My apology for being so late with this. I got tied up with other things. I’ll try to be more timely hereafter.
The title of the 4th Sunday of Lent, Lætare Sunday, comes from the beginning of the traditional Latin Introit Chant for the day. “Lætare, Jerusalem …” (Isaiah 66:10-11) “Rejoice, Jerusalem …” These chants consisted of an opening verse, usually from scripture, followed by a psalm verse, followed by the short doxology (Glory be to the Father …), followed by a repeat of the opening verse. In earlier times, there might have been several psalm verses, with the opening verse repeated after each one, in the manner of our contemporary responsorial psalms. At any rate, the first word or phrase of the introit was used as the title of the Mass in which it was used. A few have survived in use today to designate Sundays or Mass texts: Lætare, for this Sunday, Gaudete for the Third Sunday of Advent, and Requiem, for funeral Masses. Additionally, Quasimodo, for the Sunday after Easter, is known as the name of the Hunchback of Notre Dame, who was born on that day.
It may seem counterintuitive that “Rejoice” should be the theme for a Sunday in the penitential season of Lent. It comes at the midpoint of the season, and is taken as encouragement: “We’re halfway to Easter!” Rose colored vestments can be worn on this day and Gaudete Sunday to increase the feeling of encouragement.
The first reading — Joshua 5:9a, 10-12 — tells of the first Passover celebrated by the Israelites in the Promised Land, after their forty years of wandering in the desert. Throughout their wanderings, they had been subsisting on the miraculous food, manna. Now that they have arrived in the Promised Land, normal food is available; the manna is no longer needed, so it ceases. We can see the as suggesting our life’s journey. On our way to heaven, we are sustained spiritually by the Eucharist, but in heaven we will no longer need it.
The responsorial psalm — Ps 34:2-7, with 9a as the response — seems to be chosen for that response, “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord,” which picks up on the notion of eating, whether manna or the produce of the land. The verses meditate on that goodness: we praise the Lord because he delivers us from fear and distress in answer to our prayers, as he delivered the Israelites from their bondage in Egypt.
The second reading — 2 Corinthians 5:17-21 — begins by contrasting newness in Christ with old things of the past. For the Israelites, the old things of Egypt and the desert had passed away when they entered the Promised Land. Paul says that the old things of estrangement from God because of sin have passed away because we have been reconciled by God to himself through Christ.
The gospel — Luke 15:1-3, 11-32 — gives us one of three parables Jesus gives in response to those who object to his welcoming of sinners and eating with them: the Prodigal Son. The other two are the Lost Sheep and the Lost Coin. In a way the prodigal son’s return to his father is like the arrival of the Israelites in the Promised Land. Although the Israelites had arrived in Egypt in good condition, they ultimately became oppressed, and God led them back to the land where Abraham had lived, as the son returned from the foreign land to his own land and his father’s house. We treat both the bondage in Egypt and the actions of the son in leaving his father and squandering what he has received from his father as symbols of sin. The son repents and returns and is reconciled with his father, as St. Paul urges the Corinthians and us.
One very important message is, of course, the mercy of the father, who not only lets the son come home but honors him with the finest robe, a ring, and a celebration — restoring him to the family. The father can’t do that until the son has come back, but he isn’t passive. He’s looking, and as soon as he sees the son, he runs to welcome him. This is the message for all who are conscious of being sinners. They have nothing to fear from God, whom the father in the parable represents. God always wants to welcome them back into his good graces.
Beyond this assurance of God’s mercy, we should also consider the context. We are told this parable is directed to the Pharisees and scribes who objected to Jesus’ welcoming of sinners. They are represented in the parable by the older brother. In this light, the parable is a warning to us not to think that there are people excluded from God’s love: that we’re okay but they aren’t (whoever “they” happen to be in our eyes. We should be as anxious as the father to see people returning to him, and we should realize that in some way or ways we are all prodigal sons who need God’s mercy. Lent is a time for conversion, and this parable encourages us all to convert in whatever way(s) we need to.