Today is Laetare Sunday. And Laetare means rejoice. It’s a Latin command to rejoice. Half way through the season of Lent, as we make our way towards the Passion/Resurrection, the Church invites us and reminds us to rejoice.
Now, Christian joy is different than normal earthly happiness. Normal happiness goes away, it goes away because the things that cause it, like basketball championships, new possessions, and snow days, go away. But Christian joy is based on something that never goes away, God’s love for us. Loving God and being loved by him is friendship with God. And it doesn’t change with the seasons. He is always faithful. This explains why Christians can sing hymns inside concentration camps, because prisons can’t take away God’s love. There can be joy even in the midst of sorrow.
This consistent joy of friendship with God is what the Church invites us to renew and deepen today. Because if we are honest, we have to admit that we don’t always know the joy that comes from a Divine friendship. Both sons in our Gospel today have missed out on that joy that comes from a relationship with the Father.
At first the younger son wants nothing to do with the father. He’s searching for happiness, but he’s searching in all the wrong places. He looks to pleasure, money and power. He has no idea of the joy that’s derived from a relationship with the Father. He’s looking for his happiness in sin, a happiness that never lasts. But then he comes to his senses and comes back to the source of true joy. And the Father greets him with open arms, clothing him, putting a ring on his finger, sandals on his feet, restoring him, and finally telling him to dance with joy.
The eldest son too misses out on the joy of relationship with the Father. He does everything the Father asks but he does it without relationship and there was no joy. The oldest does everything perfectly; maybe he’s searching for happiness by trying to be perfect. He obeys the rules; he does everything the Father asks of him. But he’s let the routine of life embitter his heart. He’s forgotten that his father wants only to give him everything; he’s lost sight of his fathers’ goodness. Even though they live together and see each other every day there is no deep and abiding relationship, the older son is not receiving from the Father. He’s not receiving the love offered by the father. There is no joy only bitterness.
I have a story of St. Drithelm and it’s a story of how one man became a saint when God broke through his routine. Drithelm went through the motions of being a good Catholic, he did everything that he was supposed to, but there was no deep relationship with God and no real joy. Drithelm was a normal guy living in England in the middle ages. And one day he got very sick, so sick that to everyone around him it appeared that he had died. It didn’t look like he was breathing and his heart beat was so faint that it just couldn’t be heard or felt. The next morning while his family was gathered around his body praying, he woke up, freed from all signs of the illness that had made him appear dead. And he woke up a changed man. That day he immediately liquidated his property, dividing it equally among his family and the poor. He then presented himself to the local monastery and asked to join their community. From that day forward he lived only for God and neighbor, giving such good example and such good spiritual advice that conversions multiplied all around him. Real Christian joy is attractive.
Many times Drithelm was asked about his sudden conversion. What happened to you on the night of your supposed death? They would ask. And he would answer, “God broke me out of my mediocre hum drum routine by having my angel give me a tour of the afterlife.” This is how he described it.
First he was taken to a valley burning on one side and frozen on the other, with souls being tossed back and forth between the sides. The angel explained that this was where souls who had repented on their deathbed were being purified for heaven.
Then he was given a glimpse of a burning pit, filled with countless people and gross demons. It emitted a disgusting stench and bloodcurdling screams. That was hell.
Next he was brought to a lush, green valley where thousands upon thousands of people danced and laughed in little groups. Plentiful flowers wafted a delightful aroma. He thought it was heaven, but his guide informed him that it was where souls who were living a decent, but not excellent Christian life went after they died. There in that valley they learned the perfect love of the saints so that they could eventually enjoy heaven.
His last stop was on the outskirts of a place full of light and even more beautiful music and laughter, it made the other valley seem dark and boring. The angel wouldn’t let him in there; it was heaven, and he had to be satisfied with only a whiff.
When he returned to consciousness, he resolved to take on a life of prayer and penance, for the sake of winning as many souls as possible for the eternal Kingdom.
The routine of life had stifled Drithelm’s potential. God had created him to be a great saint, to do great things for the world, but until that special graced vision he was just mediocre just going through the motions with little thought or focus.
God has created each one of us to be a saint, to do great things for his kingdom and for those around us. He wants us to experience and spread true Christian joy, but our potential can be stifled if we fall into a hum drum routine in our friendship with God, just taking Him for granted, just going through the motions.
So what can we do? How do we receive all that the Father wants to give us? How do we receive all the love and joy the Father wants to give us? There are many ways but let me offer a few suggestions that can help to make these final weeks of Lent meaningful, a few things that can help to open up our eyes to the Father’s love and joy.
First this is the time of year when the Church begins to zoom in on the Passion of Jesus, on His final days before His glorious Resurrection and Ascension. So let us resolve to make a little time each night to read through the stories of the Passion in Gospels, starting with Matthew. Don’t worry about finishing them all. Just start. To say that Scripture is inspired not only means that the Holy Spirit breathed into the Word of God; it also means that when we read the Scriptures the Holy Spirit breaths out onto us. So, read the Passion and allow the Lord to confront you with His wondrous love, and to help you know that all of this happened for you.
Second, let’s go out of our way to help someone, spouse, sibling, parent, or stranger. It could be something little as helping to set the table without being asked. Or taking time to help someone at the grocery store. Or giving up a good parking space for someone else. It could be something big like visiting a nursing home or a hospital. Resolve to help someone every day, doing something out of the ordinary.
Third, lets resolve to spend some time each week until Easter, and hopefully, forever after, praying in the presence of the Eucharist, either in the tabernacle or within the Monstrance. Look upon Him, consider Him, contemplate Him, and imitate Him. I am convinced that nothing can so open our eyes to God’s love and joy as praying in His presence in the Blessed Sacrament.
And finally, if you haven’t already make use of the sacrament of reconciliation. Let yourself be restored and renewed. It gives our Heavenly Father great pleasure when we meet him in the sacrament of reconciliation. Let the Father embrace you, let Him clothe your soul with a new robe, let him put a ring on your finger, let him put sandals on your feet, and let him tell you to dance for joy.
Let us be great Saints,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley