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  • Writer's pictureFr. Scott Haynes

Rose Sunday in Lent

Fr. Scott A. Haynes

The Fourth Sunday of Lent is nicknamed Laetare Sunday. Traditionally, some of the Sundays of the year have a nickname. Usually when you give a friend a nickname it is because you want to show affection toward him. And the Church is no different. When she has great love for a particular Sunday or feast, she gives it a nickname too. Oftentimes the nickname comes from the Introit that the choir sings at the beginning of Mass. For example, the Sunday after Easter is called Quasimodo Sunday, while the Third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday, because these are the first words of the Introits for those days.

Today we come to the Sunday, which is after the mid-point of Lent, when Holy Mother Church would have us take a break from our penances and be encouraged by the fact that Easter is approaching. Understand that in the very earliest centuries of the Roman Church Lent did not begin with Ash Wednesday. Just as we have Mardi Gras before Ash Wednesday the very early Church had Laetare Sunday before starting its season of penance. Over time Lent organically developed into the present length of 40 days.

Today, instead of wearing the penitential violet vestments of Lent, the priest traditionally wears rose-colored vestments. The organ bursts forth in joyous praise, and flowers may be placed on the altar. All of our senses are filled with joy as the Paschal Victory of Jesus Christ approaches.

As children of God, made in His image and likeness, we have been created to desire what is beautiful, namely God. With Laetare Sunday we are reminded to meditate upon this. In the words of the old Baltimore Catechism, we are made “to know, love and serve God in this life, and to be happy with Him in the next.”

Of course, no one is attracted to what is ugly. By sinning, we choose a false good. We choose something that looks good but which is actually spiritually ugly or deformed. The remedy for this human weakness comes in the Sacraments that Christ has given his Church. And as the spiritual beauty of Sacraments pierces our hearts, we are gradually transformed so that we can better discern what is truly beautiful.

If I take off my glasses, I have poor vision for reading, for driving, even for walking. But if I have poor spiritual vision, I will not be able to see what is truly good and beautiful, and I can be fooled into choosing a false good, namely sin. Just as a person with poor eyesight needs to visit the ophthalmologist, a person with poor spiritual vision needs to visit the priest.

If our eyes are not healthy the image before us is distorted and false, but when our vision is corrected we can see with clarity. So, in the spiritual life, sin distorts our vision and the line between right and wrong seems fuzzy. But the ugliness and darkness of sin is revealed if we step into the light of Christ. In confession Christ’s light dispels our darkness. In that Sacrament of Mercy Christ restores our beauty, our spiritual beauty. He corrects our spiritual vision and the line between good and evil becomes clear.

Today, as you see, the priest wears rose vestments. There is both an historical reason for this and a mystical reason. In the history of the Church, on Laetare Sunday, the Pope wears rose vestments and blesses a Golden Rose at the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Rome. Why does the Pope traditionally have Mass at the Basilica of the Holy Cross today? Why not at St. Peter’s Basilica or some other church? To answer this we have to go way back in history to the time of the Emperor Constantine.

St. Helena, mother of Constantine lived in Rome. Specifically she lived on one of the Seven Hills of Rome, namely the Coelian Hill in a palace known as the house of Sessions. She transformed that palace in order to house the relics of the true Cross. Later this was transformed into a sanctuary that became the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem. Hence the Introit, Communion and Tract speak of going up to Jerusalem, which St. Paul in today’s Epistle compares to Mount Sinai.

Understand that in order to meet with God, one must elevate oneself, detach oneself from earthly things. It was at the peak of Mount Sinai that Moses received the Law. It was from the top of a mountain that our Lord preached the Beatitudes. From Mount Tabor he manifested His Glory to His disciples on the day of the Transfiguration. And on Mount Calvary he made the supreme Sacrifice of His life for our salvation.

This symbolism is seen at the beginning of every Mass when the priest recites the prayers at the foot of the altar. He says Psalm 42,
Emitte lucem tuam, et veritatem tuam: ipsa me deduxerunt, et adduxerunt in montem sanctum tuum, et in tabernacula tua. (“Send forth Thy light and Thy truth: they have conducted me and brought me unto Thy holy hill, and into Thy tabernacles”).
This is why the Pope historically goes up the Coelian Hill to this great Basilica, where the relics of the True Cross are housed. This is also why the priest in every Mass recites the words of Psalm 42 before he ascends the altar steps to enter the Holy of Holies.

There is yet more to contemplate on this Laetare Sunday, this Rose Sunday. When we look at the rose, we see a gorgeous blossom, full of life and beauty, but when we look at the stem we see thorns. This offers us a lesson today. To ascend to the heights of spiritual beauty we must contend with the thorns of sin and temptation. Christ embraced his crown of thorns, so must we. As we speak of the Golden Rose and the Heavenly Jerusalem, we must also speak of Mary, who prefigures in her very person the spotless beauty and sanctity of the Holy City of Jerusalem. In the Litany of Loreto, the Church invokes the Blessed Virgin Mary under the title of “Mystical Rose,” one of her many royal titles.

Those who have seen her, like St. Bernadette and St. Catherine Laboure, have not been able to find the words to describe her beauty. St. Catherine said that the happiest moment of her life was when she knelt before the Blessed Virgin in the chapel of the Daughters of Charity in Paris, and gazed into her eyes. Our Lady was adorned with roses at La Salette and Lourdes, as she is also on the beautiful “Rosa Mystica” statue. The beauty of Mary draws our minds to the contemplation of Heavenly things.

God’s beauty, which is present in his creation, is only a pale reflection of the beauty of God Himself. Created things possess a degree of beauty, some more, some less, whereas God Himself is infinite Beauty. St. Augustine, lamenting the years that he spent in sin, exclaims, “Late have I loved Thee, Beauty ever ancient, ever new, late have I loved Thee” (Bk.10:27).

During this life we spend too much time pursuing worldly beauty. But in heaven we will forever behold the Infinite Beauty, the vision of God face to face. On Laetare Sunday the Church asks us to consider the beauty of the rose as the symbol of grace. But far above this is the beauty of the Blessed Virgin Mary—the Mystical Rose who is the antithesis of all that is ugly: sin. St. Augustine longed for this incomparable beauty after he had exhausted the fleeting beauty of the world. So, too, we need to turn to this immaculate Virgin, she who is the living Ark and Tabernacle of the New Covenant, to she who is the Cause of our joy.

Nothing in Catholicism is more precious than the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass so beautifully preserved in this Mass. It is as a perfect rose. Our Via Crucis – our way of the Cross – continues this week, but we take this day to rejoice, to rest and to refresh. This week as you encounter the thorns of penance, as you complete these last weeks of Lent, remember that as the thorn gives way to the rose, Christ’s death leads to the glory of Easter! In the Mass today we have made a procession toward the altar. And Our Lady has lead us here to this holy mountain, to the New Jerusalem, to find on the altar the Golden Rose, the fruit of her womb, Jesus Christ present in the Holy Eucharist.


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