Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
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Easter's 50 days
by Father Jan Larson
(From the April 19, 2012 edition of the Inland Register)
The Easter season lasts from Easter to Pentecost Sunday, 50 days kept as if they were one feast day, or as St. Athanasius described it in the fourth century, one “great Sunday.” The Easter season has actually been a part of the liturgical year longer than has the season of Lent. In the early Church the entire 50 days was not called the Easter season, but rather “Pentecost,” from the Greek word for 50. This was clearly a season of joy. These days were a time of rest and gladness. Kneeling, forbidden during the liturgy on any Sunday, was not allowed on any day of the Easter season. Fasting was also inappropriate. This, above any other time of the year, was a time for the Church to rejoice. The Easter Alleluia! was the song of the people of God for these special Easter weeks.
The distinguished liturgical scholar Gerard Sloyan explains that the 40 days of Lent, leading up to Easter, are more fixed in Christian consciousness than the Easter season itself. “In the minds of many,” writes the author, “Easter is not a liturgical season; it is only an observance of one day. The reasons for this are fairly clear. Christians of the West have long viewed Easter simply as Jesus’ triumph over death rather than seeing it for what it is, their own victory as the baptized over sin and, ultimately, death. They have viewed Pentecost as something quite independent of Easter, a feast of the Holy Spirit rather than of Christ risen sending the Spirit from the Father. In the rhythm of life in the northern hemisphere, Easter Day marks early spring while Pentecost announces early summer. For this and other reasons Eastertide has become a ‘non-season’ in our frantic culture, almost a liturgical desert.”
One way to celebrate the Easter season is to view it as an opportunity to unite in our own minds the mysteries that have come to be somewhat disassociated from one another over the ages of Church history. It is clear that the texts of the Christian Bible present a clear calendar of events – Jesus died on Friday, rose on Sunday, ascended 40 days later, and the gift of the Spirit was given on the 50th day after the Resurrection. Even though this sequence of events is apparent, the early Church showed no interest in assigning these separate events to specific days. All of these events were summed up and celebrated on every Sunday, which is why, in those days, Sunday was often called a “little Easter.” It was not until the fourth century that Holy Week and its separate celebrations began to develop.
Celebrating the Easter season as a unitive feast – a feast of many days containing many integrated themes – is not easy. In a way, it would be like expecting Americans to celebrate the new year, Presidents’ Day, Lincoln’s birthday, Memorial Day, Independence Day, Labor Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas all within the span of seven weeks. But in a real sense, every Eucharistic liturgy is a unitive feast, a feast that celebrates all the mysteries of Christ. Over the course of history we have assigned different aspects of salvation history to particular days, not because they are not integrally connected, but because separating them on the calendar allows us to focus more intensely on the various aspects of the mystery of Christ, and in doing so, enrich the entire liturgical year.
(Father Larson is a priest of and liturgical consultant for the Archdiocese of Seattle.)