4th Sunday of Lent (B)
NOTE: In places where the Second Scrutiny is celebrated to prepare catechumens for baptism this Easter, the readings will be taken from Year A.
The fourth Sunday of Lent is called Laetare Sunday, from the Latin word for “rejoice.” It comes from the entrance antiphon for today’s Mass, a verse from Isaiah 66 which begins, “Rejoice, Jerusalem…!” It is a reminder to a people in the midst of suffering that better things are to come. So it is a reminder to us in the middle of the penitential season of Lent that our penance has a joyful purpose. Though we may suffer in this life, our final end is eternal happiness, resting in the peace of God. It is this final end I want to focus on this week, drawing from a reference in the first reading about “retrieving the lost sabbath.”
What’s Going On?
First, a little context to help us understand what’s going on in our first reading from 2 Chronicles. Both books of Chronicles relate the history of the Jewish kings. The last half of 2 Chronicles tells of a time when the Jewish people were divided into two kingdoms, Israel in the north and Judah in the south. Judah is overrun by the Babylonians, and many Jewish people have adopted pagan practices in their worship. The Jewish people are divided, and they have been unfaithful in their covenant with God. They have ignored the prophets God sent to them. This includes the prophet Jeremiah who foretold of the land retrieving its lost sabbaths to restore Israel to a right relationship with God.
Jeremiah lived during a time when Jerusalem was ruled by the Babylonian king Nebuchadnezzer. He warned of the importance of keeping true to God’s covenant and not worshiping Babylonian idols. He compared God’s covenant with Israel to a marriage covenant, and painted Israel as an unfaithful spouse. He prophesied that Israel would suffer for seventy years in exile for her unfaithfulness, during which the land would be a ruin and a waste (Jer 25:11), but after which Babylon would be punished by God and the covenant renewed. This is the “lost sabbath” to which the author of 2 Chronicles refers.
What is Sabbath?
Sabbath comes from the Hebrew word שַׁבָּת or sabbat, meaning “to rest.” When we think of sabbath it is usually in the context of the day of rest prescribed by God in the Ten Commandments.
Remember the sabbath day — keep it holy. Six days you may labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath of the Lord your God. You shall not do any work, either you, your son or your daughter, your male or female slave, your work animal, or the resident alien within your gates. For in six days the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea and all that is in them; but on the seventh day he rested. That is why the Lord has blessed the sabbath day and made it holy (Ex 20:8-11).
Note that the sabbath day is not meant to be a burden, but a blessing. It is something holy. It is a gift from God to His people. This is why Jesus said in the gospels, “The sabbath was made for man, not man for the sabbath” (Mk 2:27). It is a day of rest, prescribed by God for our own good — like a doctor prescribes a medicine. So what is the medicine for? What is the sabbath rest meant to do for us?
Let My People Go!
To answer that question, we need to go back a bit further in Exodus. Before Moses led the Hebrews out of slavery in Egypt, he first had to contend with Pharaoh. Even though it is more than 60 years old, we still have the popular image of Moses being played by Charleston Heston in The Ten Commandments, shouting, “Let my people go!”
But — no surprise — it turns out the Hollywood version is not exactly like the Biblical account. In Exodus, Moses doesn’t just say to Pharaoh, “let my people go.” What he says is, “Thus says the Lord, the God of Israel: Let my people go, that they may hold a feast for me in the wildnerness” (Ex 5:1) and “Let us go a three day’s journey in the wilderness, that we may offer sacrifice to the Lord, our God” (Ex 5:3).
The Hebrews weren’t asking to be freed from slavery. They were asking to be freed from their labor for a time so that they could worship God. Pharaoh said no. In retaliation for their asking for time off, he increased the Hebrews’ work load to make them even busier, so that they would only have time to think about their work, and not their God (Ex 5:6-9). In response, Moses came back every seven days to ask again for a period of rest so that they could worship God. Each time Pharaoh refused, a plague would strike Egypt. Only after the tenth and most devastating plague did Pharaoh evict the Hebrews out of Egypt. This narrative is where we get the Passover, the crossing of the Red Sea and the Exodus out of Egypt. But what I want to focus on is the need for the people to take a pause from their labors to worship God.
The Origin of Work
The Hebrew people made bricks for Pharaoh. Brick making is not bad. We need bricks. All sorts of work is good and necessary. We need farmers and doctors and plumbers and engineers and even writers and poets and musicians. Work is not bad, even though one of the earliest mentions we have of work in the Bible is Genesis 3:17 when God cursed Adam to toil in the ground to grow food as punishment for his sin. But work was not always a penance. Adam and Eve worked before the fall. There was plenty to do in Eden. God had tasked them with “cultivating and caring” for the garden (Gen 2:18). There was certainly work to be done.
It is natural for us to work. We are made in the image and likeness of God, who works! The very first passages of the Bible describe the work of God.
On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing; he rested on the seventh day from all the work he had undertaken. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy; because on it he rested from all the work he had done in creation (Gen 2:1-3).
Work is good and holy because by our work we participate in God’s work of creation. But ever since the fall, work has taken on a penitential character. It is often toilsome for us. It is difficult. It can be a drudgery. Which is why God gives us a reprieve with the sabbath.
Notice in the passage above God doesn’t just work, but He rests. Why? Was God tired? Was the Almighty worn out at the end of a hard week? Not at all! God never tires. But God does rest. The scriptures tell us why. “God looked at everything he had made, and found it very good” (Gen 1:31). God rests in order to revel in creation, to simply be in relationship with what He has made.
This tells us something about why God commands us to take a rest from our work, as well. It’s not principally to give us a chance to take a break and catch our breath. It’s to give us an opportunity to pause and remember that we were not made for toil. We were made to be in relationship with God. This is why Moses didn’t just ask Pharaoh to let the Hebrews go, but to let them go into the wilderness to worship God. This is why the people of Israel didn’t just refrain from labor on the sabbath, but used that time to attend the synagogue and hear the Word of God. This is why the Church today doesn’t say we should just take a day off on the Lord’s Day, but that we should worship at Mass.
The sabbath is there to remind us of what is important. The sabbath is made for man, as Jesus put it, to remind us that while work is necessary, we were not made to work. We were made for relationship with God.
“Date Night” with God
The scriptures speak of the sabbath as a sign of the covenant between God and His people (Ex 31:16). It is a time where that relationship is recalled and celebrated to the exclusion of all other concerns. Think of is as “date night” with God. When a married couple wants to make sure they don’t take their relationship for granted, they have to be intentional about it. They have to set aside time when they aren’t taking care of children, or doing household chores, or on their phones or answering emails or watching TV. They make sure to have a regularly scheduled “date night” when they go away somewhere, leaving behind all the usual day-to-day distractions to focus just on each other and their relationship.
As important as the relationship between husband and wife is, the relationship between us and God is even more essential. In fact, the relationship between God and His people is the model for the marital covenant. This is why the Church is called the Bride of Christ. God is a faithful husband. But we have not always been a faithful bride.
This is why the writer of 2 Chronicles calls for a seventy year sabbath to restore the Jewish people to a right relationship with God. They have been unfaithful by following false gods (often called ba’als in the Old Testament, a word meaning “husband”). But God will not divorce them. He is always faithful to His promise, and wants to restore His bride to their covenant relationship. The seventy-year sabbath is like an extended marriage retreat.
That covenant relationship is restored once and for all by the death and resurrection of Jesus. This is why we can find ultimate rest only in Christ. “For God so loved the world that He gave His only Son, so that everyone who believes in Him might not perish, but might have eternal life” (Jn 3:16).
The Catechism teaches: “In Christ’s Passover, Sunday fulfills the spiritual truth of the Jewish sabbath and announces man’s eternal rest in God” (CCC 2175). St. Ignatius of Antioch, a disciple of St. John the Evangelist, wrote around the year 110 AD, “Those who lived according to the old order of things have come to a new hope, no longer keeping the sabbath, but the Lord’s Day, in which our life is blessed by Him and by His death.”
Jesus has transformed the sabbath, as He transformed everything else — not by abolishing it, but by fulfilling and perfecting it. We no longer keep the sabbath according to the old Law of Moses, but according to the new Law of Christ. For we still have a need to remember and renew our relationship with God, and give Him right worship.
Each and every Sunday we should pause from our toils to remember what we are made for. We are not made for work. We are not tools or functionaries. We are not cogs in a machine. We are people made for God, and made in His image. We belong to Him, and He, by His grace, belongs to us.
Our work here on earth should be for His glory. For one day that work will come to an end. We will put down the tools of our labor never to pick them up again. But our work of praising our Creator and Redeemer will go on for ever. That work will not be toilsome. It will be an eternal sabbath, in perfect union with the Triune God.