What Does the Prayer Really Say? Fourth Sunday of Lent “Laetare” Sunday – Station: Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem
ORIGINALLY PRINTED IN The Wanderer in 2001
There is a Latin dictum: repetita iuvant… repeated things help. That is to say, repetition helps us to learn and remember. Today we have a “nickname Sunday” (like Gaudete in Advent, Cantate in Eastertide, etc) This nicknaming tradition goes back at least to John of Salisbury (12th c.), and derives from the first word of the Introit chant for the Mass. Today, there is a relaxation of the stark penitential aspect of Lent, during which season traditionally (and still present in the rubrics) there should be no flowers and decorations and no instrumental music (including organ unless used only to sustain congregational singing). This Sunday we have a glimpse of the joy that is coming, which is why the first word sung is “Rejoice”! We have rose colored vestments and instrumental music.
Some ink can be given to rose vestments. This custom is tied to the station churches in Rome. For centuries in Rome there have been celebrations of Mass during the great seasons of Lent/Easter and Advent/Christmas at "station" churches. The station Mass for Laetare Sunday is the Basilica of the Holy Cross of Jerusalem in Rome, where the relics of Cross and Passion are kept. It was the custom on Laetare for the Pope to bless roses made of gold that were then sent to Catholic kings and queens. Thus Laetare was also called Dominica de rosa…. Sunday of the Rose. Rose vestments developed naturally from this occasion. So, rose came to be used on Laetare Sunday in the Basilica of the Holy Cross when the Pope came for the station Mass. The use of rose (the technical term for the color is rosacea) spread to the rest of the City on this day. As a Roman custom it became part and parcel of the Roman Missal promulgated through the world by Pius V. The custom is, thanks be to God, coming back into vogue again.
One might ask why roses were given to Catholic rulers and other figures. The papal letters and documents that came with the rose hint at the meaning attached to it. Innocent III wrote about the significance of the rose and Laetare Sunday: "As Lætare Sunday, the day set apart for the function, represents love after hate, joy after sorrow, and fullness after hunger, so does the rose designate by its color, odor, and taste, love, joy, and satiety respectively." Innocent also says that the rose is the flower spoken of in Isaiah 11, 1: "there shall come forth a rod out of the root of Jesse, and a flower shall rise up out of his root". Centuries later Pope Leo XIII wrote that the beautiful golden flower signifies Christ in His majesty, spoken of by the prophet as "the flower of the field and the lily of the valleys"; the flower’s fragrance shows the sweet odor of Christ which should be diffused through the whole world by His faithful followers. The thorns and red color symbolize His Passion, harkening to both the real event of the Crucifixion and its foretelling by the prophet Isaiah 43,2: "Why then is thy apparel red, and thy garments like theirs that tread in the winepress?" These themes are in the prayer that was used to bless the golden roses:
"O God! by Whose word and power all things have been created, by Whose will all things are directed, we humbly beseech Thy Majesty, Who art the joy and gladness of all the faithful, that Thou wouldst deign in Thy fatherly love to bless and sanctify this rose, most delightful in odor and appearance, which we this day carry in sign of spiritual joy, in order that the people consecrated by Thee and delivered from the yoke of Babylonian slavery through the favor of Thine only-begotten Son, Who is the glory and exultation of the people of Israel and of that Jerusalem which is our Heavenly mother, may with sincere hearts show forth their joy. Wherefore, O Lord, on this day, when the Church exults in Thy name and manifests her joy by this sign (= the rose), confer upon us through her true and perfect joy and accepting her devotion of today; do Thou remit sin, strengthen faith, increase piety, protect her in Thy mercy, drive away all things adverse to her and make her ways safe and prosperous, so that Thy Church, as the fruit of good works, may unite in giving forth the perfume of the ointment of that flower sprung from the root of Jesse and which is the mystical flower of the field and lily of the valleys, and remain happy without end in eternal glory together with all the saints."
The rose, then, connects not only the penance we do in honor of the Passion (Lent) but also the joy of the resurrection (Easter). It points to Christ who reigns as King, but from a wooden Cross. Note also the reference to “devotion.”
LATIN (1970 Missale Romanum):
Deus, qui per Verbum tuum
humani generis reconciliationem mirabiliter operaris,
praesta, quaesumus, ut populus christianus
prompta devotione et alacri fide
ad ventura sollemnia valeat festinare.
O God, who by your Word
marvelously effects the reconciliation of the human race,
grant, we beg, that the Christian people
may be able to hasten toward the upcoming solemnities
with ready devotion and eager faith.
I have spoken about so-called “false friends” before. These are words that look very similar to English cognates but, in Latin, can have very different, even surprising meanings. In classical usage devotio can mean “fealty, allegiance, devotedness; piety, devotion, zeal.” But it is also “a cursing, curse, imprecation, execration, a magical formula, incantation, spell.” It is pretty clear what it means in the context of this prayer, but we must be attentive in translating. More about this interesting term devotio below.
Notice the similarity of this collect with those of Advent? On the Second Sunday of Advent, we heard: in tui occursum Filii festinantes… “those hurrying to meet your Son.” On the Third Sunday (this Sunday’s fraternal twin Gaudete, the only other day for rose vestments) we heard: votis sollemnibus alacri laetitia celebrare…”to celebrate…with eager jubilation by means of solemn offerings.” There is rosy anticipation in today’s collect just as there was in Advent. For Lent the anticipation is properly muted, however: it is our faith which is eager, rather than our joy, and devotion is prompt and ready.
More about devotio. In the Summa Theologica, St. Thomas Aquinas speaks of devotio as an “active” virtue. In regard to meditation and contemplation the Angelic Doctor wrote: “The intrinsic or human cause of devotion is contemplation or meditation. Devotion is an act of the will by which a man promptly gives himself to the service of God. Every act of the will proceeds from some consideration of the intellect, since the object of the will is a known good; or as Augustine says, willing proceeds from understanding. Consequently, meditation is the cause of devotion since through meditation man conceives the idea of giving himself to the service of God” (STh II-II 82, 3 emphasis added). In Jesuit spirituality there is a beautiful spin on devotio. Based on an Ignatian principle, devotio is what the famed Jesuit preacher Louis Bourdaloue (1632-1704) would call "a devotion to duty". In other words, our devotions must lead or help the soul to keep the commandments of God and the duties of one’s state before all else. There is an interplay, therefore, between our devotions and our devotion. Each of us has a state in life, a God-given vocation to follow. We must be devoted to that state in life and the duties that come with it as they are in the here and now. The “here and now” is important, too. A person must not focus on the state he had before, or wishes he had, or should have had, or might have someday: those are unreal and misleading fantasies that distract us from reality and God’s will. If we are truly devoted (in the sense of the active virtue) to fulfilling the duties of our state as it truly is here and now, then God will give us every actual grace we need to fulfill our vocation. We are, in effect, fulfilling our proper role in His great plan and thus He is sure to help us. And if we are devoted to our state as it truly is, then God can also guide us to a new vocation when and if that is His will for us: faithful in what we must be doing now, we will be open to what God wants us to do later. This attachment to reality and sense of dutiful obedience through the active virtue devotio is a necessary part of religion in keeping with the biblical principle in 1 John 2:3-5: "And by this we may be sure that we know Him, if we keep His commandments. He who says “I know Him” but disobeys His commandments is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps his word, in him truly love for God is perfected. By this we may be sure that we are in Him: he who says he bides in Him ought to walk in the same way in which He walked.” Our Lenten devotion(s), and this collect, aid us in our journey toward the Resurrection.
Father of peace,
we are joyful in your Word,
your Son Jesus Christ,
who reconciles us to you.
Let us hasten toward Easter
with the eagerness of faith and love.