The blanket of daffodils, chocolate and cards which engulfs the nation must not obscure the fact that Laetare Sunday should not entirely be allowed to morph into ‘Mothers’ Day’ (sic). There is much more going on here than an expression of familial (or even ecclesiastical) affection.
Laetare, Mid-Lent or Refreshment Sunday is the Lenten equivalent of Advent’s Gaudete Sunday. A note of joy enters the liturgy, the purple vestments are set aside for rose, and the day marks a point of transition from one mood to another. For us this week, we are aware that Passiontide is now waiting in the wings, but, for one last time before Easter Day, we are to be joyful. And the theological and spiritual significance of this instruction shouldn’t be undersold.
It is said of a particular tradition of Christianity that it leaves its adherents unable to sleep at night for fear that someone, somewhere might be enjoying themselves. Whether that deep suspicion of the physical world derives primarily from our Neo-Platonist inheritance, from the rise of capitalism (as some have suggested), from the triumph of the opinions of (say) Theodore of Tarsus over those of Gregory the Great (look at the early mediæval penitentiaries for copious examples of the former), or wherever, there is a lurking conviction that abstinence is intrinsically holy. ‘The less the holier’ is a beguiling mantra.
The presence of Laetare Sunday in the liturgical year challenges that quasi-masochistic, dualist take on the created order. In the middle of the solemn fast of Lent, we are commanded to rejoice, even to consider breaking out the chocolate and removing the padlocks from the decanter. What, we might wonder, is going on?
A starting point is the ancient example of Anthony of Egypt. Artists have long rejoiced in painting his Temptations, perhaps because the irresistible invitation to let the imagination run riot with naked women and/or demons. Less frequently painted, though is the scene where Anthony, at the end of his period of fasting, is tempted to continue into ever-deeper asceticism. It’s probably rather difficult to paint someone being tempted not to eat — apophatic art is an interesting concept — but the point is clear: ascesis is not an end in itself, and may unwittingly become a vice as it leads us into pride, and a despising of creation and of those others who cannot meet our high ideals. Another tale of the desert fathers recalls how a solitary broke his fast in order to offer hospitality. Even within ascetic Christian monasticism rigorism and puritanism have long been suspect.
Within the Benedictine spiritual tradition there are countless reminders of our necessary embodiedness. Benedict’s Rule insists that we do not devalue our God-given physicality, even our frailness. RB 37: ‘Although human nature itself is drawn to special kindness … towards the old and children, still the authority of the Rule should also provide for them. … let a kind consideration be shown to them, and let them eat before the regular hours.’ Benedict insists on exception after exception — for the sick, for when the weather is hot, or the work arduous — and on proper provision being made for adequate food, clothing and bedding — and a ‘comfort break’ between Offices.
RB 39 expects a choice of menu to be available; the Monastery of Our Lady and St John at Alton sets aside the Wednesday fast if a feast or solemnity intervenes — ‘Beer on a feast, and wine on Sundays and solemnities.’ Our calling is to become holy, not skeletal, or pious, or puritanical. “Do not aspire to be called holy before you really are,” says Benedict in RB4, and goes on to demonstrate that holiness and proper regard for our physical state are anything but mutually exclusive.
It is in this context that Laetare Sunday may be seen to make sense. This enforced breaking of the fast is a reminder that the Sabbath (so to speak) is made for us, not us for the Sabbath (Pharisaism is such a tempting route to take, especially for the professionally religious). It ensures that we cannot enter into a mistaken imitation of Jesus’s forty-day experience in the wilderness, and thus promote ourselves to the category of spiritual Olympian, ‘seeking to be called holy before we really are’. Instead, we hear the words of the Angel to Elijah; ‘Get up and eat, otherwise the journey will be too much for you.’ It is one thing to discipline our physicality, another entirely to abuse it.