Pre-Lent rolled in early this year. Septuagesima already past (at the Third Sunday after the Epiphany), Sexagesima as well now, with Quinquagesima looming — and with the attendant prospect here in Western Pennsylvania anyway that our customary Easter morning Churchyard Egg Hunt may be inconvenienced by a blanket of late winter snow. The 1979 BCP Calendar consigned the Seventeen Days to the dustbin of history. But old habits die hard, and the ancient pattern lingers in a kind of spiritual muscle memory.
This turning is always at least a little disconcerting. The manger in the rear view mirror, then suddenly the Cross at the far horizon. The angelic hymns that filled the skies just beyond the Bethlehem hills continue to echo, but then, in the midst of our reverie, an abrupt alarm, a tug on the sleeve, a tap on the shoulder — and a word to look up and look forward to the road ahead. Pay attention …
The late George F. Tittmann, Rector of St. Mark’s, Berkeley, in my college years of the early 1970s, wrote in one of his books a chapter on the three holy days of Christmas Week: “while men linger on the sentiment of gift-giving, family reunions, hearth and home, on the three days following Christmas the Church says, ‘There are three kinds of death appropriate to this event’” (Is Religion Enough? , p. 88).
There’s something like that again, now further along in the bleak midwinter: an unexpected transition.
For five centuries or so in our Anglican world the Epistle for Septuagesima was always I Corinthians 9.
Know ye not that they which run in a race run all, but one receiveth the prize? So run, that ye may obtain. And every man that striveth for the mastery is temperate in all things. Now they do it to obtain a corruptible crown; but we an incorruptible.
This must have been what Christina Rossetti had in the back of her mind as she composed her striking poem “Septuagesima.”
One step more, and the race is ended;
One word more, and the lesson’s done;
One toil more, and a long rest follows
At set of sun.
Who would fail, for one step withholden?
Who would fail, for one word unsaid?
Who would fail, for a pause too early?
Sound sleep the dead.
One step more, and the goal receives us;
One word more, and life’s task is done;
One toil more, and the Cross is carried
And sets the sun.
The athlete is exhausted, but there’s still time on the clock for one more repetition on the weight machine, one more lap around the track. He could hit the showers now — but at what cost later? The difference between winning and losing may be a few hundredths of a second.
That second stanza especially is a haunting one — dredging down deep into layers of procrastination, avoidance, denial. There is this temptation to burrow into winter, to draw the shades, to let the world go by. But Rossetti won’t let us off the hook. “For want of a nail, the shoe was lost,” she might begin to recite. Something like the question Jesus asks in the night of Gethsemane: “Are you sleeping now?” There will be time enough for that later.
St. Benedict in Chapter 49 of his Rule commends the keeping of a holy Lent as a spiritual exercise “to wash away in this holy season the negligences of other times.” Who hasn’t experienced that twinge of regret when receiving news of the death of a loved one, for example? “If only I had told him …. If only we hadn’t left things unresolved.” Or as we pray, for “things done; and left undone.”
We may be just far enough along in the year to give our New Year resolutions a first review. If something needs to be said, then now is the time to say it. If something needs to be put aside, no time like the present. And of course Benedict has in mind above all the condition of our life in Christ. He recommends the discipline of holy reading, Scripture, and the offering of a moderated fast: Enough to stir us to action, anyway, rustling the places in ourselves where we continue to shut him out, the darker corners of our pride and vanities.
Sins unmentioned. Forgiveness unsought. No time like the present, he says. No time like this Lent. And here it is. Surprise. Right around the corner.