Today is the fourth Sunday in Lent, often called Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word for “Rejoice,” which comes from today’s traditional Introit, which consists of texts we read as our Old Testament Lesson from Isaiah 66 and from the Psalm we recited today, number 122:
Rejoice ye with Jerusalem: and be ye glad for her, all ye that delight in her:
exult and sing for joy with her, all ye that in sadness mourn for her:
that ye may suck, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolations.
I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.
The other traditional name for this Sunday, less common in our circles, but more common among high church Englishmen of yesteryear, is Dominica Refectionis, the Sunday of Refreshment, based on our Gospel passage where Jesus refreshes the multitudes with a miraculous meal. In fact, Google translated the term as “Sunday meals.” On this, our mid-Lent Sunday, we take a little respite from our Lenten labors. The traditions associated with Laetare Sunday point to this respite, including the use of rose vestments (a lightening of the violet), eating of various cakes, bringing back flowers on the altar, and (in the old days) giving domestic servants a day off to visit their mothers and thus coining another name for this day, Mothering Sunday. Our propers also reflect the respite, as the readings shift from focusing on the struggle against the World, the Flesh, and the Devil, to focusing on receiving the joyful, refreshing grace of our Lord Jesus Christ. In our Collect we prayed:
Grant, we beseech thee, Almighty God, that we, who for our evil deeds do worthily deserve to be punished, by the comfort of thy grace may mercifully be relieved, through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
In this time of plague, infectious disease and the resulting anxiety and uncertainty, when we cannot even gather together for worship, it can be easy to think that there is no cause for rejoicing or refreshment. But God’s grace remains for his children. The shift of focus in today’s readings help us to remember that it is in the Lord we find our rejoicing and refreshment.
That said, this shift of focus doesn’t let us forget that we are in a season of repentance. We still acknowledge our sins and indeed the fact that we deserve God’s punishment. But we throw ourselves on God’s mercy, trusting that he will relieve us by his grace, not presumptuously, but assured by the promises of his word.
Our Epistle from Galatians 4 illustrates this assurance by contrasting the bondage that comes from being under the Law with the freedom that comes from being heirs of God’s grace. St. Paul reminds the Galatians of Abraham’s two sons: Ishmael and Isaac. Ishmael was the son of Hagar, the Egyptian slave. Isaac was the son of Sarah, Abraham’s wife. Ishmael was indeed a son of Abraham, but only according to the flesh. Isaac, on the other hand, was the son of the Promise, the son of the Covenant, through whom God had promised to carry out his long-term plan of redemption, that plan that unfolds through the rest of the Old Testament. St. Paul then writes in verse 24 (page 131 in your prayer book):
Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem from above is free, and she is our mother. For it is written:
“Rejoice, O barren one who does not bear;
break forth and cry aloud, you who are not in labor!
For the children of the desolate one will be more
than those of the one who has a husband.”
Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise.
Did you catch the “rejoice” theme in the passage? Without the Messiah, the Law crushes us under its holiness. It cannot give life, it cannot give freedom. Without the Messiah, we cannot truly be God’s children, we can only be his servants. We can submit, but we cannot enjoy fellowship with God; we cannot ultimately have rejoicing or refreshment. Indeed, had it not been for the promise of Messiah, woven throughout the Law, passages like the one St. Paul quotes from Isaiah 54 would be meaningless. Though God’s Law crushes us by its absolute holiness, God always gave it with hope. In fact, we’re told that it is by hope in the promises of the Messiah that the Old Testament saints were saved.
As for us, we have the hope realized. We have the joy and respite of the Messiah. We have tasted the grace that comes from him fulfilling the Law, paying its penalties, redeeming us from its consequences, and thereby enabling us to keep it with joy. And this is a significant difference between being slaves and being sons. As 19th Century Oxford Father Melville Scott writes:
Christian service is the service of sons, which is more than that of slaves. The son submits his will to his father, the slave only his outward conduct to his master… The son serves not for favour but as one in favour, not for wages but as a debtor to infinite love. While the thought of the crown before him gives him joy, his true motive is the cross behind him. That such service brings refreshment is the teaching of our Church on Refreshment Sunday [emphasis added].
In our Gospel we have St. John’s account of the feeding of the 5,000 from the 6th Chapter of his gospel. The story is, of course, familiar to us. In fact, it’s the only story that shows up twice in our Sunday lectionary! This is also one of the few miracles that is told in all four gospels. It, too, illustrates the refreshing joy that offered by Christ. From the other gospels we see that the miracle happened at night “in a desolate place.” The people were far from anywhere to buy food, and there was nothing nearby worth foraging. The disciples, noting the late hour, told Jesus to dismiss them so that they could go eat. But we’re told that they were in danger of fainting of hunger if Jesus sent them away. Again, we see the Lord showing his grace upon them, giving them physical refreshment, for they were like sheep without a shepherd. John 6:5 (page 131 in the Prayer Book)
Lifting up his eyes, then, and seeing that a large crowd was coming toward him, Jesus said to Philip, “Where are we to buy bread, so that these people may eat?” He said this to test him, for he himself knew what he would do. Philip answered him, “Two hundred denarii worth of bread would not be enough for each of them to get a little.” One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, said to him, “There is a boy here who has five barley loaves and two fish, but what are they for so many?”
John Henry Blunt, another of the 19th Century Oxford Fathers did a little math for us in his commentary on this passage. He notes that 200 denarii, the equivalent of what a laborer would earn in about seven months, would buy quite a lot of bread. Converted to then-current English currency, it would provide each person in a crowd of 5,000 about three ounces, roughly what you would have as a dinner roll or biscuit. Not quite a meal, but a satisfying accompaniment to a full meal. But there were 5,000 men, not counting the women and children. If we conservatively estimate that there were also 5,000 women and children, that would leave each person with only an ounce-and-a-half of bread, barely more than a mouthful.
Truly, this presented a logistical nightmare. Even the US Army cannot feed 10,000 people at a moment’s notice without significant planning. Yet our Lord does so. St. Augustine points out that God designed seeds to naturally multiply, and this is the kind of miracle that God does all the time, albeit not usually this obviously nor this quickly. Even when Jesus works miraculously, he still works within what he has already created. Augustine writes, “Those five loaves were likes seeds, not indeed committed to the earth, but multiplied by him who made the earth.”
The truth is, we are similarly in the wilderness when left to our own devices. We are spiritually starving without our Lord’s intervention, even though he has designed creation to point us to himself. The Psalmist observed, “The heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament showing his handiwork.” St. Paul writes, “For [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.” Nevertheless, we need that gift of grace if we are going to come to Christ. No one comes because he is smarter, or wiser, or better than their neighbor; it’s all by the grace of the Lord.
We often first must be made to realize our hunger. This is one of the reasons we fast in Lent. We use our physical hunger to show us our spiritual hunger, our hunger for the Spirit of Christ. Melville Scott writes:
Our Lord drew out faith from a sense of need in the disciples, and also raised the faith and expectation of the multitudes by His command, “Make the men sit down.” See the five thousand sitting, waiting! To wait upon Christ is the secret of sanctification. “Blessed are all they that wait for Him”; they shall never go away empty from sermon, prayer, or sacrament.
Back in Verse 4, St. John tells us that this miracle happened around the time of the Passover. The Venerable Bede reminds us that this is a year before our Lord’s passion and crucifixion. Whenever you see Passover in the bible, you should look for ways that the Passover points to the greater Exodus, when the Lord himself became our Passover Lamb. Theologians have often found this passage to be a foreshadowing of the sacrament of Holy Communion. After all, when Jesus “had given thanks” before the miracle, the Greek word used by St. John is εὐχαριστήσας. This is even more evident in light of the later part of the chapter, when Jesus tells the people that he is the bread of life. We read in Verse 51:
[Jesus said] “I am the living bread that came down from heaven. If anyone eats of this bread, he will live forever. And the bread that I will give for the life of the world is my flesh.” The Jews then disputed among themselves, saying, “How can this man give us his flesh to eat?” So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of Man and drink his blood, you have no life in you. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood has eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day. For my flesh is true food, and my blood is true drink. Whoever feeds on my flesh and drinks my blood abides in me, and I in him.”
And here we have our spiritual refreshment. Our catechism tells us that the benefits of partaking in the Lord’s Supper are “The strengthening and refreshing of our souls by the Body and Blood of Christ, as our bodies are by the Bread and Wine.” When we hunger for Jesus, he feeds us with himself, giving us life, strength, and spiritual refreshment. The joy from encountering our Lord in Word and Sacrament gives us the boost we need in Lent, but also in our entire lives.
What do we do, though, when we cannot partake of the Sacrament? After all, most of the parish can only participate in today’s worship virtually. Due to the Coronavirus, we aren’t celebrating Communion today, and possibly not for the next few weeks. If you’ve followed some of the recent emails I’ve sent out or if you heard last week’s announcements, you may remember the rubric from the end of the Communion of the Sick liturgy that speaks to what we sometimes call “spiritual Communion”:
But if a man, either by reason of extremity of sickness, or for want of warning in due time to the Minister, or by any other just impediment, do not receive the Sacrament of Christ’s Body and Blood, the Minister shall instruct him, that if he do truly repent him of his sins, and steadfastly believe that Jesus Christ hath suffered death upon the Cross for him, and shed his Blood for his redemption, earnestly remembering the benefits he hat thereby, and giving him hearty thanks therefor, he doth eat and drink the Body and Blood of our Saviour Christ profitably to his soul’s health, although he do not receive the Sacrament with his mouth.
In other words, the means by which we receive the “inward and spiritual grace” of the Sacrament is faith, and we can receive that grace even if we cannot partake of the “outward and visible sign” of the bread and wine. While this is not at all ideal, nor is it normative, it is a comfort in these extraordinary times. Meditating on the miracles and teachings of John 6 and how they relate to the Sacrament is a good way to partake of this spiritual Communion. And on top of that, as we build up hunger for the fullness of the Sacrament, it will make it sweeter all-the-more when we can resume Communion as normal.
The thing about hunger is that it presupposes that there is food somewhere. The same is true for spiritual hunger. So, by all means, enjoy the refreshments of our Rejoicing Sunday. Perhaps you can smell some roses on a walk around your neighborhood. Perhaps you can even find a slice of cake or something as we take a bit of a breather from the rigors of Lent. But more importantly, refresh yourself in the Joy of the Lord by feasting on his Word, by remembering what it is to be a son rather than a slave, by meditating on his sacrifice as you look forward to returning to his Table, by remembering the relief and comfort of God’s grace on this our Sunday of Rejoicing, our Sunday of Refreshment.
In the Name of the Father and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen