LAETARE – 4th Sunday of Lent
31 March 2019 at Bruder Klaus
Jos. 5:9a, 10-12
2 Cor. 5:17-21
Lk 15:1-3, 11-32
Praised be Jesus Christ!
It is Laetare Sunday today! Laetare is a Latin word which means to rejoice, to be happy. In the midst of our Lenten penance, the Church today on the Fourth Sunday of Lent celebrates what should be the ultimate reason for our happiness already in this life. Today we celebrate the joy of reconciliation with God in Christ, reconciliation won through His saving death upon the Cross and His glorious Resurrection. It is not so much that we take a break from doing penance, but that we acknowledge Lenten penance for what it is, namely a privileged way to express our sorrow for evil thoughts, words, acts or omissions, which have kept us from the loving embrace of our heavenly Father. Doing penance, as we Catholics do or should do in Lent especially, is a tradition-bound means for communicating to ourselves and to others our firm intention to turn away from sin and go to God, to head for real joy.
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”
Today is about the real joy that is ours on being forgiven by God through the minister of His Church and coming to live in God’s good graces. Through works of penance and sacramental reconciliation, we come to take our rightful place as baptized children of God in the house of our heavenly Father or as the Book of Joshua puts it, by our entrance into the Promised Land. “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” Egypt symbolizes that idolatry which places creature comforts above our eternal destiny. Catholic Lenten penance marks our sojourn in the desert, having come out of Egypt. It is our effort toward stripping away all but that one thing which is necessary, namely life with God in Christ.
Our Lenten penance or penance at any other time of the year is any sacrifice that we take on at the Church’s direction in reparation for sins, faults and failings. It finds its crowning or perfection in the celebration of the Sacrament of Penance. In Confession, as we confess our own sins to the priest, as we hear his counsel and receive absolution, we leave the fleshpots of Egypt behind and begin to live for the Lord alone in the land that He has promised us. From today’s Gospel of the parable of the Prodigal Son:
“Coming to his senses he thought, ‘How many of my father's hired workers have more than enough food to eat, but here am I, dying from hunger. I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him’, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I no longer deserve to be called your son; treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.’”
As children, I can remember how we understood Laetare Sunday. Its lighter colored (rose) vestments symbolized for us something like coming up for air in the midst of our hard Lenten penance (you know: extra prayers and special efforts to be good, and of course, giving up candy and desserts except on Sundays). This type of popular piety helps us to understand what we mean by Laetare. As such, it can help us to understand the real genius of Catholic Lenten penance. Lent should lift us out of low living in order to keep constant company with the angels and saints before God.
St. Paul exhorts the Corinthians and us today:
“We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God. For our sake he made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him.”
Joy comes to us by our choice to embrace Jesus Who suffered and died for us, to embrace the scandal of His Cross, its ignominy, and thus to be united with Christ’s perfect sacrifice for our salvation. It is a stance very much at odds with what greets us as we walk down any airport concourse or through a shopping mall. True life and happiness is something quite different from all the people we see in those places with drink and snack in hand. Penance is a very other way and we need to seek it out. We really think too little of the brilliance of fasting and abstinence! Christian joy is simply at odds with the continual search to satisfy creature comforts. St. Paul’s admonition is to live otherwise; be reconciled to God!
Catholic penance during Lent is supposed to bring home to us a very important truth. The notion is that penance can win us over to a greater, yes, a boundless joy beyond that which this world can offer. Such lessons do not come easy for any of us, I suspect. Apart maybe from athletes, like bodybuilders, who ascribe to the motto “No Gain without Pain”, personal sacrifice and anything beyond immediate gratification seems hard for some people to grasp. Most of us have a hard time with child martyrs, like St. Maria Goretti, or with wholesome young people, who died, most would say, too young, like Blessed Pier Giorgio Frassati. Apart from the desire for a long, trouble-free life, more tragically, many people even want space in life for their vices and for that one temptation or the other.
Finding joy in repentance and reconciliation should be what distinguishes us as Catholics. We all must recognize ourselves as sinners in need of forgiveness. In humbling ourselves to recognize our personal indebtedness, we can move to rejoice and celebrate the conversion of the prodigal son. We can avoid the narrow-mindedness of the older brother, who failed to understand the Father’s longing for his younger son to come home.
“My son, you are here with me always; everything I have is yours. But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
The Church as a loving mother or a forgiving father like in Luke’s Gospel has to stand there before us as the image of that love which sets free from death and brings life and joy. How that is supposed to work is not easy to say in every case; it is often something very different from mommy kissing a scraped knee and making it all better again. It logically can cost us and hence the reasonableness of our voluntarily choosing to do penance. That is the genius of Catholic doctrine about indulgences and making reparation through acts of penance. No doubt, the prodigal son had to make good on his resolve, after the music and dancing, and behave himself as a hired hand in his father’s house. He could not presume his previous station before running off and squandering his part of the inheritance. The hard work of penance would signal to his father and to the whole household his contrite and humbled heart. We must do the same after we have been forgiven in confession. That is the Catholic sense of our penance in response to the temporal punishment due for our sins. Laetare! Rejoice!
Praised be Jesus Christ!
PROPERANTES ADVENTUM DIEI DEI