UNTIL THE CALENDAR REFORMS OF 1969, today would have been called Septuagesima Sunday - the first of three Sundays in a row with curious Latin names that served as a countdown to the start of Lent. Septuagesima translates seventy - roughly seventy days to Easter.
The world spends a great deal of time getting ready for the things that matter to it: years of preparing for the Olympics, wedding preparations, a young lawyer wanna-be preparing for the boards, preparing one's face and hair for a major date, preparing the room for the baby's arrival, preparing for vacation, preparing for surgery, preparing for retirement...(oh, good God) preparing for the Superbowl.
So I think it's a mistake that the church dropped the three Sundays of Lenten preparation. Instead it's just imagined that we'll jump into Lent on Ash Wednesday and debate whether the Sundays of Lent "count." An unfortunate compromise with the flip side of the culture: zooming along and breathlessly playing catch-up.
Anyway, here on this blog-page we can acknowledge Septuagesima and its liturgical theme of humanity exhausted and bereft, the world's misery in need of a remedy. The Adam and Eve account in the book of Genesis tells us that somewhere along the line we spoiled things with wrong choosing, wanting to be equal to God in a bite and losing our God-Given Paradise. We need God for our repair.
Sin weighs heavily upon us: lies and power abuse, exploitation and corruption, violence and death as our problem-solver, hatred and revenge. The Gospel at Mass today used to be Matthew 20: 1-16 - the vineyard owner who gave the same pay to those who worked only briefly as those who'd worked through the long, hard and hot hours of the full day. The message: Be glad and get on board, in response to God who gives to us so generously, as God wills and as we need.
Septuagesima Sunday says it's not too soon to start preparing for Lent - considering how we might reflect God's own project of love. And Therese of Lisieux lays it out for us.
"True charity consists in putting up with one's neighbor's faults, never being surprised by her weakness, and being inspired by the least of her virtues."
I've changed the pronouns from him to her only because Therese lived in a close community of twenty-one1 women and we must be absolutely certain that she knew exactly what she was talking about because of the challenges that kind of community would have presented. The picture above illustrates it. Laundry was done at a shallow pool, each nun squeezed up against the other, wooden paddles beating dirty clothes, water flying. Indeed, Therese writes of one laundry partner (deliberately?) splashing her with dirty water and Therese coming to imagine that it was the priest sprinkling her with Holy Water at the start of Mass! Therese wrote:
"If the people knew what went on in this house, they would burn it to the ground."
"Sometimes I feel as if I'm living inside a volcano."
In another place Therese writes of a nun in chapel who continually clanked her rosary against the wooden bench or whose loose false teeth clacked away.Therese imagining it was music. Or the cantankerous old nun who castigated Therese for walking her either too quickly or too so slowly. "Damned if you do, damned if you don't," we say.
So maybe this year we can grow our Lent with three practical life-steps given to us by this much loved saint, essential ingredients for the God-remedy of our world:
- putting up with the faults of others
- taking no surprise at the weaknesses of others
- taking inspiration at even the least of virtues we discern in others.
This is harder than the most rigorous fasting from desired desserts and drink and a dimension of Lent most ignored or forgotten.