Friday, March 12, 2021

The Consoling Collect of Laetare Sunday

Bartolomé Estaban Murillo, The Miracles of the Loaves and Fishes, 1667-1682
Lost in Translation #42

Everyone knows that Laetare Sunday is one of the two “pink” Sundays of the year, and that it is a somewhat joyful interlude during the austerity of Lent, one meant to afford a breather, so to speak, during a six-week marathon. But what precisely are we rejoicing about? The Collect affords us a clue:

Concéde, quáesumus, omnípotens Deus: ut qui ex mérito nostrae actiónis afflígimur, tuae gratiae consolatióne respirémus. Per Dóminum.
Which I translate as:
Grant, we beseech Thee, almighty God: that we, who by the merit of our actions are crushed down, may by the consolation of Thy grace breathe again. Through our Lord.
Most hand Missals translate affligimur as “afflicted,” and they are correct. But since affligere is ultimately derived from a root that means “to crush”, it forms a natural contrast with respirare, to breathe again or to revive. One recalls the terrible torture inflicted on St. Margaret Clitherow who was crushed to death while pregant by large stones under the reign of Queen Elizabeth I on Good Friday for refusing to renounce the Catholic Faith. In this Collect, we acknowledge that our own actions bring with them the heavy weight of death, and we pray to have the weight lifted and breathe again. Breathing again also reinforces the idea of Laetare Sunday as a breather in the midst of the ardors of Lent.
Further, we pray to breathe again or be revived by the consolation of God’s grace. The appeal to consolation brings us back to the Introit of the day:
Introit: Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. Ps. 121, 2 I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: ‘We shall go into the house of the Lord.’ Glory be to the Father.
What brings consolation are the breasts of Jerusalem. The traditional Roman rite is wonderfully concrete: if Jerusalem is a mother (and she is, and as the Epistle reading confirms), she has breasts that console us like a mother quieting her crying infant. But what precisely are the breasts of our heavenly mother, the Church? The Gospel answers that question. In the Miracle of the Loaves and Fishes, we are given a type for the Eucharist, the Bread of Life that defies the laws of space, time, and matter by mystically multiplying our spiritual food. It is this sensibility that led Blessed Julian of Norwich to compare the “sweet open side” of Christ’s crucified body, from which His Precious Blood and water poured, to a mother’s breast. (Revelations of Divine Love 60)
In England, Laetare Sunday is “Mothering Sunday,” the original Mother’s Day. In medieval times, schoolboys and apprentices were allowed to visit their “mother church,” the church in which they were baptized. And since they were visiting home, they visited their earthly mothers and brought them gifts. Simnel cakes are a tasty vestige of this ancient tradition.
The rejoicing of Laetare Sunday, in other words, is the joy of knowing that our Holy Mother the Church, despite whatever scandals or corruptions may rock her, still has the breasts of Eucharistic consolation that feed and nourish us. And how appropriate is Holy Communion when it is done kneeling and on the tongue. Granted, it is not the exact position of an infant being nursed, but it  betokens an attitude of supplication, helplessness, and receptivity. And as Blessed Julian explains, Jesus wants us to have the trusting and dependent nature of a child. (Ibid. 61)

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