Today our holy mother the Roman Church invites us all to lift up our eyes towards Jerusalem, towards Mount Calvary and beyond to the Empty Tomb. Septuagesima Sunday is the commencement of our march towards the central events of our faith in Holy Week and Easter. As a mistress of pedagogy, the Church knows exactly how to prepare us in such a way that we derive all possible profit from the celebration of the great mysteries.
On this first Sunday of preparation for Lent, she places before our mind two dominant thoughts. The first is the plight that we find ourselves in, the tragic situation which is ours ever since the Fall and which has every chance of ending very badly unless something is done about it. The second is to arouse in our minds and hearts a great desire to not just sit there and wait, but to get going in achieving our salvation.
Concerning the first point, against the background of the story of the fall of our first parents, how they sinned and lost God’s grace, were chased out of paradise and condemned to a life of pain, prelude to eternal perdition, the numerous chants of the Mass could be put in the mouth of Adam and Eve on the day of their fall, as they cry to the Lord from the depths of their banishment (Tract) and begin to taste the pains of death (Introit). But even there God is their helper. He never has and never will abandon the poor who cry to Him (Gradual), even when they are guilty of having offended Him.
For the second point, both the epistle and the gospel, in complementary ways, tell us that the affair of our salvation is ultimately in our own hands – anima mea in manibus meis semper – my soul is always in my own hands, says the Psalm (118:109). God has done His part, He has died for us, He offers His grace. But that grace is not received indistinctly by all. It is offered to all, but it is not received by all, because all do not open themselves to its redemptive effects.
St Paul tells us in the epistle that in a race, even though there are many contenders, there is only one winner. If you don’t run to win, then you won’t win, and if you don’t win, you lose. Simple as that. In the quest for salvation, it works the same way. The prevailing spirit of our decadent age is that everybody is saved, unless they do something really awful to force God not to save them. For the ancients, on the contrary, in the purest biblical and patristic tradition, it is the exact opposite. By nature we are sons of wrath, as St Paul tells the Ephesians (2:3) and therefore by nature we are inclined to sin, to death, to hell. If we are not pulled back and saved by grace that we allow to work in us by positively cooperating with it, then we will certainly be lost. God created us without us, but He will not save us without us. He wants and needs our cooperation.
In the Gospel, the parable of the workers in the vineyard stresses this same point: God is untiring in His call for generous souls who are happy to roll up their sleeves and work, even through the heat of the day, for the recompense offered to all the elect, namely eternal salvation. But the final verse of the Gospel is a jolting wakeup call : Many are called, but few are chosen. Even though the call of God goes out continually, and many, that is to say the multitude of humans, is called to be saved, only few actually reach the goal.
We can compare that verse with this other: Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road broad that leads to destruction, and those who enter through it are many. How narrow the gate and constricted the road that leads to life. And how few there are who find it! (Mt 7:13-14). This idea of the fewness of the elect is so far from being a medieval invention, that in St Luke’s Gospel, he portrays a man coming to ask Our Lord: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be able. (Lk 13:23-24). It is on the basis of these texts and others that the Fathers of the Church consistently preach that in spite of the abundance of grace offered to the world through the salvific passion of Our Lord, most souls do not avail themselves of it and are lost.
These thoughts which the traditional Roman liturgy brings before us each year on this Sunday have of course been eliminated from the reformed post-conciliar liturgy, as not being conducive to the mentality of modern man. But really, they are not conducive to the mentality of any man of any period in history, certainly not any man who is a son or daughter of Adam and Eve. It’s a big ask to renounce a sinful, easy life, for the profit of a salvation which is in the future and that we can’t see without our eyes. But such is the effort that God asks. He wants to give Himself to us, but for that He wants us to give ourselves to Him. He wants to share His eternity with us, and that recompense is beyond our wildest dreams.
Let’s not risk it by abandoning ourselves to sin. Let’s not risk it by being indifferent to God and His Commandments. Let’s not risk it by turning our back on our neighbour in need. Let’s not risking it by giving an ear to the heterodox theories of universal salvation that are quasi-omnipresent at the moment in the Church. Already St Augustine had to contend with such heretics. When debating with those who seek to establish that, in spite of the repeated warnings of Sacred Scripture, all will be saved, he wrote that when arguing for the salvation of all, including those who refuse to convert, “they are pleading their own cause, promising themselves a delusive impunity for their own disreputable lives by supposing an all-embracing mercy of God towards the human race…. It is excessively presumptuous to assert that there will be eternal punishment for none of those who, so God has said, will go to punishment which will be eternal…” And to give the ultimate reason for this: “Anybody who has not been transferred to the side of Christ while he lives in the body is thereafter reckoned as belonging to the Devil’s party….” (City of God, Book 21, ch. 18 and 24). One modern author offers this profound insight into Augustine’s approach: “Augustine admired the merciful intent of those who think that we may truly hope for the salvation of all human beings, but as teacher and pastor he rejected the opinion as well as its consequences. Indeed, pastorally speaking, it could prove to be, as he saw, a deceptive mercy, one that would lead to a presumption of salvation for all and end by abetting the damnation of many. […] It is such a sober awareness that the words of Jesus and the teaching of the Church would appear to inculcate, and better guides in this matter we cannot have” (J. T. O’Connor, Land of the Living : a Theology of the Last Things).
So, my dear Friends, the errors which abound today have long been refuted many times over. The devil does not have much imagination. He’s always coming back with the same rubbish over and over again. As the hymn for Vespers on Mondays in the monastic breviary reminds us: Fraudis novae ne casibus, nos error atterat vetus – let not the old errors lead us astray through the tricks of newfound lies.
It is a lie to tell people that everybody goes to Heaven. It is a lie to pretend that everyone will be saved, or that in order not to be you have to commit atrocious crimes against humanity. It is a lie to insinuate that the damned will be annihilated. So many lies that we hear again and again. But is it any surprise? Our Lord warned us in the same verse that Satan is both a liar and a murderer (cf. Jn 8:44). Such is his fallen perversity. When he can trick, when he can kill, then he is really himself. Let us be on our guard.
If the thought of death frightens us, let us reminder that for the revealed religion that is Christianity, the ars bene moriendi, – the art of a good death – is learned by the ars bene vivendi – the art of a good life. Conversely, one who applies himself to learning the ars bene moriendi will almost as by second nature practice that of ars bene vivendi. If you are always ready to die, then you are living well. If you are living well, you are ready to die.
Media vita in morte sumus – in the midst of life, we are in death. So sang our medieval forbears. The best, the infallible way to be ready for death, is to face the reality that only a very thin veil separates us from the great encounter, and we must be ready at every moment to appear before our loving Saviour who is also our Judge. The best way to be ready for to appear before our Judge is to be convinced that what we think, say and do matter to Him. Our destiny is in our own hands, and we have the light of day now to turn to the Lord, to make a good confession if needs be, and so to make sure our accounts are settled before the night of death overtakes us, that night when, as Our Lord assures us, no man can work (Jn 9).