Hunger to Honesty to Love
Today is Refreshment Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Since ancient times, Christians have recognized their frailty and realized they might not be able to maintain their strict Lenten disciplines all the way through the long, cold days of Lent waiting for Easter.
So rather than giving up halfway through and chucking the whole thing, they created Refreshment Sunday, a sort of pit-stop at the beginning of the last long climb toward Holy Week.
Today, you have the full sanction and blessing of the Church to take a day off from your Lenten discipline.
As is wont to happen with church traditions, Refreshment Sunday has had many auxiliary traditions grow up alongside it over the years.
Its original name was Laetare Sunday, from the Latin for “O be joyful.”
This was not an exhortation to the people to be joyful, the medieval Catholic Church was not that generous.
It was rather named for the introit used at the mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent, from Isaiah 66. It begins “O be joyful, Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her.”
All the monks and priests knew the introit and calling it Laetare Sunday was a sort of shorthand nickname for the fourth Sunday of Lent.
As time went on, “this same Sunday was known in England as Mothering Sunday. It was a day when servants and apprentices were allowed to take a day off and go home to visit their mothers. That tradition later became linked to parochial life as people made pilgrimage to the church of their youth, their “Mother Church.””
Not quite the same as Mother’s Day in the U.S., but probably part of its origins.
There is also a Refreshment Sunday in the other penitential season of the Church year, Advent. You may recognize it as the Sunday when some churches burn a pink candle in their Advent wreaths instead of a blue or purple one.
That comes from the other name for Refreshment Sunday which is Rose Sunday. It actually comes from medieval times when the Pope would send a golden rose to European monarchs as a reminder of to whom they owed their ultimate loyalty—although at times it was not clear whether that loyalty was supposed to be to God or to the Pope himself!
But Rose Sunday also came to be celebrated in a way I devoutly wish I had the liturgical budget to facilitate: with the priest wearing rose pink vestments.
In the old lectionary, the Gospel lesson for Refreshment Sunday was the story of the loaves and fishes. It’s very strange to realize that “there was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.”
It wasn’t until the Revised Common Lectionary was compiled in 1992 that the Prodigal Son had a slot to be proclaimed in church on Sunday mornings.
The Prodigal Son certainly finds himself in need of refreshment by the time he finds himself so hungry he’s eating food meant for pigs.
Refreshment is a very kind word for what is actually a very deep and visceral need.
And it’s a need that we all have within us.
There comes a time in our lives when we realize, like the younger son, that we are living badly.
Or rather, there should come a time in our lives that we realize that, but many of us don’t.
We as modern Americans have perhaps more armor against true need and vulnerability than any other society who’s ever lived.
How can we admit our need for God when it is so easy to paper over it with material comforts?
There is a commercial salve for almost any way our hunger for God expresses itself.
Our longing for God gets disguised in a hundred ways, and in a hundred ways we try to assuage it.
Physical hunger? We have an endless supply of food and most of us have the means to access it.
Boredom? Depression? Loneliness? Anger?
Something within us is crying out, but we shut it up with TV or the internet or busyness at work.
The first and real triumph of the Prodigal Son was to acknowledge his hunger.
He “comes to himself” as the gospel says and admits that he is starving, starving for food and starving for truth.
His hunger is so important and so valuable, because once he admits the truth of his hunger, he is able to admit the truth of his life.
He quits pretending that everything is okay and no longer has to maintain that exhausting false façade of pride, arrogance and self-sufficiency.
When will we do the same?
When will we admit that we are hungry for God, starving for God, need God more than the air we breathe?
When will we admit that we can’t do it all ourselves and that when we do, our ship goes badly off course?
That hunger that we try to fill with stuff and entertainment and achievement will continue to ache and grind within us until we look it in the face and say, “You are real.”
And then we can look our problems in the face and say, “You are real.”
And then we can look God in the face and say, “You are real.”
This is the honesty the Prodigal Son finds at last.
Centuries later 12-Step programs will recognize the critical importance of honesty in recovering from addiction, which is essentially what our problem of sin is all about. The Prodigal Son makes a fearless moral inventory of his life, as AA requires.
But this is also key: he doesn’t stop there.
Where many people get stuck, is having realized how badly off track they have gotten by trying to do it alone, they become overwhelmed with despair and a sense of inadequacy and then just stay in the pigpen with the pigs, so to speak.
Not the Prodigal Son.
His hunger drove him to honesty, and then his honesty is what brings down the final barriers to love.
The truth does not mire him in shame and keep him stuck in the pigpen.
The truth sets him free.
He gets up and goes home.
This is where our courage fails us most often.
We think God can’t handle our sin, or we think, like the Prodigal Son, that we can only go home if we have some sort of plan to fix our sin.
But we can see from the story that nothing could be further from the truth.
God is so eager to welcome us home that God is running out into the street to gather us into an embrace, falling on our neck and kissing us as the gospel says.
The welcome is so sure.
Letting yourself accept and rejoice in this welcome is the final and greatest act of courage in your conversion to the gospel.
So many of us think we are converted to the gospel, but we are walking around in the position of the older son.
And any time we place ourselves in the position of the older son, we are not converted to the gospel.
The older son is cutting himself off from love.
The party is happening in the house, and God is begging him to come in and join them, but he won’t do it.
He would rather be right than be in love.
He would rather hang on to his self-righteousness than both give and receive grace.
I was talking with our Bible study ladies at St. Luke’s this week, and they said they’d always thought the older son was the virtuous one.
He may have “virtue” in the very narrow sense of checking off boxes of duty, but his so-called virtue has left him cruel and unforgiving, and ultimately, alone.
He is as trapped in a distant country as the younger son was, but the younger son has the good sense to admit that he is wrong and come home.
The older son refuses, and that is the tragedy of this story.
Hunger to honesty to love—this is one way of talking about the trajectory of conversion to the gospel.
Hunger to honesty to love—this is one way of describing the path from the distant country back home to God.
And it must go in that order. We can’t skip over those painful first steps of acknowledging our need for God, our need for love, our need for forgiveness and redemption and grace.
It is only when we allow ourselves to quit trying to outrun our darkness but really sit down and enter into it with our eyes wide open, that the path for returning home reveals itself.
Refreshment Sunday—we need a lot more than refreshment! We are starving to death for God!
But God cannot wait to feed us.
God cannot wait to sustain us.
God cannot wait to bathe us in life-altering love that fills us up and spills over into the world all around us.
All we have to do is say yes.
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