4th Sunday of Lent B: Penance, but with Participation in the Unique Sacrifice

The Fourth Sunday of Lent, also called Laetare Sunday

By Father Benjamin Earl, O.P.

With the reduced penance signified by the rose color of the fourth Sunday of Lent we signal the conclusion of the first part of this season. In these four weeks our focus has been on penitence and conversion, on turning back to God who calls us to Himself. Next Sunday the focus will shift as we will begin to turn our attention to our Lord’s Passion as our liturgy moves closer to the summit of Easter. Having sought conversion and a change for the better in our lives, we now focus more intensely on Jesus and the Sacrifice He was about to make for our salvation.

Perhaps our time of penitence may seem like a lifetime. Yet, we should be grateful that our Lenten period of penance is not literally a lifetime. The exile and penance of the Jewish people was indeed literally for a lifetime: seventy years according to the Prophet Jeremiah from the deportation to Babylon by Nebuchadnezzar to the proclamation of freedom by King Cyrus.

The seventy years of physical and penitential exile in Babylon by God’s people also included an exile from their liturgical worship.  Sacred liturgical worship for the Jews under the Old Covenant could only be carried out in the temple of Jerusalem, and the temple had been destroyed by the Babylonians at the time of their exile. Only after seventy years of exile and after a Second temple was built, could their sacred liturgy in the form of sacrifice, once again be offered in Jerusalem.

Thankfully, even during our penitential season of Lent, we Christians can still celebrate in the Eucharist as the sacrifice of the New Covenant. The Holy Sacrifice of the Mass is only suspended on Good Friday and Holy Saturday, and our formal days of penance are normally restricted to Lent and Fridays throughout the year.

But these days of penance should have an impact on the whole of our lives. The practice of penance should lead us to rejecting sin and to strengthen our resolve in living more virtuous lives. Like the Jewish exiles, we Christians are called observe penitential times throughout our life, but unlike the Jewish exiles, not a lifetime of separation from the Holy Sacrifice of Mass, which is a participation in the one Sacrifice of Jesus that truly takes away our sins.

Today, on Laetare Sunday, the Church places the joy flowing from God’s love for the world before us as the light of Easter even now lightens the Lenten purple to rose. We, who are called to be the people of the New Jerusalem, rejoice with her. May the Lord fill us with new resolve in the middle of Lent: as these forty days of penitence will give way to the joy of the resurrection and new life. 

The one Sacrifice of Jesus, which we participate in at every Mass, makes it possible for those who turn to Him in conversion of mind and heart to accept the various penances and sufferings of life so as to enter into the new and eternal Jerusalem.