Violet is the liturgical color of Lent and Advent. Yet, in both holy seasons, over half way through, we discover the bright color of rose in the liturgy… but only for one Sunday.[i] The Sunday in Lent is called Laetare Sunday, in Advent Gaudete Sunday. Both these Latin words (Gaudete and Laetare, from the Entrance Antiphons at Mass) are translated, "Rejoice!" But why the color rose, and why "rejoice"?
The Meaning of Rose
To understand the meaning of rose, we first need to be aware of a certain liturgical principle, here expressed in the words of Dr. Pius Parsch:
"Nature's annual cycle is characterized by two phenomena, light and life. Out of the darkness of night comes light; out of death comes life. The transition from night to light characterizes the winter season; the transition from death to life is proper to summertime. The holy year of the Church is likewise divided into two phases which have similar characteristics."[ii]
In other words, nature and the mysteries of our salvation coincide. The dark color of violet in Advent harmonizes well with the diminishing sunlight late in the year, and in Lent with the silence of life through Winter leading up to Spring. In both cases, we see a parallel. Just as darkness gives place to light at the turn of the Winter Solstice and death to life at the beginning of Spring, so the violet of Advent gives place to the bright white of Christmas joy, and of Lent to the brightness of Easter life. "But wouldn't black be more appropriate as a color of darkness and death?" someone might wonder. Ah, here again we encounter the Church's wisdom! Black is the absence of all color and light. But as "children of the light," we are never in complete darkness. "The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it."[iii] Even in funeral liturgies where priests can wear black as a symbol of mourning, the liturgy speaks of light: "let perpetual light shine upon them." Violet is a dark and penitential color, but it is also the ancient color for royalty and wealth. Through baptism, we have been immersed in Light and Life, and we have been given the royalty of being children of the King of Heaven! So, violet expresses well both these aspects: darkness and royalty.
With this dramatic backdrop, we can understand the rose color of Gaudete and Laetare Sundays and the hidden lesson contained here for us. Rose is a softening of violet. It is violet approaching white. In this sense, it anticipates the pure white of the Birth and Resurrection of Christ. It intimates the mystery of the "already, and not yet" of Christian life. The Messiah has come. We have been redeemed. We have been washed. We have been sanctified. The Light that is God has come to dwell in our souls. The Father "has delivered us from the dominion of darkness and transferred us to the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins."[iv] And yet, we wait for Christ to come. We wait for eternal life. We wait for "the redemption of our bodies."[v] We are still in a "valley of tears." "For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face."[vi]
But even in the night of this life, this expectancy fills us with joy. Gaudete and Laetare Sundays express the foretaste of the good things to come that we experience even now. The Church summons us to "look up and raise your heads, because your redemption is drawing near."[vii] In this sense, Laetare Sunday is like an oasis in the desert of Lent, and Gaudete Sunday like the appearance of the first streaks of dawn in the night of Advent. It is as if we were sentinels keeping watch at night, longing for the sun to appear, being buoyed up with joy at the first streaks of light. With the words of Psalm 130, we pray, "My soul waits for the Lord more than sentinels wait for the dawn."[viii] And with the prophet Habakkuk, we resolve: "I will take my stand to watch, and station myself on the tower, and look forth to see what he will say to me."[ix]
So, what are we waiting for? We are waiting for the One who said, "I am the light of the world; he who follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life."[x] St. Bernard of Clairvaux explains that, "We know that there are three comings of the Lord. The third lies between the other two. It is invisible, while the other two are visible… In his first coming our Lord came in our flesh and in our weakness; in this middle coming he comes in spirit and in power; in the final coming he will be seen in glory and majesty."[xi] In Advent we, in a sense, wait with expectation and joy for all three. We place ourselves along the prophets of old as they waited for the coming Messiah. We do this mystically in order to comprehend more profoundly what a difference Christ's coming has made. We also wait in the darkness of this life for the coming of the Son of man "with the clouds of heaven."[xii] That is, we rekindle our longing for the Second Coming and the completion of our life's journey toward God. And finally, we wait for the coming of Christ more deeply into our life now, in preparation for the last coming. St. Bernard explains that this middle coming is the road from the first to the final coming of our Savior.
Advent is a time consecrated to this road. The nearness of the Lord's coming is announced to us at the beginning of Advent in the words, "Our Savior is coming."[xiii] It is made even more imminent during Gaudete Sunday when the announcement is changed to, "The Lord is near."[xiv] Just as the color rose approaches white, so in the middle of Advent we approach the Lord with joy. We are closer than ever before: "For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed."[xv] And here is the point: we rejoice not only in the future coming of the Lord; we rejoice now as we have the opportunity to let Christ penetrate more deeply into our hearts. In Advent, the Holy Spirit wishes to open the doors of our hearts more fully to the Savior of our souls: "Lift up your heads, O gates! And be lifted up, O ancient doors! That the King of glory may come in."[xvi] For, "the path of the righteous is like the light of dawn, which shines brighter and brighter until full day." "And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another; for this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit."[xvii] Nothing matters more in life than that we grow in the divine light of love that is in Christ. And nothing can give us greater joy.
Joy, Fortitude, and Patience
Holy Mother Church knows that it is easy for us to get distracted by "the cares of the world,"[xviii] and overly sorrowful due to the trials of life. That is why she rouses us to joy in the Entrance Antiphon of Gaudete Sunday, which comes from Paul's letter to the Philippians: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near." This text in Scripture continues: "Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. And the peace of God that passes all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus." We can all reflect: in what ways am I overly anxious about the cares of life? In what ways have I let despair and self-pity conquer my hope? Jesus revealed the ways of the kingdom to us in his words, so that, as He said, "my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full." As He approached the Passion and Resurrection, He also said, "So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you."[xix] Even further, He reassures us: "In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world."[xx] Gaudete Sunday is an opportune time to examine how free we are to embrace the joy of the Lord's coming into our lives more completely.
But where will we find strength to embrace this joy? In the Mass Readings for Gaudete Sunday this year, two virtues in particular are extolled for us to possess the Lord's joy more fully. In the first reading, Isaiah urges us on to fortitude: "Strengthen the hands that are feeble, make firm the knees that are weak… Be strong, fear not!" In the second reading, St. James exhorts us to patience: "Be patient… until the coming of the Lord."
Both virtues serve us in time of trial. Trials over time have a way of making us apathetic, complacent, and discouraged. Exercising the virtue of fortitude gives us the strength to endure times of pain, loss, sadness, and strain in relationships. And when the distress seems overwhelming and too much for human strength, the Holy Spirit provides us with the gift of fortitude to "go forward,"[xxi] so that we can know with St. Paul: "for when I am weak, then I am strong."[xxii] Patience, in turn, can be thought of as "fortitude over time." St. James insightfully associates patience with waiting through hardships. This waiting involves letting go of trying to control what is beyond our control. It also involves joyfully accepting these elements as within the will of God, which is always for our good in the end.
Fortitude and patience together are antidotes against apathy and anxiety. They enable us to have joy in the cross. We don't have the ability to give ourselves these graced virtues. But just as in the Gospel the Messiah is identified precisely as the One who can open the eyes of the blind and cleanse lepers, so He is the One Who can heal our own complacency and impatience and give us the strength to wait for Him in times of trial. In this fashion, the Lord heals us of our despondency and opens up to us the joy of His advent.
As the darkness augments at the close of this year, we know the light will prevail. Christ has come. And Christ is coming. With joy, fortitude, and patience, we keep watch for the approaching light. In rose vestments and with the rose candle of the Advent wreath, we rejoice in anticipation of the Day of our Redemption. What are we anxious about? St. Peter exhorts us, "Cast all your anxieties on him, for he cares about you. Be sober, be watchful."[xxiii] Let us cast them thus, so that the "Dawn from on High will break upon us"[xxiv] and saturate our hearts more completely. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us. Help us to receive Him. Maranatha! "Come Lord Jesus!"[xxv]
[i] The color rose is popularly but incorrectly thought of as pink.
[ii] Parsch, Dr. Pius. The Church's Year of Grace. Collegeville, Minnesota: The Liturgical Press, 1962: p.169
[iii] Jn 1:5 (All Bible translations are from the following unless stated: The Holy Bible: RSVCE. 1st Edition. San Francisco: Ignatius Press)
[iv] Col 1:13-14
[v] Rom 8:23
[vi] 1 Cor 13:12
[vii] Lk 21:20
[viii] Ps 130:6 (Translation used during the daily Dominican prayers for the dead)
[ix] Hab 2:1
[x] Jn 8:12
[xi] Liturgy of the Hours. Vol. 1. New York: Catholic Book Publishing Co.: p. 169
[xii] Dan 7:13
[xiii] From the Entrance Antiphon of Monday of the First Week of Advent.
[xiv] From the Entrance Antiphon of the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
[xv] Rom 13:11
[xvi] Ps 24:7
[xvii] 2 Cor 3:18
[xviii] Mt 13:22
[xix] Jn 16:22
[xx] Jn 16:33
[xxi] Ex 14:15
[xxii] 1 Cor 12:10
[xxiii] 1 Pt 5:7
[xxiv] Lk 1:78 (Translation is from The Liturgy of the Hours)
[xxv] Rev 22:20