Laetare: Lenten Rejoicing, in Three Songs

Image of Crocuses in Snow

Image of Crocuses in Snow

Song One: Today’s entrance antiphon, from which this Fourth Sunday in Lent takes its name:

Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ. Lætatus sum in his quæ 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!”

This is one of the two Sundays where we pull out the pink vestments, often to nervous clerical titters and claims about one’s masculinity (further undermined by the titters…). But the bright splash of color is meant to be a moment of joy in the midst of our Lenten discipline, a moment to rejoice on our way to the cross. It’s often a moment of great consolation for me in the midst of my Lenten failures (and still remains, as I said in these pages two years ago, my favorite Sunday in Lent. And not just because of the pink).

Song Two: from Psalm 137

By the rivers of Babylon we sat and wept
    when we remembered Zion.
There on the poplars
    we hung our harps,
for there our captors asked us for songs,
    our tormentors demanded songs of joy;
    they said, “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”

How can we sing the songs of the Lord
    while in a foreign land?

It’s been a long winter. Not in terms of temperatures, at least where I live in Washington, D.C., but also in many other parts of the northern hemisphere (thanks, Anthropocene Era!). But it has been long, cold, and dark in many other ways. Some of them are personal for me this year – the usual warp and woof of joy and pain in all of our lives, yes, but losses and disappointments no less painful for their being ordinary. Some have been broader – the temptations to despair came in an early icy blast on November 7, and the following months have piled up metaphorical snow on snow: attacks upon our undocumented sisters and brothers; travel bans and overheated rhetoric about migrants, refugees, and entire religious traditions; continuing inability to address the structural injustices of racism and sexism in our country; a general sense of dysfunction in our society, our government, our churches. There’s no better symbol for despair than a supposedly Catholic “Benedict Option” which suggests retreat instead of engagement as a responsible Christian response to our times – so much for St. John Paul II’s “Duc in altum!”

Song Three: From “February”, by Dar Williams

And February was so long that it lasted into March
And found us walking a path alone together
You stopped and pointed and you said “that’s a crocus”
And I said “what’s a crocus ?” and you said “it’s a flower”
I tried to remember but I said “what’s a flower ?”
You said “I still love you”

The singer-songwriter Dar Williams knows a few things about love, and about loss, and about New England winters. In her song “February,” the winter has lasted so long that her lover has to remind her by the end both about love and about flowers. Again, here in DC, we recently had our first, and only, snow of the winter, after a burst of warmth in which the cherry blossoms had started to open and the crocuses and daffodils were rising, followed by a few days of hard frost. The delicate cherry blossoms have mostly turned to brown, while the crocuses, slow and steady, have survived. There’s a parable there about the difference between joy and cheerfulness.

From my reading of the scriptures, Jesus was never of the opinion that the Reign of God would come in a burst of vibrant colors, in a field full of flowers, in an avalanche of undeniable happiness. Rather, it comes as hidden, as yeast in a loaf, mustard seed in a garden, treasure in a field – crocuses in the snow. Today’s antiphon does not say, “Cheer up!,” one of the most death-dealing phrases of our contemporary language. It does not say, “Ignore, deny, or purchase your way out of your pain.” It tells us to rejoice, that is, to pray “your will be done on earth as it is in heaven” with increased lament for those who most need the reign of God and increased confidence that what God has promised will come about.

How do we learn to rejoice in the midst of our lament? Today’s Gospel gives us a clue – by learning how to see. Like the man born blind, we need to be healed so that we can see clearly despite our finitude and our sin. To see the yeast already at work in the dough of our lives and the mustard seeds of truth and justice already creating a more hospitable world around us and through us. Like Dar Williams’s lover, we need God to point out the crocuses, and remind us, “I still love you.”

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