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. It is a day, roughly halfway through Lent, on which the Lenten fast is relaxed a bit. 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, the end of enmity, and the establishment of forgiveness, 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 –signifying 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 favor and approbation. 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. For example, during his visit to the United States a couple of 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.
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.
As with many names for masses, “Laetare” Sunday comes from the first word uttered by the priest (or the choir) at this mass – the first word of the introit hymn for the mass of this day: “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 Sunday as a day, roughly 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 privelege 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 meaning of this day, for us as individuals, will be in proportion to our having kept Lent faithfully. Which is to say, taking refreshment on this day will only make any sense if we have foregone refreshment through the rest of Lent. 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 – the joy of it, the victory of it, the glory of it – it is 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.
Jesus says in today’s Gospel:
this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and men loved darkness rather than light, because their deeds were evil. For 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. (John 3.19-21)
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 the celebrant proclaims the resurrection of Christ. 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. One ancient saint (Cassian’s Conferences Book 2, Chapter 11) said that our secret sins are like serpents hiding under rocks and in holes. If you expose them to the light, they slither away and are gone. 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.
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.
“…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.