by Father Michael A. Costanzo
THE THREE SUNDAYS BEFORE LENT are called Septuagesima, Sexagesima, and Quinquagesima. The Latin names for these Sundays signify that they are the seventieth, sixtieth, and fiftieth days (approximately) before Easter.
The season of Pre-Lent is a time of preparation for the great fast of Lent. It is meant to call us back from our Christmas feasting and joy in order to prepare ourselves for fasting and humiliation in the approaching time of Lent. This is why purple vestments have been traditionally used during this season.
The Epistles and Gospels appointed for these three Sundays encourage us to reflect upon the virtues that are necessary for holiness of life. Such reflection is necessary at this time because a renewal of holiness is the object of our Lenten fast.
A virtue is a good habit. It is the settled, established disposition of a power of the soul to act properly and well. While there are some virtues which relate strictly to the operation of the intellect, such as sanity and artistic skill, there are others which relate to the mind as it guides our natural desires and our power of choice. These latter are called moral virtues, and they make our acts upright.
There are four cardinal or principal moral virtues: prudence, courage, temperance, and justice. They were known to the ancient world, and adorned the lives of many notable pagans. As such, they were acquired virtues, ingrained, in the soul by ceaseless practice and hard discipline. Their aims, no matter how noble, were strictly natural, having to do with man’s happiness in this life.
With baptism into Jesus Christ come other virtues, of which human effort is incapable. These are the infused virtues. Infused virtues are the virtues which the Holy Ghost plants and nurtures in the souls of Christ’s members. The object of these virtues is man’s supernatural happiness and eternal blessedness.
Chief among the infused virtues are faith, hope, and charity, known as the theological virtues. Through these virtues, the Holy Ghost gives Christians an aptitude for holiness of life. Yet this aptitude and potential for holiness must find expression and perfection in our everyday activity. Thus, the theological virtues express themselves through the cardinal virtues of prudence, courage, temperance, and justice.
The books appointed to be read at the weekday Offices during the weeks before Lent and at the beginning of Lent are appropriate to the season. Genesis tells of the origin and purpose of creation, of sin, and of God’s first actions to bring about the saving of mankind. St. Matthew is resumed at the point where its narrative was dropped the week of Epiphany II. It is an appropriate place to resume, for here Jesus begins to prepare his disciples for his passion and resurrection (Matt. 16:4 and 16:21). The Gospel itself is appropriate because one of St. Matthew’s chief concerns is to show us Jesus’ relationship to the Law of Moses (Matt. 5:17). Romans is St. Paul’s great treatise on the Law of Moses and the Grace of Jesus Christ.
Let us, therefore, begin the Pre-Lenten season with minds open to learn about the virtues, that we may be fervent in our prayers for them and for our blessedness during our Lenten fast.