Saturday, September 6, 2008
Fourth in Lent, Laetare, 2008
Jesus Heals the Man Born Blind, Nicholas Poussin 1594-1665
March 2, 2008 Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare (RCL Year A)
1 Sam. 16: 1-3, Eph. 5: 8-14; Jn. 9: 1-41
This past Thursday, in the Third Week of Lent, marked exactly the half-way point of our Lenten pilgrimage this year, and this morning of the Fourth Sunday in Lent is traditionally called Laetare Sunday, from the first word of the Introit of the Mass appointed since ancient times, from the 66th chapter of Isaiah: Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy with her, all ye that mourn for her, that ye may nurse, and be satisfied with the breasts of her consolation; that ye may drink deeply, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory. For thus saith the LORD: Behold, I will extend peace to her like a river, and the glory of the nations like a flowing stream . . . .
In our Anglican vocabulary this day of spiritual consolation and abundance is sometimes also known as “Refreshment Sunday,” or “Mothering Sunday,” and an occasion at mid-lent to lighten whatever disciplines of fasting we may be practicing during the season, and a reminder even in the winter of Lent and with the hard drama of Holy Week drawing near on the horizon of the tender love of God and of the good news that rests deep down under the challenges of the present hour. And I suppose there has been something of the spirit of Laetare to my approach to this season of Lent all through this year, with my recurring meditations in the text of F.W. Faber’s hymn, “There’s a wideness in God’s mercy.” Of any Sunday of the year and any Sunday in Lent, certainly this Fourth Sunday in Lent is especially appropriate for that.
The lessons today feature these two dramatic stories of anointing. Old Samuel and young David in the first reading, and Jesus and the Man Born Blind in the story from St. John. The stories of course very different. But as Samuel pours the oil over the head of Jesse’s son and as Jesus touches the eyes of the blind man with the mud made in the dirt from his own saliva, there is this common message and theme, which is the sacramental mystery and power of God acting to heal, to bless, to refresh, the right word for this Refreshment Sunday--to redeem, restore, renew.
I sometimes refer to the story of Samuel and David at baptismal services, as this story of anointing connects us at a deep level with the sense of identity and embrace, adoption and purpose that comes in the waters of the font. The healing of the Man Born Blind is likewise a baptismal moment. A new birth, or as we had it in the story of Nicodemus a couple of weeks ago, a birth from above. How can a man be born again? That question. And now this. One of those moments in life that creates two worlds: before and after.
And then sandwiched between these two stories, this very brief but lovely encouragement from St. Paul to the Ephesians: “Once you were darkness, but now in the Lord you are light.” Words that could have been spoken by Samuel to David, and certainly by Jesus to the blind man. And to notice: you were darkness, but “now in the Lord you are light.” A transformation and a way of talking about new birth and birth from above, that goes all the way through and all the way down to the essence of identity.
I think most years we limp along through Lent, and for all kinds of reasons this year, with the calculation of such an early Easter. The winter wears us down, and as for Jesus and his friends so also for us this year and truly every year: these weeks of conflict and controversy, these weeks of things not working out, of things falling apart, what bitterness and brokenness and suffering, disappointment and loss there is, and always plenty of that to go around. We each of us can write the script for that out of the stories of our own lives. Which really is the human story. Life and death.
But think again, listen again, watch again this drama by the side of the road, Jesus reaching across to touch, and to heal. And we would hear the invitation this morning to open our eyes as we approach this Table of Holy Communion with him—to open our eyes and our ears and our minds and our hearts, to meet him, to stand under his Cross, to be anointed by him and gathered with him in his life, to be transformed, to renewed and refreshed and to become the light of his presence in the world. A wisdom about our lives and God’s greater life that transcends anything we would learn from words on a page. A wisdom of the heart. A deep mysticism, not just for a select few, but for all of us, this morning at the Communion rail. And the song sung by the angels to announce the good news.
Rejoice with Jerusalem. And be glad, rejoice and be satisfied, and be delighted with the abundance of her glory. There’s a wideness in God’s mercy, like the wideness of the sea; there’s a kindness in his justice, which is more than liberty. There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good; there is mercy with the Saviour, there is healing in his blood.