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Fourth Sunday of Lent, Laetare Sunday

April 3, 2011

Reflection by Fr. Michael Himes

Sometimes one sacramental image catches the imagination, and at other times another. In the early centuries of the church’s life, some Christians, especially in the western part of the Mediterranean world, called the initiation celebration which introduced them into the church “baptism,” from a Greek root that originally meant “to wash something clean by plunging it into water.” Water, with its rich biblical background as both life-giving and death-dealing, caught their imagination. They experienced their entry into communal life with the risen Lord and with one another as being washed clean.  Other Christians at the eastern end of the Mediterranean were struck by a different but complementary image in the celebration and so called the initiation ceremony by another name: “phōtismos,” “enlightenment.”

I suspect that many of us live in a world that has been so reshaped by technology that our imaginations are not readily sparked by things and experiences that captivated our ancestors.  Take light and darkness. We may still find a sunset beautiful, the twilight vaguely melancholy, the night sometimes frightening, and the dawn hopeful.  But people who can flick a light-switch or turn on a lamp do not have the same dramatic experience of the comfort and security of light and the fear and helplessness of darkness as their ancestors who dreaded the sun’s disappearance and anxiously waited through the night for its return.  In the Gospel passage read at Mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent, we hear Jesus remark that “night is coming when no one can work.” There was a time when such a comment was both obviously true and more than a little frightening. Most of the activities of life—work, play, travel, study—stopped when the sun went down. The electric light separates us from a world where light and darkness were powerful experiences through which people passed every twenty-four hours.

We may get a little taste of what earlier generations felt if we attend the Easter vigil. The community assembles in silence—no opening hymn, no ritual greeting. The church is in total darkness (or as near total as we can get and not end up with too many parishioners nursing bruised shins and crushed toes on Easter morning). Sitting in the dark and the silence, even when (or perhaps especially when) surrounded by a great many other people, can be an odd and uncomfortable experience. And then somewhere in the darkness a flame is kindled, from which a candle is lit and carried into the church and a voice proclaims this the light of Christ, to which we reply, “Thanks be to God!” As more candles are lit from that paschal candle and the flames spread out through the church, the darkness begins to be dispelled and we anticipate the triumph of the light.

In the Gospel passage for this Sunday, Jesus does not simply describe himself as the bringer of light or the giver of enlightenment.  He says that he is the light of the world. Then, in illustration of his claim, he gives sight to the man who had been born blind. So much of the reading is taken up with the Pharisees’ questioning the man who was given sight and debating among themselves how to deal with the itinerant wonder-worker who does not fit comfortably in any of their categories that we can easily miss the fact that the whole story of blindness becoming vision, of darkness giving way to light, is an exploration of what it means to say that Jesus is the light.  For the ancient world, light was not what one sees but rather the medium that allows one to see anything.  To say that Jesus is the light is to affirm that we see everything illuminated by him. Because of Jesus we can see what is there to be seen and see it as it is. We can evaluate and measure things correctly because we can see them as they truly are. Jesus’ critics cannot see who he is; they don’t know what to make of him. Others—the cured man’s parents, for example—are too frightened to say what they see. But the man who has been given light sees what is so brilliantly clear to him and so opaque to the Pharisees—“One thing I know: I was blind and now I see.”

Alumni Responses to Laetare Sunday's Reflection

guest — Seeing sacramentally takes a great deal of reflection and a considered awareness of everyday things. Am I making this more difficult than it actually is? I hope that people will comment on their experiences and share their thoughts. Thank you, Father, for sharing your thoughts.

Lucille — Jesus is the Light of the world who has come to help us to lift the darkness of our understanding. He invites us to see the world anew through our belief in Him and to see His goodness amidst the darkness. Thank you, Father, for your insights.

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