Easter and its Cycle
EASTER AND ITS CYCLE
Easter is the central liturgical season of the Church year, with the Easter season, the 50 days between Easter Sunday and Pentecost, celebrated as one great feast day, the "great Sunday." Since Bede the Venerable (De ratione temporum 1:5) the origin of the term for the feast of Christ's Resurrection has been popularly considered to be from the Anglo-Saxon Eastre, a goddess of spring. Another ancient name that has become more common with the renewal of Biblical studies and the liturgy is Pasch, from the Greek transliteration πάσχα of the Aramaic word for the Hebrew pesach, passover. In the first three centuries Pasch referred to the annual celebration
of Christ's Passion and Death; from the end of the 4th century it designated also the easter vigil; from the 5th century it was reserved more for Easter itself.
History. In Exodus 12.11 and Numbers 28.16 pesach is used to describe the passage of Yahweh or His angel on the night of Israel's deliverance out of Egyptian slavery. The Hebrews had been commanded to slaughter a lamb and sprinkle blood on their doorposts; the angel then passed over their homes to destroy only the first-born sons of the Egyptians. Passover referred also to exodus itself and the entrance into the promised land. The term came to be related to the return from Babylonian captivity as the new passover; it also developed an eschatological note referring to the final messianic deliverance. The Old Testament Passover feast joined these themes with those of a primitive spring harvest feast in which the first fruits of grain and flock were offered to the Lord. The primitive liturgical year was composed simply of the regular Sunday celebrations together with the two annual feasts of the Pasch and Pentecost. This simplicity does not reveal so much a poverty of imagination as the vital characteristic of early Christian spirituality: a deep awareness of the risen Christ ever present, ever coming. Every celebration, both the weekly and the annual, was inspired with this awareness. Both this eschatological emphasis and this simple liturgical structure of the year were developments of the apostolic period. Only later evidence shows a growing tendency that has become characteristic, but that is being balanced by regaining a fuller understanding of the Resurrection and eschatology.
The early Christians celebrated Easter as the commemoration par excellence of Christ's Resurrection, but together with the conviction that by initiation into the Church they too had died and risen and ascended with Christ, that by the celebration of each Eucharist they deepened their assimilation to Christ and called for their definitive and full union with Him before the Father. It was natural that they would transform the annual Jewish Passover into their own principal festival.
Date. Not only was the significance of the Jewish feast changed by the Christians, but also the date. The Jewish method of fixing the date, the 14th day of Nisan, did not confine it to any one day; at a very early time Christians began to assign their Pasch to the Sunday following the Jewish feast. By the end of the 2d century this was the universal custom except in Asia Minor, where the Jewish dating was followed by the so-called quartode-cimans.
The easter controversy was settled to some extent by a series of councils and synods in the late 2d and early 3d centuries under Victor I. The Council of Nicaea attempted to enforce uniformity by establishing the rule that the date of Easter fall on the Sunday following the full moon after the vernal equinox. However, because of divergent methods of reckoning, uniformity of observance was not achieved until dionysius exiguus's work; and even then some provinces, such as Gaul and Britain, went their own way for some years. There is still a divergency of dating between those who follow the Gregorian calendar and those who follow the Julian.
Theme and Characteristics. The paschal mystery, the death and Resurrection of Christ, is the central theme of the Easter cycle—not merely as a historical commemoration, but as a here-and-now manifestation of His glorification in the Christian assembly, and as a fervent prayer for full realization of the Redemption. Like the Jewish Pasch, Easter celebrated deliverance from the slavery of time, sin, and death. Unlike the later Jewish feast, which looked to the coming messianic times, it celebrated the deliverance as already having been achieved in Christ, and as shared by the Church, the Body of Christ. The richness of this theme began to unfold into others at an early date. Easter was considered the ideal time for the initiation of new members into the community of the saved, for their incorporation into the Body of Christ by Baptism, Confirmation, and first Eucharist. The practice led to the development of a preparatory period for Easter itself called lent. The catechumens were expected to attend instructions, to undergo exorcisms, and to fast. In imitation, and in the wake of the 4th-century monastic-ascetic movement, there grew a sense of the need for personal preparation for all the faithful, who then began to participate in these exercises. Thus we find the themes of baptismal renewal, of fasting, penance, and prayer, of deepening understanding of and more intensive commitment to the mystery of Christ and the Church. The preparatory period came to be associated with Christ's 40-day fast and with the sorrowful events before His Resurrection (see holy week). On the other side of Easter there developed more joyful themes associated with the appearances of the risen Christ to His disciples, His Ascension, and finally the sending of the Holy Spirit. Easter Week itself, as Lent, originally grew out of the initiatory practice: to celebrate the neophyte's new life in Christ.
Paschaltide. This period was originally designated Pentecost, from the Greek πεντηκοστή (literally 50th). The term originally referred to the 50-day duration of the Easter celebration. The Latin equivalent was Quinquagesima. At least from the beginning of the 3d century the Church celebrated these days as one continuous festival of redemption in Christ. All penitential observances were suspended. It was a transformation of the Jewish celebration between their passover and pentecost, during which they joyfully commemorated their possession of the promised land. It was only later that the first 40 days were seen as the time of the risen Christ with His disciples (the Church) before His Ascension, and the last ten days as a preparation for the descent of the Spirit. Originally, Easter itself was the celebration of the whole paschal mystery, death, Resurrection, Ascension, and sending of the Spirit; the 50 days were an extension of the full joy of the Easter Vigil.
Easter Week. After the example of Jewish practice, Easter enjoyed an octave by the 4th century. This octave seems to have been organized principally in view of the newly baptized, who assembled each day for the Eucharist and catechesis. In Rome a development took place between the 6th and 8th centuries. Since Baptism was celebrated during the Easter Vigil, the octave day was the following Saturday, when the neophytes laid aside their white robes. With the disappearance of adult Baptism the week lost its dominant baptismal character and became more the octave of Easter; in the last half of the 7th century the octave day was changed from Saturday to Sunday.
The Easter Sunday Mass came out of the 6th century to supply for the lack created by anticipating the Vigil earlier on Holy Saturday. With the restoration of the Vigil to its nocturnal setting and to its primacy as the Easter celebration, this later Sunday Morning Mass commemorating Christ's Resurrection understandably lost some of the importance it had enjoyed. Two themes characterize this week: that of the Resurrection, heard especially in the lessons, and that of Baptism, especially in the antiphons, taken from Psalms speaking of the exodus out of Egypt and entrance into the promised land.
Low Sunday (2nd Sunday of Easter). Even in early sources Low Sunday is ordinarily considered to be the octave of Easter. The day was also distinguished from the previous days by the fact that the neophytes had laid aside their baptismal robes. The real octave day of Easter was rather the 50th day, Pentecost, after the octave of octaves, emphasizing symbolically the fullness of salvation achieved by Christ in His Resurrection and by the Church in Christ.
Bibliography: t. j. talley, The Origins of the Liturgical Year (Collegeville, Minn. 1991). a. j. martimort, ed. The Church at Prayer IV: The Liturgy and Time (Collegeville, Minn. 1986). a. nocent, The Liturgical Year, v. 3, The Paschal Triduum, the Easter Season (Collegeville, Minn. 1977). j. m. pierce, "Holy Week and Easter in the Middle Ages," in Passover and Easter: Origin and History to Modern Times, eds. p. f. bradshaw and l. a. hoffman (Notre Dame, Ind. 1999) 161–85. a. adam, The Liturgical Year: Its History & Its Meaning after the Reform of the Liturgy (New York 1981).