From The Liturgical Year.
The Mystery of Paschal Time
Of all the seasons of the liturgical year Eastertide is by far the richest in mystery. We might even say that Easter is the summit of the Mystery of the sacred Liturgy. The Christian who is happy enough to enter, with his whole mind and heart, into the knowledge and love of the Paschal Mystery, has reached the very center of the supernatural life. Hence it is that the Church uses every effort tin order to effect this: what she has hitherto done was all intended as a preparation for Easter. The holy l0ongings of Advent, the sweet joys of Christmas, the severe truths of Septuagesima, the contrition and penance of Lent, the heart-rending sight of the Passion—all were given us as preliminaries, as paths, to the sublime and glorious Pasch, which is now ours.
And that we might be convinced of the supreme importance of this solemnity, God willed that the Christian Easter and Pentecost should be prepared by those of the Jewish Law—a thousand five hundred years of typical beauty prefigured the reality: and that reality is ours!
During these days, then, we have brought before us the two great manifestations of God’s goodness towards mankind—the Pasch of Israel, and the Christian Pasch; the Pentecost of Sinai, and the Pentecost of the Church. We shall have occasion to show who the ancient figures were fulfilled in the realities of the new Easter and Pentecost, and how the twilight of the Mosaic Law made way for the full daylight of the Gospel; but we cannot resist the feeling of holy reverence, at the bare thought that the solemnities we have now to celebrate are more than three thousand years old, and that they are to be renewed every year from this till the voice of the angel shall be heard proclaiming: “Time shall be no more!” The gates of eternity will then be thrown open.
Eternity in heaven is the true Pasch: hence, our Pasch here on earth is the feast of feasts, the solemnity of solemnities. The human race was dead; it was the victim of that sentence, whereby it was condemned to lie mere dust in the tomb; the gates of life were shut against it. But see! The Son of God raises from His grave and takes possession of eternal life. Nor is he the only one that is to die no more, for, as the Apostle teaches us, “He is the first-born from the dead.” The Church would, therefore, have us consider ourselves as having already risen with our Jesus, and as having already taken possession of eternal life. The holy Fathers bid us look on these fifty days of Easter as the image of our eternal happiness. They are days devoted exclusively to joy; every sort of sadness is forbidden; and the Church cannot speak to her divine Spouse without joining to her words that glorious cry of heaven, the Alleluia, wherewith, as the holy Liturgy says, the streets and squares of the heavenly Jerusalem resound without ceasing. We have been forbidden the use of this joyous word during the past nine weeks; it behoved us to die with Christ—but now that we have risen together with him from the tomb, and that we are resolved to die no more that death which kills the soul and caused our Redeemer to die on the cross, we have a right to our Alleluia.
The providence of God, who has established harmony between the visible world and the supernatural work of grace, willed that the Resurrection of our Lord should take place at that particular season of the year when even nature herself seems to rise from the grave. The meadows give forth their verdure, the trees resume their foliage, the birds fill the air with their songs, and the sun, the type of our triumphant Jesus, pours out his floods of light on our earth made new by lovely spring. At Christmas the sun had little power, and his stay with us was short; it harmonized with the humble birth of our Emmanuel, who came among us in the midst of night, and shrouded in swaddling clothes; but now he is “as a giant that runs his way, there is no one that can hide himself from his heat.” Speaking, in the Canticle, to the faithful soul, and inviting her to take her part in this new life which he is now imparting to every creature, our Lord himself says: “Arise, my dove, and come! Winter is now past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers have appeared in our land. The voice of the turtle is heard. The fig-tree hath put forth her green figs. The vines, in flower, yield their sweet smell. Arise thou, and come!”
Our Saviour chose the Sunday for his Resurrection, whereby he conquered death and proclaimed life to the world. It was on this favoured day of the week that he had, four thousand years previously, created the light; by selecting it now for the commencement of the new life which he graciously imparts to man, he would show us that Easter is the renewal of the entire creation. Not only is the anniversary of his glorious Resurrection to be, henceforward, the greatest of days, but every Sunday throughout the year is to be a sort of Easter, a holy and sacred day. The Synagogue, by God’s command, kept holy the Saturday or the Sabbath in honour of God’s resting after the six days of the creation; but the church, the Spouse, is commanded to honour the work of her Lord. She allows the Saturday to pass—it is the day on which her Jesus rested in the sepulcher: but, now that she is illumined with the brightness of the Resurrection, she devotes to the contemplation of his work the first day of the week; it is the day of light, for on it he called forth material light (which was the first manifestation of life upon chaos), and on the same, he that is the “Brightness of the Father,” and “the Light of the world,” rose from the darkness of the tomb.
Let, then, the week with its Sabbath pass by; what we Christians want is the eighth day, the day this is beyond the measure of time, the day of eternity, the day whose light is not intermittent or partial, but endless and unlimited. Thus speak the holy Fathers, when explaining the substitution of the Sunday for the Saturday. It was, indeed, right that man should keep, as the day of his weekly and spiritual repose, that on which the Creator of the visible world had taken his divine rest; but it was a commemoration of the material creation only. The Eternal Word comes down in the world that he has created; he comes with the rays of his divinity clouded beneath the humble veil of our flesh; he comes to fulfill the figures of the first Covenant. Before abrogating the Sabbath, he would observe it as he did every title of the Law; he would spend it as the day of rest, after the work of his Passion, in the silence of the sepulcher: but, early on the eighth day, he rises to life, and the life is one of glory. “Let us,” says the learned and pious Abbot Rupert, “leave the Jews to enjoy the ancient Sabbath, which is a memorial of the visible creation. They know not how to love or desire or merit aught but earthly things… They would not recognize this world’s creator as their king, because he said: ‘Blessed are the poor!’ and ‘Woe to the rich!’ But our Sabbath has been transferred from the seventh to the eighth day, and the eighth is the first. And rightly was the seventh changed into the eighth, because we Christians put our joy in a better work than the creation of the world… Let the lovers of the world keep a Sabbath for its creation: but our joy is in the salvation of the world, for our life, yea and our rest, is hidden with Christ in God.”
The mystery of the seventh followed by an eighth day, as the holy one, is again brought before us by the number of weeks which form Eastertide. These weeks are seven; they form a week of weeks, and their morrow is again a Sunday, the glorious feast of Pentecost. These mysterious numbers—which God himself fixed when he instituted the first Pentecost after the first Pasch—were adopted by the apostles when they regulated the Christian Easter, as we learn from St. Hilary of Poitiers, St. Isidore, Amalarius, Rabanus Maurus, and from all the ancient interpreters of the mysteries of the holy Liturgy. “If we multiply seven by seven,” says St. Hilary, “we shall find that the holy season is truly the Sabbath of Sabbaths; but what completes it, and raises it to the plenitude of the gospel, is the eighth day which follows, eighth and first both together in itself. The apostles have given so sacred an institution to these seven weeks that, during them, no one should kneel, or mar by fasting the spiritual joy of this long feast. The same institution has been extended to each Sunday; for this day which follows the Saturday has become, by the application of the progress of the Gospel, the completion of the Saturday, and the day of feast and joy.”
Thus, then, the whole season of Easter is marked with the mystery expressed by each Sunday of the year. Sunday is to us the great day of our week, because beautified with the splendour of our Lord’s resurrection, of which the creation of material light was but a type. We have already said that this institution was prefigured in the Old Law, although the Jewish people were not in any way aware of it. Their Pentecost fell on the fiftieth day after the Pasch; it was the marrow of the seven weeks. Another figure of our Eastertide was the year of Jubilee, which God bade Moses prescribe to his people. Each fiftieth year the houses and lands that had been alienated during the preceding forty-nine returned to their original owners; and those Israelites who had been compelled by poverty to sell themselves as slaves recovered their liberty. This year, which was properly called the sabbatical year, was the sequel of the preceding seven weeks of years, and was thus the image of our eighth day, whereon the Son of Mary, by his Resurrection, redeemed us from the slavery of the tomb and restored us to the inheritance of our immortality.
The rites peculiar to Eastertide, in the present discipline of the Church, are two: the unceasing repetition of the Alleluia, of which we have already spoken, and the colour of the vestments used for its two great solemnities, white for the first and red for the second. White is appropriate to the Resurrection: it is the mystery of eternal light, which knows neither spot nor shadow; it is the mystery that produces in a faithful soul the sentiment of purity and joy. Pentecost, which gives us the Holy Spirit, the “consuming Fire,” is symbolized by the red vestments, which express the mystery of the divine Paraclete coming down in the form of fiery tongues upon them that were assembled in the Cenacle. With regard to the ancient usage of not kneeling during Paschal Time, we have already said that there is a mere vestige of it now left in the Latin Liturgy.
The feasts of the saints, which were interrupted during Holy Week, are likewise excluded from the first eight days of Eastertide; but when these are ended, we shall have them in rich abundance, as a bright constellation of stars round the divine Sun of Justice, our Jesus. They will accompany us in our celebration of his admirable Ascension; but such is the grandeur of the mystery of Pentecost, that from the eve of that day they will be again interrupted until the expiration of Paschal Time.