4th Sunday of Lent - Laetare
I was recently discussing teaching with another Sister, who had taught 1st graders before she entered. She commented that without fail, immediately after she passed out the religion book the children would open it up to the picture of the Crucifixion and begin asking, “What is this all about?” Year after year this would happen.
In some way the combination of the entrance antiphon “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning: exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast” (Is 66:10-11) and the famously endearing quote, often associated with football games, from today’s Gospel, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life” (John 3:16) don’t seem to go together and pose the same question “What is this all about?” How can we rejoice that God’s only Son suffered and died on a cross?
The answer is quite simple: love.
One simply cannot forget that we have these readings during Lent. Usually about this time of Lent, by the 4th week the penances (depending on what they are) start to grow wearisome or else commonplace. Maybe we gave them up after a few days and are just waiting until Lent is over?? The weeks drag on and Easter seems so far away. It’s almost like the Church gives us these Readings and this Joyful Sunday to fortify our strength to help us make it through, to enable us to endure being “disgusted with this wretched food!” (Numbers 21:5). However, the meaning is so much deeper.
Today, “Laetare Sunday” brings together all of these themes: joy, suffering, the Crucifixion, love, and eternal life. In this Gospel, beginning with this dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus, we see them all connected (for a Baptismal reflection see Lent Week 1 Reflection). God gave his only Son! Jesus is the one lifted up so that “everyone who believes may have eternal life in him.” (John 3:14) “God, who is rich in mercy, because of the great love he had for us, even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.” (Eph 2:4-5, emphasis added) Why? Saint Thomas Aquinas offers several reasons in his Commentary on the Gospel of St. John, my favorite is, “He wished to die lifted up to draw our hearts to himself.” Once again, love.
To continue with this thread, Saint Thomas Aquinas in his “De Rationibus Fidei” (which I highly recommend EVERYONE read) has this beautiful line which I think (in a nutshell) makes sense of the Crucifixion: “Nothing can provoke love more than to know that one is loved.”
The full text about the Incarnation reads:
"To excite our love towards God, there was no more powerful way than that the Word of God, through whom all things were made, should assume our human nature in order to restore it, so that he would be both God and man. First of all, because the strongest way God could show how much he loves man was his willing to become man for his salvation; and nothing can provoke love more than to know that one is loved."
A wise elder Sister said to me once, “One can do incredible things, when one knows one is loved.” Rejoice because God madly loves us! Rejoice because God is so incredibly rich in Mercy! Rejoice!
In the Crucifixion we see that characteristic Christian paradoxical union of joy and suffering. As Pope St. Gregory the Great said, “The proof of love is in the works. Where love exists, it works great things. But when it ceases to act, it ceases to exist.” Jesus shows us this love, “That the world might be saved through him.” (John 3:17) Belief in him draws out this sacrificial love.
To give a real life example (and to make this entry even longer), a few days ago I was at my “Rec Rosary” the Monastery slang term for the sister who has the Rosary (Adoration) while the others are recreating at the end of the day before Compline. It had been a long exhaustive day involving some physically taxing work and several objectively speaking failures (Yes, I am a cloistered Nun). While meditating on the sorrowful mysteries, as I sat before Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament and gazed upon the GIANT Crucifix in our Nuns’ Choir. I remembered the words of a poem, by Gabriela Mistral (loosely translated from the Spanish), reflecting on Christ on Calvary and my own “hurts” compared with His:
How can I complain about my tired feet,
when I see yours so destroyed?
How can I show my empty hands,
when I see yours so full of wounds?
How can I explain my loneliness to you,
when I see you, so alone, raised up on the cross?
How can I explain to you that I have no love,
when I see your heart has been torn apart?”
I can’t help but think, “How much more did he suffer for love of me?” and at the same time “How wonderful that He loves me!” Everything falls into perspective. I offer you these few little nuggets from my own meditation and experience. The point being, “Nothing can provoke love, more than to know that one is loved.” So today, let Him provoke you to love others as we have proof that He loves us. REJOICE! “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son.”