Today is Laetare Sunday, when the entrance antiphon for mass urges us to exalt with the inhabitants of the holy city: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow.” We have good reason to rejoice on Laetare Sunday since it reminds us that Easter and its glorious celebration of the mystery of our redemption is only three weeks away. Further, the scriptures give us cause for rejoicing today because they explain what we are redeemed from, what it is that has caused us to “have been in sorrow.”
We begin with the words the first reading, from the Book of Joshua: “Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you” (Jos 5:9). The “reproach” which the Lord removed was the shameful fact (in the eyes of the Israelites) that all the Israelite males born since the exodus some forty years earlier had gone uncircumcised. This means that they lacked the mark that from the time of Abraham (see Gen 17) was the sign of their status as God’s uniquely chosen covenant partners. Joshua’s action of circumcising the Israelites freed them from their shame, and in a symbolic way it made clear that they were once again living in covenant relationship with the Lord. For his part, the Lord then allowed Israel to enjoy the fruits of the promised land (Jos 5:11-12).
An even more profound liberation is described in the second reading, where Saint Paul writes of the freedom from sin which is ours in Christ. Captive to sin on our own, we have been freed from it by God, “who has reconciled us to himself through Christ” (2 Cor 5:18). Paul goes further and makes clear just how far God went to reconcile us to himself: the Son of God himself became subject to human weakness and sin in order to liberate us from it—“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” (2 Cor 5:20-21). That is certainly cause for rejoicing this Laetare Sunday!
Finally, we have perhaps the most easily relatable reason for our rejoicing in the gospel story of the prodigal son. In a sense this parable conveys the spirit of this Sunday’s celebration in Christ’s own words; he explains how God is like the father who welcomes back a wayward son without hesitation, and who showers upon that son the fullness of his love and generosity. Jesus wants us to know that this is how we should look forward to regaining our freedom from sin after falling away from God: we should run back to God as eagerly as the prodigal son ran to his father, knowing that we will be received with a greater joy and tenderness than we can imagine.
Whenever we feel mired in patterns of sin or caught in the distress that can accompany life for many reasons we ought to remember that our ultimate destiny as Christians is to rest in the joy that the Church celebrates in a special way on Laetare Sunday. We should take to heart, then, the lessons of today’s scripture readings, recognizing that although we may “be in sorrow” at many moments through the course of life, our joy remains undimmed on account of the Paschal mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection which we will soon recall in the liturgies of Holy Week and Easter—and on account of the everlasting covenant it has established for the people of Israel and all who call on the name of the Lord.
Father Edward Mazich, O.S.B.
Image: Bartolome Esteban Murillo Title-“Return of the Prodigal Son.