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Laetare Sunday: It Always Sneaks Up On Me

 Ten minutes ago I finished playing a dirge-of-an-entrance-hymn perfectly suited for Lent: Forty Days and Forty Nights. I played the organ extra slow just to make sure no one would enjoy it. Looking at their faces I’m thinking I succeeded. But as I start to listen to the prayers at Mass and hear the readings I become concerned. By the time Father starts his Pollyanna homily about “joy” I know there’s a problem. It happened to me last year and now it’s happened again. Today is Laetare Sunday. That Sunday of joy sandwiched into the middle of forty days of penance.

Maybe it sneaks up on me every year because this Sunday is known by a variety of names. The Latin word Laetare refers to the opening phrase used in the Introit, Laetare Jerusalem, which means “O be joyful, Jerusalem.” The purpose of this Sunday is to give hope to all those crazed chocolate lovers who haven’t had a Hershey’s bar in three weeks. We’re halfway through the season, there’s still hope! In traditional parishes, this would be the week where organ playing is allowed and flowers can adorn the altar. In some parishes though it probably just means a chorus of snickering as everyone notices that the pastor is wearing pink.

The reason for these special vestments (rose, not pink) is partly to set the joyful Sunday apart from the rest of Lent. It’s similar to Gaudate Sunday in Advent when you light the pink (yes, pink, not rose) candle. The other part explaining the rose vestments stretches back nearly a thousand years to Falcone of the Court of Angers. We [Google] don’t know what he did but Pope Urban II saw fit to honor him with a rose as a sign of Falcone’s apparent friendship to and support of the Chair of St. Peter. For hundreds of years, friends of Rome would receive recognition of their fealty in the sign of a rose. This tradition was ceremonialized during the Avignon papacy as it became common for the pope to bless an artisan-made golden rose on Laetare Sunday and award it to a worthy beneficiary in Santa Croce in Gerusalemme, one of the Seven Churches of Rome. The tradition of the Golden Rose exists today, but it has not been awarded to a person since Pius XII honored Charlotte, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg with it in 1956. Today it is only given to great shrines. The Shrine of Our Lady of Knock has one and so does the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception.

Laetare Sunday also is sometimes referred to as the Sunday of the Five Loaves. In the Pre Vatican II 1962 Missal, the passage about the miracle of sharing was read, only back then it was still the miracle of multiplication. Now it’s irrelevant because in our three-cycle liturgical system we no longer read about the Five Loaves on Laetare Sunday. 2010 being Cycle C we hear the story of the prodigal son (or the prodigal father, as I once heard it explained). Cycle B calls for the reading of the WWF verse, John 3:16. Next year, as the cycles reset we’ll hear a sermon on the curing of the blind man from John 9.

In Europe Laetare Sunday is similar to Mother’s Day and so it is known as Mothering Sunday. The Epistle from Galatians calls Jerusalem the mother of us all and this Sunday all mothers, the Blessed Virgin Mary and especially “mother church” are honored. People frequently try to attend Mass at the nearest cathedral, their mother church. It is also the only Sunday in some European parishes when people can get married during Lent.

Lastly, this mid-Lenten Sunday has been known as Refreshment Sunday. For people who have been maintaining the strict fast, this is a day when you can ease up slightly, but there are no donuts downstairs today so it isn’t going to happen right after Mass. I’m fairly certain that this term is no longer used anymore because encouraging you to ease up on your Xbox fast is not a prime directive within the Church. They’re fairly certain you’ll find a way to survive. But the word is still out on whether or not my congregation will survive this unexpected Sunday of joy wrapped in a mantle of suffering. I still have three more songs to play.

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