Traditionally, the 4th Sunday of Lent is known as ‘Laetare Sunday’. It takes its name from the Latin introduction to the Mass, ‘Laetare Jerusalem’ – rejoice Jerusalem – a quotation from Isaiah 66. 10. It is a moment when the prophet consoles Israel, her time of mourning is over, and God is to redeem her from all her tribulation.
But you don’t need to know Latin to see that this is a different Sunday. The deep purples of Lenten repentance and sorrow are changed to a delicate rose colour. They signal that for today the rigours of our Lenten journey can lightened. This Sunday we can stop to rest for a moment and contemplate the goal of our journey – the homecoming of Easter. We know, of course, that there is still some way to go. As with so many journeys, it is the last part that is the hardest. Yet, knowing this, it is good to pause, to re-group for the final week ahead.
The gospel for Laetare Sunday gives us two possibilities: One is from the gospel of John 9:1-41. It is the man born blind whom Jesus cures on the sabbath day. In the Israelite culture of the time, physical disability not only made a hard life harder, it also carried a social and religious stigma. It was regarded as a divine punishment for sin. We can only imagine how much this sabbath was truly a ‘Laetare’ sabbath for the man cured of his blindness – a social and spiritual healing as much as physical one. But for the Pharisees it presented a different sort of theological and social problem. Had Jesus broken the sacred law of the Sabbath by performing a ‘work.’ Was he not only rejecting their authority as interpreters of the Law, but quietly undermining its observance, putting Israel and its identity as God’s chosen and holy people at risk? It is a tension which runs through all the gospels – does Jesus’ break the law or fulfil it?
The pharisees try to enlist the man to testify against Jesus. He refuses; he simply cannot deny what has happened to him. To deny his own cure would be to go back into an even deeper darkness of alienation than when he was physically blind.
Like most of these dramatic moments in John, there is always much more going on than appears at first sight. “Seeing” is always much more than physical sight. It is coming to recognise the whole truth of who Jesus is; to know him as the Son of God, the true light and saviour of the world.
The blind man is given sight and he suffers for it. He doesn’t fully understand at first, but he cannot deny the truth of his own experience. He sees through those who would wish him to do so. He understands that he is only a pawn in the game of the Pharisees. They don’t really see him or what has just happened for him. They only want to use him to serve their own end.
The story subtlety invites to ask who is really blind? Nothing makes us more blind than our own prejudices, especially those which say what God can or cannot do, who Christ can or cannot choose. Christ liberates our truth; he does not force us to deny or suppress it. He invites us to see the grace of who we truly are, and who we are called to be. He frees us so that we can rejoice the God who makes us, and graciously, lovingly, remakes us, and never tires of taking joy in each one of us.
Once given his sight, the man must make a journey in which he becomes a witness to the truth of Christ. At first, he only knew Jesus as the one who cured him. When he encounters Jesus a second time, he also receives new sight even more precious than physical vision. He recognises that Jesus is the Saviour. He has new eyes, the eyes of faith. He knows that now, not only he has he been given his sight, but the gift of new life. He was right to go on seeking and asking and waiting and refusing to deny or distort the truth of his own life and experience.
If we spend some time with this man, he can show us how to hold fast to the integrity of our faith, to see everything through these new eyes, and to rejoice at what we see – at the Christ who stands before us.
The other gospel for ‘Laetare Sunday’ is equally full of detail and meaning. Even when familiar it, too, has something fresh to offer us. It is the parable of the prodigal son in the gospel of Luke 15:1-32. Here, it is part of a trilogy of parables: they are all about finding something that has been lost. The parable of the prodigal son is a vivid parable, filled with psychological and material detail, in which we see the gentle but majestic love of God, the Father, giving us a home, waiting for us to return.
So much has been written about the parable of the prodigal son that our words, no matter how moving or insightful, can get between us and Jesus who is speaking directly to us. Maybe the best way, is just to read or hear the parable again and then to put the text aside and imagine we hear Jesus telling it to us.
Like all parables, it speaks at many different levels, depending on where we are on the road at this moment. Although it is surely addressed to us personally, it is also a parable about Israel who has lost sight of the God’s mercy. Maybe, too, it is also for a Church or a community that can easily forget that God, like the father, is not afraid to be vulnerable; whose loving mercy is never exhausted, who never rejects a son or a daughter who needed to leave home to discover an even greater need to come home again. Yet it is not quite the same home that they left. ‘Home’ is never just a place; it is a person, the one in whom we can rest, the one who has always loved us and now loves us even more.
When Jesus gave these beautiful images of God’s search for us and God’s joy at finding us, or the Father’s patient, welcoming love, he was not only speaking from his own experience, but from the experience of his people, Israel. That experience continues still. We hear it in the great prayer, Ahava Rabbah, recited or sung in the morning prayer of the Ashkenazi Jewish community, “With a great love have You loved us, Lord, our God; [with] a great and superabundant compassion have You had compassion upon us…. Our Father, merciful Father, the merciful One – have mercy upon us, and put into our hearts to understand and to comprehend and to listen… to your Torah with love.’
I mention the Ahava Rabbah because is quoted or echoed at the end of Ernest Bloch’s moving and intimate piece for cello and piano called ‘prayer’ (Scenes from Jewish Life). As you listen to it, imagine it as conversation between the Father and the son; of two hearts that pour out their need, the pain of their loss and their joy of finding each other again as they hold each other in that embrace of love.
It is a prayer that never ceases; it is the prayer that Jesus makes for each one of us in the presence of his Father. It is the prayer that draws us home and teaches us how to rejoice again, to understand, to comprehend, to listen with love.