The Fourth Sunday of Lent (A)
Dear brothers and sisters,
Almost like a punch to the gut, on this Fourth Sunday of Lent Mother Church tells us to “rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all you were in mourning” (Isaiah 66:10-11). These words strike us so painfully because we are now in mourning, mourning over the fact that we cannot now gather at the Lord’s altar.
Saint Paul advises us today to “try to learn what is pleasing to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:10). The ancient Greek playwright and philosopher Aeschylus gave us this proverb: πάθος μάθος (pathos mathos), which means both “learning is suffering” and “suffering is learning. Any student who has struggled to understand a difficult lesson knows this all too well. Mourning is always a form of suffering and so we might well ask ourselves now what the Lord might be trying to teach us. In what way might the works of God be made visible through our present situation (cf. John 9:3)?
As a student of history, I know that there are always important lessons to learn by looking to those who have gone before us, especially those who have gone before us in faith. In the midst of these strange days, some have attempted to look to the past by loosely comparing us to the ancient Christians who also had difficulty gathering for the Sunday Mass. The analogy, of course, only goes so far and, like all analogies, the similarity is less than the dissimilarity.
In the year 304, “the Emperor Diocletian forbade Christians, on pain of death, from possessing the Scriptures, from gathering on Sundays to celebrate the Eucharist and from building places in which to hold their assemblies.” Today we can understand a small portion of what they endured, but whereas they still gathered under the threat of death, we have more or less voluntarily agreed to stay home for the well-being of all.
In the midst of those days of persecution, 49 Christians in the city of Abitene - in modern day Tunisia - were taken by surprise during the Sunday Mass. Because they were in violation of imperial law, they were brought before the Proconsul Anulinus in Carthage for interrogation. When asked why they disobeyed the Emperor’s command, those 49 Christians answered, Sine dominico non possumus, “that is, we cannot live without joining together on Sunday to celebrate the Eucharist. We would lack the strength to face our daily problems and not to succumb.”
While they were tortured and killed for their faith in Christ, we now struggle to find a way to live without the Sunday Mass so that we, too, might face our daily problems and not succumb to the temptations of the Evil One. In a manner of speaking, we are learning what the earliest believers knew and held dear:
The Sunday precept is not … an externally imposed duty, a burden on our shoulders. On the contrary, taking part in the Celebration, being nourished by the Eucharistic Bread and experiencing the communion of their brothers and sisters in Christ is a need for Christians, it is a joy; Christians can thus replenish the energy they need to continue on the journey we must make every week.
Those ancient martyrs may well be teaching us what the Lord wants us to learn at this moment in history by showing us what is pleasing to the Lord: the members of the Body of Christ gathering together for the Sunday Mass and for the fellowship of their brothers and sisters.
Many of us have already begun to realize that we sometimes take the Mass for granted. We too often let other things, such as sports or vacations, take precedence over the Mass. At the same time, many of us have also begun to realize that we sometimes take our parish family for granted. We too often let other things, such as meals, dinners, or parties, determine where and when we go to Mass, rather than making it a priority to gather with our parish.
As these two realizations take greater hold in our hearts, our mourning increases; we mourn doubly. We not only mourn because we cannot now gather together, we mourn also because we have taken for granted so much of what is essential for our true life. Yet still Mother Church tells us to rejoice. With Saint Paul, she says to us, “Awake, O sleeper, and arise from the dead, and Christ will give you light” (Ephesians 5:14). In these days of our suffering, let us learn well these lessons from the ancient martyrs and so awaken from our spiritual slumber.
This brings me to one of my favorite lines in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings: “The world is indeed full of peril, and in it there are many dark places; but still there is much that is fair, and though in all lands love is now mingled with grief, it grows perhaps the greater.” In the midst of our grief, our love for the Eucharist and for the community of the Body of Christ can indeed grow the greater. Then, when at last the trouble of these days has past, we will gather again at the altar of the Lord and say to one another, “Be joyful, all you who were in mourning.” Amen.