In the seasons of Christmas and Epiphany, we celebrate the Word made flesh, the Word of God, the truth of God, made manifest in the world, in the humanity of Jesus Christ. The divine wisdom, the eternal power and love of God, are shown to us, made manifest to us, in Jesus Christ, proclaimed in signs and wonders. God is manifest in Christ, that we might behold his glory, "full of grace and truth" (Jn. 1:14), that we might share, in heart and mind, the life of God himself; as an ancient prayer puts it, "that we might be partakers of his divinity, who emptied himself to share our humanity".
That is the meaning of Epiphany: the Word of God is manifest, the truth of God is shown to us that our existence might be changed by it: "not conformed to this present age, but transformed by the renewing of our minds".
Now, as we approach the Lenten season, we consider more fully the nature of that transformation. Lent is about conflict and suffering, about death and resurrection. It is about Jesus' death and resurrection, certainly, but also about our own, as we follow his road, through conflict and temptation, to Jerusalem. For our transformation, the renewing of our minds in conformity to the Word of God, is, indeed a kind of death and rebirth - it is death to an old nature, an old worldliness, an old conformity to this present age, which does not give up without a struggle.
As St. Augustine says, in his Confessions: "Those trifles of all trifles, those vanities of vanities .... held me back, plucking at the garment of my flesh, softly murmuring, 'Are you sending us away? From this moment, shall we not be with you, now or ever?"' Those old, long-cherished demons perhaps hardly ever recognised as demons will not be easily dismissed. They will be cast out only with much prayer and fasting. That is the meaning of the disciplines of Lent.
But between Epiphany and Lent, there are three Sundays, with ancient Latin names: Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima - the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days (approximately) before Easter. The intention of these three weeks is to prepare us to undertake the journey and the labour, the pilgrimage of Lent. Thus, St. Paul reminds us, in this week's Epistle Lesson, we are to be like athletes, competing in a struggle - athletes in training, temperate in all things; not aimless, but disciplined, striving for a prize which is immortal. The Gospel likens us to workers in a vineyard. It matters not whether we have come early in the morning, or at midday, or at the last, eleventh hour; we labour for the one reward, which God's free grace provides. Whether the hour be late or early matters not; the point is that now we are called to spiritual reward, and now, now, in- the moment when God's Word addresses us, we must give p our idleness.
Next week's Gospel Lesson will remind us that the seed of God's word has been planted in our hearts ' and that we must not let it perish by the drought of our neglect, nor let it be stolen by the devil's wiles, nor choked by thorns of worldly occupations. And the Epistle will speak to us of the hardships and infirmities which attend the nurture of that plant: "In labours more abundant, in stripes above measure, in prisons more frequent, in deaths oft", says St. Paul.
On Quinquagesima, the Gospel will set all this in the context of Christ's journey to Jerusalem, to die and rise again, healing, by his charity, the blind man by the wayside; and the Epistle will tell us that the "more excellent way" of charity must be the character of our own journey; for without that, all our labour will be "nothing worth" - only "sounding brass and tinkling cymbal."
Thus, these preparatory weeks introduce Lent as a journey, a pilgrimage, a labour: an exercise in growth to spiritual maturity, a putting off of "childish things" - a struggle to follow Christ through suffering to risen life. Spiritual maturity is indeed for each of us a struggle: a struggle to wean ourselves from worldliness, to attain a liberty of spirit which is not subservient to whims and appetites and vain imaginings, but rather weighs and judges all things by the word of God made manifest in Jesus Christ.
Today's Lessons challenge us to undertake afresh that inner transformation, that liberation and renewal of the mind, with disciplined attention; not as runners uncertain of the course, and not as fighters striking randomly at thin air. Attentive to the word of God to us, attentive to God's grace within us, we are called to labour earnestly in the vineyard of the spirit, now, even if it be the last, eleventh hour.
"Why stand ye here all the day idle? Go ye also into the vineyard, and whatsoever is right, that shall ye receive".
Fr Ed Bakker