for forgiveness and holds out the hope that he will turn away from us the evils we have deserved, as is shown in the concluding prayer of the Litany:
WE humbly beseech thee, O Father, mercifully to look upon our infirmities; and, for the glory of thy Name, turn from us all those evils that we most justly have deserved; and grant, that in all our troubles we may put our whole trust and confidence in thy mercy, and evermore serve thee in holiness and pureness of living, to thy honour and glory; through our only Mediator and Advocate, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(p.59, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
The main point is to turn from sin, to trust in God and in his mercy, and live humbly before God. This point is taken up by the second Collect of the Pre-Lenten season, the Collect for Sexagesima Sunday:
O LORD God, who seest that we put not our trust in any thing that we do; Mercifully grant that by thy power we may be defended against all adversity; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
(p.120, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
The first part of this Collect acknowledges God as seeing that the faithful do not put any trust in anything that they do. It is a discarding of pride. The petition of the Collect is a prayer for God’s defense against all adversity. It is only by God’s power that we can be defended from adversity. Of course, this does not mean that we shall be saved from facing adversity, but be strengthened in facing it, so that it may not overwhelm us completely. We all need to draw close to God and find our rest in him, as Isaiah prophesied to the Israelites:
For thus saith the Lord GOD, the Holy One of Israel; In returning and rest shall ye be saved; in quietness and in confidence shall be your strength: and ye would not.
(Isaiah 30:15, KJV)
We should take warning from those words at the end of Isaiah 30:15, “And ye would not.” The warning is that we must not fall into the same sin of refusing to come to God and trust in him.
The third Collect of the Pre-Lenten season, the Collect for Quinquagesima, was one that Archbishop Thomas Cranmer probably composed for the 1549 Prayer Book, and it is based on the Epistle for the day, 1 Corinthians 13. It replaced the old Latin Collect, which was another prayer for God to defend the faithful against adversity. Here is the Collect for Quinquagesima Sunday:
O LORD, who hast taught us that all our doings without charity are nothing worth; 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. Grant this for thine only Son Jesus Christ’s sake. Amen.
(p.122, The Book of Common Prayer, 1928)
What new element did this Collect bring to the Pre-Lenten season? First, it brings the insight of the love of God as transforming the value of all we do; secondly, the petition of the prayer is that God will send his Holy Ghost and pour into our hearts the most excellent gift of charity. Without that gift, whoever lives is counted dead before God. What a wonderful realignment takes place here! Instead of the emphasis on God’s mercy to sinners, we encounter in this Collect the prayer that God will breathe life into us through his Holy Spirit and give us the gift of charity, or divine love, so that we may be alive, and not dead, in God’s presence. This key to life in God’s sight is just what all of us need as we begin Lent.
How will you realign your life to God’s purposes and love, as you walk with the Lord in your daily life?