Rejoice, Jerusalem: Laetare Sunday is Catholicism’s Best-Kept Little Secret

‘Rejoice with Jerusalem; be glad for her, all you that love this city! Rejoice with her now, all you that have mourned for her! You will enjoy her prosperity, like a child at its mother’s breast.’ (Isaiah 66:10-11)

Rose Chasuble
Rose Chasuble (photo: Altera Levatur / Wikimedia Commons / CC BY-SA 4.0)

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

Most Catholics knows about the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday — the day in which our excitement for the coming of the Lord is heightened because the Church assures us that it will soon be upon us.

Less known is Laetare Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent.

Both days refer to happiness. In fact, the word laetare means “rejoice” in Latin. Gaudete means “joyful.” The connection is obvious as they are both days of joyous anticipation in the midst of what might seem like darkness. In fact, Easter is exactly 21 days from Laetare Sunday.

I’ve given up meat this Lent. A few years ago, I gave up chocolate. My family still refers to that as my annus horribilis (Latin: “the miserable year”) due to the untold, galactic-scale human suffering I unintentionally afflicted upon them due to the absence of chocolate in my life — ora pro nobis. The upside to my self-imposed suffering is that I’m pretty sure I’ve shaved off about 50 years of Purgatory due my sacrifice.

Fortunately or unfortunately, my family was able to take away about 1,000 years — give or take a decade — off any future stint in Purgatory for putting up with me and my chocolate-free misery.

And, you’re welcome.

The Church is so committed to both Advent’s Gaudete Sunday and to Lent’s Laetare Sunday, and seeks to impress and inspire joyful hope in the faithful during both fasting, vigilant periods, that she direct our priests to wear rose-colored vestments and festoon our churches accordingly.

It’s not easy to do, but only a real man can pull off pink.

Again, you’re welcome.

In both Lent and Advent, the color is a glimpse of the joy that awaits us at Christ’s coming — both in his birth and in his re-birth (i.e., Resurrection). Laetare Sunday signifies a temporary abeyance to our self-imposed penitential observations. There was a time when marriages during Lent could only be celebrated on this one day.

Laetare Sunday is meant as a joyous day despite the darkness of Lent. In fact, the French Canadian tradition known as Mi-Carême(i.e., Mid-Lent,) was a day Catholics would dress up in costumes and go from house-to-house singing and dancing for treats like a cross between Halloween and Christmas.

Traditionally, Catholics celebrated Laetare Sunday by visiting the church in which they were baptized, from which sprang the alternative moniker, “Mothering Sunday.” The day was also called “Five Loaves Sunday,” referring to the multiplication of the fish and loaves, because the Gospel reading had been reserved for this date prior to the use of contemporary lectionaries. Interestingly, Notre Dame University announces the recipient of its Laetare Medal on this day. Hopefully, I won’t be passed over yet again this year.

Historically, the Church had celebrated this day by handing out blessed golden roses to Catholic monarchs around the world, hence the name, Dominica de Rosa. Not coincidently, the word rosa means “pink” in Italian. Liturgically, rose describes a lighter shade of the color violet, thus signifying a relaxation of the Lenten rules.

The entrance antiphon this Sunday is a reference to Isaiah 66:10-11:

Rejoice with Jerusalem; be glad for her, all you [who] love this city! Rejoice with her now, all you [who] have mourned for her! You will enjoy her prosperity, like a child at its mother’s breast.

The word laetare is taken from the incipit for the Gregorian chant introit for the Latin Mass used on this day.

Laetare Sunday is meant to direct Catholics to “keep your eyes on the prize” in anticipation of Easter. We don’t suffer the deprivations of not eating chocolate just for some masochistic reason. Instead, our suffering unites us with Christ and, as Paul points out:

And now I am happy about my sufferings for you, for by means of my physical sufferings I am helping to complete what still remains of Christ’s sufferings on behalf of his body, the church. And I have been made a servant of the church by God, who gave me this task to perform for your good. It is the task of fully proclaiming his message, which is the secret he hid through all past ages from all human beings but has now revealed to his people. (Colossians 1:24-26)

Once Easter arrives after an arduous Passion Week, we celebrate Christ’s Resurrection for 50 days. We fast and then we feast. If not, we lose the meaning of both. As Scriptures teach us, I wait eagerly for the Lord’s help, and in his word I trust (Psalm 130:5).

Celebrate Laetare Sunday keeping in mind Christ’s Resurrection, which the Jewish Patriarchs anticipated and hoped for. For us, it is at last in sight, for we are an Easter people!