A rose-tinted Sunday
Ever since I was married, I have wondered idly why our parish priests have an apparent burst of frivolity twice a year. In the middle of Advent and again in the middle of Lent, they turn up one Sunday dressed head to toe in pink. Coming in the middle of periods of sober reflection and preparation in the church calendar, this blushing levity is particularly startling to the uninformed parishioner like me.
As parishioners go, I am probably less informed than most. I am a visitor to Catholicism, being married in to the faith but not having felt able to convert to it myself. So we go to church regularly, but I am always an outsider to some extent and occasionally surprise my husband by questioning aspects of the liturgy that seem perfectly unremarkable to him. Such as, priests wearing pink. Pink! I mean, it’s a lovely uplifting colour, but a little…well…unlikely, perhaps? This year, I thought it was high time I found out for myself. If you are a Catholic or a High Anglican, you will doubtless know about this already: I ask your tolerance for my ignorance and my simplifications. Others might perhaps be a little curious like me, so here is what I have discovered. (I must add that there are any number of better informed religious blogs out there if you care to look.)
First of all, pink vestments are worn precisely because they are a lovely, uplifting colour. The fourth Sunday in Lent is known in the Catholic year as Laetare Sunday, which more or less means ‘Happy Sunday’. I like that. The name derives from the opening words of the Introit to the Mass for this day: Laetare Jerusalem or ‘Rejoice, Jerusalem’. Similarly, the third Sunday in Advent is Gaudete Sunday, from the Introit which begins Gaudete in domino semper or ‘Rejoice in the Lord always’. (Gaudete means ‘rejoice’ whereas laetere is more like ‘be happy’, I would have said, but ‘rejoice’ is a better translation in this context.) Each of these Sundays represents a break in the penitential atmosphere of the periods leading up to Christmas and Easter. For one day, the faithful can look beyond their own shortcomings and the coming agony of Christ’s Passion, to the joy of resurrection and salvation beyond. Flowers are allowed back in church, and the priests are permitted to put aside the sombre purple of Lent and Advent, and to wear light-hearted pink. Lent, in particular, is a challenging period for anyone who takes it seriously. For those who are feeling fragile in spirit – battling with depression perhaps, or recently bereaved – the Lenten fixation on death and wretchedness can be a very heavy burden indeed. So this half-time break is very welcome.
In the second place, the liturgical colour for the fourth Sunday in Lent is not pink. It is actually rose. In Germany this Sunday is known as Rosensonntag or Rose Sunday. The association with roses dates from the papal custom, established in the Middle Ages, of blessing a jeweled golden rose on this day and bestowing it upon a favoured monarch or shrine. The rose itself symbolises Christ, the flower sprung from the stem of Jesse (Isaiah 11:1). So you see, it really isn’t just any old pink.
Although, as an aside, I wonder why the colour pink has come to have such feminine connotations in western cultures? And when did this begin? Think of the exquisitely delicate colours used by the Florentine artist, Fra Angelico, in the early Renaissance: he was happy to depict men, women and angels alike in rose pink clothes. Even John the Baptist was draped in pink in this picture, now in the National Gallery in London; if you look carefully you might spot him in the middle of the top row, a delicious pink pashmina swathed over his filthy goatskin.
Back to rose, however. While we are using correct names, I should note that the colour worn by the priest through the rest of Lent is not purple, strictly speaking, but violet. Violet and rose. Such beautiful colours. Exquisite flowers. But I am one of those who has given up chocolate this Lent – which of course means that I can think about almost nothing else. So you can imagine what violet and rose makes me think of….
Yes, from religion to chocolate in one easy step. Not very edifying, is it? I feel uncomfortable similarities to the deeply unsympathetic curate in Joanne Harris’s novel, ‘Chocolat’, who stumbled on this same step. (If you remember, he spent all of Lent resisting the fleshly allure of the chocolate shop opposite the church, only to break into it for an orgy of chocolate scoffing on Holy Saturday. Poor chap.) In my defence, I can only say that I am perfectly well aware that the eating or not of chocolate has very little to do with the true spirit of Lent, probably does nothing much for one’s immortal soul, and makes no difference at all to the rest of humanity. But today is Laetare Sunday, not to mention Mothering Sunday, and I’m jolly well going to take the opportunity to savour a rose cream or two. And – which I hope may be a tiny bit more in the right spirit – I’ll be making a donation to Headway, the brain injury charity, of the money I save from not eating chocolate for the rest of these six weeks. Happy Sunday. Think pink! (Or rather, rose.)