Laetare Sunday: The Suffering of Jesus Leads Us to God’s Mercy
User’s Guide to Sunday, March 14
Sunday, March 14, is Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Mass Readings (Year B): 2 Chronicles 36:14-16, 19-23; 137:1-2, 3, 4-5, 6; Ephesians 2:4-10; John 3:14-21.
Happy Laetare Sunday!
Laetare is Latin for “rejoice,” and it comes from the entrance antiphon of today’s Mass: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem!” (Isaiah 60:10). We have crossed the halfway point of Lent, and the Church encourages us to celebrate our progress today. It’s like climbing a long flight of stairs and taking a breather on the landing halfway up. Rose-colored vestments are worn as a sign of joy. It’s a good day for a nicer-than-normal Sunday meal and some family festivities — but not too much, as it’s not Easter yet!
Your parish might be using the Year A readings, which dovetail with the RCIA process, but here we will comment on the Year B readings. In the first reading, we’ve been following the course of salvation history, which is really our spiritual family history. We’ve reviewed the Noahic Covenant (First Sunday), the Abrahamic Covenant (Second Sunday), the Mosaic (or Sinai) Covenant (Third Sunday), and today’s reading could be called “Covenant Collapse.” We read from the end of 2 Chronicles a summary statement of Israel’s failure to live by God’s covenant; “in those days, all the [people] added infidelity to infidelity, practicing all the abominations of the nations,” our text says, and so God let them be exiled to Babylon. Our responsorial Psalm (Psalm 137) was written about this experience of exile: “By the streams of Babylon we sat and wept when we remembered Zion …” Yet not all is doom and gloom. After 70 years, Cyrus King of Persia conquers Israel’s captors, the Babylonians, and lets all the Judeans return to their land and their holy city Jerusalem. So God’s justice has a limit, and his mercy has the final word.
Our second reading reminds us that we, just like the Israelites of old, have been saved not because of our merit but because of God’s mercy: “God, who is rich in mercy … even when we were dead in our transgressions, brought us to life with Christ.” We certainly don’t earn our salvation: “For by grace you have been saved through faith … it is the gift of God; it is not from works.” But good works certainly do have a role in our salvation: We are “created in Christ Jesus for the good works …that we should live in them.” Misunderstandings about this teaching led to the tragedy of the Protestant schism. Luther pitted grace and faith against good works; but in fact, grace and faith lead to good works.
Our Gospel also emphasizes God’s great mercy. It is the famous conversation of Jesus with the Jewish leader Nicodemus, a member of the Sanhedrin (a kind of Senate). Jesus tells him: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the desert, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, so that everyone who believes in him may have eternal life.” This recalls an incident from the wilderness wanderings of Israel (Numbers 21), when the Israelites rebelled against God and fell prey to poisonous snakes. But Moses made a bronze snake on a pole, and all who looked at it were kept alive. It wasn’t by their great strength or merit, but simply by looking toward God who provided a way of salvation for them. Jesus continues with the most famous verse of the Bible: “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son …” (John 3:16).
Just as serpents were a sign of evil, so the Crucifixion is, in itself, a sign of evil: an innocent man suffering torture and execution.
But God turns this evil into the source of our salvation. That’s what God specializes in: bringing good out of bad. Out of Israel’s covenant failures, he brought us Jesus; out of Jesus’ unjust death, he brings us salvation. This gives us the courage to believe: Whatever evils we are suffering now, God can turn them to our good. So rejoice!