Fourth Sunday of Lent
March 11, 2018
Readings (Year A):
First Reading: 1 Samuel 16: 1B, 6-7, 10-13A
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 23: 1-3A, 3B-4, 5, 6
Second Reading: Ephesians 5: 8-14
Gospel: John 9: 1-41
Readings (Year B):
First Reading: 2 Chronicles 36: 14-16, 19-23
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 137: 1-2, 3, 4-5, 6
Second Reading: Ephesians 2: 4-10
Gospel: John 3: 14-21
As a child in public school, I remember drawing pictures of the sanctuary of my parish church during free drawing time in art class. I was intrigued, long before I had a robust understanding of the liturgical year and its seasons, that the church sometimes looked quite different upon my arrival. In retrospect, I probably should have realized my vocation to study the Church’s liturgy much sooner than I actually did. My adult self can also appreciate a second and more widely applicable insight arising from this experience. The church sometimes looks different because we are invited to be different. We are an Easter people. Our lives are a perpetual Advent. Christmas calls us to reclaim our identity as Christ’s people. We count many of our days in Ordinary Time just as we use the ordinal numbers to count through most weeks of the Church’s year. The season we currently find ourselves in reminds us to live Lent, not just for forty-some days each year but through all the time in which we find ourselves somewhere in between Pentecost and the Parousia. Our faith calls us to adopt the attitude poetically proposed in “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front” by Wendell Berry: “Be joyful though you have considered all the facts.”
Lent invites us to face facts and rejoice anyway. The entrance antiphon appointed for Mass on this mid-Lenten Sunday, “Rejoice, Jerusalem,” gives the day its traditional name, “Laetare Sunday.” Historically Laetare Sunday was an opportunity for a temporary reprieve of some Lenten penitential disciplines, a festive interlude that looked forward to the fuller feasting of Easter. Even as we celebrate Easter, though, our joy in Christ’s death and resurrection that is our hope of salvation and resurrection can never be quite full. We still await the eschaton’s ushering in the reign of God in its fullness when suffering and sacraments shall cease. We rejoice now with the restrained joy of ash-marked Lenten people until Easter is eternal.
For people living in time, every age has its sobering facts. The people of Judah “mocked the messengers of God, despised his warnings, and scoffed at his prophets,” and people in Jesus’ era “preferred darkness to light.” We live with wars and rumors of wars, with violence and systemic injustice, with suffering precipitated by causes as diverse as natural disasters, disease processes, and our own poor choices-and exacerbated by failures of connection and compassion in countries, communities, and our closest companions. The times and the details may shift and evolve, but some of the most fundamentally disturbing and disorienting facts about the human condition remain remarkably and stubbornly consistent. The fact that we’ve roughly reached the midpoint of Lent may also strike us as a somber chronological checkpoint, especially if we’ve approached it as this year’s second opportunity for (spiritual) self-improvement after our New Year’s resolutions faltered. (This sort of approach to Lent is even finding adherents beyond Christianity; look up “secular Lent.”) Many of us probably had hoped that we and our world might be significantly better by now.
Faith calls us to view these facts not as discrete and discouraging data but as inflection points on a larger canvas in which everything is drawn into God’s design in a world which God lovingly created and where God lets nothing, not even our sins, go to waste. “For we are [God’s] handiwork, created in Christ Jesus for the good works that God has prepared in advance, that we should live in them.” Our God “is rich in mercy”–even when we are not. Salvation is not dependent on us and our efforts but rather on the abundant and enduring love of God, who saves us by grace through faith, through Christ and in the Holy Spirit. Faith itself is God’s gift to us, and our dependence on God is often easier to realize when we are most acutely aware of our need, our inadequacy, and our failure, including our limited capacity to initiate and sustain the changes we desire. Our works “may be clearly seen as done in God” in the light that God shines through them rather than their objective outcomes according to the world’s standards or our own. Bracketing the prior intervention of Christ’s Second Coming, Easter Sunday will be here in a few short weeks no matter how “successful” we have been at living Lent this year. We may be a little or a lot different when this year’s annual observance of Lent concludes. Thankfully, continuing conversion is the work of a lifetime, not a liturgical season, as the unchanging love and mercy of God compels us, radically or subtly, to keep changing. The particular attentiveness to God’s working in our lives and the vulnerable yet fortifying faith in which the Lenten season invites us to rejoice are appropriate at all times as we seek to take our places in the radiant beauty of God’s vision of what we might yet become. We cannot draw that “picture” for ourselves, but we can rejoice as it is revealed, all in God’s good time.
Assistant Professor of Liturgy