On Ash Wednesday the second reading of the liturgy reminded us that, "Now is a very acceptable time" (2 Cor 6:2). St. Paul's words to us are a fitting reminder that the season of Lent presents us with a very acceptable time to enter into a deeper relationship with the Lord ,especially through the practices that we take up during the season. We are now halfway through the season of Lent and the remaining weeks present us with a "most acceptable time" to cultivate that relationship, especially as the liturgical season comes to a culmination. Before us is Laetare Sunday – Rejoice Sunday, the midway point of the Lenten season on which rose colored vestments can be worn. The following week begins what is considered as "Passiontide" – the last two weeks of Lent which include Holy Week and the optional covering of statues within the church.
This year, before we come to these days, we celebrate the Solemnity of the Annunciation on the very eve of Laetare Sunday. While this solemnity generally falls during the season of Lent, its close proximity to the midway point of Lent is fitting in regard to our preparing for a most acceptable time. As well as being our Mother, Mary is the model Christian who represents what entering into a deeper relationship with the Lord truly means. The Annunciation to her by the Angel Gabriel that she was to be the Mother of the Lord signals the beginning of the most acceptable time as God truly becomes one of us in her womb through her acceptance of God's will. It also is the beginning of her walking with the Lord in His Passion in the most intimate manner of any disciple, culminating in her being designated as our Mother by the Lord from His Cross as she stood in sorrow beneath it. Shortly after the Birth of Christ, as He is presented by her and St. Joseph in the temple, the prophet Simeon foretold the intimate share that Mary would have in the Cross of Christ when he proclaimed to her, "You yourself a sword will pierce" (Lk 2:35).
On the very day of the Solemnity of the Annunciation, its evening brings with it the celebration of the Vigil Mass for Laetare Sunday. The midpoint of Lent begins and the Sunday liturgy rejoices in this most acceptable time as we begin quickly to approach Holy Week and the celebration of the Paschal Triduum. The entrance antiphon opens the liturgy with the words, “Rejoice (laetare), Jerusalem and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast" (Is 66:10-11). These words of the prophet Isaiah call for us to rejoice in the context of the celebration of the liturgy as, in the words of the opening prayer, we "may hasten toward the solemn celebrations to come." As the celebration of Easter approaches, the vestments worn for Mass on Laetare Sunday may be that of a rose color which is a combination of the purple of Lent and the white of Easter. "Mothering Sunday" is sometimes used to refer to Laetare Sunday as a single rose is placed in a vase to honor Mary as we recall that Jesus gave us His Mother from the Cross and was put in the arms of His Mother after His death. Laetare Sunday is the official celebration of Mother’s Day in Ireland and the United Kingdom.
The Sunday following "Laetare Sunday," the Fifth Sunday of Lent, begins a most acceptable time of the final two weeks of Lent. The preface of the Mass for the weekdays following this Sunday is the first preface of the Passion of the Lord which puts us in closer proximity to the celebration of Easter, especially referring to the "wondrous power of the cross." The Church begins to make reference to the Cross of Christ in a manner that is more intense and personal. Following the Fifth Sunday of Lent is the beginning of Holy Week with Passion Sunday. The preface for the weekday Masses is the second preface of the Passion of the Lord which not only recalls that the "most acceptable time" of "the days of His saving Passion and glorious Resurrection are approaching."
The covering of statues during the last two weeks of Lent is still an option and many churches follow it in their Lenten practices. Many of us remember this as a mandated practice before the reform of the liturgical missal. The Roman Missal gives the following instruction: "In the dioceses of the United States, the practice of covering crosses and images throughout the Church from the Fifth Sunday of Lent may be observed. Crosses remain covered until the end of the celebration of the Lord's Passion on Good Friday, but images remain covered until the beginning of the Easter Vigil." The covering of the images has a powerful symbolic effect during this time. It reminds us of a most acceptable time that we are in. We realize that something is very different in that the last two weeks of Lent are a time of immediate preparation for the celebration of the Easter Triduum. The covering of the statues helps us to focus more intensely on the celebration of the Mass as our senses are not drawn away from the action that is before us. The covering of the sacred images also gives us a heightened sense of the anticipation of Easter. There is a natural tendency not to want to see the statues covered because they are hiding beautiful images which will be unveiled at Easter.
As we enter a most acceptable time of the final weeks of Lent, it is well for us to remember that Lent is a special time for hearing the call of the Lord in our lives. He is truly present to us and listening to Him in prayer and through His word helps us to grow in a more intimate relationship with Him. He has become one of us in our human nature and His taking freely upon Himself the suffering of the Cross enables us to identify with Him even in the sufferings of our lives, no matter how difficult they may be. He speaks to us always His word of love and it is that word which makes all the difference.
Pope Francis has given us a great example of taking time to grow in a more intimate relationship with Christ during the season of Lent. As has been the custom of the previous popes, he went on retreat during March 5 – 10 in Arrica, just a short distance outside of Rome, with other members of his Curia. The retreat focused on the Passion of Christ as recounted in the Gospel of St. Matthew. The Pope carefully opened his heart to hear the call of the Lord to him and to know the depth of His love, revealed in the Cross, which Pope Francis so generously shares with others. Pope Francis knows that he cannot share this love unless he himself is personally touched by it, despite his own limitations and weaknesses, as he so often states in such an exemplary manner.
Mary does indeed give us a wonderful example of following Christ and of being touched by His love. As the sorrowful Mother at the foot of the Cross, no one participated more deeply in the suffering of Christ than her. Yet she trusted in Him and knew that His promise would be fulfilled. At the foot of the Cross, it was a great consolation for Mary to be entrusted with us as her children. Knowing the pain that His Mother was feeling, the Lord reached out to her in His love for her and for us. During the final days of Lent as we continue to nurture our relationship with the Lord, it is appropriate to also nurture our relationship with Mary. She leads us to her Son who gives us the fullness of life. A most acceptable time is before us. May it be a time of grace, peace and joy!
Most Reverend Gerald M. Barbarito
March 24, 2017