This, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is Laetare Sunday, my favorite Sunday in Lent, and not just because of the pink vestments that insecure clergy sometimes attempt to convince you are “rose.” So many of the rich images, words, and themes that will recur at the Easter Vigil are hinted in today’s readings and prayers — the anointing of David with oil, the enlightening of the man born blind in John, and the Letter to the Ephesians’ call to “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” Like the paschal exsultet in the middle of the darkness of the Easter Vigil, Laetare Sunday is a bright little burst of light and joy in the midst of Lent. And, not coincidentally, it coincides with these first uncertain, hesitant bursts of springtime found in European and North American climates at this time of year. Here in Washington, D.C., where I live, we have had 70-degree days followed by snow in the past week, and very confused crocuses attempting to push their way towards the sun.
The name “Laetare Sunday” comes from the introit text –
“Laetare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae. Psalm: Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.”
“Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Psalm: I rejoiced when they said to me, we shall go into God’s House!”
Notice how many different words are used to indicate joy and happiness – laetare, gaudete, exsultete – by the time we get to “gaudete cum laetitia” — “rejoice with joy” — we’re running out of words to describe our call to “rejoice always.” But why rejoice? Is Laetare Sunday simply a break from our Lenten journey, or can it be experienced as a sacrament of an important aspect of our lifelong Lenten journey? I’ve heard numerous sermons in which Laetare Sunday is a bit like the midterm of a semester — a time to check in to see how you’re doing in your Lenten commitments, a wake up call to stop eating that chocolate and get back on track in time for
the final exam Easter. But ironically, I think Laetare Sunday can be the best, anti-Pelagian reminder of our need for God’s grace, not despite, but even in and through our best efforts.
The image of a flickering candle or a fragile flower steadfastly poking towards the sun provides a suitable image for seeing joy in the midst of our struggles. By this time in Lent, I’ve usually failed in my goals, failed in my thinly disguised spiritual self-help projects. But that recognition of my frailty, both culpable and not, might be part of the Lenten gift. Laetare Sunday provides us with the strange grace of rejoicing in our awareness of our sinfulness.
Even before yesterday’s moving photos depicting him receiving the sacrament of reconciliation before offering it to others, Pope Francis has led the way in both his honesty and his joy as a sinner forgiven by God. In the famous Jesuit interview, reproduced in America magazine, he answered the first question — “Who is Jorge Mario Bergoglio?” by saying “I am a sinner. This is the most accurate definition. It is not a figure of speech, a literary genre. I am a sinner.” But this is not simply a statement of humility — for Francis, to know oneself as a receiver of God’s grace of forgiveness is a statement of joy. In another talk while still Archbishop of Buenos Aires, he said this:
One who is a sinner, despite appearances to the contrary, is one who has hope, because when we become aware that we are sinners and we are saved by Jesus, confessing this truth to ourselves we discover the hidden gem, buried treasure. I think only we great sinners have this grace … the only glory we have is that we are sinners [because] sin honestly admitted is a privileged place of encounter with Jesus Christ the Savior, and allows the rediscovery of the deep meaning that he has for me. In short, it represents an opportunity to experience the wonder of being saved.∗
For Pope Francis, recognizing one’s frailty — both the frailty of sinfulness that needs healing, and the frailty of humanity that needs God’s care — is an opportunity for hope, and even for joy, because it has the potential to lead us to a closer relationship with God. In the same text, Francis wrote “for me sin is not a stain that I need to clean: what I need to do is to ask for forgiveness and be reconciled, not to go to the dry cleaners.”† Today’s complex Gospel involves a man born blind, not due to sin, but whose blindness allows him to see, and the impending judgment on those saying “we see” whose sin therefore remains. For us, if I’m understanding Pope Francis’ vision correctly, recognizing our frailty and our need for Jesus’ touch, for the oil and water of our baptisms, and for the Christ the pillar of fire to light our shaky candles, makes Lent a time not for pulling ourselves up by our spiritual bootstraps, but for gratefully, joyfully, exultantly, receiving Christ’s healing touch and for sharing that touch with others.
Rejoice, Church of sinners! Gaudete cum laetitia!
∗ Found in Luigi Rossi, “Papa Francesco e il suo viaggio verso le periferie dell’umanità,” who is in turn quoting from Papa Francesco: Il nuovo papa si racconta (Milan: Salani, 2013), 96. My translation.
†Also from Papa Francesco, 96. Cited in Andrea Riccardi, La sorpesa di Papa Francesco (Milan: Mondadori, 2013), 178.