This coming Sunday is Laetare Sunday, which is the popular name for the Fourth Sunday in Lent. Its name comes from the first word of the introit (“entrance antiphon”) for the Mass, taken from Isaiah 66:10-11: “Laetare Jerusalem,” which means “Rejoice, Jerusalem.”
Because the midpoint of Lent is the Thursday of the third week of Lent (today!), Laetare Sunday has traditionally been viewed as a day of celebration, on which the austerity of Lent is slightly relaxed, because today we’re given a glimpse of the joy of Easter. The passage from Isaiah continues, “Exult, exult with her, all you who were mourning over her.” It is a day of joy and exultation!
On Laetare Sunday, therefore, the purple vestments and altar cloths of Lent are set aside, and rose ones are used instead. Flowers, which are normally forbidden during Lent, may be placed on the altar. Traditionally, the organ is not played during Lent, except on Laetare Sunday.
The custom of rose vestments is tied to the so-called “station churches” in Rome. The station for Laetare Sunday is the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem, where the relics of Cross and Passion brought from the Holy Land by St. Helena, mother of the Emperor Constantine, were deposited. On this day, the popes customarily blessed roses made of gold, which were sent to Catholic royalty. The biblical reference is Christ as the “flower” sprung forth from the root of Jesse (Is. 11:1). Thus, the day was also called Dominica de Rosa, or “Rose Sunday.” From there the idea of rose-colored vestments developed. This Roman custom eventually spread to the whole world.
Laetare Sunday has a counterpart in Advent: Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, when purple vestments are also exchanged for rose ones. The point of both days is to encourage us as we progress toward the end of each respective penitential season. For those who get the two days confused, remember that “Lent” and “Laetare” both begin with “L.”