Many of us in our Christian traditions learned to celebrate Christ’s resurrection on a single day — Easter Sunday.
Easter is the great Lord’s Day, the climax of Holy Week, the high point of the Christian Year, marked by an explosion of color, wafting fragrance of lilies, majestic sounds of organ and baroque trumpets, bright new clothes, formal dinner with the family. A blissful Sabbath! Our little ones receive baskets of candies and toys, hunt for Easter eggs, strap on patent leather shoes, dress up like little ladies and gentlemen. We take their pictures out in the yard framed by the early blooms of spring. Women wear hats to church, white gloves. Even the men adorn themselves in pastels. This is the one Sunday we sing, “Christ the Lord is risen today! Alleluia!” The choir resounds with joyful praise. Everyone smiles. Such a happy day!
And then it’s over.
In the non-liturgical churches I have served as a pastor, the time after Easter was one of the few lulls in the year. For families, it formed the season between spring break and May, which where I live has become one of the busiest months of the year, with spring sports in full swing, summer sports like Little League beginning, end of school and church year programs, graduations, weddings, holidays like Mother’s Day, college students returning home, outdoor projects getting into full swing, and of course, here in Indianapolis we have all “the month of May” – activities leading up to the Indy 500 race. After the Easter event, and before the month of May, we had a period of relative quiet.
As an evangelical (and an American), it seems to me that I was always taught to think in terms of events. Events can be strategized, planned, advertised and marketed, organized, staffed, set up, prayed for, executed, cleaned up after, reviewed and evaluated, and followed up. It is a typically business-like approach. A well-run event can make a big splash, leave a lasting impression, and play a crucial role in forming a group of people into a community.
However, as I have more seriously considered the practice of the liturgical year, I have been challenged to think more in terms of seasons than simply in terms of events. Seasons force us to face the “dailyness” of life rather than simply its special points.
It is like the difference between a wedding and a marriage. Or the birth of a baby and learning to care for an infant.
We love Christmas, but it is in Advent that we learn to long and pray day by day for Christ to come. And it is in Christmastide (the days following Christmas) that we take time to gaze with wonder into the face of the incarnate baby Jesus, to do as Mary did, “treasuring all these things in her heart.”
And so it is with Easter. Easter is a season, not just a day. On the Christian calendar, the period that begins on Easter Sunday is called “The Great Fifty Days,” “Pascha,” or “Eastertide.”
Writing in The Complete Library of Christian Worship V, Marjorie Proctor-Smith says,
Celebrating Easter for fifty days is a Christian practice almost as ancient as the annual observance of Easter. …The term Pentecost was first used by Christians to refer to this seven-week period as a unit: “the Pentecost,” or the fifty days. It was only later that the term was applied to the fiftieth day, at which time then the fifty days was called the Easter season.
The importance of this period for the ancient church is reflected in the language used by early writers wen speaking of it, and the practices which their comments reveal. Tertullian refers to the period, which he called the Pentecost, as a laetissimum spatium, a “most joyous space” in which it is especially fitting that baptisms take place. Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria, write an annual “Festal Letter” to the church in which he announced the date of Easter, which “extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of holy Pentecost.” In every letter Athanasius emphasizes the centrality of the Easter observance for Christians, speaking of the fifty days especially as a time of joy and fulfillment: “But let us now keep the feast, my beloved, not as introducing a day of suffering but of joy in Christ, in whom we are fed every day.” It was, quite simply, a “Great Sunday” which lasted for seven weeks, a week of Sundays, wherein the church celebrated on a large scale the resurrection of Christ. “All of Pentecost,” writes Basil of Caesarea, “reminds us of the resurrection which we await in the other world.”
- What a wonderful season in which to study the post-resurrection appearances! The ascension! The promise of the Spirit! The new covenant!
- To lavishly decorate our sanctuaries and celebrate Christ’s resurrection with exuberance for seven Sundays rather than just one!
- To have “Emmaus Road” Bible studies that show how all the Scriptures point to Jesus and his finished work.
- To celebrate the Lord’s Supper more often with a specific focus on Christ’s promise that we will share it new with him in the coming kingdom.
- To teach sound eschatology that grounds people in the Christian hope and the coming of the new creation.
- To explore the “Great Commission” the risen Christ gave to us and to practice “going and telling” the Good News of our risen Savior in various ways throughout our communities.
- To regularly celebrate baptisms and hear testimonies of those who have experienced new life in Christ.
- To hold special meetings for prayer as the disciples did, asking for God to fill us anew with his Holy Spirit that we might become more fully and joyously engaged in his mission in the world.
Many Christians assume that Easter is commemorated on just one day. It is an event. After it is over, we move on to something else.
But this cannot be. We are Easter people! The first Sunday of Easter is the beginning, not the climax of the season.
As the disciples grew in their understanding and love for the risen Christ over the great fifty days when he arose, appeared to them, ascended into heaven, and poured out the Holy Spirit upon them, may we too experience Easter throughout the entire season to come!
P.S. Another thing evangelicals miss, which is an important part of the liturgical tradition, is that every Sunday is a “little Easter.” Each Lord’s Day, when the church gathers for worship, the liturgy reenacts the gospel story, ending by meeting with the risen Lord at the Table, where we remember his death, resurrection, and living presence that nourishes his people. In this way, the central events of our faith are commemorated weekly throughout the year, no matter what season it is.
First published April 4, 2010