“To say that Bilbo’s breath was taken away is no description at all. There are no words left to express his staggerment, since Men changed the language that they learned of elves in the days when all the world was wonderful” (The Hobbit, Ch. 12).
This is rather how I feel in approaching this magnificent Sunday, called Laetare from the first word of the first chant, the Introit. This is “Rejoice!” Sunday, the 4th of Lent. I am a little barefoot burglar sneaking into the cave of captive treasures, our magnificent patrimony, where there is a force that seeks to prevent their recovery. Like little Bilbo, all I can do right now is recover – not pilfer – a single golden vessel to prove to the Dwarves that I truly got in.
In the ancient Church of Rome we Catholics didn’t begin the most serious period of penitential fasting until this midway point before Easter. Originally, the Lenten period began with Quadragesima or “Fortieth”, also the Latin name now for Lent. The days from Ash Wednesday through Saturday were added later to take into account the Triduum, etc. Hence, we are about 20 days into ancient Lent which is why this 4th Sunday was called “Dominica in vigesima … Sunday on the twentieth” and also “caput ieiunii … the start of the fast”. At this mid-point, there was a brief pause for us to catch our breath, as it were, like Jewish pilgrims needed on the way up the long sloping climb to Jerusalem. In fact, the Collect for Mass has the very word “respiremus … may we catch our breath, be refreshed”.
Many symbolic treasures of staggering beauty converge at this point.
For example, also in the Roman Church there was a strong Greek, Byzantine tradition which, on this day, celebrated the triumph of the Cross. The Roman Station for this Sunday is the Basilica where the relics of the Passion, including a large part of the True Cross of the Lord, were placed when the Empress Mother of Constantine, Helena, brought them from Jerusalem. As St. John Henry Newman wrote of the Roman Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem,
“This Basilica is so called, because Saint Helena, not only brought the True Cross there, but earth from Mount Calvary on which the Chapel or the Altar there is built — thus if there be a centre of the Church, we shall be there, when we are on earth from Jerusalem in the midst of Rome.”
The Basilica even has two sanctuaries, one ante Crucem and one post Crucem, not only echoing Constantine’s Anastasis or Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem, but also echoing in a sense the very dividing point where we are now in Lent.
This Sunday was also called the Sunday of the Five Loaves, because the Gospel reading recounts the feeding of the 5000 in John 6 upon the miraculously multiplied five barley loaves and two fishes. You recall the rhythm of that historical event. The people followed Christ, the New Moses, into the wilderness. He fed them on the Word He uttered and fed their bodies on the miraculous bread which he broke as they reclined. Then they returned to their own places. The encounter with the Bread Word was a midpoint in their pilgrimage. This looked back to the feeding of the people on the miraculous manna is the wilderness as they journeyed for 40 years (not days) toward the Promised Land which is where Jerusalem would be. Jesus, the Bread Word, will go up to Jerusalem to continue our pilgrimage to the New, Heavenly Jerusalem anticipated by our membership in the Church and our partaking in the Eucharist. When you go to Mass, you make a journey, there is a mid-point with Word and Bread, and you return. In ancient Lent and our Lent, we have this midpoint, a moment of refreshment with rose vestments and organ music and flowers on the altar, catching our breath before the last climb of more intense penance to Passiontide.
This was a transition point also for the ancient catechumens, whose spirit we do well to recapture for the strengthening of our identity today in times of enervation and confusion and captivity in the Church. This coming Wednesday, called “in mediana… at the mid-point” is when the Station is at St. Paul’s outside-the-walls. St. Paul is the model for catechumens because of his conversion experience and blindness. In the Novus Ordo, this Sunday has the reading of Christ curing the man born blind. This Sunday at St. Paul’s is when Rome’s Bishop explained to aspirants to baptism the Church’s sacred rites. There was a ceremony of the opening of the ears, in aperitione aurium, which we still do in the traditional rite of baptism. There were four exorcisms of the catechumens and they were taught the Creed and Our Father and their meaning. They were then sent away by the doorkeepers before the arcanum, the secret Eucharistic part of Mass began. Another midpoint.
All of these rites were about preparation for putting off the old man, like an old tattered rag stained in the mire of sin, and putting on the new man, like a pure white robe washed in the Blood of the Lamb.
The Epistle reading from Galatians 4 also has a turning point contrast. St. Paul uses the image of the sons of Abraham as types or symbols. Ishmael is the son of the slave Hagar. He is the bondage of sin and the flesh. Isaac, on the other hand, the son of free Sarah the legitimate wife, is the freedom of rebirth in the spirit. Paul contrasts the covenant of Mount Sinai “corresponding to the present Jerusalem” (4:25), the Temple, and “the freedom wherewith Christ has made us free”, the new “Temple”. “Destroy this temple, and in three days I will raise it up” (John 2:19). The shift from the sonship of Ishmael to Isaac was also a turning point in the history of salvation.
Christ fed people where there was no food. Isaac was conceived by a woman who had been infertile into old age. Isaac, the promise-child, carried the wood while Abraham carried the knife. Together they foreshadowed Christ the Priest Victim going up the hill for the sacrifice. In the wilderness in John 6, Christ’s disclosure of His Sacrificial Flesh Food was a turning point for many: some accepted and some did not.
This is the transition from slavery to freedom through baptism in a turning point in the history of a person’s salvation. Your salvation. Going into the wilderness and coming out. Going up the hill and coming down. Going into the water and coming out.
Throughout Sunday’s Mass there ring in our ears the echo of Jerusalem of old and the clarion call of Jerusalem to come. The call raises our hearts to rejoice at this midpoint in Lent when we sit down to be refreshed, to catch our breaths before the final climb. The people following Moses didn’t know where they were going. The disciples with the Lord didn’t know. We, who have the unfathomable riches of their experience and the loving reflection of our forebears, are like little burglars entering a cave of wonders they discovered, unearthed, crafted, polished, cherished only to be held captive by a mighty foe.
“When all the world was wonderful…”. We are not naïve or uncritical laudatores temporis acti, but we can recognize that when you change the language of the Church’s worship you change the content of her prayers, and when you change the content of her prayers, over time you change the belief of the Church’s members, and if you change their belief you change how they live, and if you change their mode of living, you change how the Church is perceived both ad intra and ad extra.
We are going to continue to delight in our liturgical patrimony, our inheritance, even if we must sneak in to find them.
Convert from Lutheranism, ordained to the priesthood in 1991 by St. John Paul II in Rome for the Suburbicarian Diocese of Velletri-Segni. Classics at University of Minnesota. Licence and Doctoral studies in Patristic Theology at the Augustinianum in Rome. Formerly a collaborator of the Pontifical Commission “Ecclesia Dei,” moderator of the Catholic Online Forum, columnist for The Wanderer and the UK’s Catholic Herald, Fox News contributor. Speaker. Blogist. fatherzonline.com @fatherz