Lent is more than half way done, and so we celebrate Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday, with a Collect which, at least in its first half, has been with us from the days of the Gelasian Sacramentary. The second half is even older, having been taken from a sermon of Pope Gregory the Great.
The prayer begins by addressing God as the one who, through Jesus his Word made flesh, reconciles the humanity to himself in a wonderful way. That wonderful way, of course, is by the Paschal Sacrifice of Christ upon the cross. By his suffering we are redeemed, and by his death we have come to inherit eternal life.
But having received this great gift of our salvation, to what are we called? This is the subject of the second half of the prayer. That’s where the sermon of Pope Gregory the Great comes in. He begins by talking about Lent itself, noting that no matter how much we are fasting, we should hunger more for the Word of God than for food! He continues:
“...let us with ready devotion and eager faith enter upon the celebration of the solemn fast, not with barren abstinence from food, which is often imposed on us by weakliness of body, or the disease of avarice, but in bountiful benevolence... Let us rejoice in works of piety and let us be filled with the kind of food which gives us eternal life. Let us rejoice in feeding the poor... [and] in the clothing of the naked. Let our humanity be felt by the sick...by the weak...by exiles...by orphans...by widows: in helping those whom no one else will help.”
Then will we “hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come.” For if we have lived Lent in prayer, fasting and caring for those whom everyone else has forgotten, we will be able to celebrate the Paschal Triduum as never before.
When Christ kneels to wash the feet of his Apostles and tells them to love others as he has loved them, we will remember those whom we have fed and clothed and loved in their poverty.
When he opens his arms in a perfect act of love, we will remember the hours we have spent praying before the cross, ever seeking to join our hearts to his.
And when he rises from the deathly tomb, defeating darkness and sin, we will recall the victories we have won against the sins of our lives by turning from the pleasures of this world and seeking only the Kingdom of Heaven.
This is the meaning of Laetare Sunday, of Lenten joy. For the fruit of our prayer, fasting and almsgiving is the Paschal mysteries of life which we will soon celebrate in Christ Jesus our Lord!