If you can find it in your attic, open your old, pre–Vatican II missal, and look at the Sundays between Easter and Pentecost, which are titled “Sundays after Easter.” Now look at a contemporary Missal, or your current issue of Magnificat, and note the difference: Those Sundays are now styled “Sundays of Easter.” Three letters were lost in the transition from after to of, but that subtraction represents a great recovery of liturgical insight.
I’ve had occasion to express my discontent with the post-conciliar liturgical calendar; anyone interested can find my complaints, and proposed fixes, in the chapter on liturgy in my book, Evangelical Catholicism. But in this instance, the postconciliar reform got it exactly right when the 1969 General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar explained the Easter season in these terms: “The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one ‘great Sunday.’ These above all others are the days for the singing of the Alleluia.” The idea of the Easter season as one, great, fifty-day-long Sunday traces its origins to the eastern doctor of the Church, Athanasius; its recovery today ought to help us appreciate the Easter season, and indeed the entire liturgical year, at greater depth.
The shift from Sundays after Easter to Sundays of Easter is so evocative because that small change in preposition tells us that “Easter” is not something that happens for twenty-four hours and ends when the leftover ham and chocolate bunnies are put away after dinner. Rather, “Easter” is one continuous fifty-day feast, one “great Sunday,” and it should be lived that way, with as much revelry as possible.
The fifty-day party, properly catechized and preached, also gives the Church an annual opportunity to reflect on its own birth. For the Church is born of Easter faith, which begins with the encounter with the Risen One. And that encounter changes everything. Meeting the Risen Lord, the Church begins to live the life of the Kingdom within history, as the Resurrection restores history to its proper course. Recognizing the Risen Lord in the breaking-open of the Scriptures and the breaking of bread, the Church experiences the New Life—life in the messianic era, here and now. Receiving the Holy Spirit, at the “Johannine Pentecost” recounted on Divine Mercy Sunday and on the Fiftieth Day of the “great Sunday,” the Church is sent into the world on mission, proclaiming the Gospel and the forgiveness of sins.
In the ancient Church, these fifty days were the time of “mystagogical catechesis,” during which the newly baptized catechumens were drawn deeper into the Church’s sacraments and their full meaning, which could only be grasped after the sacrament of “illumination,” baptism. And if Lent (the last lap for the ancient catechumens) is an annual opportunity for each of us to “re-enter” the catechumenate and ponder anew the basics of the faith through the three great catechumenal Gospel readings (Jesus and the woman at the well; Jesus and the man born blind; the raising of Lazarus), then Easter, considered as one fifty-day “great Sunday,” offers each of us the opportunity to reflect on the commission to be missionary disciples we were given at baptism, and to which we pledged ourselves anew at the Easter renewal of baptismal promises.
How many Catholics imagine that the liturgical year is a kind of happenstance, with things occurring when and how they do in a more-or-less random way? Too many, perhaps, and that’s especially true of the Easter season, which also gets cultural short shrift because of the dominance of Christmas and “the holidays.” All the more reason then, for preaching during the “great Sunday” to stress the fifty-day party as the pivot of the Church’s entire year of grace, to which all that comes before points, and from which all that follows flows.
Substituting the Apostles’ Creed for the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed on the Sundays of Easter, for which the rubrics provide, is another good way to highlight the distinctiveness of the Easter season. For the Apostles’ Creed is the baptismal creed of the Roman Church, and the fifty-day party is, preeminently, a celebration of the saving grace of baptism.
George Weigel is Distinguished Senior Fellow of Washington, D.C.’s Ethics and Public Policy Center, where he holds the William E. Simon Chair in Catholic Studies.