THE FOURTH SUNDAY IN LENT – Laetare Jerusalem
Introit: (Is. 66) Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy, all ye that were in sadness: that ye may exult, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolation. Ps. (122) I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord. Glory be … Rejoice, O Jerusalem …
Collect: Grant, we beseech thee, almighty God: that we who for our evil deeds worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved; through Jesus Christ our Lord thy Son, who with thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, liveth and reigneth God, throughout all ages world without end. Amen.
Lesson: Thus saith the Lord: In an acceptable time have I heard thee, and in a day of salvation have I holpen thee: and I will preserve thee, and give thee for a covenant to the people, to establish the earth, to cause to inherit the desolate heritages; that thou mayest say to the prisoners, Go forth; to them that are in darkness, Show yourselves. They shall feed in the ways, and their pastures shall be in all high places. They shall not hunger nor thirst; neither shall the heat nor sun smite them: for he that hath mercy on them shall lead them, even by the springs of water shall he guide them. And I will make all my mountains a way, and my highways shall be exalted. Behold, these shall come from far: and, lo, these from the north and from the west; and these from the land of Sinim. Sing, O heavens; and be joyful, O earth; and break forth into singing, O mountains: for the Lord hath comforted his people, and will have mercy upon his afflicted. But Zion said, The Lord hath forsaken me, and my Lord hath forgotten me. Can a woman forget her nursing child, that she should not have compassion on the son of her womb? Yea, they may forget, yet will I not forget thee. Behold, I have graven thee upon the palms of my hands; thy walls are continually before me. Thy children shall make haste; thy destroyers and they that made thee waste shall go forth of thee. Lift up thine eyes round about, and behold: all these gather themselves together, and come to thee. As I live, saith the Lord, thou shalt surely clothe thee with them all, as with an ornament, and bind them on, as doth a bride. (Isaiah 49.8-18)
Gradual: (Ps. 122) I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord. V. Peace be within thy walls: and plenteousness within thy palaces.
Epistle: Brethren: It is written, that Abraham had two sons, the one by a bondmaid, the other by a freewoman. But he who was of the bondwoman was born after the flesh; but he of the freewoman was by promise. Which things are an allegory: for these are the two covenants; the one from the mount Sinai, which gendereth to bondage, which is Agar. For this Agar is mount Sinai in Arabia, and answereth to Jerusalem which now is, and is in bondage with her children. But that Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all. For it is written, Rejoice, thou barren that bearest not; break forth and shout, thou that travailest not: for the desolate hath many more children than she who hath an husband. Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise. But as then he that was born after the flesh persecuted him that was born after the Spirit, even so it is now. Nevertheless what saith the Scripture? Cast out the bondwoman and her son: for the son of the bondwoman shall not be heir with the son of the freewoman. So then, brethren, we are not children of the bondwoman, but of the free. Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free. (Galatians 4.22—5.1)
Tract: (Ps. 125) They that put their trust in the Lord shall be even as the mount Sion: which may not be removed, but standeth fast for ever. V. The hills stand about Jerusalem: even so standeth the Lord round about his people, from this time forth for evermore.
The Holy Gospel: At that time, Jesus went over the sea of Galilee, which is the sea of Tiberias. And a great multitude followed him, because they saw his miracles which he did on them that were diseased. And Jesus went up into a mountain, and there he sat with his disciples. And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh. When Jesus then lifted up his eyes, and saw a great company come unto him, he saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this he said to prove him: for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto him, There is a lad here, who hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? And Jesus said, Make the men sit down. Now there was much grass in the place. So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. And Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. Then those men, when they had seen the miracle that Jesus did, said, This is of a truth that prophet that should come into the world. (St John 6.1-14)
“And the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was nigh.”
The forty days of Lent recall to us Our Lord’s forty days of fasting and temptation in the wilderness. But they also recall the Exodus—the forty years of Israel’s wandering from slavery in Egypt, the struggle through the wilderness, led by a pillar of cloud by day, and a pillar of fire by night, sustained by manna from the heavens, and water from the stony rock, to their new home of freedom in the Promised Land. Behind all this rich symbolism, we find a diagnosis of our condition of exile and captivity in a foreign land—our alienation from God and separation from our soul’s true home, wandering through a barren wilderness of trials and temptations, striving to find our way. But our wilderness is not some external place. It is the soul’s confused, unfruitful life until she finds her rest and refreshment in God; the soul’s own transformation, as she finds renewal in God, through the providence of His own revelation. We are told the journey’s destination—the Promised Land, the city of God, the place of peace and freedom for which the spirit yearns: “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee, O God. My soul is athirst for God, yea, even for the living God. When shall I come to appear before the presence of God?” (Ps 42). Symbolically, then, it is the story of the struggle of the human soul, as she makes her way homeward to God. This is the shadow, the substance of which is Christ’s journey through death and resurrection, through which we are called to follow Him. And as we follow, we have the assurance of divine sustenance and guidance in the way, through God’s watchful care, and nourishment by Word and Sacrament.
In the midst of our forty-day wilderness journey, these powerful and uplifting Scripture passages are given us to strengthen and refresh our hungry, thirsty souls. On the previous three Sundays, we heard much about temptation, the devil and evil spirits. Those demons are spiritual realities, those false passions and attachments which enter in, and powerfully possess our souls—the false gods we so readily set our hearts upon, and which separate us from the true and living God. This is our bondage and captivity—our Babylon, our Egypt. But as last Sunday’s Gospel (Lk 11.14-28) taught us, the casting out of the demons is not enough—the empty soul is vulnerable to more, and even more vicious, demons. Science tells us that “nature abhors a vacuum,” and the same is true in the spiritual realm. Our souls can never be truly empty—the void must be filled. And it will be filled either by evil or by good, by Satan or by God; by the seven deadly sins of pride, anger, envy, covetousness, gluttony, lust, and sloth, or by the seven cardinal virtues of humility, patience, kindness, charity, temperance, chastity, and diligence. As natural human beings we can never eradicate those seven deadly sins, but even if we could do, the void would have to be filled by something. And today, Our Lord tells us what that something must be, lest those “wicked spirits” return with even greater vehemence. We must feed upon and be filled by the Bread of Life, which is Christ Himself, the living Word of God.
The Fourth Sunday in Lent is variously known as “Mothering Sunday,” from the Epistle reading which speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem as “the mother of us all;” “Refreshment Sunday,” from the Gospel reading about the feeding of the multitude in the wilderness; or “Laetare Sunday,” from the Introit and Psalm of the day. Psalm 122 is one of what are called The Psalms of Ascent—that is, the songs of pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem. In our Christian understanding, Jerusalem has become the image of our spiritual homeland, and Holy Mother Church, in which our sanctified humanity finds ultimate joy and refreshment. These several names reflect one basic thought: the homeward journey of our souls to the heavenly Jerusalem is sustained and nourished by the Word of God in Christ, by that Providence which keeps alive within us the vision of the Holy City of our promised freedom, our native land of pure and perfect good. That is the bread which sustains us in the wilderness, and nothing less can ever satisfy the restless heart. “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceedeth out of the mouth of God” (Mt 4.4; Dt 8.3). Our mothers give us birth, nourish us, and guide our steps. Even so the heavenly Jerusalem, through the providence of God, gives birth to our spiritual life, nourishes us, and guides our upward way. It is the office of the Church on earth to be an outpost of that heavenly Jerusalem, the free city of God and homeland of the soul. That is what the word “parish” actually means—a colony, or outpost—and thus, the Church’s task is mothering, by Word and Sacrament, with teaching and discipline; rebuking and casting out our demons, and nourishing our souls with the vision of a higher, nobler and freer life. This is our bread in the wilderness, the daily rations for our journey. And this is the ground of our rejoicing.
St Paul had taught the Gentile converts in Galatia that, through their union by faith with Jesus Christ, they had become children of Abraham and heirs of God’s promises. But then a group of missionaries known as “Judaizers” came along, claiming that, in order for Gentiles to become children of Abraham, they had to follow the Law of Moses. In particular, they made a point of insisting on circumcision and the dietary laws. St Paul counters by going way back to the story of Sarah and Hagar, Ishmael and Isaac, recorded in Genesis 16 and 21, where God promised to make Abraham the father of many nations, even though he and Sarah were childless. Seeing that she was barren, and because of their advanced age, Sarah lost hope and asked Abraham to use her slave-girl Hagar to conceive a child, which he did, and named him Ishmael. This was a common custom of the time, but it was not the Lord’s plan, and backfired badly. Ishmael was a “son of the flesh,” as St Paul calls it, a son of human work. God, however, eventually did fulfil the promise he had made: Sarah conceived, and Isaac was born. But the rivalry between the two mothers and their two sons became so great that Sarah eventually insisted that Hagar and Ishmael be banished. Ishmael was to become the father of the Arab tribes, and Isaac the father of Jacob or Israel. But the allegory can be extended even further. Just as Isaac at the age of 13 would carry the wood to Mount Moriah (Jerusalem) to be sacrificed by Abraham, so Christ, carrying the Cross, will climb that same mountain, as the Lamb God the Father provided, and participate there in the supreme sacrifice of love.
So, according to St Paul’s allegory, those trying to yoke Gentiles with the Law are, like Hagar, producing children born into a form of slavery, and not the freedom established by Jesus. They, he says, correspond to the present earthly Jerusalem. In contrast, he appeals to the Jerusalem yet to come, the Jerusalem that will one day descend when heaven and earth are joined. This, he says, is the Jerusalem of God’s promise, quoting Isaiah 54, the promise to a then barren Jerusalem that one day she would bear a multitude of children. Paul understands the fulfilment of this as a fulfilment of the Lord’s promise to Abraham. Through Isaac, Abraham would become a great nation, a people who would be a light to the world and through whom the Gentiles would one day be brought in faith to Israel’s God and be incorporated into His people. Thus, the Gentile believers were the fulfilment of that promise and thus the true heirs of God’s promise to Abraham. They were the free children born of Sarah through faith. (Next week’s Gospel reading will reinforce this, when Jesus claims that Abraham rejoiced to see His day—as the fulfilment of God’s promise to him.) Faith is the defining mark of the people of God. This does not relieve us of the responsibility to lead a moral and virtuous life, but the mark of the people of God is the indwelling Spirit who renews our minds and regenerates our hearts, causing us to bear fruit: things like love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. But we are not God’s people because we bear these fruits any more than Israel were God’s people because they were circumcised, ate a certain way, and observed the Sabbath. Faith is the defining factor that marks us all as God’s people.
As Christians, the source of our joy is freedom. But the liberty of which St Paul speaks in Galatians far surpasses any secular notion of “freedom,” and cannot be bestowed or taken away by any governmental fiat. The liberty wherewith Christ has made us free does not depend upon human laws or cultural mores, and cannot be revoked. The Christian’s freedom is based firmly upon the self-sacrifice of the Lamb of God for the brokenness of the world. Christ has bought our freedom, freeing us once and for all from the bondage of sin and death, making us children of God, children of the heavenly Jerusalem. Thus, freedom for Christians exists even—perhaps especially—in the midst of our earthly prisons, and is the source of a joy that far exceeds anything this world can offer. It is the freedom to live, even in the midst of death. Today’s readings encourage us, and help us understand the true nature of our Christian pilgrimage. The prophecies of Isaiah were given as a promise to those who were in exile in Babylon that they would one day return to God’s holy city, and both they and the city would have their sadness turned into joy as they received God’s comfort and refreshment. That exhortation to rejoice and the reason for it constitute an important promise of hope for us as we continue our exile in this valley of tears. God wants us to know the end of the journey, and He wants us to be assured that He is with us to strengthen and console us. The Tract reminds us, “The hills stand about Jerusalem: even so standeth the Lord round about his people, from this time forth for evermore.” We are journeying to Jerusalem, but more importantly, we are journeying with Christ. He will sustain us, and will never forsake us. Rather, it is we who can all too easily stray from Him.
Our Gospel reading (and all of chapter 6) is dominated by the theme of Passover bread. John notes that these events took place at the time of Passover. Jesus will go on (verse 22) to speak of the “bread from heaven that gives life to the world.” So it is Passover time and they are in the wilderness, and there is nothing to eat. This should all sound very familiar to a people whose identity was steeped in the Exodus story. John means for us to recall the events of the Exodus, particularly the Lord’s provision of manna for the Israelites in the wilderness. As far as the disciples can see, the situation is hopeless. Two hundred denarii was over half a year’s wages. One commentator calculates that it would have bought about two thousand half-pound loaves of bread—enough for about a small handful of bread per person. John’s point is that even such a large sum of money would have barely provided crumbs for the crowd. So then, what could Jesus do with only five loaves and two fish? But the Lord exceeds even what He provided to the Israelites in the wilderness. When God provided manna there were no leftovers, but here there are twelve baskets remaining. This points to the nature of Jesus’ ministry as a new exodus, but in exceeding the miracle of the manna, it also highlights that this new exodus will exceed the old in its scope. Similarly, while the miracle puts Jesus in the role of Moses, it also points to the fact that He will also exceed the greatness of Moses. The Gospel climaxes with the acclamation: “This is indeed the Prophet who is to come into the world.” This is a reference to Deuteronomy 18.15-19, and the promise that another would come, like Moses, who would set things right, speak God’s truth, and lead the people from slavery to freedom. The new exodus is about to take place and acclamation is not enough. To have a share in this exodus and in the Kingdom to come, we must be willing to submit to Christ in obedience.
In this context of the exodus and the truth that Jesus has set us free from our bondage to sin and death, we see that we will also need to spend some time in the wilderness. He does not lead us straight to the Promised Land. And while life in the wilderness might be free, it will not be easy. As we follow Jesus in His new exodus, we must follow Him all the way. The journey will be difficult. As the Israelites faced hardship and temptation in the wilderness, so will we. But the Lord has shown that He will be there to lead us. He provided for Israel in the wilderness, and He will provide for us. When we are tempted to turn back to Egypt, we must remember that we are inheritors of God’s promises. He has given us every reason to trust in Him and not to stray from the difficult path to the New Jerusalem.
Holy Mother Church would aid us in our wilderness pilgrimage of faith, fortifying us by the grace of Christ. And it is always much more than we need. “Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost…and they filled twelve baskets.” The gathering up of the fragments is an image of redemption—the gathering up of the broken fragments of our lives, of our broken humanity, of our broken church, in the wilderness of this world—and being gathered back to God. At a time when our earthly church is fractured and broken, we need especially to remember the provisions Christ makes for us even in our brokenness. For the Church is not the four walls of our earthly Jerusalem, but the innumerable multitude of our fellow-citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, united under Christ our Head. But Jesus did not gather up all the fragments Himself; He commanded the people to gather them, “that nothing be lost.” We are the hands and feet, the eyes, ears, and lips of Christ in our world today. The Christian life is about our being gathered to God; about gathering up all the broken shards and pieces of our lives and presenting them to Christ in prayer and praise, in service and sacrifice; and about our gathering others to Him.
Our Lord took a young boy’s lunch and fed thousands of people. But first of all, that boy had to be willing to offer it. Then Jesus could take that bread and fish, and bless it, and give it to His disciples to distribute. And after the crowd had eaten their fill, they had enough leftovers to fill twelve baskets. The boy is the key to this story because he was willing to risk giving what little he had to the Lord. And that is what Jesus wants us to do with our lives. We may look at our talents, our material possessions, or whatever we have, and say, “There isn’t much that I can offer or give. There isn’t much that I am able to do.” Yet if we are willing to surrender what we have to God, to make it available to Him, He can bless it and multiply it … And just watch what happens! But this requires trust. It requires faith. And lest we lose that little bit we have, we may be afraid to offer it.
Let us use this Lenten season as an opportunity to gather up the fragments, to reflect upon our priorities, and to present ourselves, our souls and bodies, to God for renewal. What can He do with our gifts—with our lives—if we offer them sincerely and willingly in His service? Prayer and praise, serving Christ by serving others, this is our freedom, our refreshment, and our joy. Through the gathering of those broken and scattered fragments, we are reminded of the true nature and ultimate goal of our Christian pilgrimage … restoration and perfection in Christ.
“Jerusalem which is above is free, which is the mother of us all.
Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free.”
Collect: O Lord, our heavenly Father, who by the blessed light of thy divine Word hast led us to the knowledge of thy Son: We most heartily beseech thee so to replenish us with the grace of thy Holy Spirit, that we may ever walk in the light of thy Truth and, rejoicing with sure confidence in Christ our Saviour, may in the end be brought unto everlasting salvation; through the same Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Prayer Over the People: Stretch forth, O Lord, upon thy faithful people the right hand of thy heavenly succour: that they may seek thee with their whole heart, and be found worthy to obtain those things which they rightly ask; through Christ our Lord. Amen.
May God bless us and keep us.