Today is Laetare Sunday, a special day in the Christian liturgical calendar when we pause during the austere season of Lent for a joyful celebration. The word laetare in Latin means rejoice! — and it comes from a verse in the Book of Isaiah that is traditionally read on this day:
“Rejoice with Jerusalem and be glad for her,
all you who love her;
rejoice greatly with her,
all you who mourn over her.
For you will nurse and be satisfied
at her comforting breasts;
you will drink deeply
and delight in her overflowing abundance. …
As a mother comforts her child,
so will I comfort you,”
says God. [Isa. 66:10-11,13]. In keeping with this feminine imagery, Laetare Sunday is also called Rose Sunday and Mothering Sunday — and on this day, Christians should especially appreciate the female side of God’s qualities and character.
We rejoice on this day because we have a God who loves us unconditionally, as a mother does. Lent can be a difficult time of sacrifice, when we struggle and push ourselves to do our best in religious discipline; and in the midst of such a time, it can be helpful to remember that God is always there to hold our hand, and to hold us close to Her breast. In life, we often fail to live up to the high standards we set for ourselves, but God has infinite compassion for our stumbles and struggles.
Indeed, the feminine face of God reminds us that religion isn’t all about stern discipline; it’s also supposed to be about the joy of knowing God and what God has done for us — despite our flaws, our failings, and our feelings of shame and unworthiness of receiving divine grace. Our Mother in Heaven tells us that we’re loved and cherished, no matter what. And She sends us Her Son, the Lord Jesus, to guide our steps on our journey from the crib of spiritual infancy to the glory of maturity as a co-heir with Christ in God’s Kingdom.
Trusting with faith in this knowledge, we can be joyful, no matter what else may be going on in our lives that would tend to make it difficult for us to be happy. For compared to our true home in heaven, this earth is a vale of sorrows — and in this place we need reassurance that our struggle and striving has meaning and that eyes of kindness look upon us from the place from which we came and to which we shall one day return.
Without such faith, it can sometimes be difficult to motivate ourselves to live life to the fullest; to face our challenges and to the best of our ability overcome them; or even, in some cases, to will ourselves to keep living at all. Consider, for example, the story of Job, the Biblical archetype of the life of tremendous suffering. Job is a righteous man who is struck by one tragedy after another — losing his material resources, his loved ones, and finally his own health. Even his friends turn against him, blaming his misery on something he must have done secretly to offend God.
Filled with anger and despair at the senseless agonies he must endure, Job cries out to God in prayer, but even then he does not receive any satisfying answer. Finally, he summons all the inner strength he can muster and proclaims, in words that ring down through the ages:
“Oh, that my words were recorded,
that they were written on a scroll,
that they were inscribed with an iron tool on lead,
or engraved in rock forever!
I know that my redeemer lives,
and that in the end he will stand on the earth.
And after my skin has been destroyed,
yet in my flesh I will see God;
I myself will see him
with my own eyes — I, and not another.
How my heart yearns within me!” [Job 19:23-27]
Job’s words were recorded, and hundreds of years later, his redeemer did stand upon the earth, in the person of Jesus Christ. Today, we can fill our hearts with the same hope that Job chose to embrace in the midst of his despair — the hope of eternal life that our savior, Jesus, revealed to us. It is a hope that rises on the other side of death, a joy that emerges from the tomb of a man who died upon a cross.
And this hope and joy is available to all of us. It’s especially important that we believe this during times of extraordinary suffering. Today, the world is going through a pandemic, and millions of people are grieving for the loved ones they have lost. Millions more have lost their livelihoods due to economic recession. Children have been unable to go to school. People have been unable to go to church. We can’t even hug each other anymore, for fear of catching the deadly virus. And in the midst of all this, we have been separated not only by social distancing but also by growing political and social divisions that have made friends and neighbors into enemies.
In such times, it’s hard to rejoice. If you have struggled to maintain a positive attitude, if your mental health has suffered during the past year, you are far from alone. But like the torments of Job which eventually came to an end as Job’s wellbeing was restored to him by God, today we look for the end of the pandemic with the widespread availability of the vaccines — and we look for a spirit of peacemaking and empathy from our leaders — and perhaps most importantly, we look for healing and renewal of our souls, which have in far too many cases been crushed by the events of recent times.
I want to emphasize that it’s okay to struggle to be joyful. There’s a whole book in the Bible called Lamentations. God expects even saints to cry out to God in prayer about their troubles. We shouldn’t fear that if we’re feeling something negative, that we have nowhere we can turn in our distress. Forced happiness is like mandatory volunteering: an idea that doesn’t make any sense. And yet, especially in American culture, there’s a tendency to expect people to suppress any negative thoughts and feelings. The New Age movement, with its excessive emphasis on the “law of attraction,” even leads people to believe that anything negative we experience is our own fault, because we somehow attracted it to ourselves.
That was the same accusation that was made against Job. The Gospel of Jesus Christ liberates us from this ancient fallacy — for when Jesus came to Israel, it was a nation filled with suffering. The first-century Hebrews didn’t attract Jesus because of their “good vibes.” On the contrary, God sent Jesus because the people of that time and place so desperately needed a savior.
And don’t we all? It’s not easy to be a saint, and most of us aren’t yet anywhere close to that level of spiritual development. Even the greatest saints recognize that the truest joy comes from above and beyond themselves. They have learned to step outside the prison of their suffering because God has given them the key.
Consider the example of Fanny Crosby, whose remarkable story we learned earlier in this service. Imagine how easy it would have been for her to become lost in bondage to anger, bitterness, and despair because of the blindness of her physical eyes. But her spiritual eyes were able to see a far greater vision of God’s goodness which inspired her to rejoice, despite her affliction. When she wrote her thousands of hymns, she was trusting in the words of the prophet Isaiah, who exhorted, “Shout for joy, you heavens; rejoice, you earth; burst into song, you mountains! For the Lord comforts his people and will have compassion on his afflicted ones.” [Isa. 49:13]
Indeed, our greatest source of joy should be the faith that God is there for us whenever we need Her. Our God is an infinite source of motherly compassion and fatherly protection in the midst of our struggles. When we believe this, it makes the sorrows of this world endurable, and it opens up our hearts to rejoice in the knowledge that “all things work together for the good to them that love God, to them who are called according to His purpose.” [Rom. 8:28]. For as the psalmist assures us, “[God’s] anger lasts only a moment, but His favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may stay for the night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.” [Psalm 30:5]
As much of the world enters into the season of spring, I hope you’ll have a chance this week to enjoy the signs of new life that are beginning to sprout up all around us — and to reflect upon the perennial truth that that after a dark and lonely winter, there is always rebirth and renewal. In this, we see the signs of God’s presence, and the story that in Christ we are called to believe about ourselves.
And when we believe and feel this story springing forth in our hearts, we can rejoice with the psalmist, who wrote of God, that “You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing your praises and not be silent. Lord my God, I will praise you forever.” [Psalm 30:11-12]
Watch on video (starting at 7:51):