Laetare Sunday

IV. Sunday in Lent

Many sundays of the year are traditionally known by the first word(s) of the Introit chant – the first official words of the Mass – assigned to them. The Fourth Sunday in Lent is thus known as Laetare Sunday, after its Introit, which begins ‘Laetare Jerusalem’:

a Rejoice, O Jerusalem,
          and come together, all ye that love her:
     rejoice with joy,
          ye that have been in sorrow:
     that ye may exult,
          and be filled from the breasts of your consolation.

               Is 66. 10–11, translated after the Latin
p I rejoiced at the things that were said to me:
          We shall go into the house of the Lord.

This Sunday, Lent’s midpoint, is traditionally a time of lessening of the season’s austerities: priest and deacons are dressed in less sombre vestments; the organ, otherwise silent in Lent, is sounded; there is generally a feeling of quiet joy as signs of spring are in the air and the Church looks forward to Easter.

Several of the proper texts allude to Jerusalem: the chants make heavy use of Psalm 122 as well as other related Scriptures, while the Epistle speaks of the heavenly Jerusalem. This is because the stational Church (the place where the Bishop of Rome would celebrate Mass after the faithful from all over the city had gathered and made a procession; many days of the year, including all the days of Lent, have such stations) of the day is the Church of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, built to house relics of the True Cross and floored with earth from the Holy City so that it was literally ‘in Jerusalem’. The church anciently lay across a valley from the Lateran, so that going up to it was rather like going up to Zion.

Why was this church chosen as the station for this day? We can imagine that it was meant in part as a preview for the catechumens of the joy soon to be theirs, fitted between the traditio symboli of the Creed and Our Father on the Sundays before and after. The Epistle is the allegory of Hagar and Sarah from Ga 4, which contrasts the earthly, ‘enslaved’ Jerusalem with the heavenly, free Jerusalem (elsewhere, of course, equated with the Church), which St Paul calls the mother of the faithful. It is this mother, then, who satisfies her children with her milk: the Eucharist, sign and means of abundant life, which the catechumens would soon taste (indeed neophytes were anciently given milk and honey along with the Body and Blood, a sign of their having reached the promised land of nourishment and sweetness). And the Gospel, the multiplication of loaves from Jn 6, is a figure of the Eucharistic abundance as well.

This Gospel is still found in Year B of the bcp1979 lectionary (a fairly rare divergence from the modern Roman Lectionary for Mass, where it does not appear; it has also been removed from the rcl). Year C gives us an Old Testament Lesson recounting the end of the giving of manna and the first harvest in the Promised Land. But regardless of the year, bcp1979 provides a collect that reminds us of Jn 6 and the Eucharist, and the life in Christ which the Lenten catechumens will come to know and which all the faithful do and must perpetually crave:

Gracious Father, whose blessed Son Jesus Christ came down from heaven to be the true bread which giveth life to the world: Evermore give us this bread, that he may live in us, and we in him; who liveth and reigneth…