This coming Sunday, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is observed as Laetare Sunday by many Christian churches. The Latin word "Laetare" means "rejoice," and the term is taken from the introductory antiphon of that Mass, "Rejoice, Jerusalem! Be glad for her, you who love her; rejoice with her, you who mourned for her," Isaiah 66:10.

Subdued Lenten penance is visible this Sunday as bright, rose-colored vestments replace somber purple. This custom derives from an ancient practice of the pope sending roses this day to civic leaders in recognition of their service to the church.

The University of Notre Dame adapted that custom in 1883 by announcing the recipient of its Laetare Medal for promoting Christian values in our culture each year on the fourth Sunday of Lent.

Our rejoicing on Laetare Sunday has many aspects, the first of which is a brief respite from Lenten penance. In 1216, Pope Innocent III said, "On this Sunday, which marks the middle of Lent, a measure of consoling relaxation is provided, so that the faithful may continue to bear their Lenten denial with a refreshed and easier heart."

Rejoicing during Lent might seem paradoxical to some, but in truth, there is no contradiction between penance and joy. There might be no pleasure in penance, but joy is the hallmark of authentic penance. St. Francis of Assisi encouraged the faithful to do "joyful penance."

The Ash Wednesday Gospel from Matthew advises Christians, "When you fast, do not look gloomy like the hypocrites," Matthew 6:16.

There is a natural joy of accomplishment in having completed the first half of Lent. We are over the hump. We have kept our resolve this far. We can make it the rest of the way. Easter is now in sight.

But Laetare Sunday is more than a pep talk or a liturgical halftime show. The deeper and hidden joys of penance are brought to light this Sunday.

The joy of penance is found in knowing one is doing the right thing. This is a joy often present amid difficulties and trials. And the greater the challenge, the greater such joy.

Doing the right thing is often not easy or pleasant. It might hurt. But one has the satisfaction of a clear conscience and a calm spirit. There is no earthly pleasure that awards the same comfort and peace as the joy of doing the right thing amid difficulty.

Of the many elements of joy celebrated on Laetare Sunday, the one essential joy is found in the Paschal Mystery, the mystery of the death and resurrection of Christ.

The unique joy of Laetare Sunday is knowing Easter is approaching with its assurance we are redeemed and our life has meaning, purpose and destiny beyond the here and now. It is the hope of life eternal.

"Rejoice not that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven," Luke 10:20.

Father Earl Meyer is a Capuchin at Center for Spiritual Life in Victoria. Contact him at icerl@juno.com.