Saturday, June 01, 2019

Fifty Days of Easter? (Part 2)

As I described in an article last week, the idea of Easter as a continuous feast of fifty days exists far more solidly as a conceit of the post-Conciliar reformers than it does in the writings of the Church Fathers on which it was purportedly based. It is in fact a common custom of various rites, not just the Roman, to divide the season after Easter into several distinct parts, each with its own particular liturgical characteristics, just as the season before Easter is also so divided. In this article, I will explain some of these customs in greater detail.

- At each of the Masses from Holy Saturday to Low Sunday inclusive, the Gospel speaks directly of the Resurrection. The majority of the variable prayers of the Mass contain some reference to it as well, but they also contain several references to the baptismal rites, which have been part of the celebration of Easter since the most ancient days of the Church. Likewise, all these days have station churches assigned to them, which clearly express the period’s baptismal character, as I have explained in a previous article. However, after Low Sunday, the Collect of which states that “we have completed the feasts of Easter”, these themes disappear; there are no references to the Resurrection or Baptism in any of the prayers of the following weeks.

- From the Vespers celebrated at the conclusion of the Easter vigil to None of Low Saturday, the Divine Office is traditionally celebrated in an archaic form which has no hymns, chapters or short responsories. From Easter Sunday morning, the first part of the Gradual of the Mass of Easter “Haec dies” is sung at each of the Hours after the psalmody (at Compline, after the Nunc dimittis). The Collect of the Saturday after Easter also states that “we have completed the feasts of Easter”, at which point, the Gradual is replaced by an Alleluia for the rest of the season; that evening, the Office returns to its normal form at Vespers.

- For the Church Fathers, the principal expression of Easter as a continuous feast of fifty days is the absence of fasting, a point on which they are in solid agreement, and the absence of kneeling as a gesture of penance. They very often state this by way of contrast with the forty days of Lent, which were of course marked by strict fasting and frequent kneeling. Nevertheless, all of the Western churches did adopt some kind of fast associated with the feast of the Ascension, whether before it, as in the Roman Rite, or after, as in the Ambrosian.

St Maximus of Turin, who was a contemporary of St Ambrose, states in his first sermon on Pentecost (PL 57, 371A-374B) that Easter was a “continuata festivitas – a continual festivity” in which fasting and kneeling were prohibited, “for why should the body abstain from food, when the soul is fed by the presence of the Lord?” But he goes on to say “Therefore, we are refreshed in the fifty day period (quinquagesima), while the Lord remains with us; but when, after these days, he ascends to heaven, we fast again, just as the Savior Himself said, ‘The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days.’ (Luke 5, 35. Note the curious idea that Christ ascended on the fiftieth day, rather than the fortieth; St Maximus gives the correct number in one of his other Pentecost sermons.)

In the second oldest lectionary of the Roman Rite, the Comes of Murbach, ca. 750 AD, proper Gospels are assigned to each Wednesday and Friday of the year. (I have described this ferial lectionary system elsewhere.) The first three of the Easter season (for the week after Low Sunday, and Wednesday after Good Shepherd Sunday) are accounts of the Resurrection not read in Easter week (Mark 16, 9-13, Matthew 28, 8-15 and Luke 24, 1-12.) The very first Gospel after these, on the Friday after Good Shepherd Sunday, is Matthew’s version (9, 14-17) of the passage from Luke which St Maximus cites above. This passage is not attested in the lectionary of Wurzburg, which is about a century older; its presence in Murbach, seems to look forward to the development of the Major and Minor Litanies as fasting days. About a century later, the first liturgical commentator, Amalarius of Metz, describes this (disapprovingly) as a departure from the tradition of the Fathers, and says that the new custom of fasting on the Litanies “inolevit – has grown fixed.” (PL 105, 1066D)

- In the Ambrosian Rite, the distinction between the various phases of the Easter season is in some respects even more pronounced. It is a very ancient custom that those baptized on Easter night would wear white garments after their baptism, and through the following seven days, then remove them on Low Sunday. The church of Milan imitates this custom by using green, rather than white, as the liturgical color of the season from Low Sunday to the Friday before the vigil of Pentecost; the exceptions are the vigil and feast of the Ascension, which are celebrated in white, and the Rogations, which are celebrated in black.

The imposition of ashes on Rogation Monday in Milan, 2015.
- From the Lord’s words “The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken away from them, and then they shall fast in those days,” the Ambrosian Rite places the Rogations on the Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday after the Ascension, and celebrates them with a far more notable penitential character. Not only are black vestments used, but the days were traditionally kept with a strict fast, as they were in many places in the Middle Ages, and ashes are imposed as the Roman Rite does on Ash Wednesday. The Divine Office is celebrated on these days as on the ferias per annum, without any of the antiphons or hymns of the Easter season.

- On the same basis, the Mozarabic liturgy has a special fast on the last four days before Pentecost. These do not have a Mass of their own, as the Roman and Ambrosian Rogations do, but the Office drops most of its Alleluias, and is lengthened by several readings on the theme of fasting. In the 1502 edition of the Breviary, these are introduced by the following rubric. “The office of the fasts begins. They are observed on the Wednesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday before holy Pentecost, to beseech our Lord Jesus Christ for our sins, and to obtain peace, and to listen to the sacred readings, that the Holy Spirit may come, and find our hearts to be pure dwelling places; let us frequent the Church of God.”

- The Byzantine Rite has held steadfastly to the rule that there is no fasting or kneeling in the fifty days between Easter and Pentecost, and so has no equivalent of the Rogations. However, the gradation between Bright Week, the Easter season, and the period from Ascension to Pentecost, is still very marked. The simplest example is this: in Bright Week, the Paschal troparion “Christ is risen from the dead, by death he conquered death, and gave life to those in the tomb” is sung at the beginning of the Divine Liturgy (and also Vespers) several times, interspersed with verses from the Psalms, and the doxology. The celebrant, holding a special candlestick with three candles and cross on it, incenses the altar, walking around it, then the iconostasis, then the people, as seen in this video.

On Low Sunday, however, and for the rest of the Paschal season, this ceremony is reduced to just three sung repetitions of the troparion, without the Psalm verses and doxology, and without the incense or candlestick. This is done for the last time on the day before the Ascension, which is known as the Leave-taking of Easter; the troparion is not said on Ascension itself, or any of the days that remain until Pentecost.

A third article in this series will discuss the Ember Day fasts of Pentecost week.

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