Laetare: The Eucharistic Joy of the Church


Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation (Isaias 66:10–11). V. I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord (Psalm 121:1).

The Eucharistic Joy of Laetare Sunday
Laetare Sunday sings with Eucharistic joy; it is a kind of veiled Lenten festival of Corpus Christi by way of mysterious allusions. Rarely is the Eucharistic character of Laetare Sunday recognised and understood and, yet, the mystery of the Sacrament of Unity is presented in the Introit that opens Holy Mass. Laetare Sunday points to Maundy Thursday, to the institution of the Most Holy Eucharist at the Last Supper in the Cenacle and, beyond that, to the recognition of the risen Jesus in the breaking of the bread on the very evening of the day of His Resurrection.

After this, Jesus retired across the sea of Galilee, or Tiberias, and there was a great multitude following him; they had seen the miracles he performed over the sick. (John 6:1–2)

A great multitude is following Jesus. They recognise Him as the Divine Physician of souls and bodies. Already, He is drawing all men to Himself, even as He will do from the altar of the Cross: “Yes, if only I am lifted up from the earth, I will attract all men to myself” (John 12:32). Jesus is the divine lodestone, attracting souls to Himself; He did this during His life on earth; He does it wherever the mystery of His self–emptying death and glorious resurrection is preached and made present; He does it from the tabernacles where He dwells hidden, unrecognised, and forsaken.

So Jesus went up on to the hill-side, and there sat down with his disciples. (John 6:3)

Jesus does here exactly what He did in the fifth chapter of Saint Matthew’s Gospel: “Jesus, when he saw how great was their number, went up on to the mountain-side; there he sat down, and his disciples came about him” (Matthew 5:1). Not only is Jesus the physician of souls and bodies; He is also the King enthroned in the midst of His own, and the Teacher, the New Moses, who will feed His people as a Shepherd feeds His flock. Today’s Gospel (John 6:1–15) must be read through the transparency of Ezekiel’s prophecy, which illuminates and fulfils it:

Yes, I will lead them out into fair pastures, the high mountains of Israel shall be their feeding-ground, the mountains of Israel, with soft grass for them to rest on, rich feed for them to graze. Food and rest, says the Lord God, both these I will give to my flock. The lost sheep I will find, the strayed sheep I will bring home again; bind up the broken limb, nourish the wasted frame, keep the well-fed and the sturdy free from harm; they shall have a true shepherd at last. (Ezekiel 34:14–16)

It was nearly the time of the Jews’ great feast, the paschal feast. (John 1:4)

For Saint John, timing is significant. Saint John is the theologian of The Hour, of the time ordained by God for the manifestation of the glory of His Christ, and for the salvation of a great multitude. All the elements of the Pasch of the Jews must be brought to fulfillment in Jesus: the sacrifice of the lamb and the saving sign of the blood; the passage out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life. Jesus is the true Lamb; His is the Blood that saves from death; in Him is the passage out of slavery into freedom, out of darkness into light, out of death into life.

And now, lifting up his eyes and seeing that a great multitude had gathered round him, Jesus said to Philip, Whence are we to buy bread for these folk to eat? In saying this, he was putting him to the test; he himself knew well enough what he meant to do. (John 6:5–6)

Jesus, lifting His eyes, gazes into the ages yet to come. He sees the great multitude of men, women, and children waiting to be nourished with the Bread of Life. Already, He conceives in His Heart the design of a Sacrament so wondrous that it must be the invention of Divine Love, of a God–Man who will love “even unto the end” (John 13:1). “He still loved those who were his own, whom he was leaving in the world, and he would give them the uttermost proof of his love” (John 13:1). “He Himself knew well enough what he meant to do” (John 6:6). This refers not only to the miraculous multiplication of the loaves and fishes, but also the miraculous multiplication of Himself in every time and place, by means of the Sacrament of His Body and Blood. Today’s Gospel announces the mystery of Maundy Thursday that will be prolonged through the ages on the altars of the Church.

This is why the Church sings today in the Gradual: “I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord. Let peace be in Thy strength: and abundance in Thy towers. (Psalm 121:1, 7). What are these things said to her? They are the mystic words uttered in the Cenacle on the night before the Lord’s Passion: “With desire I have desired to eat this pasch with you, before I suffer” (Luke 22:15); “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this for a commemoration of me” (Luke 22:19); and “This is the chalice, the new testament in my blood, which shall be shed for you” (Luke 22:20). In these words lies hid the inexhaustible wellspring of the Church’s joy.

Philip answered him, Two hundred silver pieces would not buy enough bread for them, even to give each a little. One of his disciples (it was Andrew, Simon Peter’s brother) said to him, There is a boy here, who has five barley loaves and two fishes; but what is that among so many? (John 6:7–9)

The miracle of the Most Holy Eucharist is utterly divine. Man, even with all the riches of the universe at his disposal, cannot make the Most Holy Eucharist. Silver and gold cannot purchase it.  No man can produce the living Bread with which Jesus intends to satisfy the hunger of the multitudes until the end of time. Man, like the boy with five barley loaves and two fishes, can bring to Jesus the little that he has, as a token of cooperation with the Divine Action, but without the powerful word of Christ and the action of the Holy Ghost, man’s little offering remains just that and no more.

Then Jesus said, Make the men sit down. There was no lack of grass where they were; so the men sat down, about five thousand in number. And Jesus took the loaves, and gave thanks, and distributed them to the company, and a share of the fishes too, as much as they had a mind for. (John 6:10–11)

Here is the proto–liturgy: the very shape of the Mass, according to Dom Gregory Dix.  Jesus takes bread; He gives thanks over the bread; He distributes the broken bread to the company. All are satisfied. In every Holy Mass, bread and wine are taken and set apart to be offered to God in sacrifice. The words of the Great Blessing — the Canon of the Mass — are pronounced over the bread and wine, which, by the words of consecration become the true Body and true Blood of Christ; the Holy Gifts are prepared for distribution to the faithful and, finally given to them by the hand of the priest.

Then, when they had all had enough, he told his disciples, Gather up the broken pieces that are left over, so that nothing may be wasted. And when they gathered them up, they filled twelve baskets with the broken pieces left over by those who had eaten.(John 6:12–13)

Jesus would have men see that the wonders wrought by God are not measured, or limited, or insufficient. God acts always with munificence, with largesse, with bountiful abundance. The miracle of the Most Holy Sacrament surpasses infinitely that of the loaves and fishes. “So it is the Lord’s death that you are heralding, whenever you eat this bread and drink this cup, until he comes” (1 Corinthians 11:26). This is the multiplication that will continue until the close of this age, until the return of Christ in glory.

When they saw the miracle Jesus had done, these men began to say, Beyond doubt, this is the prophet who is to come into the world. (John 6:14)

The multiplication of the loaves and fishes causes men to recognise Jesus as the long–awaited prophet, the messenger sent by God to comfort and feed His people. They have yet to recognise that Jesus is not merely the prophet sent by God to deliver a word and work a sign; He is God coming to men, dwelling in their midst, Himself the Word and the Sign. Here is the fulfillment of the word of God to Moses:

I have not been blind, the Lord told him, to the oppression which my people endures in Egypt, I have listened to their complaints about the cruelty of the men who are in charge of their work. I know what their sufferings are, and I have come down to rescue them from the power of the Egyptians; to take them away into a fruitful land and large, a land that is all milk and honey” (Exodus 3:7–8).

The Most Holy Eucharist is the great coming down of God. God comes down in order to lift us up, even to union with Himself in eternal life. Ours it is to recognise Him now, as did the disciples who encountered Him risen on the road to Emmaus: “in the breaking of the bread” (Luke 24:35).

So he went in to stay with them. And then, when he sat down at table with them, he took bread, and blessed, and broke it, and offered it to them; whereupon their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and with that, he disappeared from their sight. (Luke 24:29–31)

Receiving the adorable Body and precious Blood of Christ, the Church sings in today’s Mass:

Jerusalem, which is built as a city, which is compact together: for thither did the tribes go up, the tribes of the Lord, to praise Thy Name, O Lord. (Psalm 121:3–4)

Saint Thomas, with his customary clarity, teaches that the res tantum of the Most Holy Eucharist is the unity of the Mystical Body. This is the meaning of the Communion Antiphon today. The Most Holy Eucharist produces the Church; the Church is constituted and consolidated by participation in the Body and Blood of Christ, according to the word of Saint Paul: “We have a cup that we bless; is not this cup we bless a participation in Christ’s blood? Is not the bread we break a participation in Christ’s body? The one bread makes us one body, though we are many in number; the same bread is shared by all. (1 Corinthians 10:16–17)

The joy of the Church increases in proportion to her unity, and the unity of the Church increases in proportion to the participation of her members in the adorable mysteries of the Body and Blood of Christ. A Church without the Most Holy Eucharist is a Church without joy. A Church that daily returns to the altar, saying in the person of her priests, “I will go in to the altar of God: to God who giveth joy to my youth” (Psalm 42:4) will never lack joy. Day after day, and night after night, she will be able to repeat with the psalmist: “Thou hast given gladness in my heart more than by an abundance of wheat, and wine, and oil” (Psalm 4:4).