Saltem Diebus Dominicis: Laetare Sunday 4th of Lent – We are our rites

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We are now, on this 4th Sunday of Lent, 21 days from Easter.  During Lent we have been fasting and abstaining from liturgical ornaments, making our sacred worship more austere as befits a penitential season.  However, today some flowers are permitted on the altar and some instrumental music can convey the holy texts.  We use not the purple or violet vestments associated with penance, but rather those of rosacea which is more authentically like madder or dark salmon rather than baby rattle pink.  The custom of rose vestments started in Rome on this Sunday at the Station church, which is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, The Holy Cross in Jerusalem where the relics of the Passion discovered and brought to Rome were enshrined.  In medieval times on this Sunday, as Blessed Ildefonso Schuster wrote in his great work The Sacramentary,

the Pope used to proceed to the station at Sta. Croce in Gerusalemme holding in his hand a golden rose… On his return he presented it to the Prefect of Rome, and this gave rise to the custom… of sending the golden rose blessed by the Pope as a gift to one of the Catholic princes.

It didn’t take a lot of imagination to develop rose-colored vestments for this Sunday of the rose.  Similarly, the color by liturgical osmosis crossed through the barrier of liturgical seasons and into the season of Advent, also a penitential time, where a similar relaxation of austerity and rose vestments were applied on the 3rd Sunday.  Surely the association was prompted also by the first words of the Introit antiphon for those Sundays, Laetare and Gaudete, which effectively mean the same thing, “Rejoice!”  Our forebears felt keenly the proximity of the upcoming feasts of Easter and the Nativity, perhaps because they, as a community, took penance and mortifications far more seriously than we do today.

This Sunday is also sometimes called Refreshment Sunday, perhaps because of the Gospel reading from John 6:1-15 which recounts the miracle of the feeding of the 5000.  This is the only miracle recounted in all four Gospels.  The other great feeding miracle, a little later, of the 4000 with 7 loaves and a few fish, is only in Matthew and Mark.

Close to the time of Passover, after the Lord received the news of the death of John the Baptist, He went by boat to a solitary place.  However, a great many people followed him on the shore.  When Christ came ashore He found a huge crowd and healed the sick.  Let’s see this part in the RSV:

Jesus said to Philip, “How are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” This he said to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii would not buy enough bread for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a lad here who has five barley loaves and two fish; but what are they among so many?”

Then the Lord had the disciples make the people sit down, according to according to Mark 6:40 the parallel passage, in divisions of hundreds and fifties.  The meager provisions were miraculously multiplied and distributed.  There were 5000 men, so the number of people was much larger.  Afterward they gathered 12 baskets from the 5 loaves and 2 fish.  The numbers are significant.

The miracle that was worked is both foreshadowed in the Old Testament while it foreshadows something later in the Gospels.  Consider that this took place in the wilderness, where people had travelled on foot after Christ came by water.  During the Exodus, Moses chose able men to act as leaders and judges over groups of the people including in divisions of hundreds and fifties.  The Lord, the New Moses, revealed that a New Exodus was taking place toward a new Promised Land, ultimately a New Jerusalem.

The miraculous feeding also foreshadows the Eucharist, the Last Supper.  It was close to Passover in both instances.  It was evening.  Everyone reclined.  Christ took, blessed and broke the bread.  He gave thanks (Greek eucharistesas both times) and gave it.  Starting from the distant past of the Exodus, we move from the daily desert manna to the new miraculously multiplied bread, and then to the new manna, the bread transformed into Christ’s own Body and Blood, which is Itself a foretaste of the new creation and the world to come, the New Jerusalem.  And we are at the Roman Station of Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.

After this miracle of multiplication and feeding takes place, there is second miracle of feeding the multitudes, which is only in Matthew and Mark.  Christ was in the Gentile region on the other side of the Sea of Galilee.  This is when He had the encounter with the Canaanite women and stated that, right then, His mission was to the Jews, not the Gentiles.  Many people followed Him, again, into the wilderness.  This time the Lord multiplied 7 loaves and a few small fish and fed “4000 men besides the women and children”.  After, they recovered 7 baskets of leftovers.

The Lord asked His disciples if they understood the symbolism of the 5000 with the twelve baskets near Bethsaida, and the 4000 (recounted only in Matthew 15 and Mark 8) with the seven baskets near Hippos.  In Mark 8 Christ asked the Apostles if they understood what those miracles meant (Mark 8:17-21).  If they did or didn’t, let us try to understand.  The feeding of the 5000 and the 12 recovered baskets took place in the Jewish region.  The 12 represents the regathering of the twelve tribes of Israel to Christ, the New Moses.  On the other hand, after the miracle in the Gentile region the 7 baskets stand for the 7 nations of the Gentiles (cf. Deut 7:1).  Ultimately both the Jews and Gentiles will be gathered and fed in Christ’s Church.  All peoples will be one in Christ.

God the Son fed the multitudes miraculously multiplying bread and fish in a remote place away from other food sources.  The superabundance of the miracle reveals a pattern of deprivation before bounty.  We fast before our feasts.  Holy Mother Church, the greatest expert in humanity that there has ever been, understands this pattern, reinforced and required by divine revelation.  It is reflected in our calendar and in our rites.  We are our rites.

God is always watching out for us, foreseeing, permitting and providing what we need, not for our earthly and temporal comfort but for our salvation.

At times God leaves us in a state of hunger and need to test and strengthen our faith.  Taking things away or allowing loss and hunger are ways to demonstrate our dependence on Him, not His lack of involvement.  The deprivations and lack of consolations ultimately increase our joy in heaven.

We do well to take on mortifications and deprivations in this life.  In so doing we do penance for our sins and we can make reparation for the sins of others.  We also learn the value of bounty and the promises of the life to come.

And in view of the life to come and to Easter which is not far away, rejoice!  Within our somber season, this Sunday pause and peer serenely at the rosy-fingered horizon.

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