Question by Rev Fr Nicholas Frimpong:
My Lord, there are two Sundays in the Catholic Church which are called “Joyful Sundays”. The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday and the fourth Sunday of Lent is called Laetare Sunday. What is the difference between these two Sundays? As they occur in different liturgical seasons, why are they both called Joyful Sundays? Are there any historical reasons for this?

Answer by Bishop Joseph Osei-Bonsu:

Gaudete Sunday
Certain Sundays throughout the liturgical year have taken their names from the first word in Latin of the Introit, i.e., the entrance antiphon at Mass. Gaudete Sunday, which is the third Sunday of Advent, is one of these days. The date usually falls between December 11 to 17 each year. The Introit for Gaudete Sunday, in both the Traditional Latin Mass and the Novus Ordo (i.e., the Mass promulgated by Pope Paul VI in 1969), is taken from Philippians 4:4, Gaudete in Domino Semper, or “Rejoice in the Lord always”.

The season of Advent originated as a fast of 40 days in preparation for Christmas, commencing on the day after the feast of Saint Martin (11 November). In the ninth century, the duration of Advent was reduced to four weeks (a period starting four Sundays before Christmas), and Advent preserved most of the characteristics of a penitential season, which made it a kind of counterpart to Lent. Gaudete Sunday is a counterpart to Laetare Sunday, and provides a similar break about midway through a season which is otherwise of a penitential character, and signifies the nearness of the Lord’s coming.

The spirit of the liturgy throughout Advent is one of expectation and preparation for the feast of Christmas as well as for the second coming of Christ, and the penitential exercises suitable to that spirit are thus on Gaudete Sunday suspended, as it were, for a while, in order to symbolize that joy and gladness in the promised Redemption.

While the theme of Advent is a focus on the coming of Jesus, the readings for Gaudete Sunday deal with rejoicing in the Lord as well as the mission of John the Baptist and his connection with Advent. Like Lent, Advent is a penitential season, so the priest normally wears purple vestments. But on Gaudete Sunday, having passed the midpoint of Advent, the Church lightens the mood a little, and the priest may wear rose vestments. The term “rose” is used to describe this lighter shade of the colour violet in the Roman Rite. The change in colour provides worshippers with encouragement to continue their spiritual preparation – especially prayer and fasting – for Christmas. In churches that have an Advent wreath, the rose-coloured candle is lit in addition to two of the violet-coloured candles, which represent the first two Sundays of Advent.

Laetare Sunday
Gaudete Sunday is often compared to Laetare Sunday, the fourth Sunday in Lent. Like Gaudete Sunday, Laetare Sunday has a more light-hearted, celebratory mood compared to the usually strict mood of Lent. It is meant to provide a slight relaxation of the Lenten discipline. Traditionally, this Sunday has been a day of celebration within the austere period of Lent. The term Laetare, “Rejoice”, is from the Latin text of the Introit from Isaiah 66:10, which reads, “Rejoice with Jerusalem” (Latin: laetamini cum Hierusalem). The Sunday is considered a day of relaxation from normal Lenten rigours, a day of hope with Easter at last within sight. Traditionally, weddings (otherwise banned during Lent) could be performed on this day.

On this Sunday, flowers may appear on the altar and the organ may be played as a solo instrument. Priests are given the option to wear rose-colored vestments at Mass held on this day in place of the violet vestments normally worn during Lent. Laetare Sunday is exactly 21 days before Easter Sunday, a moveable feast based on the cycles of the moon. The date can be any between 1 March and 4 April inclusive; occurrence in April is considered to be uncommon; the last occurrence was on 3 April 2011 and the next will be on 4 April 2038, after which it will not occur again until 1 April 2057!

In conclusion, the two Sundays designated as “Joyful Sundays” are referred to, as we have seen, as Gaudete Sunday and Laetare Sunday. The two Latin words used both mean the same thing: they refer to the JOY that the Christian must have on these two days. The only difference between them is that one occurs during Lent and the other during Advent. They both provide breaks about midway through the seasons of Lent and Advent, both of which have a penitential character.

For further explanations or enquiries, you may contact the author, Most Rev. Joseph Osei-Bonsu, Catholic Bishop of Konongo-Mampong, on this number: 0244488904, or on WhatsApp (with the same number).