The Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday, a celebration very much like Gaudete Sunday in Advent. For each of those Sundays, we use rose-colored vestments, and both Latin words can be translated, “rejoice.” Both also announce to us that we are drawing ever closer to the feast for which we are preparing (Christmas for Gaudete Sunday, and Easter for Laetare Sunday).
Our entrance antiphon for the Mass this Sunday, in Latin, announces:
Laetare, Ierusalem, et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam.
Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad because of her, all you who love her.
We rejoice with Jerusalem, for her redemption is at hand! We do not wait until Easter Sunday to celebrate the mystery of our redemption in Christ. The Church teaches us that every Sunday is a celebration of Easter, whether it is in Advent, Lent or Ordinary Time. Every Sunday celebrates the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
This Laetare Sunday we are reminded that even in the midst of our desert experience, even in the middle of Lent, we have great reason to celebrate and rejoice: Jesus Christ has come, He has suffered and died for us, and is risen from the dead. Even now we anticipate that joy of Easter.
It is not at all unlike what we find in the natural world. Nature does not wait for a particular day before revealing the signs of spring all around us. Buds start to blossom on the trees and flowers begin to bloom long before the first day of spring hits the calendar.
Even in our sanctuary you may have noticed new signs of life. Our decorating committee decided to keep the sanctuary stark and barren this year as a reminder of the desert experience of Lent. They placed dead branches in clay pots filled with sand on either side of the tabernacle. But if you are sitting close enough, you may be able to see that those dead branches have started to come back to life. That’s a great picture for us of Laetare Sunday; it is like a stream in the desert.
You may have seen the movie The Chronicles of Narnia. If you have children you may have seen it a few dozen times! It is a great story that begins with the Land of Narnia under a terrible curse. Everything is frozen in snow and ice; it is “always winter and never Christmas,” as one of the characters says; a long, cold winter without any hope of spring or summer.
But mid-way through that movie, as Aslan the King draws ever closer to Narnia (Aslan represents Christ in that movie), the curse that has held Narnia in its frozen grip begins, slowly, to let go. The snow and ice begin to melt and the main characters, as they walk through the forest, watch it come to life before their eyes. Trees begin to take on green leafs; flowers blossom and bloom.
It is a beautiful story, but the author of The Chronicles of Narnia never meant for it to be just a children’s story. It is the real story of our own redemption.
The land that we live in is under a curse: the curse of sin. It is a curse that often separates us from each other; it separates and divides families, churches, and communities. It is a curse that separates us from God. The curse of sin makes the world we live in a very cold place indeed. But Jesus Christ is the King who comes to break that curse.
Christ comes from heaven to earth, into this icy world, to suffer and die on the cross and to break the curse of sin and death which has touched us all. He has come to reconcile us to God and to each other. He comes to inaugurate what St. Paul, in our second reading today, calls the Ministry of Reconciliation. He says:
God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ, not counting their trespasses against them and entrusting to us the ministry of reconciliation.
—2 Corinthians 5:19
There are two important and essential aspects to that description from St. Paul. We are called, first and foremost, to be reconciled to God. Secondly, we are then entrusted with that same ministry of reconciliation.
Pope John Paul the Great, in his 1984 Apostolic Exhortation, Reconciliation and Penance, says that this Ministry of Reconciliation described by St. Paul sums up the entire mission of the Church: a people who are first reconciled to God, and who then seek to reconcile others to that same God.
In terms of our Gospel parable this weekend, we are called to be—like the Prodigal Son—those who come before God and seek His mercy and forgiveness. But we are also called to be like the Father: always ready to welcome back the Prodigal, and even reaching out to the bitter, angry, older brother. We are constantly being reconciled, and seeking reconciliation for those around us.
That’s the reason we rejoice this Laetare Sunday: because we have received and been given the Ministry of Reconciliation. That’s the reason we can sing for joy in what God has done and in what He is doing in the world around us.
But if there is a lack of joy in our lives this Lent; if there is a lack of joy in the Church; if there is a lack of joy in the world around us; is it possible that we are not as open as we should be to this Ministry of Reconciliation?
One of the obvious themes of Pope John Paul II’s Reconciliation and Penance is the Sacrament of Reconciliation, the Sacrament of Penance. Are we making ourselves available to that source of reconciliation and the mercy, forgiveness, and joy that come as a result of it? When is the last time you made a sacramental confession and allowed God to touch your life and your soul with the Ministry of Reconciliation? When was the last time you were able to reconcile with another person, or help someone else to be reconciled with God?
Steve Brown, founder of Key Life Network, tells the story of two brothers who did everything together. But outside of that they were as different as two people could be. The older brother was tall, good looking, and everyone liked him. The younger brother was short and, to be rather blunt, he was ugly; and worst of all he had a hunched back that you couldn’t help but notice. But he could sing! Wow could he sing! He had the voice of an angel, and people from all over town would come to the church on Sunday, many just to listen to him.
Eventually the two were sent off to a boarding school together, and as you might have guessed, the older brother made many friends, quickly. The younger brother, unfortunately, had a much harder time of it.
One day, as the older brother was passing by the chemistry lab, he heard much laughing and carrying on. He stepped into the room to find out what all the noise was about, when he suddenly froze in fear. A group of students had gathered around his younger brother, and they had pulled his shirt up over his head, exposing his back, and they were mocking him.
The older brother wanted to rush in and defend him, but he was afraid. He thought for a moment that if he did so, they might begin ridiculing him instead, and the thought of that was just too much for him to bear, so he turned quickly and went away.
But not before his brother saw him leaving.
Soon after that, the younger brother decided he could no longer stay at the boarding school so he packed his things and returned back home. But the people of that town never heard him sing again.
It was some 10 years later, and the older brother was half way across the world, just finishing his time in the service. He was sitting out beneath the stars, very much at peace, when he suddenly became convicted by the Holy Spirit for what he had done to his brother so long ago.
At great expense of time and money, he made his way back to the town where they used to live. He found his brother, and to his surprise and wonder the little brother forgave him and welcomed him into his home. They embraced and wept, and talked together until the early hours of the morning so that the older brother could no longer keep his eyes open.
Finally he crawled up onto the couch, and went to sleep . . . only to be awakened in the morning by the most beautiful sound that he had ever heard. It was the voice of his brother, coming from the next room over, and he was singing.
We can ask ourselves this Laetare Sunday: Where do we most need to hear that singing in our lives at this time?
Where do we most need to be reconciled to God and to each other?
There is great news for us in our entrance antiphon: Laetare, Ierusalem! Rejoice, Jerusalem! The Ministry of Reconciliation—God reconciling the world in Christ—has come. In the words of St. Paul: We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God (2 Corinthians 5:20).