CHAPTER THE THIRD
PRACTICE DURING SEPTUAGESIMA
The joys of Christmastide seem to have fled far from us. The forty days of gladness brought us by the Birth of our Emmanuel are gone. The atmosphere of holy Church has grown overcast, and we are warned that the gloom is still to thicken. Have we, then, for ever lost Him, we so anxiously and longingly sighed after, during the four slow weeks of our Advent? Has our divine Sun of Justice, that rose so brightly in Bethlehem, now stopped his course, and left our guilty earth?
Not so. The Son of God, the Child of Mary, has not left us. The Word was made Flesh in order that he might dwell among us. A glory, far greater than that of his Birth, when Angels sang their hymns, awaits him, and we are to share it with him. Only, he must win this new and greater glory by strange countless sufferings; he must purchase it by a most cruel and ignominious death: and we, if we would have our share in the triumph of his Resurrection, must follow him in the Way of the Cross, all wet with the Tears and the Blood he shed for us.
The grave maternal voice of the Church will soon be heard, inviting us to the Lenten penance; but she wishes us to prepare for this laborious baptism, by employing these three weeks in considering the deep wounds caused in our souls by sin. True, – the beauty and loveliness of the Little Child, born to us in Bethlehem, are great beyond measure; but our souls are so needy, that they require other lessons than those He gave us of humility and simplicity. Our Jesus is the Victim of the divine justice, and he has now attained the fulness of his age; the altar, on which he is to be slain, is ready: and since it is for us that he is to be sacrificed, we should at once set ourselves to consider, what are the debts we have contracted towards that infinite Justice, which is about to punish the Innocent One instead of us the guilty.
The mystery of a God becoming Incarnate for the love of his creature, has opened to us the path of the Illuminative Way; but we have not yet seen the brightest of its Light. Let not our hearts be troubled; the divine wonders we witnessed at Bethlehem are to be surpassed by those that are to grace the day of our Jesus’ Triumph: but, that our eye may contemplate these future mysteries, it must be purified by courageously looking into the deep abyss of our own personal miseries. God will grant us his divine light for the discovery; and if we come to know ourselves, to understand the grievousness of original sin, to see the malice of our own sins, and to comprehend, at least in some degree, the infinite mercy of God towards us, – we shall be prepared for the holy expiations of Lent, and for the ineffable joys of Easter.
The Season, then, of Septuagesima is one of most serious thought. Perhaps we could not better show the sentiments, wherewith the Church would have her children to be filled at this period of her year, than by quoting a few words from the eloquent exhortation, given to his people, at the beginning of Septuagesima, by the celebrated Ivo of Chartres. He spoke thus to the Faithful of the 11th century [12th Sermon for Septuagesima]:
“We know, says the Apostle, that every creature groaneth, and travaileth in pain even till now: and not only it, but ourselves, also, who have the first-fruits of the Spirit, even we ourselves groan within ourselves, waiting for the adoption of the sons of God, the redemption of our body [Rom. viii. 22,23]. The creature here spoken of is the soul, that has been regenerated, from the corruption of sin, unto the likeness of God: she groaneth within herself, at seeing herself made subject to vanity; she, like one that travaileth, is filled with pain, and is devoured by an anxious longing to be in that country, which is still so far off. It was this travail and pain that the Psalmist was suffering, when he exclaimed: Wo is me, that my suffering is prolonged! [Ps. cxix. 5]. Nay, that Apostle, who was one of the first members of the Church, and had received the Holy Spirit, longed to have, in all its reality, that adoption of the sons of God, which he already had in hope; and he, too, thus exclaimed in his pain: I desire to be dissolved, and to be with Christ [Philipp. i. 23]. * * * During these days, therefore, we must do what we do at all seasons of the Year, – only, we must do it more earnestly and fervently: we must sigh and weep after our country, from which we were exiled in consequence of having indulged in sinful pleasures; we must redouble our efforts in order to regain it by compunction and weeping of heart. * * * Let us now shed tears in the way, that we may afterwards be glad in our country. Let us now so run the race of this present life, that we may make sure of the prize of the supernal vocation [Philipp. iii. 14]. Let us not be like imprudent wayfarers, forgetting our country, and preferring our banishment to our home. Let us not become like those senseless invalids, who feel not their ailments, and seek no remedy. We despair of a sick man, who will not be persuaded that he is in danger. No: let us run to our Lord, the Physician of eternal salvation. Let us show him our wounds, and cry out to him with all our earnestness: Have mercy on me, O Lord, for I am weak: heal me, for my bones are troubled [Ps. vi, 3]. Then, will he forgive us our iniquities, heal us of our infirmities, and satisfy our desire with good things [Ps. cii. 3,5].”
From all this it is evident, that the Christian, who would spend Septuagesima according to the spirit of the Church, must make war upon that false security, that self-satisfaction, which are so common to effeminate and tepid souls, and produce spiritual barrenness. It is well for them, if these delusions do not insensibly lead them to the absolute loss of the true Christian spirit. He that thinks himself dispensed from that continual watchfulness, which is so strongly inculcated by our Divine Master [St. Mark, xiii. 37], is already in the enemy’s power. He that feels no need of combat and of struggle in order to persevere and make progress in virtue, (unless he have been honoured with a privilege, which is both rare and dangerous), should fear that he is not even on the road to that Kingdom of God, which is only to be won by violence [St. Matth,. xi. 12]. He that forgets the sins, which God’s mercy has forgiven him, should fear his being the victim of a dangerous delusion [Ecclus. v. 5]. Let us, during these days, which we are going to devote to the honest unflinching contemplation of our miseries, give glory to our God, and derive, from the knowledge of ourselves, fresh motives of confidence in Him, who, in spite of all our wretchedness and sin, humbled himself so low as to become one of us, in order that he might exalt us even to union with Himself.