Saturday, January 30, 2010

Septuagesima Sunday - Third Sunday before Lent

    Today we begin the season of Pre-Lent. Pre-Lent is an almost forgotten season in today’s Christian calendar. In modern Christianity’s attempt to return to a more “primitive” observance, scholars who study Christian liturgy felt that Lent was sufficient and there was no need for this short three-week season of preparation that we begin today.  Of course, this modern liturgical change reminds me of the following joke: Do you know the difference between a liturgist and a terrorist?  Answer: You can negotiate with a terrorist.  Of course, modern day liturgy scholars miss the point, as they usually do, that while Lent is a time to prepare for Easter, the Pre-Lent season is the time where we take stock of ourselves and of our Christian observance. It is a time when we examine the state of our souls to determine what kind of disciplines and penances will give us spiritual benefit in the upcoming Lenten season.

    Saint Paul understood the importance of spiritual preparation.  In his first epistle to the Corinthians, he describes the Christian life as a race. Now this is a metaphor that would really resonate with the people of Corinth. Corinth was the home of the Isthmian Games, a series of games that were second only to the Olympics and were held in the years immeidately before and after the Olympic Games.  The people of Corinth were proud of their games and were as devoted to them as Americans are to the Super Bowl, the World Series, and - in our case - Bulldog football.

    So when Saint Paul said, “Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize?”, he knew that he was striking a receptive chord within the Corinthian people and he was putting the Christian journey in perspective. The Christian lives his faith in the same way that an athlete runs a race, with one important difference.

    In the same way that a Christian runs his race, he must first train for it. The athlete exercises and practices his sport until it becomes second nature to him. He works and works, repeating the same motions over and over again until they become burned into him.  Fran Tarkenton was a great quarterback here at Georgia and he went on to become a member of the Hall of Fame for his outstanding pro career with the Minnesota Vikings and the New York Giants. He was asked once about how he became such a great passer. His reply was interesting. Tarkenton said, “When I was a kid, my father hung an old tire from a tree and set it swinging. I would stand fifteen yards away and throw the football at the swinging tire. I would do this for hours every single day, in season and out. I got so good at it that I began to try throwing the ball through the tire while it was swinging and I was running. It beat the boredom of standing in one place.” Hour by hour, day by day, Tarkenton practiced and mastered skills that would lead him to the pinnacle of athletic achievement. So it is with all of those who will stand in the glare of the winner’s circle.

    Yet the heights of athletic achievement last only so long and, sooner or later, records are made to be broken and new stars come along. As the poet says, “Do not expect that you can ever collect for the hero you used to be.”  Saint Paul says that the athlete competes for a “corruptible crown.”  It’s an antiquated term and it refers to the olive laurel wreath that champions in the Isthmian Games would win. Paul reminds us that laurel wreaths will wither and die, silver trophies will tarnish, that glories will fade along with the memory of the champion. In the old days, when popes were crowned, three times during the coronation ceremony, a hooded friar would approach the pope and - in the midst of magnificent pageantry - he would light some flax, blow it out and wave the stinky material under the new pope’s nose. As the pope would recoil from the pungent smell of burnt flax, the friar would pronounce solemnly in Latin, “Holy Father, thus pass the glories of the world.”  A stern reminder of what Saint Paul tells us, “Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.”  We train for a prize that does not tarnish. We prepare for an Easter joy by purifying ourselves throughout Lent.

    In this season of Pre-Lent, we will take the time to prepare ourselves for our upcoming Lenten observance.  We will look at our selves and see where we have fallen short of what God asks of us. We will determine with God’s help what it is we need to do to draw closer to him. And we will do so with good cheer, knowing that God is calling us to a prize that does not fade, to a peace that passes all understanding. We will enter Pre-Lent with good cheer, making our own the words of the hymn:

Awake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigor on;
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown.

A cloud of witnesses around
Hold thee in full survey;
Forget the steps already trod,
And onward urge thy way.

’Tis God’s all animating voice
That calls thee from on high;
’Tis His own hand presents the prize
To thine aspiring eye.

Then wake, my soul, stretch every nerve,
And press with vigor on,
A heavenly race demands thy zeal,
And an immortal crown.

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