Arriving at the Mid-Point of Lent

Source: FSSPX News

For Roman Catholics, Sunday, March 10, 2024, marks the mid-point of Lent. Referred to as Laetare Sunday from the first word of the Introit at Mass (“Rejoice!”), this day was historically set aside as one of relaxation from the rigors of Lenten dietary rules while being an opportunity for the faithful to renew their commitment to completing this penitential period of the liturgical year with renewed vigor.

Other traditional names for this Sunday point to unique aspects of this day that developed over the course of centuries. One such name, Mothering Sunday, also drew its name in part from the Introit’s use of motherly imagery. On this day, the faithful were encouraged to visit their “mother church,” that is, the church of their baptism. Laborers and servants were dispensed from their regular duties on this day so they could make this small pilgrimage. Another name, Dominica de rosa or Rose Sunday, appears to have a dual meaning in that this Sunday is the traditional day when the Pope blesses a Golden Rose to be conferred upon political leaders, churches, or worthy individuals and because rose-colored vestments are called for on this day.

The Beginning of Ancient Lent

After the season of Lent was “fixed” at 40 days following the Council of Nicaea in 325 A.D., local churches and rites devised their own means for determining how this period would be counted. Eastern Christians following the Byzantine Rite, for instance, begin Lent on the day known as Clean Monday. Lent then runs consecutively for 40 days until Lazarus Saturday, that is, the Saturday before Palm Sunday. Holy Week is not included in the calculation. 

In the Roman Rite, which became the predominate liturgical order in the West, Lent begins on Ash Wednesday and ends on the evening of Holy Thursday with Sundays being excluded from the 40-day count. This expansion of the Lenten season represented a marked departure from the ancient Roman observance where Laetare Sunday was known as Dominica in Vigesima, that is, the Sunday that falls 20 days before Holy Saturday. It was at this point that the caput jejunii or rigorous three-week fast commenced. During this time, the faithful consumed a single meal with all meat, fish, and dairy excluded. Though variances emerged over the course of centuries, abstinence from animal products during Lent remained normative until the late Middle Ages. 

Not Losing Our Lenten Zeal

It is altogether commonplace for Christians to lose their zeal on or around the mid-point of Lent. Even with the Church’s dialed-down fasting and abstinence requirements, Catholics can still come to find these prescriptions to be an undue burden that is out-of-synch with the contemporary world. Moreover, while many Roman Catholics start Lent with additional resolutions such as attending more church services or refraining from some other pleasure (alcohol, television, certain types of foods, and so forth), these commitments, too, fall to the wayside over the course of the 40 days. Some come to feel that if they have “slipped” in any way during the first half of Lent, there is no point in continuing forward. The Lenten season is chalked up as a loss.

Recalling that Laetare Sunday was once the beginning of Lent in Rome, Catholics dissatisfied with their Lent thus far or who are at risk of abandoning the spirit of penance, humility, and love that the season calls for should use this Sunday as an opportunity to renew their journey with Our Lord to the Cross. Sins committed should be confessed; penitential church services from now until Easter are still available; and the practice of fasting and abstinence, whether in accord with current Church law or one or more of the traditional practices, can be embraced again. While not everyone may be capable of keeping a daily strict fast in line with ancient praxis, additional forms of abstinence from some or all animal products is a praiseworthy act of sacrifice that unites us spiritually with our Christian forebears.

Laetare Sunday is a time to rejoice. Rejoice in the Lord for all that He has given you, especially the gift of baptism and the way to eternal life which He will triumphantly secure after the close of Lent on Easter. Lent is not a time for mindless morbidity or pointless sorrow, because what it leads to is unimaginable joy. It is this joy that Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre recalled in his 1971 Easter sermon: 

Creatures of the Lord, creatures of God, we cannot but rejoice at the thought that Heaven has been reopened to us, that God Whom we no longer knew, God Who was far from us, has once again drawn closer, and that the way is laid open for us to return to God for Whom we were created from all eternity.