This period of the year, from Easter Day through the Day of Pentecost, is the oldest part of the Church Year. It is directly derived from the fifty-day period in the Jewish calendar, which began with Passover and concluded with Pentecost (the Greek term for “fiftieth day”). The Lord’s death and resurrection took place at Passover, and its completion—the empowering of the apostles by the Holy Spirit—took place on Pentecost. These are the church’s original feast days, which in very early times were both moved to the Sundays following the Jewish festivals, because of the early church’s intense reverence for the first day of the week as the Lord’s Day, the Day of Resurrection. The early Christians considered every Sunday to be a celebration of the rising of Christ and of the coming of the Holy Spirit—a repetition of Easter and Pentecost.
At an early date, the Great Fifty Days came to have a number of liturgical characteristics that set them apart from the remainder of the Church Year. Many of those were lost in later generations of the church, but others are still very much a part of our liturgy, including some that have been revived by many of the liturgical churches in recent years. Some of the more notable of those Eastertide liturgical notes are described here.
This word, derived from the Hebrew word hallelujah, means literally, “praise to Yahweh.” In Jewish worship, it is particularly characteristic of Passover. In the Seder meal, the entire group of psalms called the Hallel Psalms are sung (Psalms 113-118). As a result, the Hallel Psalms themselves have been of particular importance in the Christian Passover—that is, Easter. Psalm 114 is always sung at the Easter Vigil and Psalm 118 on Easter Day. As early as the time of the writing of the book of Revelation, hallelujah has an important place in the church’s worship, as can be seen in the description of the worship in heaven in that book. One notices in the liturgies during Eastertide that the word alleluia is used not only in its usual places, but also in many hymns and other parts of the liturgy.
The Acts of the Apostles
This book with its description of the life of early Christian community, characterized by an intense awareness of the risen Lord’s presence and the apostolic preaching of the Resurrection, has had an important place in the church’s liturgy. In recent years, the liturgical revisions among Anglicans, Roman Catholics, and Lutherans have placed it again in the Easter liturgy. The Acts of the Apostles furnishes one of the readings every Sunday during the Great Fifty Days.
Other books of scripture heard especially in Easter season include the book of Revelation, 1 Peter, 1 John, and the Gospel according to John. Each of the years in the three-year cycle of readings features one of first three for the second reading at the Eucharist. The Gospel readings in almost every case are from John. 1 Peter is a baptismal homily which reflects on what Baptism has done for us as members of the risen Body of Christ. 1 John reflects on the character of Christian living in the Resurrection. Revelation is chosen because of its vision of the resurrected church at worship as it praises its victorious Lord, which is an image of our worship, especially in the Eucharist.
The Paschal Candle
A large candle that is first lighted at the Great Vigil on Easter Eve burns in a prominent place in the church at every service during the season. It was the custom of the Jewish synagogue to begin services in the evening with the lighting of candles—originally for the purpose of giving light but almost immediately invested with the symbolic meaning of light: the revelation of God’s love. Early Christians continued that use of light, seeing in the bringing of light into a dark place a symbol of the Resurrection. As early as the fourth century, the celebration of the Resurrection in Jerusalem began with a candle lighted in the Holy Sepulcher and brought out during the night of Easter Eve to the words, “The light of Christ.” That ceremony spread throughout the Christian church many ages ago.
The paschal candle (from the Latin and Greek word pascha, which means “Passover”) is often decorated with nails representing the wounds from the crucifixion which the risen Lord’s body still bore.
In the ancient Christian basilicas, some of which still exist in Italy, the stand for the paschal candle was built into the pulpit as a permanent feature of the building’s architecture. In the Middle Ages, Winchester Cathedral had a paschal candle that was sixty feet tall! In many places it is kept near the baptismal font and relighted at other times of the year, especially for Baptisms and funerals.
Sunday Themes in Eastertide
Certain scriptural themes which highlight the meaning of the Resurrection have been part of the church’s tradition for many centuries. The Sunday after Easter Day (the Second Sunday of Easter) always has as its Gospel reading the risen Lord’s appearance to Thomas. The
theme is, of course, not “Doubting Thomas,” but Thomas’s outburst of praise in which Jesus is first recognized as God—“My Lord and my God!” he said—and Jesus’ words about us: “Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believe.”
The Third Sunday of Easter always gives an account of a resurrection appearance in which Jesus eats with his friends. Its significance for Christians lies in its eucharistic pattern. It was in the breaking of bread that Jesus was first recognized after his resurrection. It is in the breaking of the bread in the Eucharist that we encounter our risen Lord now; hence our response at that point in the liturgy: “Alleluia. Christ our Passover is sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast. Alleluia.”
The Fourth Sunday is called “Good Shepherd Sunday” because its Gospel reading always reflects Jesus’ relationship to us in the image of the Shepherd: he who knows us each by name, who provides for our needs, who saves us from evil, and who guides us into new life.
The Fifth Sunday has readings in which, prior to the crucifixion, Jesus foretold the results of his death for the future life of his followers. In Year A his death will make him the way for us into eternal life: “I am the way and the truth and the life.” In Year B, his death will prepare the way for us to receive the Holy Spirit, who will bind us into his life. In Year C, his death, as the ultimate expression of his love, will give us the model for Christian living: to love one another as he loved us.
The Sixth Sunday’s Gospel reading has Jesus describing the results of our new life in him. Year A describes that life as a union as intimate as that between a vine and its branches: the branches draw their life from the vine. Year B reveals that the new life of divine love that we have received makes us no longer simply servants of God but the friends of God. In Year C we hear his promise that the Holy Spirit will be the source of our continued life in him and will be our Counselor.
On the following Thursday, following Luke’s chronology for our Lord’s Ascension to the Father on the fortieth day after the Resurrection, we celebrate that event. This is not an event separate from the Resurrection, but one of the three parts of that one event: rising, ascending, giving the Spirit.
On the Seventh Sunday, the Sunday after Ascension Day, we hear each year a different portion of the “high-priestly prayer,” the prayer Jesus prayed on the night before his death for us: that the glory he has received from the Father may be given to us (Year A); that under the Father’s protection we may have unity and be witnesses to the truth (Year B); that our unity with each other in the Father and the Son may be a witness to the world (Year C).
Finally, the season of Easter is completed on the Day of Pentecost or Whitsunday. This celebrates the third action of Christ’s victory over death: the gift of the Holy Spirit to the church. The second reading from Acts shows the disciples waiting for God to reach out to them. Their waiting is rewarded by the coming of the Holy Spirit, which makes it possible for them to speak the good news in the languages of all peoples. God is now the source of reuniting the human race in Christ by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Gospel reading reveals that through the Holy Spirit we become the means for Jesus’ ministry to continue; receiving his peace we become the instruments of that peace to the world.
On this day, the full results of redemption in the risen Lord come to light and are the cause of our celebration. In response, we keep this day as a baptismal day, and even if there are no candidates to be baptized we renew our baptismal vows.
These Eastertide themes were old and hallowed by the fourth century, when they were used by the church to instruct the newly baptized in the “mysteries” of the faith. In those days, the unbaptized were not allowed to take part in the Prayers of the People, the exchange of the Peace, or the sacraments, especially the Eucharist, until after they were baptized. These readings and themes were used by the great teaching bishops of the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries to reveal the meaning of those liturgical events, especially to the newly baptized, who were participating in them for the first time.
The unbaptized were not allowed to take part in the Prayers of the People, because in the new-covenant community of the baptized, we are ourselves the priesthood, who come directly to the Father in intercession, rather than depending on others to do that for us. In our own liturgical practice, it is important to notice that it is not the leader of those prayers who does the praying. That person—whether ordained or not—simply announces the theme, and all of us, the baptized royal priesthood, pray in the power of the Spirit to the Father.
The Peace is the greeting of the risen Christ. It is his invariable salutation in his resurrection appearances. We greet one another with his peace. We are not merely being friendly, nor are we attempting to show our friends that we like them. We, the Body of Christ, by virtue of our Baptism are bringing our risen Lord’s presence to each other.
In the Eucharist and the other sacraments, it is all the baptized, not just the clergy, who celebrate. Again our share in Christ’s priesthood is revealed. It is not simply bread and wine that are offered to God to be filled with Christ. The bread and wine are the signs and bearers of us who offer them. They can become the Body and Blood of Christ only because we who offer them are his Body and Blood.
In Eastertide, the newly baptized, and all the baptized, have revealed to them the fullness of our redemption and the depth of our life in Christ. In the words of St. Augustine, preached to the newly baptized in his cathedral at Easter, “You are the Body of Christ. In you and through you the work of the Incarnation must go forward. You are to be taken. You are to be blessed and broken and distributed, that you may be the means of grace and the vehicles of the eternal charity.”
From The Rite Light: Reflections on the Sunday Readings and Seasons of the Church Year. Copyright © 1998 by Michael W. Merriman. Church Publishing