The Fourth Sunday of Lent is known by the first word of the Introit, the first chant of Mass, “Laetare … Rejoice”! This is one of two days in the year when we use rose (rosacea) coloured vestments. We momentarily relax the penitential character of our Lenten Sundays.
The tradition of rosacea vestments grows from the history of the Roman Stations. Sunday’s Station in Rome is the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where the Emperor Constantine’s mother St Helena placed relics of the Cross and Passion brought from the Holy Land. Here, on this day, popes blessed roses made of gold to be sent to distinguished sons and daughters of Holy Mother Church. Therefore Laetare was also nicknamed Rose Sunday. From this custom, rose-coloured vestments developed for this Sunday and then spilled over to the corresponding Gaudete Sunday in Advent.
In the Extraordinary Form of Holy Mass the prayers and antiphons focus on Jerusalem and on joy. Psalm 121 (122), one of the “gradual canticles”, songs of pilgrimage to Jerusalem, dominates the formulary: “I rejoiced (laetatus sum) at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord.”
Speaking of pilgrimage, place before your mind’s eye the image of ancient catechumens preparing for baptism at the Vigil of Easter. As we persevere during Lent, journey with them by intention. By now, you have experienced the Scrutinies, the toughest of which were last week. You were exorcised last Sunday at the Basilica of St Lawrence. You now draw close to a safe haven, the new Jerusalem, symbolically present in today’s Station, the Basilica of the Holy Cross. Up the hill, you see the Lateran Basilica with its Baptistery.
For you ancient catechumens, serious penance and fasting began on Monday of the third week before Easter. Hence, Laetare was the last day before the period of stricter discipline. It was not until centuries later that Lent was lengthened to 40 days, making the day before Ash Wednesday into “Fat Tuesday”, when people used up all meat and fats before Lent. Laetare Sunday is therefore a refreshment stop for you on your pilgrimage toward Easter; think of water stations along the route of a marathon. As you gaze at the rose vestments this Sunday, treasure with the spirit of a catechumen the joy of your approaching Easter and the heavenly Jerusalem for which God made you.