This weekend we pass the mid-point of Lent and come to Laetare Sunday. There are three and a half weeks behind us, to Ash Wednesday, and three weeks ahead, to Easter. The Entrance Antiphon says, “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning,” etc., so this Sunday is called “Rejoice,” in Latin, Laetare. (An interesting point: in the reforms after Vatican II, they did not change these entrance antiphons, so that we could keep the wonderful old musical settings.)
We celebrate having survived halfway through the hardships. The liturgical color, as on Gaudete Sunday, halfway through Advent, is rose.
And the reading, in this year from Luke, is the great joyful Gospel of the Prodigal Son.
The punchline of our Gospel is at the end. The angry older brother complains at the fine treatment of his louse of a little brother. The father says, “Now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found.”
Recent preachers have sometimes liked to call this the Parable of the Older Brother. The older brother gets almost as many verses (eight) as the younger brother (thirteen). You could read the story as a set up for thinking about jealousy. There are many other such stories in the Gospel, such as the servant who is forgiven a great debt but will not forgive a much smaller debt. (That parable is in Matthew 18 – but Luke seems to draw a different point from it in the chapter after the Prodigal Son.) The older son, too, has received everything from his father. His jealousy is not becoming.
We can focus on the father, too, whose mercy is a beautiful icon of the “prodigal” mercy of our Heavenly Father, both clement (sparing in punishment) and merciful (pouring out bounty).
But in the context of Laetare Sunday, it perhaps makes more sense to focus on the Prodigal. As we hopefully look forward to Easter, and ponder our Lenten sacrifices, it makes sense to think of death and resurrection. The simple moral of the story seems to be that we have to bottom out to appreciate what we have. The experience of fasting, the experience of the Cross, makes us newly aware of the goodness of life. Indeed, it is in light of this truth that we understand the older brother’s stinginess and the father’s generosity. It is a basic fact of human existence that we have to lose things to appreciate them.
Death and resurrection is the theme to which the other readings point us. In our Old Testament review of the history of conversion, this week we get Joshua. Now, the story is truncated almost beyond recognition.
It begins with the Lord telling Joshua, “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” But what has just happened is that, after forty years of wandering in the desert, God has opened the Jordan so they can cross through. The book gives us a strange historical detail: the wilderness generation had not circumcised their children, so God commands a general circumcision before they enter the land. Abraham had been given circumcision as a sign of the promised land; those who were told they would not enter seem to have been told to set aside that sign. But after their suffering, the sign is re-instituted.
Once again, it took forty years in the wilderness for the Israelites to appreciate God’s promises to them. And God called them to celebrate the promise through pain. Through death to resurrection.
In the paragraph we are given, God takes away the manna – because now they will have a land flowing with milk and honey. The manna was a sign of God’s provision, but they needed deprivation to see it. And even that heavenly bread is taken away as a stimulus to enter into the promise. Through death to resurrection.
As usual, our Epistle, from Second Corinthians, transfers these physical parables into spiritual realities. The center of our paragraph is all about reconciliation: “God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ.”
But the first sentence is about death and resurrection: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation: the old things have passed away; behold, new things have come.” That reconciliation involves leaving behind the old ways. Through death to resurrection – “passing away” is, in Greek too, a word connected to dying.
And the final sentence is about Christ’s death: “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.” He entered into our punishment, into our penance, so that our Lent could be a path to moral resurrection.
Because finally, Easter is not about feasting on the fatted calf, but on knowing the Merciful Father himself.
What have you learned from your Lenten penances?