4th Sunday of Lent
March 31, 20192 Cor 5: 17-21
Nativity, Washington, D.C.
“God has reconciled us to himself thru Christ and given us the ministry of reconciliation” (2 Cor 5: 19).
The Church has traditionally called the 4th Sunday of Lent “Laetare Sunday,” from the 1st word of the antiphon that begins the Mass texts proper for today: Laetare, Ierusalem, et … omnes qui diligitis eam…: “Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her,” from Isaiah 66.
The traditional explanation for this rejoicing is that we’re now halfway thru Lent, or more positively, we realize how close we are to the Easter feast of our redemption. In the Collect we pray that we “may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come.” That’s why we’re allowed a few flowers at the altar and rose-colored vestments to lighten up Lent’s somber violet.
But today’s Mass texts point us toward a greater reason for rejoicing than a halfway point on a calendar: God desires us to be reconciled to himself, he has effected that reconciliation with the human race thru Jesus Christ, and he continues to reconcile people thru the ministry of Christ’s apostles. That’s what we heard in the reading from 2 Corinthians and the Collect, what’s implied in the reading from the Book of Joshua and Psalm 34, what’s beautifully and powerfully illustrated in the parable of the 2 lost sons and the forgiving, big-hearted father (Luke 15: 11-32).
St. Paul speaks of a new creation (5:17). That’s an obvious allusion to the original creation and humanity’s original sin, which destroyed our relationship with the Creator. Christ has restored that relationship on behalf of all of us recreated humanity: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation…. Behold, new things have come” (5:17).
This reconciliation that Jesus has brought about is God’s own desire: “all this is from God” (5:18). Like the father in Jesus’ parable, God loves us and wants us, his wayward creatures, his wayward children, to come back home. It’s not that God is unaware of our sins; it’s that he “doesn’t count our trespasses against us” permanently (cf. 5:19). Christ offered a sacrifice of atonement and reconciliation, an innocent victim suffering on our behalf the punishment that we sinners deserve—which we commemorate on Good Friday. In solidarity with all his sisters and brothers in the human race, he suffered and atoned and reconciled: “Thru your Word [the Word made flesh] you reconcile the human race to yourself in a wonderful way,” the Collect acknowledges in praise of God the Father. “For our sake [the Father] made him to be sin who did not know sin, so that we might become the righteousness of God in him,” St. Paul says, testifying that the atoning death of our Savior has restored our right relationship with God (5:21).
|Isenheim altarpiece (Matthias Gruenewald)|
This reconciliation isn’t “out there” somewhere in the universe, nor does it touch only those who stood by Jesus’ cross on Calvary. St. Paul writes that “God has given us the ministry of reconciliation” (5:18), i.e., given it to the apostles. “We are ambassadors for Christ,” he continues, “as if God were appealing thru us” (5:20). An ambassador stands in for, speaks for, represents someone—in this case, Christ, bringing in fact to those who hear “the message of reconciliation” (5:19) and respond to it (5:20), this reconciliation just the same as if we heard Christ say directly to us, as he said to people during this earthly ministry, “Your sins are forgiven”; just as if his blood had dripped upon us from his hands pierced on the cross and washed over us, washed us clean.
That “ministry of reconciliation” given to the apostles is exercised today, for you and me, thru the apostles’ successors. So we repeatedly hear Pope Francis, successor of St. Peter, preaching mercy and encouraging bishops and priests to be ministers of divine mercy, to continue to reconcile sinners with the Father thru the grace of our Lord Jesus. Regardless of the failings of individual cardinals, bishops, priests, and other church people of which we’re all aware, our Lord Jesus still offers us grace, forgiveness, and reconciliation in and thru the Church: “Whoever is in Christ is a new creation,” and it’s in the Church that we meet Christ thru the preaching of the Word and the celebration of the sacraments. It’s in the Church that Christ reconnects us to our Father Creator, to that Father who runs to embrace us, dress us up, and set for us a great feast—the banquet of eternal life, foreshadowed here in this Eucharistic banquet.
During this season of Lent, then, my brothers and sisters, “be reconciled to God” by confessing your sins and by a deeper or more consistent prayer life. And keep your eyes, your attention, looking toward our Easter feast, our union with the passion, death, and resurrection of God’s beloved Son thru which we, too, become his beloved children.