The Fourth Sunday in Lent takes its name from the first word of the Introit in Latin, Laetare, which means “rejoice.” Laetare is much like Gaudete, the third Sunday of Advent. Rejoicing is a key theme of this day, as the Propers are a clear break from the somberness of the prior three weeks.
In the first centuries of Christianity, when converts were Baptized at the Great Vigil of Easter, Lent served as a period of intense education in the Faith. While they came to every Sunday service, they were dismissed for their time of instruction when it was time to receive the Lord’s Supper. Because of that, they never heard the Creed or the Lord’s Prayer. Laetare was the first time they were permitted to stay through the Creed and until the Lord’s Prayer. Their joy is reflected in the Gradual: “I was glad when they said unto me, let us go into the house of the Lord.”
Today’s Gospel explains that “the Passover, a feast of the Jews, was near.” Because of Christ, the Christian Church knows that Christ’s death and resurrection are the fulfillment of the Passover. So when we hear that Passover was near, we know that Easter is rapidly approaching, and our great joy over Christ’s resurrection bursts forth in the midst of Lent.
That anticipatory joy of Easter dominates today’s Liturgy. While the Introits of the previous Sundays have been cries from the depths of woe, today begins with the thrilling cry, “Rejoice!” The Collect rejoices in the relief of the comfort of God’s grace. The Epistle emphasizes our true freedom because, by Baptism, we are “born according to the Spirit.” Finally, the Gospel tells of the refreshment that Christ gives to us, both physically and spiritually.
But this day of setting aside some of our Lenten mournfulness is essential. Today we gather our strength for Passiontide and Holy Week, for we would not want to faint along the way. Next week brings us into the next step of Lenten mournfulness as all our crucifixes and other joyful religious images are veiled and the joyful Gloria Patri (“Glory be to the Father…”) is set aside, to be returned to us at Easter. We are strengthened always by the Body and Blood of Jesus, but today we hear a special call to joy and remembrance that the sorrows and death of Jesus Christ are taken up willfully, and in perfect love, in order to redeem humanity and provide bread for their bodies and souls.
What is most striking for today, of course, is that the color of the day is rose, not violet. The barrenness of Lent is momentarily set aside in anticipation of Easter. Nonetheless, it is Lent, and the Sunday before the start of Passiontide. The Hallelujahs and Gloria in Excelsis are still withheld. Rose is not only a color of joy meant to call to mind the springing of flowers from the earth and buds upon the trees, but it is also a lighter shade of violet. Violet is the color of royal mourning, a mix of purple and black. Rose is violet with the shade of black withdrawn, and white added in its place. But it is not yet the full white and gold of Easter. The joy of Laetare is anticipatory, celebrated in the midst of sadness, even as we celebrate and anticipate the resurrection to come in the midst of the death which surrounds us.
Take refreshment from this day, dear Christian! Though more solemn days are ahead, and we have yet to walk with Our Lord to Golgotha, we do not mark these days as those who have no hope. Rather, Laetare reminds us that we mark the days ahead knowing what Great Day lies after. We do not observe Jesus’ crucifixion without knowing that the empty tomb lies on the other side. Rejoice, for Easter is at hand, when you are mercifully relieved of all your sins by God’s great grace!
This is the question we all ask when we see something different, especially in church. Why are we using white instead of red? Why does this day have a name? Why did the Pastor do what he just did?