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Over the Easter weekend, shops will pack away unsold Easter eggs. Easter Sunday is passed and Easter is over for another year.
But for the Church it is quite a different matter. Easter Sunday marks the beginning of fifty days of celebration – the season of Easter. The Roman document on the liturgical year says that these fifty days “are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one great Sunday”.
The Easter season is the oldest season of the liturgical year. By the end of the second century two annual festivals have developed in the Church – Pascha and Pentecost. The Pascha feast corresponds to our paschal triduum. Pentecost (“fifty days”) originated in a Jewish festival of thanksgiving for the harvest and the gift of the law on Sinai. For the Christian community it became a fifty-day celebration of the resurrection. During Pentecost kneeling and fasting were not permitted as both were considered signs of penance.
For the early Christians, the whole fifty-day period was a celebration of the paschal mystery in its entirety. The resurrection, ascension, outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the founding of the Church were understood as different facets of the one mystery. It was only later that the community came to mark the coming of the Spirit on the fiftieth day of the season. Celebrating the ascension on the fortieth day developed in Antioch around 380CE. So the unity of the fifty days was broken as the resurrection, the ascension and Pentecost began to be celebrated separately. Easter and Pentecost became two separate days rather than two names for the same fifty-day period. Only in recent years has the unity of the liturgical rites been re-established.
It is a challenge for those who plan and lead liturgy to celebrate the Easter Season as one unified period of joy rather than a series of separate feast days. The period after Easter can seem a letdown after the exuberance of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. Often liturgy teams have put so much effort into planning Lent and the triduum that they have little time and energy left to give to the Easter season. It is also difficult in today’s world to sustain a celebration over seven whole weeks.
Perhaps the best way to understand the Easter season is to consider it as an overflow of the Vigil and a time for unfolding the Easter mysteries. During the fifty days the Church continues to instruct the newly initiated about the faith which they have embraced. For these people, it is the period of mystagogy when the “spiritual and heavenly mysteries of the Church are explained”. At the same time all members of the community are called to reflect on the meaning of their own baptism and to celebrate the conversion that has happened during Lent. We celebrate Christ’s victory over sin and death and we need to celebrate that long and well.
have a great fifty days!