Have you ever found joy in a strange place or at a strange time? It’s like you are in your darkest hour and suddenly find joy. An example from my life was when my sister died. It was one of, if not the, darkest times in my life. And yet, joy came from and during that dark time. During that time, my relationship with my parents was renewed. Joy in the darkness.
Our readings this week are sort of like that. In the traditional calendar, this Sunday is known as Laetare Sunday. What, you may ask, is that? Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent, takes its name from the Latin word which begins the entrance antiphon (introit) for that day. Laetare means rejoice, and this Sunday is marked by a relaxation of the penitential character of the Lenten season. This is Laetare Sunday when we consider the joy before us of the Easter season, joy in the solemn time of Lent.
Joy is one of those things that gets really misunderstood and is wrongly defined. We tend to think that joy and happiness are the same thing. They are not. Happiness is an emotion, a feeling that all is going well for you. Happiness, in our human experience, is largely tied to stuff; a good job, marriage is good, feeling fine, that sort of thing. Joy, on the other hand, is a much deeper thing. True joy is not based, necessarily, in the emotional realm. Joy is a deep-rooted experience that comes from a settled feeling of contentment and is usually not based on stuff.
Joy is not happiness.
So, even during a penitential season like Lent, even while we meditate on our sinfulness and mortify our flesh and do penance, we can have joy. Our joy, as followers of Christ, comes from something that is outside of us. All the readings from this week resound with this theme of joy, from the Introit to the Gradual, the Epistle and Gospel.
Epistle: Galatians 4:22-31
Gospel: John 6:1-15
Our Epistle text is really interesting as it relates to joy. In fact, you may read it and wonder how it has anything to do with joy. The situation that St. Paul is referring to in this text is found in Genesis 16. I’m not going to go into that but, if you like, you can go back and read it. What St. Paul is talking about here is primarily found in what St. Paul calls the “children of promise.” And what is meant by that?
St. Paul reminds us of the story of Abraham having two sons born to him; one from a slave woman and the other from his wife, Sarah. He says in verse 23 that the son born of the slave was “born according to the flesh” but the son (Isaac) that was born of his wife Sarah was “by promise.” What does that mean? Abraham was promised a son. Through that son all nations would be blessed. But Abraham and Sarah couldn’t wait on that promise. They took matters into their own hands, so to speak, and decided they would preempt the promise of God and have a son by the slave woman.
But God’s purpose was not be denied or thwarted, no matter how much Abraham took matters into his own hands “according to the flesh.” God’s promised son was born despite Sarah’s manipulation and Abraham’s capitulation.
There’s something here for us as well: Let us trust in the promises of God and trust His timing. Taking matters into our own hands mostly leads to disaster and sin. We can always rely on the promises of God.
But, St. Paul tells us that he’s reading this story, also, in an allegorical sense. These two sons are “the two testaments.” One, born of the slave, is born under the law. The other, born under promise, is “free.” And Paul relates this to what he calls “Jerusalem.” In Paul’s treatment of Jerusalem, we see the Church. Look at verse 26. St. Paul tells us,
“But that Jerusalem, which is above, is free: which is our mother.”
He is referring to the Church. The Church is our mother. And we, St. Paul tells us, are the new children of promise. Look at verse 28. The promise of God is salvation by the gift of grace. Isaac did nothing to earn it. He was merely born. So now, the child of promise is one who is born of faith, not of the flesh, as St. Paul tells us.
That is us. We who are of the faith are the children of promise.
In turning to our Gospel, we are tempted to think these two texts have nothing to do with one another. This is the miraculous feeding of “a very great multitude.” How many people exactly that is we do not know. What we do know is there were about 5000 men. That’s men only. Jesus miraculously feeds them by multiplying the loaves and fishes.
What we see here is a pre-figuring of the Eucharist. Jesus is giving a foretaste of what is to come after His ascension. The 1955 St. Andrews Daily Missal tells us that this is the Easter Sacrament, promised to the baptized children of the promise. What joy is ours, that THE Child of the promise, who is Christ the Lord, has become for us the Lamb that was slain on our behalf! But not just slain; risen indeed! This is the Easter promise of the Child.
There is One who, for us and for our sins, would be born. He would be the Child of promise in which Isaac is pre-figured. He would be the Seed that will bless the nations. He would be the Seed of the Woman who will crush the head of the great serpent, our enemy!
Now we, like the Psalmist can say,
“I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: We shall go into the house of the Lord.” (Ps. 121:1)
What joy is ours, we who rejoice in the promise of the Child! He, being the Firstborn of many brethren, has become for us our sacrifice. Now, with great joy, we go to the house of the Lord, to the house of our Father. There, in the Easter Sacrament, in the Eucharist, we may taste the joy of our salvation!
One day….oh, one day, dearly beloved! One day we shall see our Lord Jesus Christ face to face! One day we shall see the Eucharistic Lamb who was slain! One day we shall see the great Child of the promise, our Elder Brother, Jesus! With the Father, in the bosom of Mother Church, He has gone before us and He has won our salvation!
What promise, what joy is ours in Christ our Lord!