Rejoicing with Our Mother, the Church

            We have passed the midpoint of Lent. Twenty-five days ago, we celebrated Ash Wednesday. Twenty-one days from today, in exactly three weeks, we will celebrate Easter Sunday. Over the past three Sundays, we have focused on the penitential nature of Lent, on our seeking forgiveness for our sins. Starting next Sunday, we will start Passiontide: our primary attention will turn to the Passion, and we will look forward to Christ’s crucifixion, the act by which our sins are forgiven. Throughout all of Lent, the central theme is the same: our sins, and the suffering they cause. Both the suffering we create for ourselves and our neighbors, leading us to seek repentance through penitential acts, as well as the suffering that is borne by Christ in order to bring us forgiveness.Today, Laetare Sunday, we look for joy in the midst of this suffering: we seek consolation for our sins.

            The Introit from which this Sunday gets its nickname, “Laetare Sunday,” says this: “Laetare Ierusalem, et conventum facite, omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationes vestrae.” “Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: be glad with joy, you who have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be satisfied at her consoling breast.” It is a striking image: Jerusalem, which we can read as Mary or as the Church, is a mother. This ancient text from the book of Isaiah points to an experience that continues to be nearly universal, and certainly one that I experienced many times growing up. There is a particularly difficult day at school, or perhaps an unusually strident argument with your father about practicing violin. You slam doors. You shut yourself in your room. Who is, if possible, the first person who comes to you at that moment? Your mother. How does she respond? With consolation: never ignoring any pain, never excusing your actions if they caused it, but listening, and helping you to put things in their proper context, even if simply by her presence. It isn’t always quick, but almost always the result is first a feeling of comfort, and then eventually a sense of joy, a joy shared between mother and child. The introit puts Jerusalem in an analogous position to that mother: the city of David that held a special role in the worship of the God of Israel. This role gets taken up in one sense by Jesus Christ’s mother, who is given to us as our universal mother on the cross. We can always pray to Mary, and she is always ready to console us. It is also a role taken up by the Church: the bride of Christ. Like Jerusalem, she holds a special place in the worship of God: only within her, God can be worshiped in Spirit and in Truth. Through her, we bring forth our pain and suffering and offer it to God through His Son. In her, we receive consolation.

            In medieval England, this Sunday also became known as Mothering Sunday. A Sunday to honor your mother church. This makes the analogy of the introit explicit. On this Sunday, you would go to the church where you were baptized: you would visit the mother who bore you into the Body of Christ. Interestingly enough, the English restored Mothering Sunday as a public celebration during the twentieth century, although today, it mostly has the same secular meaning as our American celebration of Mother’s Day.

Now, let us complete the analogy of the Church as our consoling mother, and bring this back into the context of Lent. As to our mother, we bring to the Church our mourning and sadness. We bring the pain we have caused others and that others have caused us: we bring our sins and our wounds. She listens and, without excusing our sins or minimizing our wounds, puts everything we bring her into a wider context. She consoles us. She helps us to see the possibility of redemption in the midst of our deserved suffering. Nowhere should this be more readily apparent to us than in the Liturgy: in our participation in the Crucifixion, Death and Resurrection of Christ at the Mass and the extension of that participation throughout the day in the Liturgy of the Hours. This consolation results in joy: not the joy of the innocent, not the fullness that the saints experience in heaven, but a joy in the midst of our guilt. The joy that, in spite of everything, in spite of our abandonment of God, in spite of our lack of fidelity – in spite of our sins – we can be redeemed. At the very least, our mother loves us. We can see the Promised Land of Easter approaching, even though we still toil in this veil of tears.

            This is marked by a slight adaptation of liturgical color. Some of the white of Easter, glimpsed on the horizon three weeks away, is added to the penitential purple of Lent, resulting in the liturgical color of Rose. This is interpreted anywhere from bright pink to a very slightly lighter shade of purple that is almost indistinguishable from regular Lenten vestments. Both parts are important to understanding today’s liturgy. We are still in Lent: our guilt lies open before us. Our sins cry out to God. However, we can see Easter approaching: our redemption is almost at hand. It will not be an easy redemption: next week, the full purple will return, and we will look forward explicitly to the Crucifixion: to the painful death that Christ suffers because of our sins. However, that painful, torturous death is not meaningless. We have brought our sins, our pain and our suffering to our mother the Church, and she has consoled us: she has promised us that, in spite of everything, we can be redeemed. Through the painful death on the Cross, that promise of redemption is kept and our Father will raise up His Son on the third day so that not even death can keep us from Him.

            This relationship between our sins, the consolation we are given by the Church and the promise of redemption in Jesus Christ forms a major theme throughout today’s readings. The First reading comes from the final chapter of the second book of Chronicles. It serves as something of a summary of the content of all the historical books of the Old Testament. The sins committed throughout Judah, by their priests and their people, had overwhelmed them. Not even the Temple of God in Jerusalem was free from their infidelity. Jerusalem had failed to be faithful to God, and the mother seemed to be abandoned. The Babylonians captured her, and carried away her children, the people of Judah, to exile in Babylon. But God had not completely abandoned her, and brought her back to his side through Cyrus and the Persians. Cyrus allowed the Temple to be rebuilt. The consolation that had been promised through Jeremiah was fulfilled: the true worship of God by His People was restored, and the mother returned to her place at God’s side.

            We see a similar pattern at work in the New Testament, with the Church standing as the new Jerusalem, the bride of Christ, and our mother. St. Paul reminds us that we are saved through grace. Our redemption does not depend on our works or our actions: we cannot boast about saving ourselves. We are children, dependent on Our Father. His love for us, and desire to save us, continued even when we were dead because of our sins. This love of God, the Holy Spirit, forms the soul of the Church: the beating heart of our mother who reaches out to us no matter what we have done. That is our consolation, and we can rejoice in that.

            This message is again reiterated in the dialogue between Jesus and Nicodemus given in St. John’s Gospel. God did not send His Son to condemn the world, but to save it. There is hope for us. Whoever believes in the Son will not be condemned. Our faith in Christ, our relationship with Christ provides the content for our mother’s message of consolation. Our belief in Christ brings redemption. But it also reveals the Truth. The Light of Christ ought to provide a consolation for us, who still dwell in darkness. But it also reveals our works of darkness, the evil deeds we have done. This leads us to often prefer the darkness in which our sins are hidden. This can be seen in the discrepancy between even the small number of Catholics who come to Mass and the even smaller number who regularly go to the sacrament of Confession. A part of our participation in God’s grace must be a living of the Truth. Our mother can only console us if we open ourselves up to her: if we bring her our pain and suffering, including and especially the sins we would rather hide.

            But, no matter what we have done, when we bring her our pain and suffering, when we bring her our sins, when we place ourselves before her in the light, our mother will console us and comfort us. She cleans our wounds, although only Our Father can take them away. Through her love, the self-sacrificing, unconditional love that only a mother can give, she prepares us and makes us more presentable to enter Our Father’s heavenly kingdom. Through her consolation, we experience a foretaste of the Easter joy that Our Father offers us. Laetare Ierusalem. Rejoice O Jerusalem. Rejoice with your mother, the Church.