Laetare, Jerusalem! Rejoice!
Easter is almost here! “With childlike joy the Church begins to count the days.” Rev. Pius Parsch describes the Fourth Sunday of Lent so perfectly! (The Church’s Year of Grace, Volume 2, p. 212). While there is not much change liturgically for the Fourth Sunday of Lent except for the option of rose-colored vestments, there is much to this Sunday to unpack. I am pondering these key words for this Sunday: Joy, Rose, Jerusalem, and Mother.
General Instructions on Rejoicing
I always am a little jolted when I see the priest walking in wearing rose-colored vestments. Since this color vestment is worn twice a year, the Mass does stand out. Yet there is very little extra liturgical instruction for this Sunday. From The General Instruction on the Roman Missal:
346 f) The color rose may be used, where it is the practice, on Gaudete Sunday (Third Sunday of Advent) and on Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent).
305. Moderation should be observed in the decoration of the altar.
During Advent the floral decoration of the altar should be marked by a moderation suited to the character of this time of year, without expressing in anticipation the full joy of the Nativity of the Lord.
During Lent it is forbidden for the altar to be decorated with flowers. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.
Floral decoration should always show moderation and be arranged around the altar rather than on the altar table.
313. In Lent the playing of the organ and musical instruments is allowed only in order to support the singing. Exceptions, however, are Laetare Sunday (Fourth Sunday of Lent), Solemnities, and Feasts.
And these are the only instructions regarding this “Rejoicing” Sunday of Lent. This tradition of the Church requires further explanation to understand why we treat this Sunday differently.
The Fourth Sunday of Lent is traditionally called “Laetare Sunday” or “Rejoice Sunday,” with its counterpart in Advent being Gaudete Sunday. (It’s easy to get the names confused, but remembering that Lent and Laetare begin with “L” helps me place the name in the correct season.)
The names of the Sundays come directly from the first words used in the Introit or Entrance Antiphons in the original Latin:
Latin: Lætare Jerusalem: et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum lætitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestræ.
English: Rejoice, Jerusalem, and all who love her. Be joyful, all who were in mourning; exult and be satisfied at her consoling breast.
Latin: Gaudete in Domino semper: iterum dico, gaudete. Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus: Dominus enim prope est. Nihil solliciti sitis: sed in omni oratione et obsecratione cum gratiarum actione petitiones vestræ innotescant apud Deum.
English: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.
Both Gaudete and Laetare are Latin verbs for rejoice, but with slightly different meanings. James-Charles Noonan, Jr. in his The Church Visible separates them in this manner:
Gaudete means expressed or exuberant joy. Laetare means internal joy, a joy of anticipation felt within the solemn season of Lent (p. 209).
I found it interesting that both forms of the words are included for this Sunday’s antiphon, so we can express both forms of joy.
What are the possible reasons for the expression of joy?
- Lent has not always been a season of forty days. In the ancient church of Rome the first Lenten fasts began the Monday three weeks before Easter. Currently that would be Monday of the Fourth Week of Easter. So this day would have been more of a carnevale (farewell to meat) or Mardi Gras before the fasting began. Some of this “carnival” feel is still retained.
- This Sunday is the Second Scrutiny for the Elect or catechumens, with the exorcism focusing on the message of the Gospel of the “Man Born Blind.” This Sunday is connected to the traditional “opening of the ears.” Like a family, we are eager and rejoicing on how much closer the Elect are to enter into the family of Christ.
- The Fourth Sunday of Lent is truly the halfway point until Easter. This is a small preview of Easter. We are impatient in our anticipation and the Church reflects that mood. “Easter is near, rejoice!”
- There is an underlying nature theme, reflecting the spring season of the Northern Hemisphere. We experience a holy spring with the resurrection of Christ, and our natural season of spring reflects this new life bursting forth. The rose used as the vestment color and the tradition of the Golden Rose blessed today points to the connection of spring.
- We are rejoicing with our holy Mother Church, and also have this Sunday to praise our holy Mother Church, also referred to as “Jerusalem.”
A Rose By Any Other Name
Most priests get a little defensive wearing the rose-colored vestments. They often emphasize that they are wearing not pink but rose. Wikipedia defines rose as the color halfway on the RGB color wheel between red and magenta, which makes the color a lot stronger than some of these sickly pale pink or mauve vestments I’ve seen. Regardless what exact version of rose the vestment maker chose to use, the message is that it is a muted color. The softness and not full spectrum of color reflects that this is muted rejoicing. It is “a sort of compromise between the penitential purple and the lighter colors used on feasts of joy” (Rev. John Sullivan, Externals of the Catholic Church, p. 142). We are not fully into Easter, so we are joyful, but not in the full Easter joy.
The rose is also a tie to spring. Again, Rev. Pius Parsch describes so beautifully:
That our Easter festival should fall during the first weeks of spring is certainly no accident. Today, this third Sunday before Easter, is the Church’s springtime festival. All men stand in wonder before the yearly miracle of spring, but we Christians have especial cause for wonderment and awe. For us, nature is the symbol of a fairer springtime, the springtime of grace in the kingdom of our God. Grace has filled our souls, and the death, the night, the cold of winter is passed. Woodlands and meadows are gay with the blossoms of spring; the air is vibrant with the song of the bird; and in this mirror of nature we see the reflection of a higher life still, the life of grace within our souls. Spring follows winter in unfailing succession; so too we are conscious that God has raised our fallen nature from its dreary winter sleep to the springtime of grace. We cannot believe in the eternal wickedness of the human heart. The joy of spring must return, and goodness, love, peace and grace once more blossom in our hearts. Nowhere could we find a fairer image of this transition from original sin to grace. Each year confronts us with the miracle of spring; each year, then, let us look into this mirror and see the greater miracle that God works in our souls: the miracle of grace.
The Church now chooses the loveliest flower of spring, the early rose, and brings it into God’s house and into the liturgy. The rose is the image of the soul in grace. The queen of flowers, it blossoms on its stem of thorns. The soul too is surrounded with thorns, the thorns of a world that God once cursed, the thorns of original sin. Yet in spite of these it is raised up to the glory of grace; to grace that is clothed, red as a rose, in the mantle of love; to grace that blossoms forth from the greenery of hope. And as the rose in full bloom displays its countless petals, so too must the soul expand in its Christian life, emitting the sweet fragrance of its virtues. May the garden of the Church this Easter time become a garden of roses, a garden of souls in full bloom with the flowers of grace. For the rose is the symbol of grace (Seasons of Grace, pp. 167-168).
There was a Roman custom (dating at least from the tenth century) of wearing of flowers to celebrate the victory of spring over winter. This led to the tradition of the pope blessing a natural rose in the eleventh century, and later it became a crafted artificial golden rose, often ornately decorated, which after being blessed would be conferred by the pope to either distinguished persons, churches, shrines or cities. Father Francis Weiser, S.J. explains in further detail:
The meaning and symbolism of the Golden Rose is expressed in the prayer of blessing. It represents Christ in the shining splendor of His majesty, the “flower sprung from the Root of Jesse.” From this ecclesiastical custom Laetare Sunday acquired its German name, Rosensonntag (Sunday of the Rose) (The Easter Book, p. 72).
And this is the translation of the traditional Golden Rose blessing:
O Lord, on this day,
when the Church exults in Thy name and manifests her joy by this sign,
confer upon us through her true and perfect joy and accepting her devotion of today;
do Thou remit sin, strengthen faith, increase piety, protect her in Thy mercy,
drive away all things adverse to her and make her ways safe and prosperous,
so that Thy Church, as the fruit of good works,
may unite in giving forth the perfume of the ointment
of that flower sprung from the Root of Jesse
and which is the mystical flower of the field and lily of the valleys,
And remain happy without end in eternal glory together with all the saints.
James-Charles Noonan, Jr., shares the historical aspect of the Golden Rose:
...The Rose has romantic origins. A society of religious sisters in Tulle, Alsace, was granted independence from the local bishop by Pope Leo IX in 1049. In gratitude for this mark of papal respect and in natural gratitude for independence from local authority, the community sent a delegation to Rome each year to present the pope with a “golden rose.”
...Although the Rose itself has taken many forms of design through the ages, it is always made of solid gold. The original design was quite simple, but later, with the influence of the baroque period, it became quite ornate. During the modern pontificates of Paul VI and his successors, it has once again taken a more simplified design.
In the past, the Golden Rose was encrusted with sapphires, gems usually reserved for members of the Sacred College. Sapphires were chosen as a symbolic reference to the high esteem of the Golden Rose and its recipients. The base of the Rose, regardless of its design, has always had a hidden basin as a repository for balsam and musk. The Rose is bestowed on those recipients who, through the virtue of their lives, exude the fragrance of all virtues, thus the incorporation of symbolic fragrances. The basin also incorporated a reliquary for a relic of the True Cross (The Church Visible, pp. 106-107).
He describes the first time it was awarded, during the First Crusade in 1096, and highlights some who have received this gift of the Roman Pontiff. The rose is still given even in this pontificate, but less as mark of personal stature. Pope Francis has given the rose to two Marian shrines.
So those rose vestments should bring to mind the spring season, muted rejoicing, the Golden Rose, the Root of Jesse, etc., which are all much richer thoughts than the bi-annual jokes about whether the priest is or is not wearing pink.