Each year on Septuagesima Sunday, we are are treated to a summary, as it were, of our entire faith. After the joyful celebration of Christmas and Epiphany, we now find ourselves plunged back into, to quote today's Introit: "the wails of death and the sorrows of hell". The psalm De Profundis is also there to give expression to our prayer in the Tractus: “Out of the depths have I cried to Thee, O Lord, hear my prayer". At Matins this morning we read the account of Creation and we have thus set foot upon a kind of bridge that will take us all the way to the Paschal Vigil at which time we will recover the joyful chant of the Lord’s canticle, the Alleluia, left aside today as we consider the havoc our sins have wrought in God's beautiful world.
St Augustine reminded us this morning that, because of the sin of our first parents, original sin, the entire human race, "massa damnata”, was hurled headlong into pain, death and hell. These thoughts are of a nature to inspire us with the wholesome attitude of one in need. And how can we fail to see how appropriately they apply to the present situation of the world and the Church, as the folly of sin seems to establish its throne even in the Holy Place?
With that background we can understand the choice of today’s Gospel. The landowner who goes out to hire men to work in his vineyard is the Lord who, in every age of humanity, continues to invite those who will avoid eternal damnation and win an everlasting reward, to roll up their sleeves, to leave behind their petty interests and comfortable surroundings in order to labour in the heat of day to produce the good wine of divine love. But we are all disabled by original sin, and that is why we need the energetic appeal of the Lord: “Go into my vineyard, and I will pay you what is just!”
But, we might ask, what is really at stake? The final words of the Gospel lay it out with great clarity: “ Some of those who are last will be first, and the first last. For many are called, but few are chosen”. It’s a serious struggle we are placed in, and the outcome is not at all certain. Nor was it certain for the Jews whom St Paul mentions in the epistle. All of them came out of Egypt with Moses, all of them were baptised, but God was not pleased with most of them. Actually with a few exceptions, they will all leave their bones in the desert, they will not attain to the promised land. Is it any surprise that the Fathers of the Church have all read the “ Many are called but few are chosen” to mean precisely what it says, namely that of all the mass of souls called to eternal life (all of them), few comparatively will arrive at the goal? St Paul, as a good coach, goads us on even more with the reminder that even though everyone runs in the race, only one is the winner. And he adds: Run so as to win!
What is this race we are engaged in? It is the race towards eternal life. The stakes are high, very high indeed, and we must not lose sight of the real goal. If one loses an earthly contest it's not the end of the world. There may be other chances, and if not, well, it's not something that is required for happiness. But if we miss eternal happiness, then the only solution is eternal despair and damnation. That is the great reminder of Septuagesima Sunday.
At the same time the Lord and the Apostle both incite us to prepare for the combat. Lent is just around the corner, and with the growing evil in the world and in the Church, so must grow the fervour of our prayers and the seriousness of our sacrifices.
We need also remind ourselves that there are other players, invisible ones, in this race. I mean the wicked enemy himself, Satan and his satellites. They spare no effort to overthrow God’s church and bring souls to hell. Let us ever be mindful of this. In his angelus address of 28 April 1994, Pope John Paul II said:
"May prayer strengthen us for the spiritual battle of which we are told in the Letter to the Ephesians: “Drew strength from the Lord and from His mighty power” (Eph 6:10). It is this same battle to which the Book of Revelation refers, recalling before our eyes the image of Saint Michael the Archangel (cf. Revelation 12:7). Pope Leo XIII certainly had a very vivid vision of this scene when, at the end of the last century, he introduced a special prayer to St Michael throughout the Church. Even if this prayer is no longer recited at the end of every Mass, I ask everyone to remember it and to recite it to obtain help in the battle against forces of darkness and against the spirit of this world”.
And a few years before that, he had pronounced these stern words:
"We must prepare ourselves to suffer great trials before long, such as will demand of us a disposition to give up even life, and a total dedication to Christ and for Christ… With your and my prayer it is possible to mitigate this tribulation, but it is no longer possible to avert it, because only thus can the Church be effectively renewed. How many times has the renewal of the Church sprung from blood! This time too, it will not be otherwise. We must be strong and prepared, and trust in Christ and His Mother, and be very, very assiduous in praying the Rosary” (Pope John Paul II, November 1980).
May the Mother of God hold us all under her immaculate mantle, may she protect us from the wiles of the enemy, and make us win the victory, the unfading crown of glory which is the beatific vision to which we are called.
Let us run so as to win!