“Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her.”
These are the words of the traditional entrance antiphon for today’s Mass, which gives it the name, “Laetare Sunday.” On this Sunday, the Church allows a respite from the sobriety that the liturgy has undertaken these past few weeks. The organ is once again allowed to be played beyond just supporting the singing, flowers are allowed to grace the sanctuary, and the color of the vestments is lightened from the penitential purple to a festive rose.
This Sunday, then, is the high-point of our Lenten exploration of what it means to be joyful disciples. St. Paul tells us today that God has “brought us to life in Christ.” Already, still three weeks away from Easter, only half-way through Lent, we already have the promise of the Resurrection. Actually, we have been receiving that promise all throughout this season of Lent. Two weeks ago we had the Gospel of the Transfiguration, in which Christ showed us the reward for our discipleship with his glorification on Mt. Tabor. Last Sunday, He promised to raise up the Temple of His body in three days. Christ is holding out these promises to us so that we might not be like the disciples who abandoned Him at His crucifixion, that we might remember the promise of the Resurrection.
Laetare Sunday is not so much, then, about needing a break from our Lenten discipline (how many of us, after all, have really undertaken something so difficult for Lent that we need a break? Holy Mother Church asks so little of modern men and women compared to the daily fasting that used to be imposed on our forefathers). Rather, it is to remind us of the promise of the joy that is to come, to remind us that just as the suffering that we impose upon ourselves during Lent is not without hope, so neither is the suffering that we do not choose for ourselves but is inevitable in this life. We are reminded, then, that despair has no place within a life of faith.
Against the sin of despair, we are invited to practice the virtue of hope. This is one of the theological virtues that was infused in our souls at our baptism. Hope is not just a wish: “I hope the Pacers will win tonight.” Or “I hope Grandma will make pot roast for dinner.” This is not hope, this is a wish. Hope is something that clings to the object it desires with certainty.
The hope that we have in Christ is an entirely different matter altogether. When Christ promises something, we can know it with certainty. What He promises us today – if we will accept this great gift – is the best promise possible. So why, then, would St. John that, in Christ, “the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to the light”? How could anyone turn down this incredible offer of salvation?
St. John’s metaphor of light is helpful here. Maybe you remember as a child your mother turning on the lights in your room to get you out of bed in the morning to go to school. For eyes accustomed to darkness, the light hurts. That is why St. John tells us, “people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come toward the light, so that his works might not be exposed.”
So many people reject the light that Christ promises to them because their spiritual eyes have been habituated to darkness. Light, we know, is good. Where would we be without light? And yet, if we are not ready for something good, we cannot appreciate it as such. All of us, in this world, have eyes that are somewhat resistant to spiritual light. That is because we still live with the effects of original sin (called concupiscence), even though our guilt for that sin was washed away by Baptism. What would it look like, then, to live completely in the light?
To live in the light of Christ is to live in true freedom. We often think of freedom as the lack of restrictions, as being able to do whatever I want. But that is the furthest thing from true freedom. True freedom is the ability to do the good. The child who wants to turn off the light and go back to sleep is not really free. Sure, he gets to do what he wants (just like when my self-discipline fails and I hit the snooze button in the morning), but does this really make him more free? Or rather, is he not just petulant and immature? He is less able to do what he really needs to do, maybe even what he really wants to do, if he is a good kid and knows that he needs to be responsible.
I think all of us have experienced a similar problem identified by St. Paul. He wrote, “I see in my flesh another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin which dwells in my flesh” (Rom 7:23). These words ring true every time that we try to overcome a habitual sin, but continue to slump back into the same old bad habits.
This process is called vice. It is a firmly ingrained tendency to do what is wrong. Vice is the reason that St. John can say that people preferred darkness to the light because their works were evil. Exposing the works of darkness to the light is painful, like having to expose a wound so that it can be cleaned. But if the wound is not cleaned, it becomes infected, and the pain grows all the worse.
Exposing the works of darkness is one of the most important tasks if we are to leave sin behind in order to be Christ’s joyful disciples, full of the hope of His promises to us. One of the most important ways that this happens is through confession. When we can expose our own works of darkness to the power of Christ’s mercy, we can gain a true interior freedom and peace that we did not even know we were missing. If there is something that you have been struggling with habitually, a vice, it is a good idea to mention the habitual nature of that sin to the priest in the confession so that he might be able to advise you on how you can start to overcome that vice.
This is one of the reasons why Holy Mother Church instructs us to confess any grave or mortal sins that one might need to confess in both number and kind. By kind, we mean the type or name of the sin, and by number we mean at least an approximate number or frequency of the times the sin has been committed since one’s last good confession. This is necessary both because every instance of a mortal sin is a grave offence against God for which we would merit Hell rather than Heaven, but also because the priest is then better able to counsel you on how to overcome a habitual vice.
You can also bring the works of darkness into the light by humbling acknowledging times of temptation before the Lord. When you feel particularly tempted toward a sin, acknowledging that work of darkness and telling God forthrightly about that temptation is usually a great tool to make it go away. Satan’s works of darkness cannot withstand God’s light. This is particularly true for temptations that might be embarrassing for you to acknowledge, such as temptations to sins against the flesh. The sacrament of confession is also a privileged place to acknowledge such temptations, bringing the works of darkness into the light, and receiving counsel if needed.
When the light first goes on, it can be a painful experience, but once our interior eyes of faith are adjusted to Christ’s light, then we can see. In the light of His truth, we can experience true freedom. Freedom leads to an ability to conquer our own sinful tendencies, which gives us interior peace. That interior peace of the truly free man or woman who is uninhibited by vice is a source of tremendous power. Joy is always the consequence of freedom, the true freedom that enables us to do the good.
If we are willing to come into the light and leave the works of darkness behind, we will find an incomparable source of joy. This is the hope that Christ promises to us when we hear that “God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him.” Come into the light, come into freedom, come into hope, and come into joy.
The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson
Parish Church of St. John the Apostle and Evangelist, Goshen
IV Sunday in Lent, A.D. MMXVIII