This is the Fourth Sunday in Lent, and you have probably noticed that we swapped out the regular Lenten purple vestments for these special rose colored vestments. The Fourth Sunday in Lent is also known as “Laetare” Sunday because Laetare is the first word in Latin of the entrance antiphon for today. It means “Rejoice!”
Years ago, before we began to sing hymns at the start of Mass, the first word you would have heard would have been the cantor singing “Rejoice!” As the procession moved toward the altar, the people and the choir would sing the entrance antiphon. Since an entrance hymn is more common today, this Sunday is better known for the very well-known parable of the prodigal son, which we just read.
We’ve all heard many times the story of the younger son who desires right now the inheritance that will be his when his father dies at some point in the future. We see the hard justice of that younger son blowing through his inheritance on various forms of dissipation. We nod in acknowledgment at the younger son’s growing wisdom, when he realizes that the servants at his father’s house have a better life than he has, and he commits to swallowing his pride, and going back home, and asking to be treated not as a son but as a servant. We understand the father’s joy at seeing his son, and we marvel at his immediate forgiveness of the son’s misbehavior, and we can see the love behind the decision to reclaim the boy as his son despite the bad things he has done. We can empathize also with the older son, and his peevishness when he learns that the prodigal son is welcome back into the family. And we can sympathize with his sense that justice does not seem to have been served.
You may have heard other preachers recast this story as the parable of the loving father, for the father’s act of love and mercy is the hinge of the parable and his words of welcome give it its power. I’m going to go in a different direction today. I am struck by the theme in the readings today of the power of God’s word to cause change. This is Laetare Sunday, or “Rejoice” Sunday. The power of God’s word should cause us to rejoice.
In the first reading from the book of Joshua in the Old Testament, the Israelites have crossed the Jordan River and are now in the promised land. And the Lord said to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” With the word of the Lord, the sins of the Israelites are wiped away. They can go into the new land rejoicing, just as we were called to come into the Lord’s house today rejoicing.
We chanted today from the 34th Psalm, and one of the verses reads: I sought the Lord, and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears. The voice of the Lord freed me. The word of God has more power than the strength of any single man or indeed of all men combined together. The Psalmist rejoices at his deliverance, just as we should be filled with joy as we head toward the Passion of our Lord in a couple of weeks.
St. Paul, in the second letter to the Corinthians, tells those Christians, “the old things have passed away.” When we put on Christ, when we confess Jesus Christ to be our Lord and Savior, when we call on the word of God, the old things of our lives have passed away. The word of God makes all things new.
The parable of the prodigal son shows the same power of the holy word and the joy that it brings. Remember why Jesus chooses to tell this parable. Jesus tells this parable in response to complaints from the good religious people of the day that Jesus welcomes sinners and eats with them. These good religious people were in those days trying to follow the Mosaic Law, which detailed the many ways a person could become ritually unclean and outside of the law and therefore officially, a sinner. And tax collectors were the worst kind of sinners. Tax collectors were empowered by the Roman state to shake down the people of the region to whatever degree was needed to bring in the revenue they had promised to Rome. The religious leaders were like the older brother in the parable: not joyfully living the law but grimly following the letter of the law.
At the invitation of Jesus, these sinners — and even worse, tax collectors — are invited to share a meal with the famous Rabbi. It’s a scandal. When you think of the older brother’s reaction to the father’s decision to welcome back into the family the younger brother, it’s the same sort of scandal as having a meal with sinners. The older brother’s outrage is understandable.
It is the word of the father in the parable of the prodigal son that has removed the reproach from the younger son. When the father tells the servants to bring the finest robe and put it on him, and to put a ring on his finger and sandals on his feet, it is the same as the Lord saying to Joshua, “today I have removed the reproach of Egypt from you.” The younger son experienced the words of the psalmist: “I sought the Lord and he answered me and delivered me from all my fears.” The father joyfully answers the younger son and delivers him from all his shame and humiliation.
Our God is calling to us. If we approach him, and if we listen to him, in humility, he will share his word and make all things new in our lives. This is the power of the sacrament of reconciliation. We go in that box and we declare our faults, and in the person of Christ the priest shares the word of reconciliation, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of baptism. Our godparents declare for us our faith in God, and the minister shares the words of baptism, and breathes new spiritual life into us. This is the power of the sacrament of the Eucharist. Standing in the person of Christ, the priest says the words that Christ said at that first mass on Holy Thursday, and we receive into our bodies the bread of new life.
This can be the power of Christian charity. With the father in the parable of the prodigal son as our model, we can make all things new in our families and in our lives when we choose the word of mercy, or the word of love, or the word of peace, when there is injustice or discord. St. Paul in his letter to the Corinthians implores those people on behalf of Christ to be reconciled to God. If we are reconciled to God, we can be his instrument of peace and mercy.
Our God is calling us to rejoice here in midst of the penitential season of Lent. Laetare Sunday is not like a holiday of pretty pink in the middle of penitential purple. It’s not a day off. It’s a reminder that we are called to joy even as we follow Jesus Christ to the Cross on Calvary. It is our Lenten joy that will make Palm Sunday the beginning of Holy Week rather than the beginning of a death march. It is this joy in the power of the mercy of God and his Word that will make Good Friday a solemn exaltation of the Holy Cross rather than a gruesome day of execution of an innocent man.
Rejoice today on Laetare Sunday while we wear rose vestments. Rejoice tomorrow when we put on purple. Rejoice all the way through the Passion of Our Lord because the Word of God brings with him new life.