Laetare: And Oasis in the Desert

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If ever there was an argument for doing the historic lectionary, the Gospels in Lent build an incredible case. Let’s remember what the Church Year is all about. The Church Year wraps us up into the “year of the Lord” (AD) and binds us to Christ’s life. It’s part of the greater liturgical reality conspiring to work out the truth that we do not do the faith, but the faith does us. The Gospels of Lent brilliantly display this.

The forty days of Lent obviously call to mind Israel’s wandering in the wilderness for forty years, and more immediately, Jesus’ time in the wilderness for forty days. It invokes the truth that life in this world is a “desert drear.”

What have the three Gospels so far taught us?

Well, first there’s simply the desert motif. The desert is the place of trial, as it was for Israel. It’s the place where Jesus is driven by the Holy Spirit. The desert is where the Church exists. The desert is where we join Jesus after our own baptisms. The desert is also the “dry place,” the haunt of demons, the place where the devil awaited Jesus. Even as we begin the season confessing we are dust and ashes, we find ourselves in the dry place of dust.

The desert is the place of hunger, as Jesus shows us. But unlike Israel whose hunger got them in trouble, Jesus lifts our understanding to a truer meaning of bread.

And this leads to the Reminiscere Gospel of the woman crying out for the bread crumb. As we were taught in the desert, man does not live by bread alone, however, but by every Word proceeding from the mouth of God. In other words, the hunger we truly have is fulfilled not by bread, but by the Word of God. Jesus is the Word made flesh, the bread of life. The woman recognized this, crying out for His mercy, for Jesus to drive out the demon from her daughter. She was truly “hungering and thirsting for righteousness.” And she was filled with the bread Jesus brought, and that Jesus is.

Last week’s Gospel, Oculi, developed this theme. Jesus is the Stronger Man who drives the devil back out into the “dry places.” He enters our house as we “hear the word of God and keep it.” In the context – of the woman saying blessed are the breasts and womb that “housed” Jesus – Jesus emphasizes Mary’s true “housing” was as she heard Gabriel’s word and kept it. So also us.

So we have Jesus, the Word that proceeds from the mouth of God, the bread which truly feeds us by having mercy on us and driving away demons, for He is the Stronger Man. And then we have the desert, the place of hunger, the haunt of demons, the place of “earthly bread” temptations.

Emotionally, we’ve dealt with some heavy stuff: the forty days of hunger, the subtle temptations of the devil, the oppressing power of demons, the silence of God, the seemingly insult of God, the rebuking by the disciples (the Church), the return of the seven demons in a swept-clean house. It’s all very real stuff. It’s the stuff we face in Lent. It’s the stuff we face in life, and God help anyone who would eliminate the reality of Lent from the Christian life.

And now we get a reprieve with Laetare Sunday, the feeding of the 5,000 in the midst of the wilderness. All the cast of themes comes on stage for an encore performance, save the demonic element. We get a break from them this week.

But we have the wilderness, the hunger, the bread, and Jesus. It’s all from John 6, which if we read the whole context will put the whole theme on steroids. Jesus is the bread from heaven, literally descending from the mountain to feed the people before returning back up the mountain. For as He said, “No one has ascended to heaven but He who came down from heaven, that is, the Son of Man who is in heaven.” He is the Word made flesh, “ the bread of God…who comes down from heaven and gives life to the world.” That’s exactly what He does in this week’s Gospel.

This is the true bread we hunger for, the Word made flesh proceeding from the mouth of God, the Word we hear and keep, the life in the dry places, the rejection of that “lord of flies,” the one driving the demons away.

He feeds us until full, for the blessed who hunger and thirst for righteousness will be full. Twelve baskets are left over, each bit saved so that nothing is lost. Jesus the fulfilled manna from heaven provides enough for His renewed Sabbath, His day of rest, His day of new creation – one basket per apostle to take out into the world. (Recall that on Friday extra manna was saved to provide for the Sabbath Day.)

For the old Sabbath Rest wasn’t really a rest at all, as Jesus said, “My Father has been working until now, and I have been working.” No real rest for God after man plunged His creation back into formlessness and void, handing it over to the devil!

No, as Jesus said, “My food is to do the will of Him who sent Me, and to finish His work.” And finish it He did when He said, “It is finished.”  Only then truly, were “the heavens and the earth, and all the host of them…finished.”

That’s Jesus’ food. And that’s the food He gives out, the bread He gives out, the extra bread saved up in the twelve baskets, ready to be distributed by the twelve apostles throughout the world, the bread of which He says, “This is my Body, given unto death for you,” the bread which when eaten “proclaims the Lord’s death until He comes.”

And that bread fills our hunger and thirst for righteousness, driving away the devils Satan and Beelzebub out of our houses, the “accusing one” and the “lord of flies,” sin and death. He who came into the world by she who “heard and kept” the Word of Gabriel, born in the House of Bread (Bethlehem), gives Himself to us, our daily bread.

For this we give thanks, as Jesus did with the bread. Giving thanks is the flip-side posture of begging for mercy. Both assume the posture of a “passive needer and receiver of gifts.”

Be sure to review the first three Gospels of Lent to properly hear tomorrow’s Gospel. They are profoundly connected.

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