2006-03-26 "And now for a brief pause"
March 26, 2006
"And now for a brief pause" is sometimes the way they announce on television a break for interminable advertisements. Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent, is a respite, but not like the commercial break. It is like Gaudete Sunday in Advent, in that both refresh the soul with a reminder of what penance is for. Both Latin words mean rejoice, because the ultimate aim is the Heavenly Jerusalem. Exactly a thousand years ago Pope Leo IX spoke of this liturgical pause for refreshment as an already venerable tradition, for human nature always needs encouragement. He was one of the most energetic popes, a German who went to Rome for his election and who then went from city to city in Europe reforming morals and administration, sending missions to Greenland and Iceland, corresponding with the holy King Edward of England, blocking William the Conqueror's marriage, crossing the Alps three times, struggling with the Patriarch of Constantinople, going to southern Italy to confront the Normans, and even hearing the confession of King Macbeth, who had journeyed from Scotland to Rome to unburden his murderous soul. No wonder Pope Leo looked forward to his Laetare Sundays. As a youth he was attacked by a wild animal and attributed his recovery to the intercession of St. Benedict. Like our present Pope Benedict, Leo found consolation in music.
A century after Leo, a music loving monk of the great French monastery of Cluny wrote a hymn of three thousand lines about the transitoriness of this world, and the permanent glory of the Heavenly Jerusalem which is the "Mother" and true native home of Christians. It was a custom at one time for people to symbolize this by returning to their "home" parish on Laetare Sunday. In the nineteenth century Bernard of Cluny's poem was translated by the brilliant and witty classicist John Mason Neale, who enjoyed teasing scholars with "ancient" texts that he had fabricated. But Bernard's words are authentic and form one of the finest hymns for Laetare and Gaudete and any other Sunday. "Jerusalem the Golden" hails that "sweet and blessed country,/ The home of God's elect./ O sweet and blessed country/ That eager hearts expect."
As a pause for refreshment makes the journey more intense, so does focusing on Mother Jerusalem actually save man from the escapism of a materialist and sensual definition of life. The ultimate realism is the perception of the heavenly goal of earthly existence. It concentrates the virtues and makes all activity more vibrant. That is the splendid burden of another hymn, published in 1854, by Father Frederick William Faber of the Oratory of St. Philip Neri in London:
"Far, far away, like bells at evening pealing,
The voice of Jesus sounds o'er land and sea,
And laden souls, by thousands meekly stealing,
Kind Shepherd, turn their weary steps to thee."
Fr. George W. Rutler