I honestly don’t know the origin of Laetare Sunday, but I have always liked the explanation that I heard years ago about its purpose. Lent is, we have all discovered by this point, a penitential season. We take a brief break in the droll of penance on the 4th Sunday of Lent to remind ourselves that the season exists to prepare us for the joy we already have received: the joy of the resurrected Jesus.
Laetare Sunday is supposed to remind us that we are not in fact in 1st century Palestine, and we are not in fact at the foot of the historical cross weeping with John and the women at the death of Jesus. We stand in a very different place and have a very different perspective.
On that first Good Friday, the disconnect I suspect that we all have felt at one time or another with associating the word “good” with the brutal torture and crucifixion of the Son of God would have been impossible to overcome: I have often found myself pondering how it is that those saintly witnesses were not lost in despair.
I cannot imagine the experience: to walk with this Christ Jesus, to learn from him, to begin to understand the gravity of his words, that he is the Son of God; to see your hope transformed from the expectation of a political Messiah to one who comes to cast out demons and to forgive sins, to institute the Kingdom of God on Earth, in however hazy a foreshadowing it might be; and then, with admittedly a great deal of warning, though poorly understood and shrouded in mystery, this Jesus is taken. He is scourged. Spat upon. Beaten. Crowned with thorns. Made to carry a cross. His hands pierced. His feet run through. Mocked. Jeered at. Taunted — all by the very ones he had desired to gather into his brood. And then abandonment. Death.
And his mother looked on, as did John and the other Marys. If we truly meditate on the Passion of Jesus Christ, I don’t see how we can feel anything but sorrow, compunction, repentance, and the like. Now I don’t think modern folks would feel despair on Holy Saturday, but it’s not modern folks that we are considering. We have the benefit of knowing that after this horrendous event, Jesus was resurrected and ascended into heaven, and the Holy Spirit was sent to reveal to the disciples the depth of the meaning of his words. We have 2000 years of culture that has incorporated a sense of the cross and the resurrection into the very way that we see the world — a sense that has been stabilized in books and films and other cultural expressions since the earliest genesis of those forms.
Mary and John did not have that. All they had was crushed hope. Poor Peter: his last words to Jesus were denial. What must he have been feeling? Could he have made it through Holy Saturday without constantly weeping? I think it must have been a special grace that kept these witnesses from despair, because I don’t see how they could have avoided it otherwise. If they took Jesus seriously, then seeing him murdered must have completely shifted their paradigms of understanding.
But this brings me back to Laetare Sunday. It is a special grace given to us by the Church: a moment to recall that we are not without foreknowledge of the events to come. Even as we celebrate the Passion of Christ and recall his suffering, we do it within the context of Mass, which is the summit of the earthly experience of the fruits of the Resurrection. We are not expected to ponder the Passion without considering the Resurrection, or without at least a paradigmatic awareness of the fact of the resurrection as the lens through which we cannot help but see the Passion.
I think Laetare Sunday exists to remind us explicitly that Lent is to be filled with joy. Certainly before Christ, fasting, prayer, and almsgiving could not have been infused with the possibilities of joy in the abundance with which it is available to us today.
My Lent in particular has been so filled with joy that Laetare Sunday seems like a step backwards. I am now only about 77 days from ordination to the priesthood. I have really wanted to have an incredible Lent: so many things are happening. One of my best friends is coming into the Church; another of my friends is preparing for a post-Easter wedding that I will have the opportunity to celebrate; I have a close friend suffering from a very serious disease for whom I have sought to offer some penance. And of course I’m getting ordained soon — not to mention all the friends with whom I began seminary will also be ordained. But try as I might — adding penances each week and seeking to intensify my solidarity with Christ in the desert — it all seems easy, and I am filled with joyful anticipation.
So if my theory is correct, God has given me an entire Lent (so far) of Laetare Sundays. I’m okay with that. It’s a little different. After all, just one is a great grace — a taste of the grace the witnesses of the Resurrection might have received.
And a bonus: I don’t have to look at the pink.
Fr. Joshua Allen is currently the Chaplain at the Georgia Tech Catholic Center in Atlanta, GA. He was ordained in 2011 and is a priest of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. He has a License in Patristic Theology from the Pontifical Gregorian University and also teaches at Holy Spirit College.