The Christmas cycle of the Church year, as you must know, begins with Advent and closes with the coming of Septuagesima Sunday. With Septuagesima Sunday the Easter cycle begins, which comes to an end with Ascension Thursday. Then we immediately prepare for Pentecost Sunday and enter upon the Pentecostal cycle, which extends to the end of the Church year, when Advent begins again. Each of these three cycles has a great feast—Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost.
The Church year, also called the ecclesiastical year or the liturgical year, is a most beautiful thing. You Should simply live the Church year. That is a reason why we have it. You should study the life of Christ, meditate on the life of Christ, imitate the life of Christ, and make it your own as Holy Church places it before you in her joyful, sorrowful, and glorious seasons.
As I have just said, Christmastide is over on Septuagesima Sunday. With that Sunday the Easter cycle begins. We prepare for Easter Sunday by the season of Lent; but before Lent begins we have a pre-Lenten season, a sort of a preparation for Lent itself, you know. We have the Sundays known as Septuagesima, which means "seventieth," Sexagesima, which means "sixtieth," and Quinquagesima, which means "fiftieth." you see, the early Christians did not everywhere observe the same season of penance. Some began on the seventieth, some on the sixtieth, some on the fiftieth day before Easter. But usually some days were left out each week so that, counting them out, one would find that it was a forty days' fast, as we have it now and have had since Pope Gregory the Great, about the year 600, made the season of Lent uniform for the whole Church.
But the old names remain, and the Easter cycle begins with Septuagesima Sunday, and the services held are like those of Lent: the purple vestments, signifying penance; no Gloria, the angels song of joy; no joyful Alleluia; psalms of penance and petition for mercy. Everything shows that the Church has entered upon a time of sorrow for sin.
Let me tell you what these three Sundays should mean for us. They should mean a preparation for Lent So the Church, through the Gospels of these three Sundays, gives us a solemn lesson and a serious warning. I want each one of you to listen attentively to those Gospels when they are read (and to read them yourselves at home) and to apply them to your lives.
The Gospel on Septuagesima Sunday tells about the workers in the vineyard. The lesson it teaches is this: Labor for God! Through the grace and mercy of God you were sent into the vineyard of the Lord, into the Catholic Church; by Baptism you were made a child of Holy Church, a child of God. Hence you must always use your time well, in working for God—for the salvation of your soul and the souls of others. Otherwise you will appear before your Lord and Master at the hour of death with empty hands, and He will have to say to you: "Away from Me, you lazy child! Out into exterior darkness!" How terrible that would be! you must work and never grow tired. But what must you do there? Why, you must purify your heart and make it ever more holy and pleasing to God by prayer and piety and goodness—that's what! Each heart should be a little heaven where the love and grace of God ever dwells, watched over by an angel—your guardian angel. Yes; that's what you must do.
One week later, on Sexagesima Sunday, we hear the Gospel that contains the beautiful parable about the sower. Listen attentively again: "The sower went out to sow his seed. Some fell by the wayside, and it was trodden down, and the fowls of the air devoured it. And other some fell upon a rock . . . and withered away. And other some fell among thorns, and the thorns . . . choked it. And other some fell upon good ground, and . . • yielded fruit a hundredfold." And the lesson is this: Listen to God! You young people hear many good lessons in Church, in school, at home from your parents. Remember them and put them into practice. Look out for the wayside (evil people) and the fowls (the devil and his bad angels) and the rock (hard and frivolous hearts) and the thorns (cold and indifferent hearts). No; always receive such words with a glad and willing heart—a heart that is good and fertile soil and will bring forth fruit a hundredfold. Thus the Church admonishes you to prepare your heart for holy Lent.
Then comes the Gospel of the third Sunday, Quinquagesima. In it Jesus foretells His sufferings. Listen attentively once again:
"Behold," He says to His Apostles, "we go up to Jerusalem and . . . the Son of Man . . . shall be delivered to the Gentiles, and shall be mocked, and scourged, and spit upon. They will put him to death; and the third day He shall rise again." And this is the lesson Holy Church teaches: Think of the Savior's sufferings and death!
So here we have the spirit of the pre-Lenten season; Work for God! Listen to God! Think of the Savior's sufferings and death! How strange that some forget all about this sacred time of preparation for Lent and even go out to have a good time just before Ash Wednesday! Such a pastime is a pagan pastime and I warn all boys and girls to keep away from any such practice. Stay at home and pray.
Then comes Ash Wednesday. With it begins Lent itself, the solemn forty days' fast. During this time all true children of Holy Church give up even lawful pleasures, that they may give thought to serious things. Yes; Lent is a serious time; we see that from its opening day, Ash Wednesday. Just go to church. You see the altar, without flowers, in penitential color. You see the priest come out to bless ashes that were made by burning palms used on the last Palm Sunday, which recalls the first Palm Sunday when all was joy, to remind us that the joy and beauty of the world pass away—even our very lives. He prays that God may forgive us our sins; that He may preserve us from all evil of body and soul; that He may give the spirit of penance to all those upon whom the ashes are sprinkled. After the blessing, the priest makes a sign of the cross with the ashes on each forehead, at the same time saying the solemn words: "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and into dust thou shalt return !"
Death and penance! Such is the keynote of the holy season of Lent. Think of death. St. Augustine says,
"Death is a good teacher for life." All must die—also you. And you know not When nor where nor how. And here is what St. Augustine means: Live a pure and holy life. Then you need not be afraid of death. You can let him stay with you and teach you salutary lessons of goodness. He will drive bad thoughts away, bad habits, bad companions, a proud manner, disobedience and disrespect for parents, cursing, lying, stealing, everything sinful.
And penance! But of this I must speak later on, as my chat this time is getting rather long. I'll just mention one kind of penance, however. Practice self denial by staying away from all shows, movies, parties, etc. Practice it by abstaining from sweets and delicacies.
And give all the money you thus save—and more besides—to some great good work for the salvation of souls—the missions, for instance.
Look for the next chapter from this book, "How Much Penance Must Each One Do," in our March issue of the St. Catherine's Academy Gazette.
Source: Talks to Boys and Girls, Imprimatur 1931