Sunday, March 22, 2009

Fourth in Lent, Laetare, 2009

Moses and the Brazen Serpent, Sebastien Bourdon, 1653-54

March 22, 2009 IV Lent Laetare (RCL - B)
Numbers 21:4-9; John 3: 14-21

Laetare Sunday, Midlent, Refreshment Sunday, Mothering Sunday. The name from the traditional Mass Introit for this Fourth Sunday in Lent, Laetare Ierusalem. “Refreshment,” because this is a day when even more than in the other Sundays the disciplines of Lent would be relaxed. An especially festive Coffee Hour there might be for us this morning. “Mothering” Sunday and perhaps a connection to the later American development of the Mothers’ Day observance, the early spring day we Anglicans would say when we would give the servants a day off so that they could go back to the village and visit their families.

Until the shift to this Revised Common Lectionary the reading for this Sunday around the Anglican and Roman Catholic world for five hundred years anyway, probably a thousand years, as these traditions were formed, Laetare Sunday would feature the Feeding of the 5,000 in the Sixth Chapter of St. John—this in the pattern of St. John’s sacramental teaching the bookend miracle, related to the great sign of the transformation of water into wine at the Wedding in Cana, as a Eucharistic symmetry.

Laetare Ierusalem, in the midst of this awful procession to the Cross, with all the betrayal and defeat and pain and suffering ahead, along this costly road, may your heart and spirit lift up with a lightness of joy. Be nourished, be fed, be healed, rejoice. A Eucharistic theme we can still hear in our Prayer Book Collect for this Sunday. Evermore give us this Bread.

And in it all the words of the Prophet way back from Advent and when the first hints of winter were just around us seem to echo back down to us this morning, Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned; for she hath received of the LORD’s hand double for all her sins . . . . Every valley shall be exalted, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough places plain; and the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD hath spoken it.”

Midlent, and Laetare. The reading from Numbers-- I hope some of you may have smiled as you heard it this morning, the story of Moses and the Bronze Serpent, the famous symbol of the Caduceus, or the Rod of Asclepius, related in the ancient world and in modern iconography to medicine and immortality. Remembering that I preached on this text over at Redeemer Church a few years ago in the East End Lenten Series, in the context of the release in that season of what became something of a cult classic film, the Samuel Jackson “Snakes on a Plane.” (And I had visual aids, a handful of slithery serpents from the local toy store.) The story from Numbers like the film conjuring up some deep dark fears in the depths of our memories and imagination, the cold and deadly reptilian danger. Let me tell you, be careful when you open that overhead compartment . . . . And then how miraculously Moses takes that symbol of fear and death and transforms it into the symbol for salvation, healing, restoration, new life.

And so our new lectionary, and the beginning of our reading from the Third Chapter of St. John this morning--and the themes converge: “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.” We’ll hear this exactly again in John’s gospel in Holy Week in Chapter 12, in the Upper Room, when he speaks those words that are inscribed on the Rood Beam over our chancel steps: “And I, if I be lifted up from the earth, will draw all men unto me.”

The heart of our gospel, the only good news we know how to hear or how to share. Echoing around us all the time, this deep invitation, as we hear so often in the eleventh chapter of St. Matthew: “Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.”

Laetare Ierusalem: this is our rejoicing, this our refreshment, breaking the deadly fast of our Lent in our mortality with the abundance of bread and wine, the call to the banquet table of the heavenly feast, the deep medicine, the true medicine, the restoration of health and life for our bodies and our souls, the renewal of all creation. This is what he is, who he is, how he comes to us, to you, to me, as we would come to him at the Holy Table this morning. Laetare Ierusalem.

Bruce Robison

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