Sunday, March 15, 2015

Laetare Sunday

Today is Laetare Sunday. Our Lenten pilgrimage is already half-over – or, to express it more positively, we are already half-way to Easter. On this Sunday, the Church lightens the liturgical atmosphere, replacing somber violet vestments with bright rose, putting flowers on the altar, and allowing greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the inner joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast – whether we are new Catholics preparing to receive the sacraments of initiation at Easter or life-long Catholics called to a life of ongoing conversion.

Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem; et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis; ut exsultetis, et saltiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae.  (“Rejoice, Jerusalem; and come together all you who love her; rejoice with joy, all you who have been in sorrow; that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.”). 

In keeping with the Jerusalem theme, today’s Roman stational church is the Basilica of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem," a basilica built about 325 around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday.” It is the original Mother's Day!

For those preparing for baptism, the Church celebrates today the second scrutiny of the elect. “The entire Lenten Lectionary is a lesson book that prepares the elect among the catechumens to receive the Sacraments of Initiation at the Easter Vigil, just as it prepares all the faithful to renew themselves in the new life into which they have been reborn(Congregation for Divine Worship, Homiletic Directory, 67). The theme of today’s second scrutiny associates baptism with light. Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light (Ephesians 5:14). One more scrutiny next Sunday, and the elect will be ready for Holy week and Easter. As must we also be.

For the rest of us, on this mid-Lent Sunday, the liturgy is primarily a joyful celebration of God’s mercy. God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ (Ephesians 2:4). God’s mercy was already experienced in the Old Testament, for example, in the story we hear today of the Persian King Cyrus, who ended Israel’s exile in Babylon: Whoever, therefore, among you belongs to any part of his people, let him go up, and may his God be with him (2 Chronicles 36:23). 

Cyrus reigned over the Persian Empire for some 30 years in the 6th century BC. (His tomb,which the late Shah of Iran used as a backdrop to celebrate 2500 years of Persian monarchy in 1971, is recognized by the UN as a World heritage Site.) A Gentile, Cyrus was nonetheless the instrument through whom God showed his mercy to Israel in its exile, enabling God's people to return to Jerusalem and rebuild the Temple. Hence the Old Testament does not shy away from calling Cyrus God's anointed one (Isaiah 45:1). 

God's agenda of mercy is fulfilled in Jesus’ familiar words in today's Gospel: God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life (John 3:16).

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