The traditional name for this Sunday, Septuagesima, means seventieth, approximately seventy days before Easter, and it marked the beginning of a three-week period which looks forward to the beginning of Lent. It had a penitential character: purple or violet vestments were worn, and in the Eucharist and the Daily Office the church fasted from hymns of praise, to prepare for the Great Fast. It reminds us that what we Do affects who we ARE. Such discipline helps to form us as more loving and generous people.
Such concerns lie at the heart of our first reading this morning from the prophet Isaiah. In verse 6 the prophet cries, ‘Is not this the fast that I choose: to loose the bonds of wickedness, to undo the straps of the yoke, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke?’ What God desires is to say sorry for the wrongs we have done that we show that contrition by doing the right thing: being loving and generous, the way God wants us to be.
Thus, the prophet advises us to share our bread with the hungry, to give shelter to the homeless in our own homes, to clothe the naked. We also need to take away the yoke which is a burden to others, the pointing finger of accusation, and speaking wickedness: being harsh, not telling the truth, or telling it in a way that is designed to cause pain. We all need to hear this, and be reminded of how we can, each and every one of us, fall short. I know I do, and I ask for your forgiveness.
The point is that we can ask the forgiveness, of a God who loves, which is why St Paul simply proclaims, ‘Jesus Christ and him crucified’. On the Cross Christ bears the yoke, the burden of our sins, and demonstrates the LOVE God has for us: real costly love, which sees Him die for us. This is love put into practice to heal and to restore the world, a simple act, seen by many as the execution of a common criminal, dying a slave’s death. Yet THIS brings about the greatest freedom humanity has ever known.
In the Gospel this morning Jesus begins by using metaphors to describe His disciples, They are salt. Nowadays we are used to salt as a bad thing, something of which we eat too much. Salt helps to give food flavour, it preserves food, keeping it edible, and without it we would die. Salt was expensive, a luxury, but if it is no longer good needs to be thrown out. You cannot use it. Jesus’ disciples need to be salty, there should be something about how we live out and proclaim the Gospel in word and deed that makes people go, ‘Mmm!’ Otherwise there is not much point.
As well as being salt the disciples are light. Light illuminates, it scatters darkness, it helps us to see and keeps us safe. None of us would drive a car at night without the lights on, obviously. It would cause an accident, it might get us killed. Lampposts are high up in the air, so that they can illuminate the street below. We have lights which hang from our ceilings for the same reason. A covered light does not give out light, a light on the floor cannot light up a room. Our Lord encourages His disciples to ‘let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.’ Our faith then is not simply something that we believe, but rather it is something that we DO. Our actions and our words proclaim the truth of the Gospel to the world around us.
Just as a city on a hill cannot be hidden, so it is with Christians. We are visible, and for our many failings people will call us hypocrites, and while they have a point, our failings should always lead us to ask forgiveness, and repent. Because of what Christ has done for us on the Cross we have access to God’s forgiveness. The point is that while we fail, we repent and keep on trying to live out our faith in our lives. It is simple and clear, like St Paul’s proclamation to the church in Corinth. Our faith does not ‘rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.’ It looks foolish and weak, and so it should, in worldly terms. God’s weakness is greater than human strength, that is its power.
Christ shows us how to live in the Beatitudes, and encourages us to put it into practice in our lives, and to follow His example of going to the Cross to proclaim the fact that God loves us, a God who is Love. Love forgives, so that it can transform us. We that transformation in Isaiah, put into practice to help transform the world. Paul is transformed from a persecutor of the Church into its greatest evangelist, who spends the rest of his life telling people about Jesus, and how He has transformed lives, and continues to do so. For two thousand years the Church has lived the truth of this transformation, and continues to do so, and invites men and women to come and have their lives transformed by the God who loves them.
So we begin to prepare for Lent, the great season of repentance, when we acknowledge our sins, and turn back to God, and prepare to celebrate the Passion, Death, and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
As we look towards the Cross, our only hope, our only salvation, may we live generous and loving lives. May we be salt and light in the world, giving it taste and illumination, offering it the chance for conversion, to turn back to the Lord who loves them, who shows them that love on the Cross, that they may have life in and through Him, that they may give glory to God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit, to whom be ascribed as is most right and just, all might, majesty, glory, dominion, and power, now, and forever. Amen.