Taken from “The Liturgical Year”:
This Sunday, called, from the first word of the Introit, Laetare Sunday, is one of the most solemn of the year. The Church interrupts her Lenten mournfulness; the chants of the Mass speak of nothing but joy and consolation; the Organ, which has been silent during the preceding three Sundays, now gives forth its melodious voice; the Deacon resumes his Dalmatic, and the Subdeacon his Tunic; and instead of purple, Rose-coloured vestments are allowed to be used. These same rites were practiced in Advent, on the third Sunday, called Gaudete. The Church’s motive for introducing this expression of joy in today’s Liturgy, is to encourage her children to persevere fervently to the end of this holy season. The real mid-lent was last Thursday, as we have already observed; but the Church, fearing lest the joy might lead to some infringement on the spirit of penance, has deferred her own notice of it to this Sunday, when she not only permits, but even bids, her children to rejoice!
We now come to the explanation of another name given to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which was suggested by the Gospel of the day. We find this Sunday called in several ancient documents, the Sunday of the Five Loaves. The miracle alluded to in this title not only forms an essential portion of the Church’s instructions during Lent, but it also is an additional element of today’s joy. We forget for an instant the coming Passion of the Son of God, to give our attention to the greatest of the benefits he has bestowed on us; for under the figure of these Loaves multiplied by the power of Jesus, our Faith sees that Bread which came down from heaven, and giveth life to the world! (St. John, vi. 33.)
The Pasch, says our Evangelist, was near at hand; and, in a few days, our Lord will say to us: With desire have I desired to eat this Pasch with you. (St. Luke, xxii. 15.) Before leaving this world to go to his Father, Jesus desires to feed the multitude that follows him; and in order to this, he displays his omnipotence. Well may well admire that creative power, which feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, and in such wise, that even after all have partaken of the feast as much as they would, there remain fragments enough to fill twelve baskets. Such a miracle is, indeed, an evident proof of Jesus’ mission; but he intends it as a preparation for something far more wonderful; he intends it as a figure and a pledge of what he is soon to do, not merely once or twice, but every day, even to the end of time; not only for five thousand men, but for the countless multitudes of believers. Think of the millions, who, this very year (1870), are to partake of the banquet of the Pasch; and yet, He whom we have seen born in Bethlehem, (the House of Bread,) He is to be the nourishment of all these guests; neither will the Divine Bread fail. We are to feast as did our fathers before us; and the generations that are to follow us, shall be invited as we now are, to come and taste how sweet is the Lord. (Ps. xxxiii. 9.)
But observe, it is in a desert place, (as we learn from St. Matth. xiv. 13.) that Jesus feeds these men, who represent us Christians. They have quitted the bustle and noise of cities in order to follow him. So anxious are they to hear his words, that they fear neither hunger nor fatigue; and their courage is rewarded. A like recompense will crown our labours, our fasting and abstinence, which are now more than half over. Let us, then, rejoice, and spend this day with the light-heartedness of pilgrims, who are near the end of their journey. The happy moment is advancing, when our soul, united and filled with her God, will look back with pleasure on the fatigues of the body, which, together with our heart’s compunction, have merited for her a place at the Divine Banquet.
The primitive Church proposed this miracle of the multiplication of the loaves as a symbol of the Eucharist, the Bread that never fails. We find it frequently represented in the paintings of the Catacombs and on the basreliefs of the ancient Christian tombs. The Fishes, too, that were given together with the Loaves, are represented on these venerable monuments of our faith; for the early Christians considered the Fish to be the symbol of Christ, because the word Fish, in Greek, is made up of five letters, each of which is the initial of these words: Jesus Christ, Son (of) God, Saviour.
We have passed one half of our journey through the holy Fast; let us, then, as it behoves us, joyfully complete what remains. Let us anoint our souls with the oil of good works, that we may be made worthy to celebrate the divine sufferings of Christ our Lord, and to be brought to his venerable and holy Resurrection. Jesus, He that planted the vine and hired the labourers, is near at hand. Come, ye brave fasters! let us receive the reward, for He that pays us, is rich and merciful. After our short labours, He will requite our souls with His mercy.
O God, thou Giver of life! open to me the gate of penance. My spirit keepeth watch in Thy holy temple; but the temple of the flesh, which I have to carry with me, is defiled with many sins. Have pity on me, notwithstanding; and in Thy tender mercy, cleanse me.
Come, let us, who are in the mystic Vine, produce fruits of penance. Here labouring, let our feasting be, not in meat and drink, but in prayer and fasting and good works. Our Lord, being pleased with our labour, will pay us with that, whereby He, the one God, rich in mercy, will forgive us the debt of our sins.