Why you see pink vestments in the middle of Lent’s purple time
Roses are red/ violets are blue/ the vestments are pink/ so Lent’s halfway through.
Despite the bad poetry, we are halfway through the Lenten season. The Fourth Sunday of Lent (this year, March 14) is traditionally called Laetare Sunday. Its liturgical color is pink, or more correctly, rose.
Rose is the liturgical color of rejoicing. Laetare is a Latin word that indicates rejoicing. Liturgically, the joy expressed is that of the salvation gained for us by the Lord’s suffering, death and resurrection, resulting in victory over death.
Before 1970, our next Sunday, the Fifth Sunday of Lent, would have been called Passion Sunday. It was the formal beginning of Passiontide, with Palm Sunday following a week later. Today, the focus of the two Sundays is combined into one, flowing immediately one into the other; so that we now call the sixth Sunday of Lent “Palm Sunday of the Lord’s Passion.”
After Laetare Sunday, we move into the more solemn levels of Lent. The focus of our readings turns more clearly toward the coming Passion of Jesus, and we will hear about the death of Lazarus or the woman caught in adultery and saved from stoning, depending on which readings your parish uses for next Sunday. On Palm Sunday, we will hear of Jesus’ final entry into Jerusalem — and of his final exit, to Golgotha.
The message throughout is of salvation. And we are to rejoice in it, even as we mark the sorrows of Passiontide. It is as Paul wrote to the residents of Philippi, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Phil 4:4). So on this Sunday we will wear rose and rejoice in resurrection.
While the origin of the rose color of the vestments is unclear, there may be a connection to the tradition of “the Golden Rose,” a gift sent by the pope on Laetare Sunday to religious shrines, to Catholic kings and queens, and to other Catholic individuals. These people include Isabella I, Queen of Spain, in 1492 and Mary, Queen of England and daughter of Henry VIII, in 1533.
The custom dates back to about the 8th century, but golden roses are still given by the pope. In recent times, this gift has been to various Marian shrines. For example, when Pope Benedict XVI visited the United States in 2008, he presented a gold rose to the National Shrine of the Basilica of the Immaculate Conception in Washington, D.C.
There is one other time that the church uses the color rose during Mass. It is on the Third Sunday of Advent, called Gaudete Sunday. This is when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath.
While both gaudete and laetare refer to rejoicing, there is a slight difference between them. Gaudete more correctly refers to “enjoyment.” Laetare means to “be light-hearted.”
So even though we are entering a time of the church year when our hearts become heavy in the shadow of the cross, Laetare Sunday is a moment to remember that the cross was the beginning of glory for the Lord and for us. It is meant to lift our hearts with hope.
This is, in part, why the Gospel for this Sunday is the story of the Prodigal Son. After all his unhappy life, the son returned home and was welcomed.
“But now we must celebrate and rejoice, because your brother was dead and has come to life again; he was lost and has been found” (Lk 15:32).
Sources: The Catholic Encyclopedia; General Instruction of the Roman Missal; Committee of the Liturgy, USCCB; Dictionary of the Liturgy; The Church Visible; and The Harper Collins Encyclopedia of Catholicism.