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The Fourth Sunday of Lent is known as “Laetare Sunday,” from the Latin Introit of the Mass, “Laetare Jerusalem,” “Rejoice, O Jerusalem” (Isa 66:10). This mid-point of Lent is traditionally a somewhat festive Sunday, to encourage the faithful to see “the light at the end of the tunnel,” as more than half of the fasting and mortification of Lent is behind us. The use of festive rose-colored vestments is authorized. Many Catholics relax Lenten observances on this day, before gearing up for the “final push” to Holy Week and the Triduum.
The Readings can all be connected with the idea of a “new creation” to which God invites us.
1. The First Reading is Joshua 5:9a, 10-12:
The LORD said to Joshua,
“Today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.”
While the Israelites were encamped at Gilgal on the plains of Jericho,
they celebrated the Passover
on the evening of the fourteenth of the month.
On the day after the Passover,
they ate of the produce of the land
in the form of unleavened cakes and parched grain.
On that same day after the Passover,
on which they ate of the produce of the land, the manna ceased.
No longer was there manna for the Israelites,
who that year ate of the yield of the land of Canaan.
These First Readings during Lent are chosen primarily to give us a brief summary of the story of God’s people Israel (i.e. salvation history), and not primarily to match the Gospel Reading. The First Sunday of Lent gave us a summary of the story of Israel from Abraham to the conquest of the land. The Second Sunday was the account of the covenant with Abraham in Gen 15 (Abrahamic Covenant), and last week we pondered God’s call to Moses, who led the people out of Egypt (Mosaic Covenant).
This Sunday’s reading reminds us of the ministry of Joshua, who succeeded Moses and successfully led the Israelites into the Land of Canaan.
As is usually the case, it is helpful to read the passage in context. The immediately preceding passage tells of how Joshua circumcised the people of Israel once they had entered Canaan, because Moses had neglected to circumcise the generation that grew up during the forty years’ wandering in the wilderness. It is after, and in response to, the communal circumcision that God says, “Today I have removed from you the reproach of Egypt.”
Moses’ failure to circumcise the generation in the wilderness is a sign or symbol of Moses general failure to accomplish God’s will for the people of Israel. Moses was never able to bring the people into the promised land, nor get them to obey God for any length of time. His failure to circumcise is emblematic of his broader failure, and by extension, the failure of the covenant that he mediated.
“Joshua” is the English form of the Hebrew name Y’shua, meaning “salvation”, which comes out in Greek as “Jesus.” Joshua is a great type of the “Joshua” to come, Jesus Christ.
Joshua succeeds in the areas Moses failed. Moses did not bring the people into the Promised Land, but Joshua does. Moses could not get the people to obey God, but Joshua does. Moses did not circumcise the people, but Joshua does. In all these things, Joshua is a type or image of Jesus. Jesus and the New Covenant he inaugurates succeeds in all the ways Moses and his Old Covenant did not. Moses and the Old Covenant cannot bring one to heaven, but Jesus and his New Covenant can (Heb 8:6-13). Moses and his covenant do not bestow the power to obey God, but Jesus and his covenant do (Rom 8:2-4). Moses’ covenant cannot circumcise the heart, but Jesus circumcises our hearts through Baptism (Rom 2:25-29; Col 2:11).
In today’s First Reading, the Land of Canaan is a symbol and type of heaven, the new life in God’s presence. The manna in the wilderness is a type of the Eucharist, the bread from heaven which sustains us through our journey in the “desert” of this present life. Yet the Eucharist will not remain forever; when we enter into God’s presence in the life to come, the Eucharist will pass away as we feed on the direct vision of God. So, in today’s Reading, we see that the manna ceases when the people enter into the promised inheritance and begin to eat the fruit of the land itself. The sacrament passes away as the direct reality is experienced. It will be “a whole new world.”
The Land of Canaan into which Joshua leads the Israelites was, for them, a “new creation” which typifies the “new creation” we experience through Jesus Christ even now by faith and sacrament, and directly in the world to come.
2. The Responsorial Psalm is Ps 34:2-3, 4-5, 6-7:
R. (9a) Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
I will bless the LORD at all times;
his praise shall be ever in my mouth.
Let my soul glory in the LORD;
the lowly will hear me and be glad.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Glorify the LORD with me,
let us together extol his name.
I sought the LORD, and he answered me
and delivered me from all my fears.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
Look to him that you may be radiant with joy,
and your faces may not blush with shame.
When the poor one called out, the LORD heard,
and from all his distress he saved him.
R. Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.
This is a Todah or Thanksgiving Psalm, composed to be recited during a festive sacrificial feast at the sanctuary, in which the worshiper and his family and friends would gather to give thanks (Heb. todah) for a specific act of deliverance that God worked in the worshiper’s life.
In the context of this Mass, Psalm 34 expresses the emotions of thanks of the people of Israel who had been delivered from bondage in Egypt, and now taste the “fruits of the land” of Canaan, a tangible experience of the “goodness of the LORD” in fulfilling the promises made long ago to their father Abraham.
The Psalm also expresses our own emotions of thanks for having been delivered from the bondage to sin and having entered into the new life in Christ, which is a “whole new world,” like the Promised Land for Israel. The fruit of this land is the Eucharist, through which we taste the “goodness of the LORD,” who accompanies us day by day with his Eucharistic presence.
The Psalm also points forward to the day when taste and sight will be one sense, and the vision of God will be itself our food in the life to come.
3. The Second Reading is 2 Cor 5:17-21:
Brothers and sisters:
Whoever is in Christ is a new creation:
the old things have passed away;
behold, new things have come.
And all this is from God,
who has reconciled us to himself through Christ
and given us the ministry of reconciliation,
namely, God was reconciling the world to himself in Christ,
not counting their trespasses against them
and entrusting to us the message of reconciliation.
So we are ambassadors for Christ,
as if God were appealing through us.
We implore you on behalf of Christ,
be reconciled to God.
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.
This Reading most directly expresses the theme of a “new creation.” Those who have received Christ, who have accepted Baptism and the Holy Spirit, find themselves in a new reality, an experience already of the life to come.
“The old things have passed away”—the wandering in the wilderness; “the new things have come”—feasting on the “fruit of the land.”
The “old things have passed away”—living as a slave to sin, to Satan, and to the desires of our flesh; “the new things have come”—living a life marked by reconciliation, the free giving and free acceptance of forgiveness.
The aspect of the “new creation” that St. Paul stresses here is reconciliation with God, who is rich in mercy. This theme of reconciliation will dominate the Gospel Reading, the Parable of the Prodigal Son. Here it is important to see that this “ministry of reconciliation” has been entrusted to the Apostles, so it is not simply a matter of the individual with God, but it is mediated through the “ambassadors” that God has sent. The concrete expression of this “ministry of reconciliation” is the administration of the sacraments by those who have succeeded to the apostolic ministry, the bishops and the clergy in communion with them. Through the administration of the sacraments—especially Baptism, Eucharist, and Confession—the successors of the Apostles continue to dispense the forgiving grace of God.
Practically speaking, this Reading urges us to make generous use of the Sacrament of Penance during these last weeks of Lent.
4. The Gospel is Luke 15:1-3, 11-32, the Parable of the Prodigal Son:
Tax collectors and sinners were all drawing near to listen to Jesus,
but the Pharisees and scribes began to complain, saying,
“This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.”
So to them Jesus addressed this parable:
“A man had two sons, and the younger son said to his father,
‘Father give me the share of your estate that should come to me.’
So the father divided the property between them.
After a few days, the younger son collected all his belongings
and set off to a distant country
where he squandered his inheritance on a life of dissipation.
When he had freely spent everything,
a severe famine struck that country,
and he found himself in dire need.
So he hired himself out to one of the local citizens
who sent him to his farm to tend the swine.
And he longed to eat his fill of the pods on which the swine fed,
but nobody gave him any.
Coming to his senses he thought,
‘How many of my father’s hired workers
have more than enough food to eat,
but here am I, dying from hunger.
I shall get up and go to my father and I shall say to him,
“Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you.
I no longer deserve to be called your son;
treat me as you would treat one of your hired workers.”’
So he got up and went back to his father.
While he was still a long way off,
his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion.
He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him.
His son said to him,
‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you;
I no longer deserve to be called your son.’
But his father ordered his servants,
‘Quickly bring the finest robe and put it on him;
put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet.
Take the fattened calf and slaughter it.
Then let us celebrate with a feast,
because this son of mine was dead, and has come to life again;
he was lost, and has been found.’
Then the celebration began.
Now the older son had been out in the field
and, on his way back, as he neared the house,
he heard the sound of music and dancing.
He called one of the servants and asked what this might mean.
The servant said to him,
‘Your brother has returned
and your father has slaughtered the fattened calf
because he has him back safe and sound.’
He became angry,
and when he refused to enter the house,
his father came out and pleaded with him.
He said to his father in reply,
‘Look, all these years I served you
and not once did I disobey your orders;
yet you never gave me even a young goat to feast on with my friends.
But when your son returns
who swallowed up your property with prostitutes,
for him you slaughter the fattened calf.’
He said to him,
‘My son, you are here with me always;
everything I have is yours.
But now we must celebrate and rejoice,
because your brother was dead and has come to life again;
he was lost and has been found.’”
During Lent we are still reading through Luke’s Travel Narrative (roughly Luke 9-19), the period of Jesus ministry in which he “sets his face to Jerusalem,” traveling southward to his Passion. During Lent, we accompany Jesus on his journey to the Passion, listening to his teaching in the meanwhile.
This Parable operates on multiple levels. On one level, it is a parable about the history of the Tribes of Israel. The “younger son” is the northern Kingdom of Israel, headed by the tribe of Ephraim, the youngest of the sons of Jacob (actually a grandson), which departed from true worship of the LORD way back in 1 Kings 12 and wound up exiled by the Assyrians to the four corners of the earth. The “older son” is Judah, (the oldest patriarch not cursed by his father Jacob), the head of the southern Kingdom of Judah, which to external appearances was more faithful to the LORD, and still lived in the land of Judea, surrounding Jerusalem and the Temple (the “house of the Father”). This Parable is prophetic: the lost northern tribes, the “younger son” of Israel, will return to the Father, whereas the tribe of Judah will put up resistance out of envy and pride in its own righteousness. This is the dynamic that plays out in Acts, the sequel to Luke, in which the Gospel meets with acceptance by the Samaritans (descendants of the northern tribes of Israel) and the Gentiles (among whom the northern tribes were dispersed), but will meet with resistance in Jerusalem and Judea itself.
On another level, this Parable shows us two ways of living: the “new world” or “new creation” of the Father (into which the younger son enters), and the “old world”/”old creation” of the older son.
The older son operates by a “tit for tat” or “quid pro quo” mentality, focused on earned material reward for one’s own self-centered enjoyment. He serves his Father because he expects to benefit from the service one day. He is not animated by love, either for his Father or for his brother. When the younger son returns, he is not “my brother,” but “this son of yours!”
The Father, on the other hand, operates in a whole new world. There is not some ledger book for accounting past rights and wrongs, so that each son gets exactly the punishment or reward that pertains precisely to his performance. The Father’s attitude is marked by love, by free sharing, and a desire for familial communion. The younger son insults him by demanding his inheritance while the Father is still alive, which is as much as saying, “To me, you are as good as dead.” He shames the family name by living a profligate lifestyle and ultimately descending into poverty and degradation, working for Gentiles (Jews did not raise pigs) feeding unclean animals (pigs). All this is overlooked out of love, and the Father runs to meet the son (a breach of social custom) and hardly lets him recite his pre-planned speech before ordering the preparations of a feast.
The Father shows love to the older son, too, coming out of the feast to “plead” with him to come in and share the joy. He also does not withhold generosity from him: “son, all that I have is yours.” He does not make some mental or material division between his goods and those of his sons. They are family. They share a common home.
Living in the “new creation” of Christ means operating by the Father’s “logic” of love, forgiveness, and familial communion, both in our relationship to God and our relationships with others, both with those who seek reconciliation with us (the younger son) and with those who do not want reconciliation (the older son).
As long as we operate by a “quid pro quo” logic with God and with others, we are living in the old world. Because he wants us to live in the new world, Jesus commands us to pray daily, “forgive us our debts, as we ourselves have forgiven all our debtors.” Freely accepting forgiveness from God, and freely dispensing forgiveness to all around, is the lifestyle of the new creation.
Thinking of movies, a couple images of the old and new worlds come to mind. In the otherwise delightful film “The Princess Bride,” my most unfavorite scene was the execution of the six-fingered man by Inigo Mantoya. Inigo forces the six-fingered man to plead for his life by offering Inigo “whatever he wants,” only to hear the reply, “I want my father back, you SOB!” And withthat Inigo runs the man through.
OK. So the six-fingered man was cruel and had it coming. Still, there was nothing pleasant about the whole scene. I suppose the theater was supposed to cheer at justice done to the villain, but I found it horrible. It was so “old world.” Forgiveness was neither sought, nor granted. It was simply “tit for tat.” You did wrong, you get what’s coming to you. It leaves me cold and worse than cold.
Contrast Jean Valjean as portrayed by Hugh Jackman in the movie release of Les Miserable, a film so beautiful and so Catholic it felt like Hollywood’s contribution to the New Evangelization. Jean Valjean experiences forgiveness, reconciliation, the “love of the Father” through the father-figure of the Bishop, and begins to live in the “new world”, the “new creation” in Christ. Freely he dispenses forgiveness to prostitutes and tax-collector-like individuals (Javert). Javert, on the other hand, lives in the old world, the moral calculus of quid pro quo from which he cannot escape. Both die, but (as portrayed so well in the film) Valjean walks out of this life into the communion of others who learned to live in the new creation (the Bishop, Fantine) and ultimately into communion with the Father himself.
The Church calls us this Sunday, on this festive Laetare Sunday, to leave the desert of the old world and enter the “Promised Land,” the new creation in Christ: a life characterized by reconciliation with God and with all others. We come to the Eucharist, a sacrament of reconciliation between God and man—in which two natures, human and divine, are fully reconciled—a sacrament which forgives our sins and ushers us into intimate communion with the Father. In the rest of this Lent, let’s make generous us of this Sacrament, as well as the Sacrament of Reconciliation, and share the grace we receive with everyone who has offended us.