The child of the promise: sermon on Laetare Sunday

“That Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.”

Today is one of the famous Sundays of the liturgical year. For this reason, it has many names. It is called “Laetare” Sunday, from the first word of the Mass: Laetare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite omnes, qui diligitis eum —“Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and meet together, all you who love her”. In my own country, it is Mothering Sunday, when children give gifts or send greetings to their mothers. This is in memory of some words of St Paul in today’s epistle. Speaking of the church of heaven, he says: “That Jerusalem which is above is free, which is our mother.” Today is also sometimes called Rose Sunday, not only because the priest may put off the usual violet vestments of Lent and put on rose-coloured vestments instead, but also because for many centuries it was customary for the pope to bless a golden rose with great solemnity during today’s Mass, and then send it to a Catholic king or ruler who in the previous year had distinguished himself by his defence of the Church; or sometimes the rose was sent to an entire city. This golden flower was an image of our Lord, who is called in the Canticle of Canticles, “the flower of the field” and “the lily of the valley”; and St Paul tells us that the apostles, and those who imitate them, are “the good odour of Christ”, to those who receive their word.

The great theme of today’s Mass is that of freedom. Freedom is a word that everyone loves, and a thing that everyone desires, but how many people understand its true meaning? Our Lord teaches us that the worst slavery is the slavery to sin. This is the worst slavery because it prevents man from reaching his only true and lasting happiness, which is to be with God in heaven. It is above all to set us free from this slavery that He became man. “If the Son shall make you free,”He tells the Jews, “you shall be free indeed”. On the other hand, if man seeks a freedom which is primarily a material freedom, the power to pursue his own pleasures with the least possible restraint, then he falls with dreary predictability into various sins, and so ends as a slave. Hence, Jesus also tells the Jews, and all of us, “Amen, Amen, I say unto you, that whosoever committeth sin is the servant of sin.

St Paul helps the Galatians to understand this by means of an allegory drawn from the Book of Genesis. Abraham, our father in faith, had two sons. By a divine dispensation, which was sometimes granted in those days to the patriarchs, he had a principal wife, Sarah, and a secondary wife, Hagar. From Hagar, who was of servile condition, was born Ishmael. St Paul says that Ishmael was born “according to the flesh”, because in Hagar’s conception of Ishmael, no miracle took place: Hagar was of child-bearing age. Again, the blessing attached to Ishmael is a purely earthly, temporal blessing: God says of him, “He shall beget twelve chiefs, and I will make of him a great nation (Gen 17:20). Isaac, by contrast is called a “child of the promise”, since God promised that Sarah would conceive him by Abraham, even though she was past the usual age for having children. Again, concerning Isaac, God makes not only a temporal, but also a spiritual promise: not only will kings come from him, but God will make a perpetual covenant with him, and with his seed after him. It is, in fact, from Isaac and not from Ishmael, that will come the line leading to our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Holy Spirit, speaking through St Paul, tells us that these things were not only historical events but also an allegory; that is, a picture of great truths painted by God on the canvas of history. Perhaps we may venture to see our Father Abraham in this allegory as an image of God Himself; his original name, Abram, means “heavenly father”. In any case, the two sons represent the two states of the human race. Ishmael, the son of the bondswoman, is born first. He represents all of us, when we are first born into the world, born from our mother Eve, who made herself a bondswoman, a slave of sin, in the beginning. As with Ishmael, when we come into the world, the blessings which we have from God are temporal and not spiritual. For like him, we are born outside the covenant. If we remain in that state, then the freedom that we desire will be forever beyond our reach, and all our attempts to reach it will only leave us the more entangled in the bonds of sin. Speaking of Ishmael, God foretells, “He shall be a wild man: his hand will be against all men, and all men’s hands against him” (Gen 16:12). For as long as we remain outside the covenant, we can have no true peace with others. Temporal goods divide those who pursue them, since the more one person has of such goods, the less remains for others; if I own some land or occupy some honourable position, this land or this position is not available for others. That is why I say that temporal goods divide those who pursue them, if they do not pursue anything higher. A world of Ishmaels will be a violent world, whether the violence be open or concealed.

But after Ishmael, Isaac is born, “of the free woman”, and “by the promise”. Whenever a child is brought to the font for baptism, he is converted from an Ishmael to an Isaac. He is brought into covenant with God, into the new and everlasting covenant. So St Paul says to the Galatians, “Now we, brethren, as Isaac was, are the children of promise,and our Mother the Church is the free-woman, prefigured by Sarah.” Appropriately enough, the name Isaac, in Hebrew, means “laughter”: to be set free in Christ is to have a cause for joy, since it means that the way has been opened for us toward the Jerusalem which is above.

The Church’s children are born by promise, since God promises to work a miracle for her by the waters of baptism: the bonds of original sin are taken away, and we are made heirs to spiritual blessings. And these spiritual blessings, unlike earthly good, do not divide us, since the more we pursue them, the more we are united to others who do the same. This is the difference between the bread of this world, and the Bread which Christ gives to us. The Bread which He gives to us does not divide those who seek it, since there is no limit to how much He can give. Think of the feeding of the five thousand: there was more bread left at the end than existed at the beginning. In the same way, when we receive the charity of Christ within us through Holy Communion, that charity is not taken away from Him, but rather grows, since it is spread more and more through His body, the Church.