Has your pilgrimage through Lent started to feel like a slog? We make our resolutions with zeal on Ash Wednesday, but after a few weeks of slipping here and there in our fasting, it’s easy to become discouraged. We start to focus on ourselves and our failure to deny ourselves for Jesus’s sake, and are even tempted to resign ourselves to never changing. If you feel this way, then Laetare Sunday is for you. This Sunday, the liturgy turns away from the repeated calls to repentance we’ve been hearing and focuses more directly on what Christ does for us.
The sign of this change is the reappearance of the color rose in our sanctuaries. (Isn’t it nice to have a reprieve from violet?) The other Sunday when rose is used, Gaudete Sunday, comes in Advent. It’s hard to remember which one is which (alliteration can help: Laetare is in Lent), but their meanings are easier. Both laetare and gaudete are imperatives in Latin, telling us that the time has come to rejoice. The words are drawn from the first text used in the Mass, the Entrance Antiphon. In addition to the color rose, flowers and instrumental music are also permitted to give a more festive air. What’s the reason for rejoicing? In both seasons, the rose-colored Sunday is the middle Sunday, and reaching it means Christmas and Easter are getting close. Fasting and penance are difficult, and the Church knows that we need encouragement to keep going.
The Gospel readings give us the best insight into the encouragement of Laetare Sunday. In last Sunday’s Gospel from Luke 13, Jesus told a parable about a gardener who tends an unproductive tree. This sort of help is encouraging, but the threat that the tree will be cut down after one more year remains. The parable is about using the time that we have to repent! In contrast, this Sunday we hear the parable of the prodigal son, one of the most memorable illustrations of God’s mercy for us. The healing of the man born blind, from John 9, is always an option on Laetare Sunday as well. In both stories, we see a shift of focus from our repentance to God’s action.
If we think of our Lenten penance like the prodigal son’s return journey, then Laetare Sunday captures the moment when the father, who has been waiting and watching, sees his son: “While he was still a long way off, his father caught sight of him, and was filled with compassion. He ran to his son, embraced him and kissed him” (Lk 15:20). We may have stumbled along the way, missed one commitment, or given up on another completely. But this is not the full picture. If we’re on the road at all, that is a gift from the Father, whom we know is running to us. Do we have the desire to return to the Father, to run to Him as He runs to us? If so, God’s grace will always be available to us. It can carry us the rest of the way, even if we’ve stumbled or taken a pit stop.
So this Sunday, rejoice! Our Lord’s great victory over sin and death is close at hand.
Image: Fr. Lawrence Lew, O.P., Laetare!