2003-03-30 The Fourth Sunday in Lent is called “Laetare Sunday...”
March 30, 2003
The Fourth Sunday in Lent is called “Laetare Sunday” from the Introit “Laetare Jerusalem” — “Rejoice Jerusalem.” It provides a respite in the penitential season. Flowers may be placed in the sanctuary and purple vestments may be replaced with rose. Pope Leo IX spoke of what was already an “ancient institution” in 1051: Tthe Pope would return from the Laetare Mass carrying a golden rose in his right hand, representing Christ, “the flower sprung from the root of Jesse.” Over the centuries this became a cluster of roses wrought of pure gold and set with jewels and conferred on some city, church, or prominent individual, as a sign of esteem.
With a practical voice, Pope Innocent III preached in a sermon in 1216: “On this Sunday, which marks the middle of Lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided, so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.”
Jerusalem is invoked on this day as the “mother” of Christians, just as one’s nation may be called the mother country in the civil order. Laetare Sunday thus figures as a kind of “Mother’s Day,” ages older than our national Mother’s Day which started in 1914. In late mediaeval England a day off was given to young people who worked away from home, to visit their “mother church” where they had been baptized. So Laetare Sunday in springtime came to be called Mothering Sunday, and the saying was coined, “He who goes a-mothering finds violets in the lane.” This is a good season to refresh the custom of speaking of “Holy Mother Church” and calling the Catholic Church “she” instead of “it.”
These gracious customs become poignant in time of war. Soldiers risking their lives for their mother country are especially mindful of their own mothers, and their mothers of them. Many war songs have been about that. On this day we commend our troops and their mothers to our holy Mother Mary. And we remember that the earthly Jerusalem, tense and endangered, is an earthly promise of the Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem, which St. John saw in his apocaplyptic vision (Rev. 21:2). Wars are echoes of the soul’s spiritual warfare which never ceases in our earthly lives. The joyful promise of the Heavenly City is the theme of great hymns like “Jerusalem the Golden” of Bernard of Cluny which we sing today, and a 900-year-old hymn of Abelard resonates in the midst of a modern war on the soil of Iraq: “Now, in the meanwhile, with hearts raised on high/ We for that country must yearn and must sigh/ Seeking Jerusalem, dear native land/ Through our long exile on Babylon’s strand.”
Fr. George W. Rutler