Join our e-mail list

 < February 2013

April 2013 >

Resurrection of Our Lord: Piero della Francesca

The Holy Week liturgy

4th Sunday of March:
Palm Sunday

Throughout the Lenten season, the Church has prepared us step by step for the sacred experience of the drama of Holy Week. A steady crescendo has been taking place since Septuagesima Sunday. Not until now has the Church unveiled the mystery of the Cross and resurrection, which were given us up to now only in figures and signs. 

Now, with Holy Week, the curtain is lifted, we see the Holy of Holies. And, not only do we see but we are asked to participate in the most sublime drama of history.

The great week is about to begin – starting with Palm Sunday. Rather than a week of mourning, it should be called the redemptive week, in which the work of redemption terminated in victory, for Cross and resurrection are intimately united.

Holy Week can be summed up in the words of St. John’s from his Prologue: “The light shined in the darkness, and the darkness grasped it not.” Darkness struggles against the light of Christ’s revelation as against an enemy; but to those who receive it, Christ gives “the power of becoming sons of God.” And as the mystery of darkness (the devil is the prince of darkness) and light (Christ the truth) unfolds during the Sacred Triduum, the same clashes takes place on another vein, death and life fight in a mortal duel, which will conclude with Christ the Life giving the death blow to Death by His own passing.

Life is given Him through death: Christ the man rises from death to die no more since His sacrifice was accepted by the Father and He merited for Himself and all His followers a glorified body joined to a soul enjoying the beatific vision. Thus the ancient symbol of Christ, phos-zoe (light-life) serves well as a caption over this great week of grace.

Another important aspect of the Christian life is taking a prominent place during the Holy Week’s liturgy: the reception of converts into the Church. In olden days, the Lenten season marked the preparation - both moral and doctrinal - of the catechumens to the great step of baptism, reflected in many ceremonies. The catechumens passed their last examinations earlier on in Holy Week. On Maundy Thursday, there was the reconciliation of the public penitents making up for their public sins. They would be formally received in full communion and allowed to approach the sacred table on Easter Vigil.

On the same day, the holy oils were blessed by the bishop, which would be needed for the Baptismal ceremony. Easter Vigil is replete with the ceremonies addressed to catechumens who are to be formally received into the Church. The long lessons from the Old Testament serve as a last minute catechism, the baptismal water is blessed and the baptismal promises are pronounced by all the faithful present, but especially by the candidates to baptism, which takes place at that time.

The Easter Vigil, which formally lasted the entire night, was the vigil of the catechumens as much as it was the celebration of Christ’s rising from the tomb. Both activities are one in the mind of St. Paul:

We have been baptized (submerged) in Christ’s death and risen (drawn out of the water) in Christ’s resurrection.

It is highly recommended that the faithful free themselves from the worldly worries and dedicate what time they can to the meditation and contemplation of the sacred mysteries. One of the best ways is simply to go over the liturgical texts which reach a degree of intensity never achieved in the other seasons of the year.

The veiled altar cross and images

The liturgical meaning
of Passion Sunday

3rd Sunday of March:
Passion Sunday

Nothing better to grasp the spirit of the Church than to turn to the liturgical texts. This is most true of Passiontide and Holy Week. The Church’s Year of Grace of Dr. Pius Parsch offers a few points of interest.

  • As the Church enters the period of mourning the divine Bridegroom, she puts on the widow’s garments. The commemoration of Christ’s suffering is expressed in various ways.

  • The last remaining traces of joy are eliminated: the Gloria Patri of the Introit, Lavabo and Breviary responsories. The omission of Psalm 42 at the foot of the altar, as in the Requiem Masses.

  • The prayers and readings relate the theme of suffering to that of baptism. A favorite contrast, the pagan Ninivites (catechumens) do penance while the Jews plan to kill Jesus. Jeremias, a type of Christ, laments over the Jews "who perfidiously leave their Lord, the fountain of living water."

  • One of the most striking changes in the Passiontide is that the crosses and statues are draped, as an outward sign of the Church’s inward sorrow. It is not difficult to understand why the wailing garments are placed over the statues, which could distract us from the meditations of the Passion.

It is however quite enigmatic for the Christians today to understand why the crosses have to be veiled. Why is not the sorrowful Crucifix visible to our eyes so as to draw tears of devotion? Just the contrary would be more intelligible.

In fact, this veiling of the Cross is a relic from an ancient practice. When crosses, without the corpus, shone glorious with gold and precious stones (the crux gemmata), there was deep meaning in the practice of veiling their brilliance during the days when the Bridegroom was taken away. The Church was putting on the widow’s weeds.

Crux gemmata
The crux gemmata - or gemmed
cross used in the ancient Church

This tiny detail is a clear symbol of a very different approach between ancient and modern Christianity. Today, popular piety proceeds to review Holy Week historically; it pictures with great fidelity the various scenes of the "bitter passion," it dissects all the feelings and thoughts of our suffering Savior, it analyzes the virtues displayed by the Lord at every step. "How shall I imitate Him… what can I learn from Him?" are its most important questions. Suffering is the great motive for amendment: "He died on the Cross for me, and I have offended Him so deeply."

The ancient Christians followed a different course. Of course, it also put Christ’s suffering up front but it was aiming too at the purpose of the Passion. By His suffering, Christ redeemed us and made us children of God. And, on what apparently is the most tragic day of the whole year, on Good Friday, we lift our voices in jubilant song: "See, because of this wood joy has come into the whole world!" The early Christians were not so eager to speak of the bitter passion as of the beata passio, the happy or blessed passion.

Perhaps a harmonious blending of the two mindsets is achieved on Good Friday. On that day of the great Sacrifice of the High Priest, the Church abstains from offering the divine sacrifice: instead of the divine Action, the liturgy is mostly commemorative and historical. Yet, with this initial meditation of the historical passion of Our Lord, as the ceremony progresses, it has us rejoice before the unveiled cross, presented as the glorious trophy with the Redeemer having fulfilled His mission. The rite ends with a glorious, joyful song to the Cross, to the Lord’s resurrection:

Thy Cross, Lord, we adore!
We praise and acclaim Thy holy resurrection.
Behold, through the wood of the Cross
Joy has come into the whole world.


Rose vestments

The diverse names
of Laetare Sunday

2nd Sunday of March:
Fourth Sunday of Lent

We read in The Catholic Encyclopedia that this Fourth and middle Sunday of Lent actually has several popular names associated with it which we outline here.

Dominica de Rosa

The golden rose represents Christ in the shining splendor of His majesty, the "flower sprung from the root of Jesse." Originally it was natural rose, then a single golden rose of natural size, but since the fifteenth century it has consisted of a cluster or branch of roses wrought of pure gold in brilliant workmanship by famous artists. The popes bless one every year, and often confer it upon churches, shrines, cities, or distinguished persons as a token of esteem and paternal affection.

Rose Sunday

It has a counterpart in Advent: Gaudete Sunday, the Third Sunday of Advent, when purple vestments are exchanged for rose ones. The point of both days is to provide us encouragement as we progress toward the end of each respective penitential season.

Refreshment Sunday,
or the Sunday of the Five Loaves

This name stems from the miracle recorded in the Gospel of John 6:1-15, on the multiplication of the loaves and the fishes - symbols of the Eucharist to come in 18 days (on Maundy Thursday of Holy Week).

Mid-Lent, mi-careme, or mediana

These terms (in English, French and Spanish) obviously have their root because this Sunday marks the middle of Lent.

Mothering Sunday

This is an allusion to the Epistle, which indicates our right to be called the sons of God as the source of all our joy, and also because formerly the faithful used to make their offerings in the cathedral or mother-church on this day. This latter name is still kept up in some remote parts of England, though the reason for it has ceased to exist.

Laetare Sunday

This is by far the most popular name. Laetare means "rejoice" in Latin, and the Introit (entrance antiphon) is Isaiah 66:10-11, which begins "Laetare, Jerusalem" ("Rejoice, O Jerusalem").

The spirit of Laetare Sunday

Because the midpoint of Lent is the Thursday of the third week of Lent, Laetare Sunday has traditionally been viewed as a day of celebration, on which the austerity of Lent is briefly lessened. The passage from Isaiah continues, "rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow," and on Laetare Sunday, the purple vestments and altar cloths of Lent are set aside, and rose ones are used instead. Flowers, which are normally forbidden during Lent, may be placed on the altar. Traditionally, the organ was never played during Lent, except on Laetare Sunday.

Laetare Jerusalem : et conventum facite omnes qui diligitis eam: gaudete cum laetitia, qui in tristitia fuistis: ut exsultetis, et satiemini ab uberibus consolationis vestrae. (Psalm) Laetatus sum in his, quae dicta sunt mihi: in domum Domini ibimus. Gloria Patri.

Rejoice, O Jerusalem: and come together all you that love her: rejoice with joy, you that have been in sorrow: that you may exult, and be filled from the breasts of your consolation. (Psalm) I rejoiced at the things that were said to me: we shall go into the house of the Lord. Glory be to the Father.

How to remember the difference between Gaudate and Laetare Sunday

You can remember to differentiate between Advent's Gaudete Sunday and Lent's Laetare Sunday - the two "rose vestments" Sundays - by remembering that Laetare Sunday comes in Lent, both of which begin with the letter "L."


Lent: a time
to repair the past

1st Sunday of March:
Third Sunday of Lent

Excerpted from The Liturgical Year of Dom Prosper Gueranger.

The holy Church gave us, as the subject of our meditation for the first Sunday of Lent, the Temptation which our Lord Jesus Christ deigned to suffer in the Desert. Her object was to enlighten us with regard to our own temptations, and teach us how to conquer them.

Today [Third Sunday of Lent[, she wishes to complete her instruction on the power and stratagems of our invisible enemies; and for this she reads to us a passage from the Gospel of St. Luke.

During Lent, the Christian ought to repair the past, and provide for the future; but he can neither understand how it was he fell, nor defend himself against a relapse, unless he have correct ideas as to the nature of the dangers which have hitherto proved fatal, and are again threatening him. Hence, the ancient Liturgists would have us consider it as a proof of the maternal watchfulness of the Church, that she should have again proposed such a subject to us. As we shall find, it is the basis of all to-day’s instructions.


But if there be one Season of the Year more than another in which the Faithful ought to reflect upon what is taught us both by faith and experience, as to the existence and workings of the wicked spirits, - it is undoubtedly this of Lent, when it is our duty to consider what have been the causes of our last sins, what are the spiritual dangers we have to fear for the future, and what means we should have recourse to for preventing a relapse.

Let us, then, hearken to the Holy Gospel. Firstly, we are told, that the devil had possessed a man, and that the effect produced by this possession was dumbness. Our Savior casts out the devil, and, immediately, the dumb man spoke. So that, the being possessed by the devil is not only a fact which testifies to God’s impenetrable justice; it is one which may produce physical effects upon them that are thus tried or punished. The casting out the devil restores the use of speech to him that had been possessed. We say nothing about the obstinate malice of Jesus’ enemies, who would have it, that his power over the devils, came from his being in league with the prince of devils: all we would now do is, to show that the wicked spirits are sometimes permitted to have power over the body…

Ever since the promulgation of the Gospel, the power of Satan over the human body has been restricted by the virtue of the Cross, at least in Christian countries; but this power resumes its sway as often as faith and the practice of Christian piety lose their influence...


The Third Sunday of Lent is called Oculi, from the first word of the Introit. In the primitive Church, it was called Scrutiny-Sunday, because it was on this day that they began to examine the Catechumens, who were to he admitted to Baptism on Easter night. All the Faithful were invited to assemble in the Church, in order that they might bear testimony to the good life and morals of the candidates. At Rome, these examinations, which where called the Scrutinies, were made on seven different occasions, on account of the great number of the aspirants to Baptism; but the principal Scrutiny was that held on the Wednesday of the Fourth Week We will speak of it later on.

The Roman Sacramentary of St. Gelasius gives us the form, in which the Faithful were convoked to these assemblies. It is as follows.

Dearly beloved Brethren: you know that the day of Scrutiny, when our elect are to receive the holy instruction, is at hand. We invite you, therefore, to be zealous and assemble on N., (here, the day was mentioned) at the hour of Sext [the sixth hour of the day]; that so we may be able, by the divine aid, to achieve without error, the heavenly mystery, whereby is opened the gate of the kingdom of heaven, and the devil is excluded with all his pomps.

The invitation was repeated, if needed, on each of the following Sundays. The Scrutiny of this Sunday ended in the admission of a certain number of candidates: their names were written down, and put on the Diptychs of the Altar, that they might be mentioned in the Canon of the Mass. The same also was done with the names of their Sponsors.

The Station was, and still is, in the Basilica of St. Laurence outside the walls. The name of this, the most celebrated of the Martyrs of Rome, would remind the Catechumens, that the Faith they were about to profess, would require them to be ready for many sacrifices.

 < February 2013

March 2013 >

  © 2013                    home                    contact