This is the day the Lord hath made; let us be glad and rejoice therein. – Ps. 117.24
With this antiphon, the Church proclaims Easter Sunday the greatest day of the year. For the Christian believer every day is, of course, a celebration of Jesus Christ’s resurrection from the dead, as is every Mass. Yet daily rejoicing pales in comparison to that of the Sunday Mass, since Sunday is the day that the resurrection took place, the "eighth" day of the week signifying a new creation and a new life. And these Sundays of the year, in turn, are dwarfed by Easter, the Feast of Feasts celebrated in the newness of the vernal moon and in the rebirth of springtime. Easter is the Christian day par excellence.
The commemoration of our Lord’s physical resurrection from the dead provides not only the crucial resolution to the Passion story, but to several liturgical themes stretching back over the past two months. Easter ends the seventy days of Babylonian exile begun on Septuagesima Sunday by restoring the Temple that was destroyed on
Good Friday, i.e. the body of Jesus Christ. It ends the forty days of wandering in the desert begun on Ash Wednesday by giving us the Promised Land of eternal life. It ends the fourteen days of concealment and confusion during Passiontide by revealing the divinity of Jesus Christ and the meaning of His cryptic prophecies. It ends the seven days of Holy Week by converting our sorrow over the crucifixion into our jubilance about the resurrection. And it ends the three days of awesome mystery explored during the sacred Triduum by celebrating the central mystery of our faith: life born from death, ultimate good from unspeakable evil. It is for this reason that all the things that had been instituted at one point or another during the past penitential seasons (the purple vestments or the veiled images) are dramatically removed, while all the things that had been successively suppressed (the Alleluia, the Gloria in excelsis, several Gloria Patri’s, or the bells) are dramatically restored.
The Easter season (or Paschaltide, as it is traditionally known) is not an undifferentiated block of joy but one that consists of several distinct stages. The first is the Easter Octave, lasting from Easter Sunday to "Low" Sunday. These eight days comprise a prolonged rejoicing in our Savior’s victory over death and in the eternal life given to the newly baptized converts. In fact, Christian initiates used to receive a white robe upon their baptism on Holy Saturday night and would wear it for the rest of the week. They would take off these symbols of their new life on the following Sunday, which in Latin is called Dominica in albis depositis as a result of this practice. (The English name, Low Sunday, was used as a contrast to the high mark of Easter). For centuries the first Sunday after Easter was also the day when children would receive their first
Holy Communion, often with their father and mother kneeling beside them. So meaningful was this event that in Europe it was referred to as the "most beautiful day of life." (Significantly, both customs are encapsulated in Low Sunday’s stational church, the basilica of St. Pancras (see Station Days): St. Pancras, a twelve-year-old martyr, is the patron saint of children and neophytes). Finally, in addition to the two Sundays of the Easter Octave, several of the weekdays within the Octave assumed a special importance.
The close of the Easter Octave, however, does not end the jubilance of Paschaltide. The Allelulia continues to be used copiously in the Mass and in the divine office; the Vidi Aquam and Regina cœli continue to replace the Asperges and Angelus; and the Paschal candle still burns bright. Nevertheless, a discernible shift in mood and meaning takes place. The weekdays no longer have their own set of Mass propers, while the Sunday propers tend to focus less on the specific events of the Resurrection and more on the general legacy of Christ’s victory. There also occurs an interesting "triduum" immediately prior to the Feast of the Ascension known as the Lesser Rogation Days (see Rogation Days). Instituted in the 400s by St. Claudianus Mamertus in response to a series of natural catastrophes that were plaguing the diocese of Vienne in Dauphiny, the observance soon spread to the rest of France in the sixth century and then to Rome in the ninth. Rogationtide consists of penitential processions from or to the church during which are prayed poignant litanies petitioning for deliverance from a multitude of evils. Because these rogations were often agricultural, processions would often be conducted into the field for the priest to bless the crops. The Lesser Rogation Days were also once considered an ideal time to mend any personal rifts between parishioners (see below).
This phase of Paschaltide also marks an anticipation of and preparation for the next cardinal event that the Church celebrates: the Ascension of our Lord into heaven forty days after His resurrection. In a sense this feast ends the Easter revelry: after the Gospel is read during the Ascension Thursday Mass, the Paschal candle is extinguished.
It does not, however, end Paschaltide. The nine days that the Apostles spent in prayer from Ascension Thursday to Pentecost provide not only the archetypal inspiration for all later novenas but the eagerly awaited build-up for what is often called the birthday of the Church, the Feast of Pentecost, or Whitsunday. This is the day that the Holy Spirit descended on the Apostles, giving them the grace and resolve to teach and convert all nations. The feast is fitting
for a number of reasons. First, it corresponds to the Jewish feast of Pentecost, the great religious and agricultural festival of First Fruits. The Christian Pentecost, on the other hand, celebrates the first fruits of the Holy Spirit and of all our Lord’s promises. (The Pentecost Octave is considered an ideal time to meditate on the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit.) And just as the Jewish Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after Passover, the Christian Pentecost is celebrated fifty days after Easter ("Pentecost" is the Greek word for fifty). God also revealed the Law to Moses on Mount Sinai fifty days after the first Passover, and so it is fitting the New Law was promulgated by the Apostles fifty days after it was ratified by the Lamb of God’s self-sacrifice.
Finally, the week after Pentecost constitutes the concluding stage of the Easter season, which quietly ends on the following Saturday afternoon. One distinctive feature of this week that bears special mention are the Ember Days. It no doubt strikes us as odd that three days of the jubilant Octave of Pentecost are reserved for fasting. This befuddlement has much to do with a common misconception about fasting, which tends to see the practice as a sign of contrition and sorrow. As is clear from the Mosaic Law, however, fasting can be joyous as well as penitential. In fact, it can express a variety of moods and serve a number of purposes. In the case of the Whitsundaytide Ember Days (as Pope St. Leo the Great once explained), the Apostles were commissioned by the Spirit to embark on a great mission, but before doing so they readied themselves with a holy fast by which they could more effectively wage war against the forces of evil. This was not a fast of mourning, but a fast of gladsome training and preparation. By following the example of the Apostles, St. Leo tells us, we too are joyfully preparing ourselves for our mission as witnesses of Christ to an unbelieving world. Having undergone the purgation of Lent and the sanctification of Paschaltide, we too are poised to burst out of the closed doors and speak the Good News of salvation.
|Easter Sunday||The feast of the Resurrection. Traditional Easter dinner, etc.|
|Easter Monday||The Emmaus Walk, "drenching" and "switching."|
|Easter Thursday||Commemoration of the departed (Slavic).|
|Easter Friday||A favorite day for pilgrimages.|
|Low Sunday||The most privileged Octave-day of the year. First communion for children.|
|Good Shepherd Sunday||A reflection on what it took to make Christ the gentle shepherd of our souls.|
|Third Sunday After Easter||An exhortation on how Christ’s flock is to conduct itself and an oblique allusion to the Ascension.|
|Fourth Sunday After Easter||A description of the meekness and patience of Christ’s flock and an explanation of the necessity of the Ascension.|
|Fifth Sunday After Easter||The liberty of the New Covenant and its perfection in prayer and the Spirit.|
|Monday before Ascension Thursday||Rogation Day.|
|Tuesday before Ascension Thursday||Rogation Day.|
|Wednesday before Ascension Thursday||Rogation Day.|
|Ascension Thursday||Forty days after Easter, our Lord ascends into heaven. The Paschal candle is extinguished.|
|Sunday within the Octave of the Ascension||A joyous preparation for Pentecost.|
|Pentecost (Whitsunday)||Fifty days after Easter, the descent of the Holy Spirit on the Apostles. One of the three great feasts of the liturgical year.|
|Ember Wednesday within the Octave of Pentecost|
|Ember Friday within the Octave of Pentecost|
|Ember Saturday within the Octave of Pentecost||The end of Paschaltide (after the office of None on Saturday afternoon).|