The Golden Rose
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”).