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A rose-tinted Sunday

April 3, 2011

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.

Priest celebrating mass on Laetare Sunday, from (great name!)

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.

Miserere mei: the penitent Magdalene, Arnold Bocklin (1827-1901):

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.

Very pretty - but not pink. Image borrowed from

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.

Fra Angelico, 'The forerunners of Christ with Saints and Martyrs', c. 1423,

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….

Rose and violet creams by Charbonnel & Walker. Image from

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.)

No roses in the garden yet, but a pink rhododendron is flowering just in time for Laetare Sunday.


(You will find greater liturgical detail and some beautiful music at chantblog; and a more erudite description of the custom and ceremony of the papal golden rose at A Catholic Life.)


See also Happy Easter and a post (a lot less profound than it sounds, I’m afraid) about Advent, ‘The love that dares to speak its name’.

22 Comments leave one →
  1. April 3, 2011 8:23 pm

    I found that most interesting and Laetare Sunday would indeed be a most welcome half-time break!

    The ‘Rhody’ is a happy sight for you after all the snow….it’s one regret I have, not putting some in here but perhaps I did think of it and decided that they wouldn’t take the valley winds.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 4, 2011 11:55 am

      Well, I’ve learned something else from you – I had no idea that rhodies would grow in Australia! Pity your winds won’t allow them. Can you grow azaleas too/ instead?

  2. April 4, 2011 2:20 am

    Sometimes, most times, I find it more interesting to learn these things from someone who is an outsider, as they bring a perspective that may be more in kind with your own when learning about something new. As you say, for your husband this may be ‘unremarkable’ and he may not have even questioned it.

    P.S. I ate my first chocolate bunny today.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 4, 2011 11:53 am

      I’ve started spotting the odd half-eaten little bunny around too. Not the chocolate kind, though (sob).

  3. April 4, 2011 8:59 pm

    Yes! We have the National Rhododendron Gardens in our beautiful Dandenongs ( and they are a main attraction at different spots all over the state; also into New South Wales.

    In our little courtyard here we have half a dozen azaleas; my husband’s favourites.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 4, 2011 10:11 pm

      Thanks for the link. I begin to see why my mum speaks so fondly of the Dandenongs. Wish I could just pop over to visit the gardens, although of course it’s the wrong time of year with you for the blooms.

      I love azaleas too, but the deer do like to nibble off the buds!

  4. April 4, 2011 10:14 pm

    The Vikings wore pink too.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 4, 2011 10:28 pm

      Well, I never knew that either! Thank you for telling me. I can’t help imagining that they must have looked rather fetching in pink. I wonder if they used madder for their pink dye, which is apparently what was used to dye rose pink vestments in the past.

      • April 4, 2011 10:37 pm

        Yes, madder was a common dye back then. Depending on the mordant used to fix the dye, it can produce pinks, reds or russets.

  5. April 5, 2011 7:52 am

    That was wonderfully written and so interesting! I’m a total outsider to the Catholic Church, so had no idea about the priests in pink. And when it comes to Easter, I’ve managed to skip religion and go straight to the chocolate, so one step from one to the other isn’t really so bad. 🙂

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 5, 2011 12:11 pm

      Thanks, Michele. I’m hoping that the chocolate will taste all the better for the wait…slurp…

  6. April 7, 2011 3:51 pm

    I really enjoyed this:-) Sadly none of the churches I served in had any rose-pink vestments (not High enough) so I never had the pleasure of wearing some. However, we did light a rose-pink candle on our Advent wreath for Gaudete Sunday, which makes the same point 🙂
    I too have given up chocolate (and wine) for Lent, though my dear daughter made sure I had a taste of each on Laetare Sunday.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 7, 2011 6:25 pm

      I’m glad you enjoyed it! I do like the pink Advent candle. Our little parish church doesn’t run to pink vestments, sadly, though we did see them in the city church which we used to attend. I can only imagine the effect of a cathedral with all the priests, and the servers, and the altar itself covered in pink. I mean rose. 😉

  7. Sara permalink
    April 8, 2011 5:04 am

    Charming post! And yes, speaking from experience, the chocolate DOES taste extra wonderful once you get to it.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 8, 2011 9:30 pm

      Thank you. In previous years I have almost lost my taste for chocolate by the time Easter arrives. It doesn’t seem to be happening this year, though!

  8. April 16, 2011 5:38 pm

    I’m spending a very pleasant hour rereading all your recent posts and kicking myself for not commenting at the time you posted them – but I’m still struggling a wee bit with the energy and concentration levels! The Pi post, for example, had me (Maths 0-level, failed twice) nodding heartily in agreement and your dry rot story made me promise never to complain when anything in this much smaller 300-year-old house needs repairing/restoring/replacing.

    But this post was particularly fascinating to me as an erstwhile Catholic, now Buddhist. I thought I had a reasonable knowledge of the liturgical significance of the different coloured vestments but somehow, even in all those hours of sitting in quiet contemplation in the chapel at my convent school, the pink variety had passed me by. I always learn something quite new and interesting when I stop by. Thank you.

    • dancingbeastie permalink*
      April 16, 2011 7:19 pm

      What kind comments. I’m so glad that you find posts worth coming back to here at DB! Especially when you still need to hoard your energy for the more important things in life. I’ve been willing you on towards recovery.

  9. May 1, 2011 3:32 am

    Thanks for the useful insight points.


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