In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Today is Rose Sunday, or Mothering Sunday, or Laetare Sunday, or Refreshment Sunday. This is always the fourth Sunday in Lent, a little over halfway between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Traditionally on this day, the rose color is used for the vestments at mass, and flowers and organ music (otherwise absent from the church during Lent) are used. All of this is meant to represent and emphasize not only a “breather” in the 40 days of Lenten austerity, but also the fact that the penance of Jesus’ disciples is supposed to be joyful, in view of the end toward which it should be directed, namely communion with one another and with God, and the establishment of peace and justice.
The name for Rose Sunday comes from the aforementioned rose-colored vestments and altar hangings that are traditionally used on this day – which signify hope and joy. But beyond that, and the reason in turn for the rose-colored vestments, is because on this day the pope blesses golden roses which, historically, he sent to Catholic kings and queens as a sign of his favor. These days, the golden rose is still blessed by the pope, but now, with the deficit of kings and queens in the world, the roses are generally sent to churches dedicated to Our Lady. During his visit to the United States a few years ago, Pope Benedict gave a golden rose to the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception, in Washington DC, and in 2010 he gave one to Sanctuary of Our Lady of Fatima, in Portugal. Last year, Pope Francis sent a golden rose to the Basilica of Our Lady of Guadeloupe in Mexico City.
This Sunday is also sometimes called “Mothering Sunday” – especially in England and Ireland – and it serves in such places as Mother’s Day. The day was associated with mothers because today’s epistle reading used to be from Galatians 4, where Paul speaks of the sons of Abraham in terms of their respective mothers, Hagar and Sarah, and of the allegory of those two mothers and their sons – one the son of slavery, the other the son of freedom. And according to the internet – the fountain of all contemporary wisdom – during the Middle Ages, Christians would return on this day to their “mother” church, often the cathedral church of their diocese, for mass. Hence “mothering Sunday.”
This day is also called “Laetare Sunday.” “Laetare” being the first word uttered by the priest (or the choir) at this mass – the first word of the introit of the mass: “Laetare Jerusalem,” which translated runs: “Rejoice, O Jerusalem, and come together, all ye that love her; rejoice for joy, all ye that have mourned: that ye may be glad, and be satisfied with the breasts of your consolation. I was glad when they said unto me: We will go into the house of the Lord.”
Drawing all of these themes together, we might summarize the meaning of this day, a little more than halfway through Lent, on which we may relax our discipline a bit, take a little refreshment, remembering the end of all our striving, by God’s grace – that we are oriented toward the joy of our heavenly home, and that the privilege of Lent comes to us indeed in virtue of our being sons of freedom, as St. Paul said, “Brethren, we are not children of the slave, but of the free woman,” (Galatians 4). One writer has said:
The Church on this Sunday bids her children who have been so far engaged in prayer, fasting and other penitential works, as also in serious meditation upon the malice of sin and the terrible punishment exacted on account of it, to look up and beyond Calvary and see in the first rays of the Easter sun, the risen Christ, Who brings them redemption, and “Rejoice”. The golden flower and its shining splendour show forth Christ and His Kingly Majesty, Who is heralded by the prophet as “the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys”; its fragrance shows the sweet odour of Christ which should be widely diffused by His faithful followers (Pope Leo XIII, Acta, vol. VI, 104); and the thorns and red tint tell of His Passion according to Isaiah 63:2: “Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?” (from the Catholic Encyclopedia)
In any event, the significance of this day, for us as individuals, will be in proportion to our having kept Lent faithfully. Which is to say, taking a little refreshment today only makes sense if we have to some extent foregone refreshment in Lent hitherto – if we have kept a Lenten rule. But if, for us, Lent is really no different from the rest of the year, except that there is more purple at church, then the significance of this day will be lost as well. What Jesus said applies in this case: “The measure you give will be the measure you get back,” (Luke 6.38). The meaning of the feasts we keep is yoked to the significance of the fasts we keep, and vice versa. And the metaphysical foundation of this fact is the resurrection of Jesus, towards which we are ineluctably marching – the joy of it, the victory of it, the glory of it – its all because, as the angel at the empty tomb told his disciples, “…you seek Jesus WHO WAS CRUCIFIED. He is not here,” (Matthew 28.5-6). The one who rises in triumph is Jesus-Who-Was-Crucified; Jesus, the one who suffered; Jesus, the one everybody thought had been shamefully executed; the one everybody thought was dead. Rose Sunday is therefore in a sense a little foretaste of Easter.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus heals a man who had been born blind. And he says: “For judgment I came into this world, that those who do not see may see, and that those who see may become blind,” (John 9.39).
I am reminded of the great weight placed on the symbolism of darkness and light at the Easter Vigil. About halfway through that service, all of the church’s lights and candles are lit, and suddenly, all of us who had been sitting in darkness can see, and the celebrant proclaims Jesus’ resurrection. That is the light toward which time is carrying us, whether we like it or not. We are marching toward the light – the light that has come into the world, the light that will disclose the character of our deeds.
One of the best ways to prepare with joy for the light of the paschal feast is to make your confession. When we make our confession, we drag our evil deeds and desires into the light of God’s judgment, and often very much to our surprise, we find in that light not condemnation, but mercy – although why the discovery that God is merciful should surprise us is beyond me. But it does. Pretty much every time I make my confession, this sensation – the surprising sensation of God’s mercy – is palpable.
I am not saying that you must make your confession or you will go to hell. What I am saying is that God himself has entrusted this ministry to his Church so that we can be delivered from the power of the deeds and desires that we have kept hidden in our hearts. I mentioned to those of you who were here on Friday evening how one of the great fathers of the desert, St. Moses the Black (Cassian’s Conferences Book 2, Chapter 11), said that our secret sins are like serpents hiding under rocks and in holes. If you root them out and expose them to the light, they slither away, never to return. This is not a theological or dogmatic reason for making your confession; it’s a psychological one. Our sins lose their power over us when we name them in the presence of another. “After this exposure of him,” says St. Moses the Black, “that evil spirit will no longer be able to vex you, nor will that foul serpent henceforth make his lurking place in you, as he has been dragged out into light from the darkness by your life-giving confession.”
We will be refreshed by this Refreshment Sunday, and especially by the joy of Easter, which is swiftly approaching, if we humble ourselves in the interim, and use what remains of Lent for our spiritual profit, walking in the way of humility and penance.
Jesus said, “…Every one who does evil hates the light, and does not come to the light, lest his deeds should be exposed. But he who does what is true comes to the light, that it may be clearly seen that his deeds have been wrought in God.”
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.