Interior of the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem.
This Sunday, called, from the first word of the Introit, Laetare, is one of the most solemn of the year. The Church interrupts Her Lenten mournfulness; the chants of the Mass speak of nothing but joy and consolation; the organ, which has been silent during the preceding three Sundays, now gives forth its melodious voice; the deacon resumes his dalmatic, and the subdeacon his tunic; and instead of purple, rose-colored vestments are allowed to be used. These same rites are practiced in Advent, on the third Sunday, called Gaudete. The Church’s motive for introducing this expression of joy into today’s liturgy is to encourage Her children to persevere fervently to the end of this holy Season. The real mid-Lent was last Thursday; but the Church, fearing lest the joy might lead to some infringement on the spirit of penance, has deferred Her own notice of it to this Sunday, when She not only permits, but even bids Her children to rejoice!
The Station at Rome is in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem, one of the seven principal churches of the Holy City. It was built in the fourth century by the Emperor Constantine, in one of his villas called Sessorius—on which account it goes also under the name of the Sessorian Basilica. The Emperor’s mother, St. Helena, enriched it with the most precious relics, and wished to make it the Jerusalem of Rome. With this intention she ordered a great quantity of earth taken from Mount Calvary to be put on the site. Among the other relics of the instruments of the Passion which she gave to this Church was the inscription which was fastened to the Cross; it is still there, and is called the Title of the Cross. The name of Jerusalem, which has been given to this Basilica, and which recalls to our minds the heavenly Jerusalem towards which we are tending, suggested the choice of it as today’s Station. Up to the 14th century, when Avignon became for a time the city of the Popes, the ceremony of the Golden Rose took place in this Church; later, it was blessed in the palace where the Sovereign Pontiff happened to be residing.
The Blessing of the Golden Rose is one of the ceremonies peculiar to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which is also called on this account Rose Sunday. The thoughts suggested by this flower harmonize with the sentiments wherewith the Church would now inspire Her children. The joyous time of Easter is soon to give them a spiritual spring, of which that of nature is but a feeble image. Hence we cannot be surprised that the institution of this ceremony is of a very ancient date. We find it observed under the pontificate of St. Leo IX (11th century); and we have a sermon on the golden rose preached by the glorious Pope Innocent III (1198-1216)—on this Sunday, and in the Basilica of the Holy Cross in Jerusalem. In the middle ages, when the Pope resided in the Lateran palace, having first blessed the rose, he went on horseback to the Church of the Station. He wore the miter, was accompanied by all the Cardinals, and held the blessed flower in his hand. Having reached the Basilica, he made a discourse on the mysteries symbolized by the beauty, the color, and the fragrance of the rose. Mass was then celebrated. After the Mass, the Pope returned to the Lateran palace. Surrounded by the sacred college, he rode across the immense plain which separates the two Basilicas, with the mystic flower still in his hand. We may imagine the joy of the people as they gazed upon the holy symbol. When the procession had reached the palace gates, if there were a prince present, it was his privilege to hold the stirrup, and assist the Pontiff to dismount; for which filial courtesy he received the rose, which had received so much honor and caused such joy.
In later times, the ceremony was not quite so solemn; still the principal rites were observed. The Pope would bless the golden rose in the vestiary; he would anoint it with holy Chrism, over which he would sprinkle a scented powder, as formerly; and when the hour for Mass had come, he would go to the palace chapel, holding the flower in his hand. During the Holy Sacrifice, it would be fastened to a golden rose-branch prepared for it on the altar. After the Mass, it would be brought back to the Pontiff, who would hold it in his hand as he returned from the chapel to the vestiary. It was usual for the Pope to send the rose to some prince or princess, as a mark of honor; sometimes it was a city or Church that would receive the flower.
We subjoin a loose translation of the beautiful prayer used by the Sovereign Pontiff when blessing the golden rose. It will give us a clearer appreciation of this ceremony, which adds so much solemnity to the Fourth Sunday of Lent: "O God, by Whose word and power all things were created, and by Whose Will they are all governed! O Thou that art the joy and gladness of all Thy faithful people! We beseech Thy Divine Majesty, that Thou vouchsafe to bless and sanctify this rose, so lovely in its beauty and fragrance. We are to bear it, this day, in our hands, as a symbol of spiritual joy; that thus the people that is devoted to Thy service, being set free from the captivity of Babylon by the grace of Thine Only-begotten Son, Who is the glory and the joy of Israel, may show forth, with a sincere heart, the joys of that Jerusalem, which is above, and is our Mother. And whereas Thy Church, seeing this symbol exults with joy for the glory of Thy Name, do Thou, O Lord, give Her true and perfect happiness. Accept Her devotion, forgive us our sins, increase our faith; heal us by Thy word, protect us by Thy mercy; remove all obstacles; grant us all blessings; that thus this same Thy Church may offer the odor of the fragrance of that Flower, which sprang from the root of Jesse, and is called the Flower of the Field, and the Lily of the Valley; may She deserve to enjoy an endless joy in the bosom of heavenly glory, in the society of all the Saints, together with that divine Flower, Who liveth and reigneth with Thee, in the unity of the Holy Ghost, forever and ever. Amen."
Nowadays, sinners are not visibly separated from the faithful; the Church doors are not closed against them; they frequently stand near the holy altar, in the company of the just; and when God’s pardon descends upon them, the faithful are not made cognizant of the grace by any special and solemn rite. Let us here admire the wonderful mercy of our Heavenly Father, and profit by the indulgent discipline of our Holy Mother the Church. The lost sheep may enter the fold at any hour and without any display; let him take advantage of the condescension thus shown him, and never more wander from the Shepherd, Who thus mercifully receives him. Neither let the just man be puffed up with self-complacency, by preferring himself to the lost sheep; let him rather reflect on those words of today’s lesson: If the just man turn himself away from his justice, and do iniquity… the justices which he hath done shall not be remembered. Let us, therefore tremble for ourselves, and have compassion on sinners. One of the great means on which the Church rests Her hopes for the reconciliation of sinners is the fervent prayers offered up for them by the faithful during Lent.
We now come to the explanation of another name given to the Fourth Sunday of Lent, which was suggested by the Gospel of the day. We find this Sunday called in several ancient documents, the Sunday of the Five Loaves. The miracle alluded to in this title not only forms an essential portion of the Church’s instructions during Lent, but it is also an additional element of today’s joy. We forget for an instant the coming Passion of the Son of God, to give our attention to the greatest of the benefits He has bestowed on us; for under the figure of these loaves multiplied by the power of Jesus, our Faith sees that Bread which came down from Heaven, and giveth life to the world (John 6: 33). "The Pasch," says the Evangelist, "was near at hand"; and in a few days Our Lord will say to us: "With desire I have desired to eat this Pasch with you" (Luke 22: 15). Before leaving this world to go to His Father, Jesus desires to feed the multitude that follows Him; and in order to do this, He displays His omnipotence. Well may we admire that creative power, which feeds five thousand men with five loaves and two fishes, and in such wise that even after all have partaken of the feast as much as they would, there remains fragments enough to fill 12 baskets. Such a miracle is, indeed, an evident proof of Jesus’ mission; but He intends it as a preparation for something far more wonderful; He intends it as a figure and a pledge of what He is soon to do, not merely once or twice, but every day, even to the end of time; not only for five thousand men, but for the countless multitude of believers. Think of the millions, who, every year, used to partake of the Paschal Banquet; and yet, He Whom we have seen born in Bethlehem (the House of Bread) was the nourishment of all these guests; neither will the Divine Bread fail. We are to feast as did our fathers before us; and the generations that are to follow us, shall be invited as we now are, to come and taste how sweet is the Lord (Ps. 33: 9).
But observe, it is in a desert place, as we learn from St. Matthew (14: 13), that Jesus feeds these men, who represent us Christians. They have quitted the bustle and noise of cities in order to follow Him. So anxious are they to hear His words, that they fear neither hunger nor fatigue; and their courage is rewarded. A like recompense will crown our labors, our fasting and abstinence, which are now more than half over. Let us, then, rejoice and spend this day with the light-heartedness of pilgrims who are near the end of their journey. The happy moment is advancing, when our soul, united and filled with her God, will look back with pleasure on the fatigues of the body, which, together with our heart’s compunction, have merited for her a place at the divine banquet.
The primitive Church proposed this miracle of the multiplication of the loaves as a symbol of the Eucharist represented in the paintings of the catacombs and on the bas-reliefs of the ancient Christian tombs. The fishes, too, that were given together with the loaves, are represented on these venerable monuments of our Faith; for the early Christians considered the fish to be the symbol of Christ, because the word "fish" in Greek is made up of five letters, which are the initials of these words: Jesus Christ, Son (of) God, Savior.
We learn from today’s Gospel that the men, whom Jesus had fed by a miracle of love and power, were resolved to make Him their King. They had no hesitation in proclaiming Him worthy to reign over them; for where could they find one worthier? What then shall we Christians do, who know the goodness and the power of Jesus incomparably better than those poor Jews? We must beseech Him to reign over us, from this day forward. In the Epistle we read that it is He Who has made us free, by delivering us from our enemies. O glorious freedom! But the only way to maintain it, is to live under His Law. Jesus is not a tyrant, as are the world and the flesh; His rule is sweet and peaceful, and we are His children rather than His servants. In the court of such a King, "to serve is to reign." What then have we to do with our old slavery? If some of its chains be still upon us, let us lose no time, let us break them, for the Pasch is near at hand; the great feastday begins to dawn. Onwards, then, courageously to the end of our journey! Jesus will refresh us; He will make us sit down as He did the men of the Gospel; and the Bread He has in store for us will make us forget all our past fatigues.
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