The fourth Sunday in Lent in the Western tradition is special. It’s known by several names: it’s been called The Sunday of the Five Loaves from the Gospel passage for the day (John 6:1-14); it’s also been called Rose Sunday because the clerical and alter vestments change color from violet to rose — but why the change in color in the first place? Another name for this Sunday gives us a clue: Laetare Sunday (Laetare meaning: Rejoice).
The Introit or entrance chant for this Sunday begins in Latin: Laetare Jerusalem, et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam. (Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her). This chant is taken from Isaiah 66:10. The call to rejoice here in the middle of this season of repentance is meant as an encouragement to us, a comforting reminder of the tenderness, the nurturing, even the motherliness of God. As an outward symbol of this, the liturgical vestments here in the West lighten on Laetare Sunday from a somber violet to a soft, maternal rose color.
And that’s actually much of the theme of the day: mothering. For this reason this Sunday has also popularly been known as Mothering Sunday. And what is mothering? That’s a huge question. Being a mom is certainly not the same as being a dad, and the Church recognizes the unique, distinct ways mothers and fathers relate to their children, to each other, and provide complimentary examples and roles; this is one of the reasons why the Church rejects the concept of same-sex marriage, because that natural complementarity is missing. (There are of course other reasons, but that’s among them).
But one very obvious difference between mothering and fathering is the unique way that mothers connect with their children: by feeding them with their very bodies. In the womb, the child gains its very life, all of its substance from its mother. Even after birth for a period of time the child continues to be fed from the mother’s body through nursing. This feeding, this nursing, is the safest, most secure place the child knows. When it experiences hunger, when it experiences distress, when it even just feels its first pangs of longing or love, being at the mother’s bosom fulfills its needs.
So from the mother comes sustenance, comfort, and fulfillment for the child. Each of these are also features of our relationship with God and his Church. Let’s look at them in turn.
As for sustenance: what meaning does sustenance have unless there is hunger? Or at least a need for food? The thing exists, so the need exists. Or maybe it’s the other way around — the need is there so we know a solution must be there too. If there’s such a thing as hunger, there must be such a thing as food. In this Sunday’s Gospel passage there is a multitude of people who had followed Jesus up into a mountainous area, a wilderness. They had walked a long way, exerted themselves, and were in need of sustenance. Jesus provides for that need, not simply with food from nature or from the market, but out of his own abundant grace. Like a mother giving of herself to feed her children, Jesus here provides food for the people from his own self-offered power.
Don’t be surprised at Jesus exemplifying this motherly trait, as in God is found the fullness of all that is fatherly and motherly. If these things weren’t in God then we couldn’t posses them either — all things come from God. Out of himself God made the concept of fathers and mothers. God, out of himself, fed the Hebrews in the Sinai desert with manna, and Jesus here distributed miraculous bread to the people in this story. And recall how he says as he approaches Jerusalem before his crucifixion “O Jerusalem, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing.”
Not only do we find sustenance in God, but we find comfort, too. Comfort, reassurance, safety: these also only have meaning if they have opposites, corollaries. Comfort for pain, reassurance for distress, safety for danger. Just like hunger is something we will experience in the desert lands of Lent, so we may also meet these other features. We may experience the painful realization of our own sin and guiltiness. The solution to that is the comfort of forgiveness and absolution. We may experience the distress of doubt, frustration, or a sense of stagnation. There’s reassurance to be found in Christ’s own example, and the examples of his Saints. We may even find ourselves in danger of increased temptations, to lust or despondency or pride. There’s safety though in prayer, in Scripture reading, and especially in the sanctuary of the services of the Church.
But it’s not only hunger and anxiety that drives a baby to its mother — it’s a desire for connection, belonging, love. So too do we, in addition to needing God for our sustenance and safety, need him for our deepest longing: love. We were all created with hidden depths in our hearts. This depth could never be filled with food, comfort, rest, or even mere happiness — as important as all those things are. It can’t even be filled by the best relationships this life could offer, be they through friends, family, or spouses. This depth –too deep to measure, maybe infinite– can only be filled by the one who made it, who hid it inside us.
These things —sustenance, comfort, and true fulfillment— all ultimately come from God alone. But he has ordained that we are to experience them primarily together with all of our siblings, all the little chicks, among the community of the Church. And this is why we rightly call the Church our Mother, because within the Church we find the shelter of God’s wing. Now, of course God can nourish us spiritually in prayer and the Scriptures anywhere, anytime. But he feeds us with the proclamation of the scriptures, and the expounding of the scriptures in Church. He feeds us sacramentally with his very, true body and blood, his self-donation here in the Church.
And of course God can comfort us through his presence whenever and wherever, but in the Church he’s ordained the unique comforts of the communion, the koinonia, of the faithful, the comforts of the sacraments of anointing and confession/reconciliation, and the safety of hallowed ground and the effectual patina of incense smoke and holy water droplets forming an exorcizing barrier against the forces of darkness.
And can we commune with God in our hearts wherever we are? Absolutely we can. But only in the Liturgy, the work of the assembled people of God, do we approach God in his throne room, does the Holy Spirit descend at our prayer, and do we meet Christ in the Eucharist. That’s how the Church uniquely is a Mother to us, divinely feeding, comforting, and fulfilling us.
We also have as an example of motherly goodness the Theotokos, the Mother of God, who nourished God himself in her womb and at her breast, who comforted him with her tenderness, and who communed with him through the bond they shared together. This year, Mothering Sunday serendipitously fell a day after the Feast of the Annunciation, when we celebrate not only the mystery of the Incarnation as God entered creation as a newly conceived baby in the womb of Mary, but also the assent Mary gave at the announcement from Gabriel. Mary’s assent, her answer, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” would bear the most important fruit the world has ever known. In the Garden of Eden, a woman said no to God’s word and stole fruit off of a tree. At the Annunciation, a woman said yes to God’s word and bore the Fruit which would climb onto a tree, reversing our ancestral curse, and finally giving us life.
Now we, the brothers and sisters of Christ, and thus in a sense ourselves children of Mary, pray that we may follow her example, even bearing Christ in our hearts as she bore him in her womb. Will we assent to that? Will we feed the Christ-life inside us with our own selves, offering our own bodies as living sacrifices to feed it? Will we seek to nurture and protect that Life inside us when it’s beleaguered or in danger? Will we open up to Christ within us our most intimate selves and so connect and commune with him, as Mary did, treasuring those moments in our hearts?
If we do, if we emulate the Mother of God, we will also bear good fruit. We will learn from her as she learned from her Creator how to be holy. In gratitude of this reality, and of the motherly goodness God provides us in the Church, we look to the words of the Introit and of Isaiah 66: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; … and you shall nurse and be carried on her arm, and dandled on her knees. As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you; you shall be comforted in Jerusalem. You shall see, and your heart shall rejoice.”