Saturday, February 11, 2017

Preparing for the Race of Lent - A Sermon for Septuagesima Sunday

Saint Gregory the Great Latin Mass Chaplaincy
Cathedral of the Immaculate Conception
Portland, Maine

Sermon for
Septuagesima Sunday

Mass in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite

Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
February 12, 2017

“Do you not know that those who run in a race, all indeed run,
but one receives the prize? So run as to obtain it.”
1 Corinthians 9: 24

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In the Rite of Holy Baptism as celebrated in the Extraordinary Form, there comes a beautiful and powerful moment immediately before the final profession of faith and the celebration of baptism proper. The Priest is instructed in the rubrics to dip his thumb in the oil of catechumens and to anoint the child in the form of a cross over the heart and on the back between the shoulders. I have had the opportunity to baptize several children in the Extraordinary Form, and interestingly enough this simple and rather quick part of the ceremony is one that always elicits many questions afterwards. No doubt it’s one of the more frustrating parts of the Sacrament for parents and godparents because it can be difficult to get to the heart and the back of a small child who is wrapped up in a baptismal gown and other baby layers, and so it inevitably occurs that they ask about the significance of this anointing. Using a paraphrased answer from the Catechism, I explain that, in the ancient world, oil is rich and multifaceted in its use and in its symbolism. As a cleaning agent, it was used before and after bathing as a way of drawing out impurities and hydrating the skin. As a healing agent, it was used to sooth bruises, cuts and other wounds. And as a limbering agent, it was used by athletes all over their bodies to improve their agility and dexterity in competition. The early Church, I explain, very quickly adopted the use of oil in the baptismal rite precisely because it so beautifully signifies what it is that God accomplishes in the soul in this great sacrament: He cleanses it from original sin, He soothes it and restores it to grace, and He limbers it, making it ready to run the great race through this valley of tears to its heavenly homeland. And while all of these realities are present in this first anointing, the Church focuses our attention most particularly on the latter. The whole notion that a soul reborn in Christ through baptism is likened to an athlete who must compete through this life to attain heaven comes to us directly from St. Paul himself, as we heard in our Epistle, and it forms the heart of our meditation today.

Writing to the Church in Corinth, St. Paul is addressing Christians who live in a city that hosts the Isthmian Games – the athletic competitions that were held the year before and the year after the Olympic Games. Corinth was particularly attached to these games and they became an important part of the identity and heritage of its citizens, but this became increasingly problematic for Christians because they were decidedly pagan in nature: they originated as the funeral games for Palaemon, a Greek god worshipped in the Roman Empire at the time. Knowing that the Christians in Corinth would have both a knowledge and love for these games, St. Paul attempts to redirect their attention to a greater game: the game of salvation in which Christ has made them all players. And he incites them in his first Epistle to them to consider themselves as athletes for Christ, who must keep their hearts and minds focused on the crown that awaits them...not the pine or olive wreath crown that would be awarded to the victors of the Isthmian games, but the crown of glory that would be offered to the Christian soul who fought the good fight. Attaining this imperishable crown would not be easy, because the athlete for Christ finds himself on a course with jagged terrain, high obstacles, and many temptations. Thus St. Paul begs the Corinthians, and he begs us, to be prepared for these difficulties by relying upon the grace of God and ensuring that we are in the best spiritual shape possible. He doesn’t want us to start running if we’re going to wimp out; he wants us to run so as to win, and to do this we must be prepared. We must temper our appetites, discipline our bodies, focus our souls, and put aside anything that might deter us from the crown that awaits us. And this is why we have that first anointing in the sacrament of baptism. It signifies the grace of God that makes a soul ready to embark on this race towards salvation, and placed symbolically placed over the entire body of the soon-to-be Christian soul, it empowers him to run forth towards Christ.

Today as we begin the season of Septuagesima – that blessed period of three-weeks before the start of Lent – we symbolically find ourselves at that moment of anointing in baptism. We take these three weeks to begin shedding our garments, our excesses, and our frivolities in order to prepare ourselves to run the race of Lent. If we are to enter into Lent well, if we are to fast diligently, pray intensely, and give alms faithfully, we must first cast off the fat of the winter feasts and begin to turn our attention to the Cross. Our liturgy begins helping us to do this...the Gloria is silenced, the Alleluia is buried, priest and altar are clad in somber violet, and the texts and the chants of the Mass take on a more penitential tone. With thankful hearts, we put aside the joys and the comforts of Christmastide, and we enter into the desert, into our own exile, until we reach the crown of Easter.

My friends, let us today rise from our feasting and begin training for the great fast. Let us allow our good God to cover us with His holy oil so as to awaken and stretch our spiritual muscles. Let us begin to deprive ourselves not only of the evils of this world, but also the goods so as to gain mastery over ourselves and our desires. Let us take an honest inventory of our spiritual lives and commit ourselves to strengthening them. Let us spend time daily meditating on the Scriptures, praying the rosary, and reading the lives of the saints. Let us be renewed in the Sacrament of Penance, refreshed with Holy Communion, and sustained by the dutiful practice of our religion. If we do these things, we will find ourselves well-prepared to begin the trials of Lent and thus ready to run so as to obtain the imperishable crown of glory.

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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