Today is Laetare Sunday and it has a similar role to Gaudete Sunday in Advent. Both Lent and Advent are considered penitential seasons because they are preparing us for the greatest feasts of the liturgical year: the Incarnation and the Resurrection. During our preparation for these great feasts, it is possible to get bogged down – especially during Lent. Perhaps we’ve already neglected to do some of the penance we intended to, or that was required by the Church. Perhaps we’re ready for Lent to be over already – it seems to coincide with feeling ready for the pandemic to be over with. Both Gaudete and Laetare Sunday are an invitation to joy about three-quarters of the way through the season, but they don’t point to the same kind of joy. Gaudete is an invitation to a more interior kind of joy. Advent is a season of hope and of preparation, and we can get a little lost in the hustle and bustle of the activities so Gaudete calls us to pause and consider the “reason for the season” so to speak. An interior joy at the coming of so great a savior.
Laetare is the opposite kind of joy, it is an external joy – it is the joy of the Father of the prodigal son who slaughters the fattened calf because this son who was lost and dead has returned and come back to life. Laetare is a reminder that this season of Lent is preparing us for the great celebration of Easter. Laetare should be a bit exuberant – whatever ways our hearts may have become small or sad because of self-restraint and self-denial, we are invited to open them again by singing the praises of God.
Today’s readings are a reminder of the great reason for our joy: God always takes the initiative to save us. There is an old heresy, but one that constantly returns to fool the prideful. When I was a kid – I say that because I don’t hear much about this anymore but perhaps it’s still around – there was this standard complaint lodged against Catholics by Protestants. The complaint went thus: Catholics think they are saved by works, but only faith can save you. I would say that they are partially correct. If you think that you will be saved because you did a good job of being penitential during Lent, because you decided to work really hard to fast and pray, because you pulled yourself up by the bootstraps and converted yourself, you are sadly mistaken. It isn’t what we decide to do that saves us, it is the grace of God.
Saint Augustine was very adamant about this point because during his time this heresy had become very prominent. This heresy is called Pelagianism and it comes from the teachings of a man named Pelagius who basically said that Christ came to prove to us how good a human being can be. Now that we have an example, if we want to be saved we need to become virtuous because Christ proved that it is possible for the rest of us. It helped make Pelagius’ point that he was a very virtuous person and so he seemed to prove his teaching by his life. However, by teaching this he emptied the power of God’s grace. We need God’s grace, and God knows that better than we do so He gives it to us freely. He even gives us the grace to ask for His help, so He always takes the initiative. Have you ever been moved to pray? That’s the grace of God working in your heart. When we begin to think that it’s up to us, we neglect the grace of God and our life becomes hard and sad. Today we rejoice because we don’t have to save ourselves – God loves us so much that He sent His Son to save us.
The blessed Paul argues that we are saved by faith, which he declares to be not from us but a gift from God. Thus there cannot possibly be true salvation where there is no true faith, and, since this faith is divinely enabled, it is without doubt bestowed by his free generosity. Where there is true belief through true faith, true salvation certainly accompanies it. Anyone who departs from true faith will not possess the grace of true salvation.1
So that you may not be elated by the magnitude of these benefits, see how Paul puts you in your place. For “by grace you are saved,” he says, “through faith.” Then, so as to do no injury to free will, he allots a role to us, then takes it away again, saying “and this not of ourselves.” Even faith, he says, is not from us. For if the Lord had not come, if he had not called us, how should we have been able to believe? “For how,” he says, “shall they believe if they have not heard?” So even the act of faith is not self-initiated. It is, he says, “the gift of God.”2
THEODORE OF MOPSUESTIA:
Here he is speaking not of the first but of the second creation, wherein we are re-created by the resurrection. Completely unable as we are to mend our ways by our own decision on account of the natural weakness that opposes us, we are made able to come newly alive without pain and with great ease by the grace of the One who re-creates us for this purpose.3
- ON THE INCARNATION 1. Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). (1999). Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (pp. 133–134). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- HOMILY ON EPHESIANS 4.2.8. Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). (1999). Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (p. 134). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.
- EPISTLE TO THE EPHESIANS 2.10. Edwards, M. J. (Ed.). (1999). Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians (p. 135). Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press.