The Fourth Sunday of Lent (which falls this year on March 6) is traditionally called Laetare Sunday. Its liturgical color is pink, or more correctly, rose — so you likely be seeing pink vestments. But did you also know this Sunday is also historically a time to think of mothers and of cake?
Laetare is a Latin word used to indicate “rejoicing.” We have two special “rejoicing” Sundays in the church year, each of which falls near the middle of our seasons of penance and preparation. In Advent, we have Gaudete Sunday; in Lent, it’s Laetare Sunday.
While both “gaudete” and “laetare” come from Latin words for rejoicing, there is a slight difference between the two Sundays and the two types of rejoicing. “Gaudete” more correctly refers to “enjoyment.” “Laetare” means to “be light-hearted.” Since Advent is a time to prepare for the coming of Christ, Advent is a little more focused on preparation and its penitential aspect moves along the lines of preparation and a joyful expectancy.
Liturgically, the joy expressed on Laetare Sunday focuses on the joy over the salvation gained for us by the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection. Ultimately, this means victory over death. However, Lent’s focus also includes suffering.
As we rejoice on Lent’s fourth Sunday, Laetare Sunday, at the coming glory of Easter, we cannot forget the price of that glory. So Lent’s “rejoicing Sunday” offers us a moment to let our hearts be lightened, and strengthened, before we approach the next weeks of what some still call Passiontide and then Holy Week.
By now, we have reached the middle of Lent. Truthfully, Lent’s midpoint was March 3. However, as “The Catholic Encyclopedia” notes, “Strictly speaking, the Thursday before Laetare Sunday is the middle day of Lent, … (but) the special signs of joy permitted on this day, intended to encourage the faithful in their course through the season of penance, were transferred to the Sunday following.”
The message throughout Lent is salvation. And we are to rejoice in it, even as we mark the sorrows of Passiontide. It should be for us as the psalm response for this Laetare Sunday sings: “Taste and see the goodness of the Lord.”
One of the ways to rejoice this Sunday is by using the color rose, a color of joy. One way to taste the goodness of this Sunday is an older and somewhat forgotten tradition for Laetare Sunday: the simnel cake.
This flour cake was very common in British countries from the Middle Ages until about World War I. It even gave another name to the fourth Sunday of Lent: Simnel Sunday. The BBC describes the cake as “a fruit cake with two layers of almond paste, one on top and one in the middle. The cake is decorated with 11 balls of marzipan icing on top representing the 11 disciples. (Judas is not included.) Traditionally, sugar violets would also be added. Today, sugar flowers are often used and the simnel cake is more often an Easter cake.”
The tradition of the simnel (from a Latin word meaning “finely ground flour”) cake started because this Sunday was also called “Mothering Sunday.” There are two reasons for this. First, in the Middle Ages, people would return to their main parish church, or the local abbey church, from the outlying parishes on this Sunday. With them, they brought offerings of items — for the mother church — to be used for Easter celebrations by the priests and the monks.
Before long, this also became the day when apprentices and indentured servants were allowed a day off to visit their mothers. We forget that many of these servants were children, since service often started at the age of 10. And, since servants were not allowed to go home on holidays because they had to serve at the feasts at their masters’ great houses, many of them would not be able to see their mothers on Easter Sunday.
On their way home on Mothering Sunday, many of these children would pick wildflowers that were just starting to bloom along the roadsides. Besides flowers, they would try to bring sweets to their mothers.
Before long, it became a tradition for daughters of the family to bake a cake for Mom, decorating it with flowers. Since the cake was not eaten until Easter — sweets were not allowed during Lent — these simnel cakes needed to be moist enough to last through the rest of Lent. It was considered a good test of a young girl’s skills, and her potential as a good housekeeper and wife, if her cake was still fresh and moist on Easter Sunday.
So when you hear this weekend the story of the Prodigal Son and how his father rejoiced when he returned home, think about those daughters returning home to their mothers, with simnel cakes and flowers in hand.
Sources: bbc.co.uk; “The Catholic Encyclopedia”; catholicculture.org; traveltime-britain.com; “Dictionary of the Liturgy”; “The Church Visible”; and “The HarperCollins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.”