In the traditional Roman liturgical calendar, today is Septuagesima Sunday. Septuagesima comes for the Latin word for “seventieth” and is celebrated because it falls within seventy days before Easter. It also was intended to be a 17-day preparation for the Lenten season. So, don’t let the term throw you off. It was used in the Church for a very long time prior to 1970. It was removed during the revisions of the post Vatican II liturgical practice of the Church.
Also, you’re going to see a “reading” I had not previously included. It’s called the Gradual. What is the Gradual, you may ask? The Gradual, like the Alleluia and Tract, is one of the responsorial chants of the Mass. Responsorial chants derive from early Christian traditions of singing choral refrains called responds between psalm verses. According to the Catholic Encyclopedia, it (and the associated Alleluia or Tract) is the oldest of the chants of the Proper of the Mass, and, in contrast to the Introit, Offertory, and Communion, the only one that was not sung to accompany some other liturgical action, historically a procession. Until about the fifth century, it included singing a whole psalm. They were sung in the form of a psalmus responsorius, i.e. the whole text was chanted by a reader appointed for this purpose. For some time before Pope Gregory I, to sing these psalms was a privilege of deacons at Rome, a privilege he suppressed in 595. The people answered each clause or verse with an acclamation. This apparently dates back to the synagogue tradition and can even be seen in the structure of some Psalms (such as 136/135). Originally, there was a psalm sung between each reading, of which in the fifth century there were three (Prophets, Epistle, and Gospel).
Let’s get to the texts.
Gradual: Psalm 9:10-11, 19-20
Epistle: 1 Corinthians 9:24-27, 10:1-5
Gospel: Matthew 20:1-16
As I’ve said in the past, one of the things that drew me to the Catholic Church was knowing that being Catholic meant that there would be things required of me. Yes, faith is first and foremost. Not some nebulous “faith” but specific faith in a specific Person. But faith alone is not enough. Holy Scriptures tell us over and again that both faith and works are necessary. The tree must bear fruit and the believer must persevere; not just in faith but in works of obedience to the commands of Christ.
That’s kind of what we find in today’s readings.
I want to start with the Epistle reading. Read through that and some things will immediately jump out at you. Look at the language St. Paul uses here (I’m reading the Douay-Rheims).
“Run that you may obtain.”
“Everyone that striveth for the mastery, refraineth himself..”
“I so fight..I chastise my body, and bring it into subjection…”
St. Paul isn’t saying that we do these things just to do them. We’re not bored and just practicing discipline for the sake of being disciplined. No, there is a purpose to this discipline, there is focus to this work. It is work we must do but there is a reason. We run that we may obtain, we strive for mastery and refrain ourselves, we chastise our body and bring it into subjection.
Because, St. Paul tells us, we don’t want to be like our “fathers.” We don’t want to be like those who came before us or even those who are among us today that have received the grace of God and fallen away. Look at what Paul says in chapter 10:1-5. He says that the fathers were all baptized (so are we); they all ate the same spiritual food (so do we in the Eucharist); they all drank of the same rock (so do we in the Eucharist). They are the same as us. But, St. Paul tells us, they were not pleasing to God and were overthrown in the desert.
But wait, isn’t faith enough? Isn’t it enough that they partook by faith (and symbol) of the future work of Christ? Isn’t it enough that we partake of the body, blood and divinity of Christ in the Eucharist? St. Paul says it wasn’t enough for them and it won’t be enough for us. They did not do what was required of them by God. And if we don’t, we will suffer the same fate.
So what is required?
We look to Christ in the Gospel.
As we consider the story told by Jesus in the Gospel reading today, we should be struck by the difference between Jesus’ idea of “fair” and our idea of “fair.” We’re like the first workers if we’re honest. We think fair means we get more because we were “faithful” longer. But Jesus kind of turns that on its head. We must receive with gratitude and humility what is offered. That is our response; at least, it should be. It is not for us to say what is fair. Truth is, we don’t want fair…not when it comes to our eternal destiny, anyway. You don’t want fair, trust me. You want mercy. If we get “fair,” we get hell. Mercy, rather, means we respond in faith to what Christ has offered us, by grace, and we get mercy.
We are all called to respond to the call of Christ. How will we respond? Will we respond in faith and humility? If so, what will be for us?
Our Gradual speaks to this. We see that the Lord is a refuge for the poor (we’ll come back to this poor idea). We also see (in verse 11) that He will not forsake us. When we seek Him in faith, He is faithful and just to forgive us all our unrighteousness (1 John 1:9). We also see in verse 19 that the “poor man shall not be forgotten” and “the poor shall not perish forever.” What does that mean?
The Psalmist in not concerned with how much money we have. Rather, the Psalms echo over and over this truth. Those who are “poor in spirit” are the ones to whom God responds. That should sound familiar to us, for we see our Lord Jesus saying this very thing in St. Matthew’s gospel, chapter 5:3. We also see this over and again in the Old Testament prophets; Isaiah 66:2, Isaiah 57:15 and Micah 6:8 to name a few.
To be poor in spirit is our response to the call of Jesus. To be poor in spirit means that we recognize our need for a Saviour, to recognize that it is only in the response of faith to the person and work of Jesus that we receive what is our just reward. It is in the strength of the person of Jesus working in us through the Holy Spirit that we can strive after holiness.
How will you respond to the call of the Lord Jesus?
He stands ready to pour out His mercy on the poor in spirit!