When you arrive at church this Sunday you will notice a few changes from the previous Sunday. In particular, you will notice the colors have transitioned from the Green of "ordinary time" of the Sundays after Epiphany and you will notice a lack of flowers at the altar. In addition, as the liturgy progresses, you will notice that we do not sing the Gloria. It feels very Lenten, but it isn't quite Lent yet; we haven't arrived at Ash Wednesday, so why does everything begin to look and feel like Lent three Sundays prior to Ash Wednesday?
These Sundays are known as the "Gesima" Sundays and are entitled Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima, with the names being numbers that refer to 70th, 60th, and 50th, respectively, as a reference to the approximate time from that Sunday until Easter. As such, these are Sundays that are intended for us to prepare and anticipate the coming of Easter. As such, these three Sundays are intended to help us prepare.
Prepare for what, though, since Lent (like Advent) can be seen as a time of both penitence and preparation and is the season between these "Gesima" Sundays and Easter itself? In general, it is a time to prepare for Lent. If Lent is a time of preparation itself, though, why do we need to spend time in preparation for what itself is a season of preparation?
I would contend that our penchant for pride, selfishness, self-righteousness, arrogance, and self-reliance (instead of God-reliance) makes these three Sundays of pre-Lent preparation wholly necessary. In Lent, we enter into a journey of self-discipline, wherein we willfully withhold from ourselves something that is otherwise good and profitable. We partner with Jesus and His 40 days of wilderness wandering; we partner with Israelites in their 40 years of wandering. Lent is the season whereby we embark on a journey of discipline, where we train ourselves to put aside that which is good for a season in order to put on and obtain that which is good for eternity.
This purpose of our Lenten journeys is for us to arrive at Holy Week prepared to meet the one who endured the cross in order that violence and vengeance could be put to an end, so that we could recognize and experience the forgiveness of sin, and so that the grave and death could be conquered in the resurrection. Our Lenten journeys prepare us to commune with Christ in a deeper way year upon year, for through these journeys we should gain a deeper understanding of the need we have to rely upon the grace and mercy of God Almighty rather than upon any scheme, strength, or wisdom we think we have of our own making.
Before we can enter into that journey, though, it is important to understand why such a journey is necessary. We need to be reminded of what God's standard is for His citizens and what is expected of us who claim to bring His light and His good news into the world. These pre-Lent Sundays, then, prepare us to embark upon our Lenten journeys by giving us time to set a focus and goal for those Lenten journeys.
This year, the three Sundays leading up to Ash Wednesday bring us Jesus' teaching of the Beatitudes (Septuagesima, 2/17), of loving one's enemies and refraining from judging others (Sexagesima, 2/24), and the Transfiguration wherein Christ was revealed to His inner circle of disciples (Quinquagesima, 3/3). These readings help us to prepare for our Lenten journeys because they show us how we are to live as citizens of Christ's kingdom (the beatitudes and the command to love and not judge) and reveal to us the King of that Kingdom, who has dwelt among us and modeled this life to us (the Transfiguration).
If we are honest with ourselves, when we meditate on these readings we will likely come to the conclusion that we have some growth yet to accomplish in our journey towards Christ-likeness. These three Sundays, then, help to set the stage for that journey of introspection through Lent that is intended to prepare us to meet the Risen Lord and more fully surrender our selves, our souls and bodies, to Him who has given all to reconcile us back to himself.
My prayer for myself and for all of you is that these next three Sundays clarify for you what it is that the Lord desires of us--to do justice, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God--so that you can be ready to enter into Lent with confidence in the direction you should journey as you seek to better follow our Risen Lord.
(as published in St. Luke’s weekly email newsletter, 2/13/19)