St Michael and All Angels

Observatory, Cape Town

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Laetare Sunday, 2016

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 Today is a Sunday which goes by many names. In the Lectionary it is the Fourth Sunday in Lent. It is sometimes called Laetare Sunday from the beginning words of the Introit Sentence, as you heard it sung by the choir this morning. The Introit begins, “"Laetare Jerusalem" which means "O be joyful, Jerusalem". This is quoted from Isaiah 66:10. 
 
Another name is Mothering Sunday, which means that today is our Mothers’ Day in the Christian Church, that is as opposed to the pagan one in May. In some parts of the church, where there is an emphasis on inclusivity, Mothering Sunday is known as Nurturing Sunday. 
 
Today is also called Refreshment Sunday because it breaks the rigours of Lent. This is sometimes shown by there being flowers in church; priests being given the option to wear rose-coloured vestments at mass today; and in truly traditional churches the deacon and subdeacon wear a dalmatic or tunicle at High Mass, because, like flowers these are forbidden in Lent. 
 
The contrast between Laetare – O be joyful -  and the other Sundays in Lent is thus emphasized; we express the joys of this life on this Sunday through restrained rejoicing mingled with a certain amount of sadness. For us this name is reflected in our sharing of Simnel cake; a fruit cake denoting the richness of life, with a layer of marzipan baked in it which symbolises the body of Jesus lying in the tomb. 
 
For those of us who use the traditional Prayer Book lectionary, today has often been given an extra name, and is called the “Sunday of the five loaves.”
 
Three weeks ago, we heard Jesus tell Satan that man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God. The sign of feeding five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes seems to contradict this comment of Jesus. S John 6 features Jesus giving food to hungry men. S Philip and S Andrew doubted they could do anything to help feed the crowd. Jesus however, could do something, and he did.
 
This feeding of the 5000 was a bona fide miracle. The "miracle" was not that the boy’s generosity shamed many of the rest into sharing — this understanding would make all 4 gospel writers liars. Jesus supernaturally multiplied what in effect were five dinner rolls and two sardines to feed a multitude that numbered at least 5000 hungry people to the point where they would have done the equivalent of pushing their plates away. So what meaning should this miracle have for us?
 
S Augustine has an interesting passage in his writings. He complains about people who are only interested in what we could call the wonder element of miracles. They only look at the miracle on a superficial level. He says: “Let us ask the miracles themselves what they tell us, for they have a language of their own, if it can only be understood. The miracle which we admire on the outside also has something inside which must be understood. If we see a piece of beautiful handwriting, we are not satisfied simply to note that the letters are formed evenly, equally and elegantly: we also want to know the meaning the letters convey. In the same way a miracle is not like a picture, something merely to look at and admire, and to be left at that. It is much more like a piece of writing which we must learn to read and understand.”
 
While it was a real miracle, it was more than a miracle. Like all seven of the miracles S John records, this miracle helped real people by meeting their real physical needs, in this case hunger. But it was also far more than that; it was a "sign” — what is called an "attesting miracle," meaning that its ultimate significance is not in the miracle itself, but in what it reveals something about Jesus' unique identity and ability to meet humanity's spiritual needs. In this case, Jesus clearly explains the meaning of this "sign" when he meets these same people the next day at the synagogue in Capernaum. This part of the story is further on in the sixth chapter of S John. 
 
The crowd were looking for Jesus, but discovered that he had crossed over to the other side of the Sea of Galilee, to Capernaum. When they finally found him and engaged him in conversation, his response cut through their small talk right to the heart of the issue. They hadn't tracked him down because they were seeking understanding of the spiritual significance of the previous day’s miracle, but because they wanted another free lunch. 
 
The crowd didn't view him as the one who reveals the truth, but rather as a mobile Ocean Basket. In the dialogue that followed, Jesus kept trying to lift their eyes to see the meaning of the miracle, while they kept trying to extract some more food. 
 
Often when God wants to do something in our lives, we are so busy focussing on our desires that we miss out on the blessing God wants to give us.
 
If this is the case, then the question for us to ponder in this next week of Lent is: do we claim to be Christian because Jesus reveals the truth; is in fact the very truth himself, or do we claim to be Christian just because we hope that one day we might be lucky enough to get a free lunch out of Jesus?
 
May God bless you as we travel ever closer to the events in Jerusalem with our Lord.
 
 

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