Today is the liturgical midpoint of Lent, Laetare Sunday, when the Church replaces her somber violet vestments with bright rose, adorns the altar with flowers, and allows for a greater use of the organ. These are external symbols of the joy that we are meant to feel as we prepare for the Easter feast. Laetare Sunday gets its name from the opening words of today’s traditional Introit: Laetare, Jerusalem (“Rejoice, Jerusalem”). Admittedly, given the virtual disappearance of the Introit and the other antiphons of the Roman Missal from most worshipers' ordinary Sunday experience, such traditional titles as Laetare Sunday have become increasingly somewhat obscure, if not completely meaningless to most people today.
At a time when the observance of Lent was much stricter, however, this mid-Lent moment of relaxation was much more valued. Thus, in 1216, Pope Innocent III said: On this Sunday, which marks the middle of lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided so that the faithful may not break down under the severe strain of Lenten fast but may continue to bear the restrictions with a refreshed and easier heart.
Appropriately, today’s Roman station church is the Basilica of Santa Croce, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem,” an early 4th-century basilica built around part of the Empress Saint Helena’s imperial palace in order to enshrine the relics (above all that of the True Cross) which she had brought back to Rome from Jerusalem. Originally, the floor of the basilica was covered with earth from Jerusalem. Thus, the church’s unique title, “the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.” The Jerusalem theme associated with this Sunday also accounts for another very venerable custom connected with this day, that of people returning home to visit (and bring flowers to) their “Mother Church” on this day. Especially in Britain and Ireland, this custom evolved into visiting (and bringing flowers to) one’s mother on this Sunday. Hence, its British title “Mothering Sunday,” an originally religious version of the now secular celebration of Mothers Day that annually threatens to take over the liturgy along with everything else.
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