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Detail from Aachen cathedral

Detail of the Civitas Dei mosaic from Aachen cathedral

This homily was given at Old Saint John’s, Silver Spring, Maryland, at a Low Mass in the extraordinary form of the Roman rite:

In the richness of the Church’s year, today reveals itself as a moment of particular joy and consolation. Still marked by the subdued character of the lenten season it stands out all the more as the organ opens wide her mouth in praise of God, as the flowers of the frustrated spring adorn the holy altar, and as the sacred ministers – now for seven weeks in ‘royal purple dight’ – are clad in rosy hue. The very first word of the Introit at this Mass reveals the character of our prayer: Lætare, rejoice! On this day, Holy Mother Church does not simply allow us to let up from our observance of her solemn fast but encourages it, as she consoles her ‘children of promise’. As the collect prays, ‘Grant […] that we, who are justly afflicted for our deserts, may be relieved by the comfort of thy grace’.

As we enjoy this respite from our forty day pilgrimage through the wilderness of Lent, we see more and more clearly the parallel of our journey with that of the people of Israel. Their escape from bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land is, for us, a type or forerunner of the Church’s progress toward the celebration of Easter. More so, it is a sign of the entire Christian life: the liberation of our selves from slavery to sin, by means of our baptism, and our orientation toward the promised land of our heavenly inheritance. The goal of the people of Israel was to reach the promised land of Jerusalem. Ours is not simply an earthly Jerusalem but a heavenly one – the new Jerusalem, as beautiful ‘as a bride adorned for her husband’.

That new Jerusalem is, of course, the fulfillment of the life we share even now in the communion of the Church. As members of the mystical body of Christ, by virtue of our incorporation into the Church through baptism, we are already partakers of the divine life of the Son. We are already united in one communion with the entire Church: militant, expectant, and triumphant.

When we come to the altar we participate here and now, together with the saints and angels, in the offering of God the Son to God the Father, in and through God the Holy Spirit: the relationship of the holy and undivided Trinity. In the Eucharistic offering we can say that the veil which separates earth from heaven is pulled back to offer us a glimpse of the eternal worship of heaven. Through the sacrifice of Christ – the Messiah, the anointed one – we see the restoration of the worship of the temple, and the Church, ‘that Jerusalem which is above’, made a living reality, founded now not on the twelve tribes of Israel, but the twelve apostles who share in Christ’s mission and power. United in baptism, we are no longer strangers and pilgrims but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets with Christ himself as the cornerstone.

Saint Paul reminds us of this in his epistle to the Galatians. The freedom which we enjoy as the people of God – freedom from sin and death – is given to us as members of that divine society, the heavenly Jerusalem. Our citizenship is the means by which we share in the life Christ won for us by his sacrifice on the cross of Calvary. We are not, as the apostle points out, ‘the children of the bond-woman, but of the free’, because it is by the spousal relationship of Christ and the Church that we are reborn by water – making our own passage through our own ‘Red Sea’ from captivity to freedom, in Christ.

This is the cause of our joy. Though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death, we fear no evil; we do not abandon the promise of hope given to us in Christ. Though we journey through this lenten season, we nevertheless lift ourselves up from what could easily become a journey into despair, safe in the knowledge that although we must undergo – figuratively and literally – the sacrifice of the cross, we will come also to share in the life of the resurrection: the fullness of God’s eternal presence in the heavenly Jerusalem, as citizens and heirs. For this reason we can make the words of the psalmist our own: ‘I was glad when they said unto me we will go into the house of the Lord’.

The hope of heaven, and the freedom that is given to us by the sacrifice of Christ, is a sign also of God’s abundance. We recall that although in disobedience man abandoned his relationship with God, yet time and again the Lord offered renewed covenants and, through the prophets, taught us to look forward to salvation. In the ultimate sign of his merciful love, he sent his only-begotten Son to be our saviour, to share our nature in all things but sin. God’s boundless mercy is what – in this lenten season – we cling to as our hope. No matter how far we have fallen, no matter how many times we have preferred our will to his, God will honour his covenant with us and, through the sacramental gift of forgiveness, welcome us back into the fellowship of the saints, the citizenship of the new Jerusalem. That abundance is shown in the familiar story of the loaves and fishes. Not content to give the people their fill, twelve baskets full remain – a sign of the apostolic nature of the Church, and a type of the Eucharistic banquet to which we come, and at which we are fed with food that sates man’s deepest hunger.

As we keep this joyful day, may we lighten ourselves of the burdens of the lenten fast. And by so doing may we glimpse once more the place for which every Christian heart longs – our heavenly home – that, by entering more deeply into the mystery of the Lord’s cross, we may come to share ever more joyfully in his resurrection.