Gather up the fragments, that nothing be lost.
(St. John vi. 12)
The Epistles and Gospels for the Lenten season prepare us for the liberating power that Jesus Christ will bring to the world most explicitly in Holy Week. In this time of the Church Year we are invited to contemplate and embrace the desire and love which God the Father reveals to us through His Word and Son Jesus Christ our Lord. This is the love with which God created man, from which He intended that man should derive wisdom and inspiration to live in the world, and for the sake of which He intended man to relate to all others. But this Word of Love was rejected through that prideful disobedience of Adam, which has infected the race ever since. And so God’s Word of Love can be worked back into human nature again only through that Word of Love made flesh who is perfectly obedient to God’s rule and governance. St. John writes, In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us, and sent His Son to be the expiation for our sins. (1 St. John iv. 10) We love Him, because He first loved us. (1 St. John iv. 19) What we must strive to see and understand in Lent is that God’s Word of Love in the flesh, Jesus Christ, desires always that we should move with Him into His death that we might become the children of promise and the citizens of Jerusalem which is above…free and the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26)
Yet, when we speak about death most men’s minds jump to the termination or extinction of their earthly natures. Of course Lent should remind us of that, since it calls to mind the shortness and frailty of human life and the inevitable Judgment that awaits us all. But so that the end of our earthly existence might be less fearful and uncertain, the Grace of God in Jesus Christ desires to take us into a prior death. This prior death should be our spiritual dying to the world, the flesh, the devil, and ourselves. Long before our physical natures perish, our souls should be coming alive to the will of God. The will of God in the flesh is Jesus Christ. So Lent is all about spiritual dying to ourselves and coming alive to Jesus Christ.
So let us meditate a bit upon this prior spiritual death. In the past few weeks we have learned much about the character that must die if Jesus Christ is to come alive. We have learned that we must resist the temptation to elevate the hunger and thirst for earthly things above the desire for heavenly virtue. We have learned that we must never presume that God will save and deliver us because of our pious intentions or good works. We have learned that the must worship and obey God alone as we wend our way through this troublous life. We learned too that we deserve nothing, merit nothing, can earn nothing and so must be like dogs that eat of the crumbs that fall from the Master’s table. (St. Matt. xv. 27) And last week we learned that once we are fed and healed, we must cherish and treasure the Grace of God in our hearts, that the good work, which God has begun in us, may continue to the day of salvation.
We are roughly three weeks out from the Good Friday of Calvary. And while Christ desires to bring us into spiritual death, He knows also that if we are to continue our Lenten journey, we must be refreshed with the hope of new life. This is Refreshment Sunday or Laetare Sunday. The Latin comes from the ancient introit to the Mass, Laetare Jerusalem: O be joyful, Jerusalem. St. Paul tells us this morning in his Epistle to the Galatians that, the Jerusalem, which is above, is free, and is the mother of us all. (Gal. iv. 26) Thus today is known also as Mothering Sunday. And we wear rose-colored vestments today, because in Medieval Europe the Popes used to send golden roses to the Monarchs of Europe in mid-Lent as a reward for faithfulness and piety. Curiously enough, Henry the VIII received three of them in his lifetime. I wonder if the Pope asked for their return once the King had decided that he no longer needed any Popes!
Laetare means rejoice, and on this Sunday we are reminded that we die to ourselves in order that we might lift up our voices in song, praise, rejoicing, and thanksgiving to God as we approach Easter. Rejoice ye with Jerusalem, and be glad with her, all ye that love her: rejoice with joy for her…and be delighted with the abundance of her glory. (Is. lvi. 10,11) So today the Church –our Alma Mater or Nourishing Mother, desires to feed us. Jerusalem which is above is free, the Mother of us all (Idem), and through the Church she feeds us on God’s Word and Sacraments as she leads us out of our death and into new life. Through her our Heavenly Father fulfills His promise to make us into His newborn sons and daughters. Behold, what manner of love the Father hath bestowed upon us, that we should be called the sons of God….(1 St. John iii. 1)
And yet there is always a danger that accompanies long journeys like Lent. St. Paul tells us in this morning’s Epistle that we are tempted to become natural infants once again, the children of the bondwoman…born after the flesh…and in bondage, (Ibid, 23,25) relapsing under [the rule and sway of] the elements of [this] world doing service unto [powers], which by nature are no gods. (Ibid, 8). We are tempted to place this fleshly world and the fulfillment of its needs before our spiritual wellbeing, sanctification, and salvation. For example, we may go to church regularly, but our hearts are far from God because we are so materially spoiled, the children of the bondwoman…born of the flesh….(Ibid, 29) The problem is not with the world but with us Christians who are not dying to it and being born again from above. St. Paul tells us that if we are to become the sons and daughters of God we must ask for His Grace to break the chains that make us the slaves of this world’s limited, uncertain, and fleeting promises.
Our Gospel lesson for this Laetare or Refreshment Sunday nicely illustrates our predicament. We read that, Jesus went up into a mountain…and when He lifted up His eyes, and saw a great company come unto Him, He saith unto Philip, Whence shall we buy bread, that these may eat? And this He said to prove him: for He himself knew what he would do. Philip answered Him, Two hundred pennyworth of bread is not sufficient for them, that every one of them may take a little. One of his disciples, Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother, saith unto Him, There is a lad here, which hath five barley loaves, and two small fishes: but what are they among so many? (St. John vi. 5-9) By earthly reckoning Philip calculates that a common laborer’s yearly wage would be needed to feed the five thousand. It would cost too much. Andrew concludes that what they have is inadequate. They have too little. Man always has too little and needs too much if he is a child of the flesh and in bondage to the elements of this world. But Jesus is different. He always takes what little is ready at hand, and makes it sufficiently better to meet our spiritual needs. Pope Benedict reminds us that, Christ makes us see that if each person offers the little he has, the miracle can always be repeated: God is capable of multiplying our small acts of love and making us share in His gift. And notice that in order to work the miracle, Christ takes the five loaves and two fishes from a young lad. Except ye become as little children, ye shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven. (St. John iii, 3; St. Matthew xviii. 3) We must die, be born again, become as little children that Christ may take our small offerings and perfect them.
So Jesus says: Make the men sit down…So the men sat down, in number about five thousand. (Ibid, 10) With authority the Word of God’s love in Jesus Christ commands us to abandon our foolish earthly ways, to stop, to sit down, and to wait. Jesus ignores Philip and Andrew’s earthly-mindedness, and desires rather to feed our faith. And so we must trust that He will give what is best and sufficient for our needs. So, Jesus took the loaves; and when he had given thanks, he distributed to the disciples, and the disciples to them that were set down; and likewise of the fishes as much as they would. (St. John vi. 11) Christ feeds five thousand on five loaves and two fishes. Seek ye first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness and all these things shall be added unto you. (St. Matthew vi. 33) Archbishop Trench reminds us, [The multitude who had followed Jesus] had come taking no thought, for three days at least, of what they should eat and what they should drink, [but were] only desirous to hear the Word of Life, only seeking the kingdom of heaven; and now the lower things, according to the word of the promise, were added unto them. (Miracles, p. 209)
And what do we read next? When they were filled, Jesus said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost. Therefore they gathered them together, and filled twelve baskets with the fragments of the five barley loaves, which remained over and above unto them that had eaten. (Ibid, 12, 13) So we have here a visible symbol of that love which never exhausts itself by loving, but after all its outpourings upon others, [multiplies in an ongoing way which is ever seeking to give a larger and more perfect share of its love….] (Trench: s. p. 213) Christ never exhausts His loving power with provision for the needs of the flesh alone. The spirit follows Him and the flesh is fed; the flesh is fed and the spirit revives to feed on the fragments that remain as spiritual desire pursues Him still!
Today in the midst of our long Lenten journey we are refreshed with the knowledge that Jesus always provides more and better food to fuel the faith of those who will follow Him to Calvary and beyond. There is more to be seen, grasped, and consumed from this Giver and His gifts. Let us then gather up the fragments that remain that nothing be lost. (St. John vi. 12) We will need them, for behold we go up to Jerusalem, and mere earthly fare will never adequately nourish that faith that seeks to plumb the depths of Christ’s love in Death before it can rise through Him into new and glorious Life. Amen.