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The Whys and Wherefores of the 50 Days
For the first two hundred years or so of the Church, there were no annual liturgical feasts as we know them today, just the weekly celebration of the resurrection on the Lord’s Day, Sunday. By the end of the second century, however, many Christian communities celebrated two annual festivals –Pascha and Pentecost.
Pascha was the annual commemoration of Christ’s passion, death and resurrection corresponding with our Easter Triduum.
Pentecost was a fifty-day festival immediately following Pascha. The title Pentecost was carried over from Judaism by the early Christians. The Jewish Feast of Weeks, referred to in the books of Exodus and Leviticus, celebrated the completion of the grain harvest. Because it was held 50 days after Passover, it was given the name Pentecost (the fiftieth day) in Greek.
“From the day after the Sabbath you shall count off seven weeks. You shall count until the day after the seventh Sabbath, fifty days; then you shall present an offering of new grain to the Lord.” (Lev 23: 15-16)
Our current liturgical calendar calls this fifty-day post-Easter period Easter Time. (I prefer the term “Easter Season” by which it was previously known because I believe that most people understand “Easter Time” as meaning only the Holy Thursday-Good Friday-Easter Day period or Triduum.) The name “Pentecost” is now used to refer just to the fiftieth day after Easter Sunday and not to the whole fifty -day period.
Writing in the year 205, the African Church Father Tertullian describes this fifty-day period as second only to Easter Day itself as the preferred time for initiation into the Church:
“After Pascha, Pentecost is a most joyous space for conferring baptisms; wherein the resurrection of the Lord was repeatedly proven among the disciples and the hope of the advent of the Lord indirectly pointed to.”
In another work, Tertullian emphasises that the spirit of this season is one of rejoicing: “We count fasting or kneeling in worship on the Lord’s Day to be unlawful. We enjoy the same privilege also from Easter to Pentecost”.
This same understanding is to be found in these words from Augustine nearly two hundred years later: “During Pentecost let no one fast or kneel, for they are days of rest and joy. Let those who carry the burdens of labour refresh themselves a little in the days of Pentecost.”
In his work Life of Constantine (around 338) Eusebius makes reference to the season:
“All these events occurred during a most important festival, I mean the august and holy solemnity of Pentecost, which is distinguished by a period of seven weeks, and sealed with that one day on which the holy Scriptures attest the ascension of our common Saviour into heaven, and the descent of the Holy Spirit among men”.
It is not until the end of the fourth century that the first evidence is found of the Ascension being given its own separate day of commemoration: “From the first Lord’s day count forty days, from the Lord’s day till the fifth day of the week, and celebrate the feast of the ascension of the Lord.” (Apostolic Constitutions)
In this “week of weeks” (the Easter Season is seven weeks long) we sing our Alleluias, to the risen Christ.