Friday, May 24, 2019

Fifty Days of Easter?

I recently had occasion to cite an article by Fr Hunwicke from about four years ago, in which he explains the rationale for many of the changes made to the liturgical texts of the Easter season. “The post-Conciliar reforms made much of Easter being 50 days long and being one single Great Day of Feast. … I wonder just how securely founded in both the Bible and the patristic traditions, of West as well as East, this newly minted view of Eastertide is.” Here I propose to give at least a partial answer, but a short answer would be “Not very.”

“Pentecoste” is the feminine singular of the Greek adjective “fiftieth”, the noun “hemera – day” being understood; it is one of several terms which the Western Church used from very early on in their Greek form (like “diaconus”), without translating it, and it would always have sounded like a foreign word to Latin speakers. The Latin Fathers therefore often explain that the feast is called “Pentecost” because it occurs on the fiftieth day after Easter.

There are also two customs which they solidly agree should not be observed in the whole period from Easter to Pentecost, namely, fasting and kneeling. Just to give two among many possible examples: in his book “On Prayer” (chapter 23), Tertullian writes that “We (Christians)… just as we have received, only on the day of the Lord’s Resurrection ought to guard not only against kneeling, but every posture and office of solicitude (or ‘anxiety’); … and likewise, in the period of Pentecost, which we distinguish by the same solemnity of exultation.” In one of his epistles, St Jerome writes “I do not say that I think one ought to fast on feast days, or that I remove the weekdays covered by the fifty days (i.e., remove them from the number of days without fasting – Ep. 71 ad Lucinium, cap. 6).

Immediately after this, however, Jerome writes “Each province may follow its own inclinations, and the traditions which have been handed down should be regarded as apostolic laws”; this clearly implies an awareness of other customs. The passage from Tertullian is specifically about kneeling; it is too much to generalize from it that the fifty days of Easter were celebrated the same way in every other respect. In any case, we know far too little about the liturgy in the Patristic era to speculate about other customs that may have been common to the whole Paschal season.

St Ambrose gives a brief but far more explicit statement of this idea. “Our elders handed down (tradidere) to us that all fifty days of Pentecost are to be celebrated as days of Easter.” (Exposition of the Gospel of St Luke, 8.25) In this he is followed by St Maximus of Turin, who writes “Your holiness [1] must know, brethren, in what manner we take care (to celebrate) this holy day of Pentecost, and why it is for us a perpetual and continued festivity for the number of these fifty days…” (Homily 61, first on Pentecost.) Maximus’ expression “continuata festivitas” seems to be a popular one to cite in modern scholarly literature.

However, both of them immediately state that the principal manifestation of this is that the Church does not fast between Easter and Pentecost. Ambrose concludes the paragraph by saying “Therefore, for these fifty days the Church knows no fast, as on the Sunday when the Lord rose, and all the days are like Sunday”, at which point he is finished with the topic. Maximus concludes the sentence given above as follows: “so that in the whole season we do not proclaim the observance of any fast, nor do we fall on our knees to pray the Lord….”

Whatever the thoughts of the Church Fathers on the subject, the Roman liturgy historically always articulated a clear difference between Easter with its octave and the rest of the Paschal season. The oldest liturgical books of the Roman Rite agree in calling the period after Low Sunday either “after Easter” or “after the octave of Easter”. Fr Hunwicke rightly notes that they also use the term “clausum Paschae – the close of Easter”, albeit inconsistently, and some of the Sundays of the season are denoted in the Gelasian Sacramentary as “post clausum Paschae” rather than “post octavas Paschae.” Even though Easter night sees the return of Alleluia to the liturgy after nine weeks, the Masses of Easter and its octave retain the use of the Gradual after the Epistle; only on the Saturday of the octave is it replaced by an Alleluia, which continues through the rest of the Paschal season.

The prayers of that same day, and of the next, Low Sunday, which come into the Missal of St Pius V from the tradition of the Gregorian Sacramentary, also clearly refer to the idea that Easter itself is in some sense over. That of Saturday reads “Grant, we ask, Almighty God, that we who have kept (egimus) worshipfully the feasts of Easter, may merit through them to come to eternal joys.”, and that of Low Sunday, “Grant, we ask, almighty God, that we who have completed (or ‘passed through – peregimus’) the Paschal feasts, may, by Thy bounty, keep them in our manners and our life.”

It is true that neither of these collects is found on these days in the older Gelasian Sacramentary. However, those of the five Sundays that follow, none of which makes any reference to Easter, are attested in both the Gelasian and Gregorian Sacramentaries in the same order in which we find them in the Missal of St Pius V. As Fr Hunwicke also notes, in order to create a fifty day “continual festivity” in the new rite, all of them had to be changed. That of Low Sunday is moved to the last day before Pentecost, and those of the remaining Sundays are moved to “ordinary time.” The Gregorian prayer for Low Saturday is replaced by a bowdlerized version of the Gelasian one, which makes no reference to Easter being complete. Likewise, the Sundays “after Easter” have been renamed “of Easter”, and like Easter itself, cannot be impeded by any feast.

What makes the forcing of this conceit into the Roman Rite so odd is not merely that so many ancient texts were displaced in order to make the liturgy conform to it. The same Fathers and the same ancient liturgical books, and indeed the entire liturgical tradition of historical Christianity, agree far more strongly and consistently that Pentecost itself is a baptismal feast. In the course of researching this, I found several articles in Italian that cite two words from Tertullian’s On Baptism (chapter 19), “laetissimum spatium – a most joyous period”, in support of the idea that he regarded the whole Paschal season as one great feast. [2] The full sentence, however, is this: “After (Easter), Pentecost is a most joyous period for conferring baptisms; in which also the Lord’s resurrection was repeatedly proved among the disciples, and the grace of the Holy Spirit prepared, the hope of the Lord’s coming indirectly pointed to, since, when He had been received back into the heavens, the Angels told the apostles that He would come, just He had ascended into the heavens; at Pentecost, of course.”

The same is said explicitly by Pope St Siricius (384-399) in a letter to bishop Himerius of Tarragon (Ep. ad Himerium cap. 2 : PL XIII, 1131B-1148A); Pope St Leo I (440-461) also asserts that this was the practice of the Church in a letter to the bishops of Sicily, exhorting them to follow the example of the Apostle Peter, who baptized three thousand persons on Pentecost day. (Epist. XVI ad universos episcopos per Siciliam constitutos: PL LIV, 695B-704A) The so-called Leonine Sacramentary, which predates even the Gelasian, contains a series of prayers “on Pentecost, for those coming up from the font.” In the Gelasian itself, the vigil of Pentecost begins with the rubric “On the vigil of Pentecost, you will celebrate baptism as on the holy night of Easter”, followed by the imposition of hands and exorcism of the catechumens, etc.

Despite the antiquity and universality of this custom, the baptismal character of Pentecost, which has a far better pedigree than the “fifty days” of Easter, was partly expunged by the Holy Week reform of Pius XII, and completely expunged in the post-Conciliar reform.

[1] In their sermons, the Fathers often address the congregation as “Your (plural) Holiness”, “Your charity” etc.
[2] Tertullian’s Latin is generally quite difficult and idiosyncratic, but it would appear that the correct reading is rather “latissimum spatium – a most broad period.”

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