Fourth Sunday of Lent: Laetare Sunday

Today I preached two homilies. One was for the regular Mass of the day, the Cycle C readings, including the Parable of the Prodigal Father. The other was for the Mass of the second scrutiny of the Elect, the Cycle A readings, including the cure of the man born blind.

Cycle C Readings

Whenever we hear a story like the Parable of the Prodigal Son, don’t we find that we know it so well, that we almost tune it out as it’s being proclaimed? I am guessing if I went up and down the aisles today and asked people at random to summarize the story in their own words, almost everyone here could do it easily. Don’t worry – I’m not going to test you! But the bad part about knowing a parable so well is that we almost know it too well. We may indeed tune it out, and because we think we know what it’s all about, we miss what the Spirit is trying to do in us as those words are proclaimed.

There are some techniques that can help us with that, of course. One of the best is attributed to St. Ignatius of Loyola. His technique is that you have to put yourself into the story. So you sit with your Bible open to Luke chapter 15, and you quiet yourself. Then you read very slowly, stopping whenever the Spirit prompts you to reflect on a word or phrase – maybe it’s a word or phrase you haven’t seen before. After you’ve taken time to do this, you go back and read it again, trying to imagine yourself in the story. Maybe you will put yourself in the place of one of the two brothers, or one of the servants, or perhaps in the place of the gentile citizen who hired the wayward son to tend the swine, or even just a bystander, watching all this unfold. In any case, you try to imagine the setting, the place and the sounds, and try to hear the words being spoken and to be present to the action as it unfolds. Then when you’re done, take some time to reflect on what God was trying to say to you in all that. That’s a great way to freshen what may be a stale look at an old familiar story. So that’s your homework today. Sit in a quiet spot for half an hour with Luke 15 open in your lap. Who knows, there may be a quiz next week!

Seriously, I give that to you as a tool to understand it better. You may find yourself feeling much like one or the other of the brothers from time to time – maybe you often find a little of both of them in you. But, to me, the story isn’t really about either one of the brothers, and the prodigal in the story is not the wayward son. We know that the word “prodigal” is related to the word “prodigious” and means generously, even wastefully, extravagant. The prodigal one here then, is the Father, who is extravagant with mercy and forgiveness and grace. So today, I want to focus on the character of the Father in this story.

And I want to focus on the Father through the lens of today’s celebration. Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet. I don’t have a problem with rose-colored vestments, but I’m not wild about the one we have, so as you see, I’m wearing violet today! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing. It might be good, then, to ask ourselves two questions. First, what is there to rejoice about in the Parable of the Prodigal Father? And second, what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

Let’s begin that reflection by looking ahead for a minute. Less than three weeks from today, we will gather on the evening of Holy Saturday here in a darkened Church. That darkness represents the darkness of a world defiled by sin, but also the darkness in our own lives when we have lost sight of faith, hope and love. But the Church does not despise that darkness, no. Instead the church bravely stands up in the midst of it, lights a fire, and sings the great hymn known as the Exsultet. Exsultet is also a Latin word for “rejoice” and “rejoice” is the first word of that hymn. So as we reflect on the rejoicing to be found in today’s Gospel parable, and the rejoicing to be found in our own world and in our own lives, I am going to offer that reflection through some of the words of the Exsultet hymn.

The Pharisees mentioned at the beginning of today’s Gospel are strongly in favor of despising the darkness. They would prefer to write off the tax collectors and sinners that Jesus prefers to dine with, and they are indignant at Jesus’ acceptance of those people. Maybe this parable could speak to us, then, when we would prefer to write people off. Because we would often write off those who have wronged us, those who are our enemies, whether personal or societal. We would prefer sometimes to write off those whose poverty and homelessness are the result of their own poor choices. We would prefer to write off those who refuse to accept our way of thinking. But the Father isn’t having any of that. Instead, he pours out faith on us giving us the opportunity to see these people through God’s eyes, if we will but take the opportunity to do so. Through those eyes of faith, we can see a world that is surely steeped in sin, but just as surely painted gloriously with the goodness of God. And to that kind of defiant, in-your-face attitude against the darkness, the Exsultet cries out in joy,

Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels!
Exult, all creation around God’s throne!
Jesus Christ, our King, is risen!
Sound the trumpet of salvation!

Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor,
radiant in the brightness of your King!
Christ has conquered! Glory fills you!
Darkness vanishes for ever!

I said I wanted to focus on the father, and so let’s take a look at what he does in this parable. A good Jewish father of that time would have sat motionless as the wayward son crawled to him and spit out that whole story that he practiced while he was tending the swine. He would have heard it, and probably rejected that son, and with good reason. The son took his portion of the estate, effectively saying “I wish you were dead.” He then used his inheritance for all kinds of immoral living, and finally ended up completing his degradation by working for a Gentile and tending swine, an occupation forbidden by the Law. The father would have been right to reject him and send him on his way. But that’s not what the Father does! The father instead pours out hope, not sitting motionless but running out to meet his son while he was still a long way off! And to the other son who was indignant and refused to join the celebration, he also went out to meet him on the road, pleading with him to come in and promising him everything in return. Our Father pours out this hope on us, no matter how far we have fallen, no matter where our bad choices have taken us, no matter how many times we have sinned, no matter how many of our hopes have been crushed. When our hopes are gone, the Exsultet sings of our great hope in Christ:

The power of this holy night dispels all evil,
washes guilt away, restores lost innocence,
brings mourners joy;
it casts out hatred, brings us peace,
and humbles earthly pride.

If anything comes through to us in this parable, if there’s one message that we receive, it should be that we can never fall so far that God can’t reach us. In great love, the father of the parable runs out to meet a wayward son, and later to plead with an indignant son. He wraps the wayward one in fine clothes and new shoes and jewelry and throws a magnificent feast with the finest of food. He invites everyone to the feast. Our Prodigal Father drenches us with that same kind of love. He runs out to meet us where we are, calling us to come back to him. He wraps us in the new white robe of our baptism, making of us a new creation in Christ. He brings us to this holy place for this magnificent banquet and provides the finest of food through the body and blood of his own Son. To the outpouring of that kind of love, the Church’s only response can be,

Rejoice, O Mother Church! Exult in glory!
The risen Savior shines upon you!
Let this place resound with joy,
echoing the mighty song of all God’s people
!

Today’s Liturgy is a call for all of us to attend to our vision. Do we see others as God sees them? Do we even see ourselves as God sees us? How do we see Christ at work in our lives and in our world? Do we accept God’s prodigious mercy and love as it’s poured out on us, and perhaps even as it’s poured out on those who we think are unworthy of it? May we cast aside any obstacles to the faith, hope and love that our Prodigal Father longs to wrap us up in. Then maybe we too can become a source of God’s prodigious mercy, maybe our little corner of the world can know faith in the face of blasphemous disbelief, hope in the face of crushed hopes, and love in the face of hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk. May we carry the defiant light of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow.

May the Morning Star which never sets
find this flame still burning:
Christ, that Morning Star,
who came back from the dead,
and shed his peaceful light on all humankind,
your Son, who lives and reigns for ever and ever.
Amen.

 


 

Cycle A Readings

Whenever I read today’s first reading, I always think of my father. Dad has a way of seeing in people things that others don’t see. There’s almost nowhere we can go with Dad where we don’t find someone he knows – I think it’s an Irish thing: he never met a stranger. This can be very irritating when we have a thousand errands to do and Dad’s chatting with someone he knows while we’re hauling the groceries out to the car. But his vision is certainly a gift from God, and so many people are grateful for what he’s seen in them, and have been inspired to do things they never thought they could because of that vision.

That’s the kind of vision that is required in today’s first reading. Jesse and Samuel were all taken by Eliab, who was tall and good looking and radiating confidence. Surely Eliab must be the one to be anointed king. But God had them slow down and realize that he hadn’t chosen Eliab, or any of the other of Jesse’s first seven sons. He had chosen David: the lowly little kid out tending the sheep. It turns out he made an even more splendid appearance than Eliab or any of his other brothers. What was truly splendid was what God saw: his heart. The beauty of what was inside him qualified him to be the special king of God’s choosing.

I always pray for vision like that. It’s so easy to go with what we like to see. We tend to hang around with people who are like us and are drawn to activities that give us pleasure. We collect the things that look nice to us and tend to create the kind of world we’d like to see. But that first reading calls us to overcome this blindness and catch the vision that God uses: a vision that sees to the very heart of people and the world. When we fall short of having that kind of vision, we are afflicted with a kind of blindness that severely afflicted the Pharisees in today’s Gospel reading. “Surely we are not also blind, are we?” That’s the crucial question in today’s Gospel. You don’t have to do a great deal of study to figure out that the blindness Jesus is talking about is not mere physical blindness, but the Pharisees don’t get that. Which is why they are truly blind.

Today’s Gospel then is a kind of journey to clearer vision. We are all born blind, in a sense, and it takes the presence of Jesus to clear our vision. Just as the man born blind was sent to the pool of Siloam, we too are sent to the waters of baptism, which clears our eyes and helps us to really see. In baptism, the darkness of life is transformed by the presence of Christ, the Light of the World. During the course of all the questionings that follow, the man’s vision becomes clearer and clearer. At first he doesn’t know who Jesus is or where to find him. Later on he testifies that Jesus is a prophet and finally, with the help of Jesus’ instruction, that Jesus is the Son of Man and worthy of worship. We make this same journey ourselves. From the waters of baptism, we need to continue the conversation and return to Christ again and again to grow in our faith. The vision that worked for us when we were young no longer suffices and we must be set aside old ideas to make room for newer, bolder proclamations about the power of Christ’s light in our lives.

From another point of view, this Gospel reading is almost comical. Here are the disciples and all the religious authorities – the Pharisees – standing around discussing amongst themselves this man born blind. First, the disciples wonder how it is that he came to be blind and asked Jesus if it was the man’s sin or his parents’. Then we have the Pharisees fretting about the man being cured on the Sabbath. And next they’re questioning everyone they can find to see how it is the man came to see. While they are discussing the matter to death, Jesus is quietly not only healing the man’s physical blindness, but also attending to his faith. And at the end of it, they’re all still wondering how this came to be.

It’s the behavior of the Pharisees that illustrates what Jesus considers to be true blindness. Physical blindness is easy enough to overcome; but this blindness that starts in the heart tends to remain, just as it does in the lives of the Pharisees when we leave them at the end of today’s Gospel. They, like Samuel and Jesse in the first reading, would do well to remember that the source of true sight is God himself, who sees into the heart.

This reading is a wonderful point of reflection for us during Lent. Seeing our Elect pray the second scrutiny and look forward to his baptism, we are called to look back at our baptisms and see once again the Christ who cleared our eyes and longs to overcome whatever darkness reigns in us. During Lent, we have the opportunity to reflect on the parts of our lives where our vision is severely limited, and allow Jesus to help us move into real light. Lent is the time to journey with our Elect and renew ourselves in the faith, clearing away whatever prevents us from seeing Christ and responding to his grace in our lives.

Traditionally, today is Laetare Sunday – laetare being Latin for “rejoice.” Sometimes this Sunday is celebrated by the wearing of rose-colored vestments, rather than the Lenten violet. I don’t have a problem with rose-colored vestments, but I’m not wild about the one we have, so as you see, I’m wearing violet today! But still, this is Laetare Sunday, and it reminds us that even in the “heaviness” of Lent, there is reason for rejoicing. It might be good, then, to ask ourselves, what in the world gives us cause to rejoice today, here and now, in our own lives?

In a few weeks, the Mass of the Easter Vigil will begin by telling us all the reasons we should rejoice. That Mass begins with the sung Easter Proclamation – the Exsultet – which tells the whole story of God’s mercy and sings God’s praises. It is sung in the darkened church, proclaiming that, even in the darkness of our world, the light of God’s mercy still reigns and has power to overcome everything that keeps us from the true Light of the world. It begins: Rejoice, heavenly powers! Sing, choirs of angels! Exult, all creation around God’s throne! Jesus Christ our King is risen! Sound the trumpet of salvation!

That proclamation of the Exsultet almost seems out of place in our world today. All we have to do is pick up a newspaper to be convinced of the darkness that pervades our lives. Wars and terrorism claim the lives of innocent people and young soldiers alike. Crime in its many forms takes its toll on our society. Injustice and oppression still exist in our own nation and abroad. The poor still hunger and thirst for the basic necessities of life. And then we could look at the darkness that seems to reign in our own lives. Sin that has not been confessed. Bad habits that have not been broken. Love and mercy that have been withheld. All of these darken our own lives in ways that we don’t fully appreciate at the time, but later see with sad clarity. Our world and our lives can be such dark places in these days. But to that darkness, the Exsultet sings: Rejoice, O earth, in shining splendor, radiant in the brightness of your King! Christ has conquered! Glory fills you! Darkness vanishes for ever!

What’s great about the Exsultet, I think, is the kind of “in your face” attitude it has about joy. Yes, the world can be a dark place, but that darkness is no match for the light that Christ brings to the world. Yes there is sorrow and sin and death, but they are no match for the joy of Eternal Life, the life that comes only from Christ’s triumph over the grave. Of this kind of joy, the Exsultet sings: What good would life have been to us, had Christ not come as our Redeemer? Father, how wonderful your care for us! How boundless your merciful love! To ransom a slave, you gave away your Son.

Today’s Liturgy is a call for all of us to attend to our vision. Do we see others as God sees them? Do we even see ourselves as God sees us? How do we see Christ at work in our lives and in our world? Where we encounter obstacles to the clear vision that we must have in this darkened world, we should set them aside and allow Christ to anoint our eyes so that we can see as God sees, this God who sees into the heart. Then as the darkness that exists in our own lives is transformed to light, maybe our little corner of the world can know compassion amidst sorrow, comfort amidst mourning, mercy against intolerance, love against hatred, and the peace that passes all of our understanding in every place we walk. May we carry the flame of God’s love into our world to brighten every darkness and bring joy to every sorrow. May the Morning Star which never sets find this flame still burning: Christ that Morning Star, who came back from the dead, and shed his peaceful light on all humankind, your Son who lives and reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

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