Septuagesima, or the Third Sunday before Lent (1883)

O Lord, we beseech thee favorably to hear the prayers of thy people; that we, who are justly punished for our offences, may be mercifully delivered by thy goodness, for the glory of thy Name; through Jesus Christ our Saviour, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Ghost, ever one God, world without end. Amen.

Preces populi tui, quæsumus, Domine, clementer exaudi: ut qui juste pro peccatis nostris affligimur, pro tui nominis gloria misericorditer liberemur. Per Dominum. (Greg. Sac., Miss. Sar.)

IN the second year of her reign Queen Elizabeth gave orders for a translation into Latin of the Book of Common Prayer, which might be used in the Universities and Public Schools of the realm. Copies of this work still exist in the British Museum and the Bodleian Library. The copy in the Museum has illuminated initials, after the fashion of the day. The collect for Septuagesima Sunday begins with the word “Preces” (prayers), and the illumination of the initial P “represents a traveller in the act of receiving a letter from a venerable-looking man, through the bars of a cell in which he is confined.” There can be little doubt that this woodcut is designed as an illustration of the Collect,—the key-word of which is liberemur, “that we may be mercifully delivered” (or liberated). Sin is thought of as a captivity or bondage, according to those words of a still more familiar prayer: Though we be tied and bound with the chain of our sins, yet let the pitifulness of thy great mercy loose us.” The venerable captive in the cell is the sinner returning to a better mind. The letter with which he is charging the traveller is a supplication for deliverance.

And probably the traveller, free to go about where he pleases, and ready to start for a distant country, is intended to represent an angel, charged to deliver the suppliant’s message at the throne of grace.

One word is necessary upon the title of the Sunday for which this Collect is provided. As Lent consists of forty days, the first Sunday in that season used to be called Quadragesima (a word formed from quadraginta, the Latin for forty, and still retained in the French word for Lent, Carême), because, on a rough computation, it would fall about forty days from Easter. The three preceding Sundays were termed in the same way Quinquagesima, Sexagesima, and Septuagesima, because, in round numbers, and counting by tens, they would be respectively at a distance of fifty, sixty, and seventy days from Easter. The only noteworthy point in this nomenclature is that the Sundays are counted no longer forward as hitherto (Second, Third, Fourth Sunday after the Epiphany), but backward from Lent (Septuagesima, or the Third Sunday before Lent, Sexagesima, or the Second Sunday before Lent, etc.) On Septuagesima Sunday all thought of the Manifestation of Christ, which has occupied our minds since the Festival of the Epiphany, is dropped, and a new period of a different character is ushered in. We catch to-day our first glimpse of the great period of humiliation, and a cloud falls upon the Church’s landscape. The Epistle speaks of the possibility of failure, not only for those who run in the heavenly race (that is, make some exertions to attain to God’s glory), but even for those who, like St. Paul, seem foremost in it. The Gospel strikes the same note in its concluding sentence, reminding us that, though many are called to labor in God’s vineyard, few are those chosen ones who so labor as ultimately to win the prize. The Collect is couched in a strain of humiliation, and is a penitent suit for forgiveness; and thus we are forcibly reminded by all three that a new period of the Christian year, sad and solemn, is about to set in.

“O Lord, we beseech thee favorably to hear the prayers of thy people.” The hearing in the original Latin is not simple hearing. It is a compound verb, which denotes the hearing afar off and at a distance. The ten lepers “stood afar off” when they said, “Jesus, Master, have mercy on us.” The publican, whose spirit this beautiful prayer breathes, stood “afar off,” and “smote upon his breast,” when he said, “God be merciful to me a sinner.” It is the word ordinarily employed in the Latin Offices to denote God’s hearing of a prayer, which is not a simple hearing, but a regarding and listening.

“That we who are justly punished for our offences.” “Justly cast down” is more near the original; the notion of punishment residing not in the verb, but in the words “justly” and “for our offences.” Our Judge, who is also our most loving and merciful Father, will not, cannot deal otherwise than compassionately with those who, in any trouble or distress which is sent them, confess that they have most righteously deserved it. “We indeed justly;” cried the penitent thief, “for we receive the due reward of our deeds.” “The good thief,” says Francis of Sales, “made of a bad cross a cross of Jesus Christ. Unite we then, as the good thief did, our sinner’s cross to the cross of the Saviour. So, by this loving and devout union of our sufferings to the sufferings and cross of Jesus Christ, we shall enter like good thieves into His friendship, and in His train into Paradise.” Let us digest, during the coming Lent, those words of good Nehemiah, and seek to make them the key-note of our humiliation: “Howbeit thou art just in all that is brought upon us; for thou hast done right, but we have done wickedly.” “If we would judge ourselves” thus, “we should not be judged.”

“May be mercifully delivered” (set free) “by thy goodness.” Sin is often spoken of, both in the Bible and Prayer Book, as a captivity, a bondage. And, accordingly, part of the predicted function of Him who saves from sin is said to be “to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.” Sin weakens and afflicts all the powers of the spiritual life, and degrades the sinner. Sin, wilfully admitted, dims our spiritual light, clogs our feet when we wish to walk in the way of God’s commandments, ties our hands when we would do His work, and is a bondage of the will, which, through indulgence in sinful pleasures, loses its freedom.

“For the glory of thy Name.” Blessed be God that He hath Himself put this plea in our mouth; and that being, as it is, quite independent of anything we have to show in character or conduct, it may be urged by those who have fallen lowest, and whose case is most grievous. “O Lord, though our iniquities testify against us, do thou it for thy name’s sake: for our backslidings are many,” says Jeremiah.

“Not unto us, O Lord, not unto us,” prays the Psalmist, unto thy name give glory, for thy mercy, and for thy truth’s sake.”

The Collect is appropriately closed with the longer and more jubilant formulary, which recites, not the Mediator’s name only, but also His exaltation to the right hand of God. The mind is thus relieved, amid the shadows which the coming Lent casts on it, by the thought of the divinity and power of our great Intercessor, a remembrance necessary to sustain it through the valley of humiliation, into the hollow of which it takes its first steps to-day.

The Collects of the Book of Common Prayer: An Exposition, Critical and Devotional (New York: E.P. Dutton, 1883), pp. 111-115.

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