Cycle of Life (Easter)

THE CYCLE OF LIFE

The Great Fifty Days

The Jewish feast of the Passover sets the date for the Christian feast of Easter and the Cycle of Life. Since Passover is based on the lunar calendar, this cycle of feasts is considered “movable” in that it will not happen on the same date each year. The duration of Jewish feasts teaches that significant events require significant time, if they are to be rightly celebrated. Early Christians appropriated the Jewish festival of Pentecost, and originally regarded “the whole fifty-day period as a single festal period which focused on the unitary theme of Christ’s passage through death to glory.”[40] Stookey emphasizes that the explosive nature of the resurrection was “too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.”[41] It was considered a season of joyous celebration, liturgically characterized by “frequent alleluias and a prohibition against fasting and kneeling for prayer.”[42]

Pascha

The term “Easter” is regrettable, as it does not specifically refer to the resurrection of Jesus. It may be a variation of “Eoster” the goddess of springtime, or a derivation of the word “East,” referring to the rising of the sun. A more historical word is “Pascha,” but even it carries some confusion. Pascha is a transliteration of the Aramaic Pesach, derived from the Greek verb Paschein, meaning, “to suffer.”[43] Paul Bradshaw, a distinguished liturgical scholar, insists that the “original focus of the celebration was not on the resurrection of Christ but rather on “Christ, the Passover lamb, sacrificed.”[44] Talley explains that “this shift from memorial of the death to celebration of the resurrection manifests a shift in the nuance of Pascha from its original association with the day of the passion to the Sunday observance that was, in every week, the day of the resurrection.”[45]

Another interpretation of Pascha appeared near the end of the second century in Alexandria. Clement, and later Origen understood the word as “passage” rather than “passion,” referring to the Hebrew’s passage out of Egypt. This thought represented the tendency of the Alexandrian theologians to “allegorize the Christian mysteries.”[46]

Controversy

In the middle of the second century there arose a dispute on the appropriate time to celebrate the Pasch. These two views represent not just differing dates for celebration, but also different emphases. Most scholars agree that the actual date of the Passover and crucifixion was probably Friday, April 7, 30 AD (the 14th of the Jewish month of Nisan).[47] Since Sunday was already the occasion of the Church’s weekly celebration of the resurrection, the early Church naturally celebrated the annual resurrection observance on Sunday as well. The Church at Rome, and most other local churches, opted for the Sunday following Passover.

The opposing notion, held largely in Asia Minor and Syria, is known as the “quartodecimen” (meaning fourteenth) viewpoint. The Jewish Passover feast was always held on the “14th of Nisan, i.e. the first day of the full moon in the first month of spring, no matter which day of the week this should turn out to be.”[48] This viewpoint embraced both the great symbolism of Christ as the Passover Lamb (I Cor 5:7), and the historical connection of the Jewish and Christian feasts. This position might have found fertile ground with the Judaizers (Jewish Christians) who would have been naturally attached to the tradition of Passover.

The significance of this controversy lies not in the eventual date of the Paschal feast, but in its emphasis. The Sunday feast naturally highlighted the resurrection of Jesus, rather than His sacrifice. Alternately, the quartodecimen viewpoint stressed the sacrifice of Christ over his resurrection. The controversy was finally settled when the first ecumenical Council of Nicaea (325) prescribed the first Sunday after the first full moon of spring as the day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ.

This, then, is Easter Sunday: the Church’s celebration of the Risen Lord! It is the focus and center of both the Week and the Year. The Pascal mystery is celebrated properly through both anamnesis and prolepsis, and must not be celebrated as if it were an isolated event. Celebrants must encounter and engage the risen Savior as their own. Zimmerman reminds us that the “Pascal mystery in its very meaning has to do with us as well as with Jesus Christ. Consequently, it is less accurate to speak of the relationship of liturgy and life and more accurate to say that liturgy is life (or Christian living).”[49]

Pentecost

Today, Pentecost is most often celebrated as a day, rather than a season. Originally, however, it was known as the “week of weeks,” beginning on Easter Sunday and including the seven Sundays that follow. History has gradually assigned specific themes to the Sundays of Pentecost, which are as follows:

· 2nd Sunday = Thomas (absent when Christ appeared to the Disciples)

· 3rd Sunday = Meal (after the walk on the Emmaus road)

· 4th Sunday = Good Shepherd (emphasizing the divine care of Christ)

· 5th Sunday = I AM (emphasizing the deity of Christ)

· 6th Sunday = Love one another (emphasizing the new command of Christ)

· 7th Sunday = Ascension (Sunday after 40th day after resurrection)

· 8th Sunday = Pentecost (Sunday after 50th day after resurrection

I will highlight and discuss two of the more prominent Sundays in more detail.

Ascension Sunday

The ascension of the risen Christ into heaven is a crucial element of the resurrection, and has come to be known as the day of “Christus Victor,” the Victorious Christ. The Biblical accounts of the ascension (Lk 24:50-53; Acts 1:1-11) present another junction of time and eternity, and signal the completed work of Christ. This event is a vital part of resurrection theology, but is sometimes ignored by the modern Church. Celebrating the ascension can give hope to those who are suffering, and is often an opportunity to highlight the persecuted. Though the event itself is inexplicable, Ascension Sunday is an opportunity to embrace, rather than to ignore, one of the great mysteries of the Christian Faith.

Pentecost Sunday

The eighth and final Sunday of the Cycle of Life is called Pentecost Sunday. Once known as the “Great Fifty Days,” it now generally refers to the fiftieth day after Resurrection Sunday, when the Church celebrates its birth. What was inherited from the Jewish festal cycle as a harvest celebration had been revolutionized by an outpouring of the Holy Spirit unequaled in the history of the world, resulting in a great harvest of souls! The Biblical account is to be found in the second chapter of the book of Acts, and describes the event as “a noise like a violent rushing wind” (2:2) and describes “tongues as of fire distributing themselves” (2:3) on those gathered together. The event transfused and transformed the fearful Disciples into fearless Apostles.

“Pentecost,” says Robert Weber, “plays a crucial role in salvation history.”[50] He believes that “Pentecost results in a clearer and deeper understanding of Jesus.”[51] Pentecost is most often associated with the birth of the Church. Though some contend that the birth happened at the resurrection, this event is clearly a new empowerment of the followers of Jesus. In Peter’s Pentecost-day sermon, he employs a prophecy from the prophet Joel (2:28-32) to explain the extraordinary behavior the community was witnessing from those gathered. This “last days” reference adds an eschatological element to the already pregnant implications of this day. The modern celebration of Pentecost is an opportunity to remind the Church that they are to utilize this same Spirit as they live in the time between the outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the return of the Son of God.


Lent

Since the resurrection of Christ is so astounding that it originally took fifty days to comprehend and celebrate, one might ask, “how can one prepare for such an event?” The Christian Year’s answer is the season of Lent. The term “Lent” means “The Fast,” or “The Forty.” The season it represents underwent great development throughout the first four centuries. Christians originally began a fast of preparation on the day of crucifixion, but “Christians in Egypt and Syria went even further and created six days of fasting from Monday until the end of the Saturday night vigil.”[52] As time progressed, the fast was further extended to forty days, in imitation of Christ in the wilderness. It is important to note that “the Lenten fast meant that individuals took only a single daily meal; in accordance with ancient custom, this was eaten in the evening.”[53] Concurrently, church leaders prescribed this same forty-day period as a time for converts to make their final preparation for baptism and entry into full status of the Church.

At one time in its development, Lent began on the sixth Sunday before Easter and lasted until Holy Thursday. It now lasts from Ash Wednesday to Holy Saturday. Though this equals 46 days, Sundays are not included, as they are always feast days, and never fast days. Like Eastertide, Lent has acquired themes for each of the Sundays that fall within the season, which Robert Weber says helps to order our spirituality and enable us to sustain our repentance.[54]

The themes are as follows:

· 1st Sunday = The temptation of X

· 2nd Sunday = The Denial of sin

· 3rd Sunday = A call to repentance

· 4th Sunday = (Rose Sunday) Focus on the healing power of Christ

· 5th Sunday = (Palm) A foretaste of Easter

Lent is a time for self-examination. It is a time to discern whether anything has crept in during the last year that might undermine or derail one’s fervor for God. Beyond simply “giving something up for Lent,” this time of preparation calls for “a greater openness to the word of God, a great zeal in attending the liturgy and performing works of charity, and a conversion (cf. Mk 1:15) in every area of life so as to obey the message of the gospel.”[55]

The Great Triduum

Triduum stands for “The Three Great Days,” and is a fourth-century development that concludes the season of Lent. It includes the services of Holy Thursday, Good Friday and the Easter Vigil on Silent Saturday, and reenacts the days leading up to the resurrection of Christ. Augustine referenced it as “the most holy triduum of the crucified, buried and risen Lord.”[56] His words, in fact, outline the meaning of the three services of the triduum, as presented below.


Holy Thursday

Holy Thursday is also known as Maundy Thursday (from Mandatum Novum: a new commandment (Jn 13:34)). This is the day “Christ instituted the new commandment of love both by word and symbolic action.”[57] Its service remembers and reenacts the events of the Thursday meal with the Disciples before the crucifixion of Christ (see Mt 26:17-30; Mk 14:12-26; Lk 22:7-23). Above all, it is a “commemoration of the Last Supper of Jesus and the institution of the Eucharist, as well as of the washing of the feet.”[58] Many churches actually host an agape meal and a foot-washing service on this night. Also, communion is sometimes accompanied by the tradition of stripping the altar/table. This action is a dramatic portrayal of the humiliation of Christ, who was to be stripped and whipped. It also conveys a visual contrast for the Good Friday service that follows. Two additional services have gained popularity on Holy Thursday. They include the Tenebrae service (darkness/gloom/shadows), which is a monastic liturgy using candles, and the modified Seder meal, which adapts the Jewish Passover meal to symbolically represent Christ.

Good Friday

The name “Good Friday” may be a distortion of the English phrase “God’s Friday.” In view of the death of Christ, however, Good Friday memorializes “a day when the powers of evil were put to flight and dethroned; it was indeed a good day.”[59] It did not appear as a liturgical observance until late in the fourth century, with Easter now designated as the celebration of the resurrection. Bradshaw believes that it “seems to have begun at Jerusalem in connection with the sacred sites associated with the passion and resurrection, and spread from there to other parts of the East.”[60] Most of our information about the observances in late fourth-century Jerusalem comes from the diary of a Spanish pilgrim named Egeria, who was very thorough in her documentation of these events.

Although a Good Friday liturgy was slow to develop, it was always a day of “mourning and fasting inspired by compassion (a “grieving fast”).”[61] Contemporary crucifixion services are observed in a variety of ways. Some sing or focus on the last words of Christ on the cross, while others utilize a liturgy called “the Stations of the Cross.” If Good Friday is observed in place of Maundy Thursday, communion is taken. Additional observances include a three-hour devotion kept from Noon to Three PM (the time Jesus hung on the cross), while still others venerate the cross (using the cross as a symbol which communicates Christ).

Holy Saturday and the Easter Vigil

Holy Saturday was the day of Christ’s repose in the tomb. There is no liturgy for this day because it was a day of grief-inspired fasting. After midnight, however, the Great Easter Vigil, consisting of four services, was kept, in celebration of the resurrection and in anticipation of His second coming. The first of the four services begins with the service of Light. Today, this service begins outside the church with the lighting of the Christ candle, accompanied by the words “may the light of Christ, rising in glory, dispel the darkness of your hearts and minds.” The worshipers then process into the church. The second service is the Liturgy of the Word, which includes various readings that tell the cosmic story of salvation. The third service is a Celebration of Baptism, and is the most symbolically connected to the resurrection. Here the catechumens (converts to Christianity) end their final Lenten preparation, and are invited to participate in the final service of the Easter Vigil, Holy Communion. The Apostle Paul draws a compelling parallel for us between baptism and the resurrection in Romans 6:3-4: “Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life.”

Palm Sunday

Palm Sunday, so named for the branches the people waved (assuming they were palm branches) to welcome Jesus into Jerusalem (Mt 2:1-11; Mk 11:1-11; Lk 19:29-40; Jn 12:12-19), is celebrated on the Sunday before Easter. It is the only day in the earthly life of Jesus in which He was recognized and welcomed by the masses as the King that He is. Since the day belongs to Lent, it is also full of irony, as one considers how the shouts of “Hosanna” would turn into shouts of “crucify Him” in just five days. Palms, processions and readings endow this day with both celebration and preparation. If a particular congregation does not hold mid-holy-week services, the acknowledgement of this week’s irony should be included on Palm Sunday as preparation for the coming resurrection celebration.

Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday, so called for the application of ashes on the believer’s foreheads, is the opening of Lent. It conveys both the sign of death and the promise of resurrection, as the ashes are applied in the form of the cross, with the words “Remember, O mortal, that you are dust; and to dust you shall return.” This author believes that it is healthy and good to remind people of their own mortality at least once a year. The Ash Wednesday service marks the beginning of Lent, as well as the beginning of final preparation for those who were to be baptized on Easter. In the twelfth century, the church began a tradition of burning the palms used on Palm Sunday to provide ashes for the following Ash Wednesday.

Transitional Sundays

The Liturgical Year provides transitions both into and out of the Cycle of Life. Transfiguration Sunday is usually the Sunday prior to Ash Wednesday, and remembers the events on the mount of transfiguration. The image of the glorified Christ leads us into this season of self-examination and preparation so that our celebration of the resurrection may be whole and complete. Trinity Sunday is usually the Sunday after Pentecost, and teaches that the recently departed and soon-to-return Christ is fully God, as is the recently celebrated Holy Spirit. This Sunday transitions the Church into the Cycle known as Ordinary time with a strong foundation of the Triune nature of God.

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