Laetare Sunday: rose, not pink!

Though this post is not an apologia pro Missa tridentina in the strict sense, it will offer a glimpse as to why understanding the traditions of the Church, especially the ancient liturgy, is an absolute must for Catholics who wish to deepen their faith. Those who reject what our forefathers held as sacred or who act as if the Church “started over” after the Second Vatican Council are like gardeners who want to grow a rosebush by severing it from the roots.

The fourth Sunday of Lent is commonly known as “Laetare Sunday”. On this day, the average churchgoing Catholic may be accustomed to the use of “pink” as a liturgical color. Really, this color is not pink, but rose (rosacea, “rose-like” in Latin); this distinction is important, as we will see. In a vestment of true rosacea, the base color of the fabric is actually a vibrant shade of red, like that of rose petals; however, subtle threads of white or silver are interwoven into the vestment’s embroidered patterns such that from a distance, the hue of red appears much lighter (more like a sunset color than baby pink).

The day takes the name laetare (“rejoice!”) from the introit chant (the oft-ignored “Entrance Antiphon” in modern hymnals) of the Mass in the ancient form, which was thankfully preserved in the Novus Ordo. The text of the introit is taken from Isaiah 66:10 and Psalm 22:1, and runs as follows:

Laetare, Jerusalem, et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam; gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis, ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae. Laetatus sum in his quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus!

Rejoice, Jerusalem, and assemble, all you that love her; rejoice with joy, you who were in sadness, that you may exult be filled from the breasts of your consolation. I rejoiced when they said unto me: let us go to the house of the Lord!

Like it’s analogous counterpart in Advent, Gaudete Sunday (gaudete is another word for “rejoice”; taken from the introit “Rejoice in the Lord always…”), the mood of the day is festive, a sharp contrast with the sobriety of penitential seasons. Yet this joyfulness shared by both these Sundays is not enough to explain why the Church vests herself in rosacea. To understand, we must examine that venerable Lenten tradition called the Roman Stations and delve deep into the history of Christianity.

The Roman Stations are of ancient usage: each “station” is one of Rome’s oldest churches. When Christianity became legal after three centuries of persecution, the Church went on the offensive to counteract the innumerable pagan feasts, often celebrated by large public processions. Christians in Rome developed rival processions to holy sites across the City while singing litanies, and after arriving at a particular “station”, the Pope or one of the senior Cardinals would celebrate Mass at that church. Eventually, the entire season of Lent became one penitential procession throughout the City, and each day was assigned a station. If one reads older missals or breviaries, one can find the Italian name of the Roman Station (i.e., Santa Maria in Trastevere, San Lorenzo in panisperna, San Pietro ad vincula, etc.) under the heading for each day of Lent. In recent years, this practice has been revived, and one of Rome’s auxiliary bishops will lead the stational procession and liturgy of the day.

The Roman Station for Laetare Sunday is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme. This basilica is famous for housing relics of the Passion, including one beam of the Cross (hence the name “Holy Cross”), the lance of Longinus, thorns laid on Christ’s head, nails of the crucifixion, and the Title (“Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews”). Before being converted into a church, it was a villa (the Sessorian Palace) owned by Saint Helena (Constantine’s mother), who made a famous voyage to the Holy Land to find the instruments of the Passion. When she learned that a temple to Venus had been erected on Calvary to prevent Christian devotion, she ordered it demolished, and behold, under the rubble was found the holy relics. In addition to these, she brought back to Rome (among other things) a big heap of soil from Calvary. She transformed the Sessorian Palace into a shrine for the relics, and laid the soil of Jerusalem under the mosaic floor (hence the appellation in Gerusalemme). To this day, one can venerate these most sacred relics in this church.

When the Papacy grew in prestige, it became custom for Popes, at their discretion, to send a Golden Rose to a Catholic noble in recognition of their patronage and service to the Church. In recent years, Popes have awarded it to persons as well as to papal basilicas of great importance. Historical recipients include Isabella I of Castille (1493), Catherine de’ Medici (1548), the Cathedral of Siena (1658), the Sanctuary of Our Lady at Fatima (1965), and the Shrine of the Immaculate Conception in Washington DC (2008).  Fashioned of pure gold and often decorated with precious jewels, each Golden Rose was in fact a reliquary containing pieces of the True Cross. The rose was chosen because of its mystical symbolism: Christ is the “flower of the field and the lily of the valleys” (Song of Songs 2:1), while in Isaiah 11:1, the prophecy reads: “There shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root.” The rose itself, though beautiful, still has its thorns. In its image is encapsulated the confluence of pain and splendor, of terror and beauty; like little strands of silver woven into a field of blood-red fabric, the rose symbolizes the latent joy of Christ’s triumph even in the midst of his suffering. Because of this connection to the Passion, the Popes blessed the Golden Rose on Laetare Sunday– whose station is Santa Croce in Gerusalemme.  

Laetare Sunday became so associated with the blessing of the Golden Rose that the Popes adopted rose-colored vestments as part of the day’s celebration; because this day hosted such a special event, the bright rosacea matched the festive character demanded by the introit text and the blessing of the Rose. Even the Gospel for the day in the old missal– the multiplication of loaves and fishes– carries the theme of happy abundance:. Laetare Sunday became a brief “break” from Lenten austerity, and in time, Gaudete Sunday in Advent analogously adopted this parallel function until it too received the privilege of rosacea. From Rome, this practice spread to the Western Church at large.

 All these seemingly varied facts– the Golden Rose, the Roman Stations, the relics of the Passion, St. Helena, Laetare Sunday– all these are represented in the use of rosacea vestments. These are the roots which inform the details of a particular liturgical celebration; just as there was a continuous human genealogy from Jesse to Christ, so too must we never lose sight of the profound and beautiful origins of our liturgies– for through these little details, we unite ourselves with the faithful of ages past and pray as they did.

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