Frequently, throughout the year, the introit, the first chant sung by the Choir at the beginning of Mass, sets the tone for the day. The introit for today clearly reminds us that something has changed. The choir sang these words of Psalm 18, “The sorrows of death compassed me, the pains of hell came about me: and in my tribulation I called upon the Lord, and he heard my voice out of his holy temple.” Our own patron, St. Gregory the Great set the prayers and lessons for these three Sundays proceeding Lent back at the end of the sixth century. In his day Rome knew famine and plague, turmoil and suffering. The people needed to hear a message of hope, but real hope, not just nice words. Gregory told them that there was reason for hope, that despite the pain and suffering and uncertainty which surrounded them, that they could put their trust in God, for He would hear their cry and rightly answer their prayers. Again the introit gives us the words of Psalm 18: “I will love thee, O Lord, my strength: the Lord is my stony rock, my fortress, and my savior.” Our hope is real. Our hope is in God and we need to prepare to live with Him.
Today we enter the season of Pre-Lent – three Sundays before the season of Lent begins. Lent is a time of preparation for Pascha. It is a time of prayer and fasting, repentance and confession. Lent requires such a major shift for us that the Church gives us a time of preparation – before the real preparation begins. Perhaps this is to say that Lent would be too much of a jolt if we gave up everything all at once, if we jumped into it “cold-turkey” as they say. There are four weeks of Lent before Passion-tide and Holy Week; now with the three weeks of Pre-Lent we are seven weeks away from Passion Sunday, so we speak of Septuagesima. We have already begun to wear the purple vestments which we associate with penitential sorrow for sin. We have put aside the joyful chant of Alleluia and we will only sing the Gloria in excelsis on major feast days such as the Annunciation and St. Gregory’s Day, until we ring the bells at the Paschal Vigil, announcing our celebration of Christ’s Resurrection. As the Church will bid us to celebrate Pascha for seven weeks, now we have seven weeks to get ready.
This preparation is much like what an athlete goes through preparing for a contest. In our reading from the first epistle to the Corinthians we heard St. Paul, using athletic language from the sports of running and boxing, speak about the proper use of ascetic practices in the life of faith. They have value, not in and of themselves, but as tools, things to assist us toward the goal of salvation, of life with God. So the extra prayers, fasting, and almsgiving that we will engage in during Lent are the spiritual equivalent of the physical exercises that an athlete engages in to prepare himself for the contest at hand. We must see a discipline such as fasting, not as an end in itself, but as a tool provided to help us toward our goal of salvation, our goal of life with God. Paul went on to say, however, that not everyone who runs the race will finish or obtain the prize – because of sin, because of rebellion against God.
St. Paul spoke of the Exodus from Egypt as prefiguring our own liberation from bondage to sin and death. The people of Israel went out from Egypt under the cloud, which is a symbol of the Holy Spirit; they passed through the Red Sea, a prefigurement of baptism; and they ate the spiritual food from heaven and drank the spiritual drink that came from the rock (and in a truly wondrous mystery, as St. Paul tells us, the Rock being Christ – who is the Rock of our salvation) they partook of a fore-taste of the Eucharist. In spite of all of this, the people of Israel still disobeyed God, they turned to idols, wicked living, and sexual immorality – and so they died – they died spiritually, as well as physically. Paul recounted this lesson that we may not repeat the same mistake. We are called to run the race in such a way as to finish and to win, making use of the spiritual disciplines available to us in order to prepare, and rid ourselves of those things which hold us back from running as we should. Later on in this same passage, St. Paul declares, “God is faithful [and] will not allow you to be tempted beyond what you are able, but with the temptation will also make the way of escape, that you may be able to bear it.” So let us turn to God for help and make use of all the resources that God provides as we run the race that is set before us.
In our gospel reading Christ spoke a startling parable about the vineyard where some came early and some came late, but at the end of the day each was paid the same wage. Why? This was Jesus’ way of telling the Jews that the Gentiles who came late in the day, as it were, in comparison to the Jews, would receive the same reward in heaven. It also tells us that those who turn to love God late in life have an equal chance before God, though no one should choose to wait until the last moment, for we seldom know when that will be. Jesus said that the “last will be first and the first last.” Jesus warns those who have labored long that they should not begrudge God His generosity, lest they loose everything. Many are called but few are chosen, for God chooses those who are prepared. He chooses those who want to be with him, those who love him and those who serve him. When St. Gregory was compiling the prayers and lessons for this day, he knew that we may hope in God and put our trust in God because God is generous and loving, and cares for His children. As we will pray in the postcommunion prayer, God gives us heavenly gifts to strengthen us. The more we receive these gifts the more we will seek for them, and the more we seek them the more we will find these gifts eternally.
At the Easter Vigil, when our Lenten observance has ended, we will hear the great Paschal sermon of St. John Chrysostom which is based on this same parable of the vineyard and which understands the reward for those who labor as the rich banquet of the Easter Eucharist, a fore-taste of life in the kingdom of God. Here at the beginning of our time of preparation let us hear the words of St. Gregory the Great: “No one who seeks his own will in this life has come to the Lord’s vineyard. The Lord’s laborers are those who think not of their own concerns but of the Lord’s, who live lives of devotion with charitable zeal, who are intent on gaining souls, who hasten to bring others with them to life… One who has neglected to live for God up to the last period of his life has stood idle, as it were up to the eleventh hour… Come to the ways of life, even though you… are late… What tongue can describe the heart of divine mercy? What mind is not amazed by the riches of such great love?… Let us then recall before our eyes the evil deeds we have done, let us consider with how much goodness God puts up with us, let us bear in mind the depth of his love. He is not only lenient toward our sins, but he even promises the heavenly kingdom to those who repent after sinning.”
Thanks be to God.