There are all sorts of significances attached to this Sunday in the way that it has fallen this year. All of which could merit several sermons!
So first of all, this is Laetare Sunday. The word from the beginning of the traditional Introit for this Sunday’s Eucharist, which in turn directs us in a number of potentially different paths.
Laetare Jerusalem et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae. Psalm: Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus.
Rejoice ye with Jerusalem; and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her: exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her; that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations. Psalm: I was glad when they said unto me, We will go into the house of the Lord.
This was followed by a fairly obscure passage from S Paul’s letter to the Galatians (Galatians 421-end) in which amongst other things, Paul reminds us of our calling to be citizens of the heavenly Jerusalem, which, he says, is our Mother.
Laetare Sunday, Refreshment Sunday, or just Mid-Lent Sunday originally came into being to help children survive the rigours of the Lenten discipline. But then later, because of the Introit and the reading from Galatians, it became first of all a time when servants got a day off to go back to their home (Mother) church – either to their Cathedral (Mother Church of the diocese) or to the place of their baptism. And progressively this Sunday became a time when we thought about in addition to our Mother the Church, our physical mothers, and Mary, Mother of Jesus and of all Christian people. The colour of vestments worn at the Eucharist became Rose, instead of the more austere shade of purple, and there are other relaxations of Lent including the permission for flowers on the altar and the use of the unaccompanied organ.
Here in Spain, as in France, Mothers are commemorated at a different time of the year. This year here in Spain it is Sunday May 7 and in France Sunday June 4.
And just to complicate matters further, today in Spain is Father’s day – the feast day of S. Joseph, spouse of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
And after all of that, you may indeed feel that you are very much in need of enlightenment – which is the theme of the readings that we have heard this morning.
Through Lent we have been thinking about Christology – our understanding of the person of Christ. Something that cannot and should not be separated from an understanding of the work of Christ. Today the aspect of that work which comes into focus is the bringing of enlightenment, and this is something which has resonances through all of the three readings.
So in the first reading from the first book of Samuel we find the enormously important Old Testament figure of Samuel – Judge, Prophet and Seer. But even he did not see properly. He had, after all, been instrumental in the choice and anointing of Saul as Israel’s first King. Someone tall and handsome, admired by the people. It had now gone badly wrong and Saul had progressively let the prerogatives of power go to his head and there were rumblings of discontent in the land. When Samuel arrives in Bethlehem, he is met with fear and trembling. He reassures the elders that he comes in peace – even though his own heart is greatly troubled. He has to choose from Jesse’s sons a King to replace Saul – an act of treason. So the process continues in secret and Jesse’s sons one by one come before him. Surely it has to be this one, tall and handsome just like Saul. No, says the Lord. God does not see as humans see – God examines the depths of a man. And this one is rejected on those grounds.
Seven sons pass before Samuel and none of them is chosen. Surely he cannot have been misled. Isn’t there another one? Jesse considers – mmm, well I do have another one. But he’s only fit for looking after the sheep. We don’t consider him a real man, at least yet. Samuel insists that they bring in the outcast David. This is the one – the one with beautiful eyes (eyes for seeing as God sees, perhaps – or is it ‘an eye for beauty’ as David finds out later in his life to his great cost). Samuel anoints him there and then and he is mightily inspired from that moment.
So the excluded one is God’s chosen – David’s humility of heart wins out and his role as a shepherd prepares him for a future shepherding of God’s people.
The Gospel reading also shows us how an excluded one can be an instrument for God’s purposes. It isn’t clear who are the disciples who ask Jesus about this man, blind from birth, whom they meet on the road, but they ask a question which was still current in Jesus’ day about the relationship between sin and sickness. Jesus quickly puts them right – this is not a matter of sin at all. But the man will be a sign. S. John in his Gospel never speaks of ‘miracles’ but of ‘signs’. Something that points to a deeper reality and significance and one of the things that makes John’s Gospel so exciting to read. So the ‘miracle’ part takes up just two short verses. The real significance of this story is not the miracle of healing but rather the enlightenment that comes through a meeting with Jesus – a life-changing meeting for the unnamed blind man.
There are many parts of this story that are full of powerful images – the triumph of light over darkness, the acting out of Jesus’ claim in the previous chapter of the Gospel to be the Light of the world, the way in which the healing is achieved through an anointing with saliva and mud (in itself a reminder of the story of humanity’s creation from the dust of the earth), and the extended discussions with bystanders (who are not sure if they recognise the man at all now that he is no longer blind) with the Pharisees (who turn out to be the blind ones here in the deeper sense) and even with his parents (who more or less disown their son). Out of all of this stand the figures of Jesus and the man who was blind, and particularly clearly we see how the blind man’s enlightenment comes step by step until, sought out by Jesus, he confesses that Jesus is truly the Son of Man – the Christ.
From at least the third century, this Gospel reading was used on the Fourth Sunday in Lent and it was part of the preparation of candidates for baptism at the Easter Vigil. What were and are known as the Scrutinies where those to be baptised and confirmed express their desire to turn to Christ for enlightenment. Once again, there are seven very early paintings in the Catacombs in Rome depicting this story with a baptismal reference, and within the Gospel narrative there are clear references to the practice of Christian baptism. So, for instance, the healing only happens when the man washes in the pool of Siloam (a word meaning one who is sent – clearly a reference to the Messiah). Jesus anoints the man with saliva and mud just as the baptism rite has anointing with Oil of the Catachumens and the Oil of Chrism. The man is born blind, another baptismal reference, harking back to the Nicodemus episode of two Sundays ago. Elsewhere within the New Testament, baptism is alluded to as enlightenment (particularly in the letter to the Hebrews which has many affinities with John’s Gospel) and there is here even a suggestion of the Pauline association of baptism with Jesus’ death (the sign is given whilst there is still day for the night (of death) is approaching).
So in this passage we see Christ at work as the One who enlightens, and this enlightenment is brought to bear upon our lives through our baptism into Christ. We are immersed into his dying and rising, and this immersion progressively needs to take root in our lives as we are fed and nourished by the same Risen Christ present in the Eucharist.
This baptismal theme runs through our second reading today also, where the author of the letter to the Ephesians encourages the community to live as children of the Light. It is thought that this too is a part of an early liturgy of baptism and shows us how important it is for us all to grow and learn within a healthy community. Insight and truth comes through dialogue and sharing, openness and transparency, and the ability to discuss without demands of rigid conformity, the strength to be influenced as well as to influence others – all these are marks of a healthy community growing together in the enlightenment that Christ brings to us in our baptismal life.
It is important for us to recognise that Christ – the Word of God made flesh – enlightens us by drawing us into the life that he shares with God the Father. Baptism adopts us into a new relationship as God’s sons and daughters in Christ. This does not make us ‘other-worldly’ – somehow detached from creation. Quite the reverse. Jesus by virtue of his being the Word of God made flesh, releases into the world the act of the Creator in new forms of relationship and possibility – not by suspending our created realities but by bringing into those created realities the relatedness of the Word to the Father which is the eternal ground of all finite existence. As we see, if we may think of it this way, within the life of the Holy Trinity, the perfect obedience without coercion of the Son to the Father by the power of the love which is the Holy Spirit, we too are called to live in this dynamic of loving obedience and respect – to God to one another and to all that is. And the joy is that this is sheer free gift to us – the gift of God’s grace.
When we look at ourselves and our world in its various traumas, conflicts, wars, environmental disasters, and the general broken-ness of sin of which we are only too aware, to live by Jesus’ release into the world of this new possibility of true relatedness is indeed the most enlightening thing imaginable! Truly something to rejoice about on this Laetare, or Rejoice, Sunday!