Today is Refreshment Sunday, the Fourth Sunday of Lent. Since ancient times, Christians have recognized their frailty and realized they might not be able to maintain their strict Lenten disciplines all the way through the long, cold days of Lent waiting for Easter.
So rather than giving up halfway through and chucking the whole thing, they created Refreshment Sunday, a sort of pit-stop at the beginning of the last long climb toward Holy Week.
Today, you have the full sanction and blessing of the Church to take a day off from your Lenten discipline.
As is wont to happen with church traditions, Refreshment Sunday has had many auxiliary traditions grow up alongside it over the years.
Its original name was Laetare Sunday, from the Latin for “O be joyful.”
This was not an exhortation to the people to be joyful, the medieval Catholic Church was not that generous.
It was rather named for the introit used at the mass on the fourth Sunday of Lent, from Isaiah 66. It begins “O be joyful, Jerusalem, and come together all you that love her.”
All the monks and priests knew the introit and calling it Laetare Sunday was a sort of shorthand nickname for the fourth Sunday of Lent.
As time went on, “this same Sunday was known in England as Mothering Sunday. It was a day when servants and apprentices were allowed to take a day off and go home to visit their mothers. That tradition later became linked to parochial life as people made pilgrimage to the church of their youth, their “Mother Church.””
Not quite the same as Mother’s Day in the U.S., but probably part of its origins.
There is also a Refreshment Sunday in the other penitential season of the Church year, Advent. You may recognize it as the Sunday when some churches burn a pink candle in their Advent wreaths instead of a blue or purple one.
That comes from the other name for Refreshment Sunday which is Rose Sunday. It actually comes from medieval times when the Pope would send a golden rose to European monarchs as a reminder of to whom they owed their ultimate loyalty—although at times it was not clear whether that loyalty was supposed to be to God or to the Pope himself!
But Rose Sunday also came to be celebrated in a way I devoutly wish I had the liturgical budget to facilitate: with the priest wearing rose pink vestments.
In the old lectionary, the Gospel lesson for Refreshment Sunday was the story of the loaves and fishes. It’s very strange to realize that “there was a time when the lectionary known to most churches of the West did not include the Parable of the Prodigal Son at all, even though it is surely one of the best known of Jesus’ parables.”
It wasn’t until the Revised Common Lectionary was compiled in 1992 that the Prodigal Son had a slot to be proclaimed in church on Sunday mornings.
The Prodigal Son certainly finds himself in need of refreshment by the time he finds himself so hungry he’s eating food meant for pigs.
Refreshment is a very kind word for what is actually a very deep and visceral need.
And it’s a need that we all have within us.
There comes a time in our lives when we realize, like the younger son, that we are living badly.
Or rather, there should come a time in our lives that we realize that, but many of us don’t. Continue reading