From The Liturgical Year.
The practice for this holy season mainly consists in the spiritual joy which it should produce in every soul that is risen with Jesus. This joy is a foretaste of eternal happiness, and the Christian ought to consider it a duty to keep it up within him, by ardently seeking after that life which is in our divine Head, and by carefully shunning sin which causes death. During the last nine weeks we have mourned for our sins and done penance for them; we have followed Jesus to Calvary; but now, our holy Mother the Church is urgent in bidding us rejoice. She herself has laid aside all sorrow; the voice of her weeping is changed into the song of a delighted Spouse.
In order that she might impart this joy to all her children, she has taken their weakness into account. After reminding them of the necessity of expiation, she gave them forty days wherein to do penance; and then, removing the restraint of Lenten mortification, she brings us to Easter as to a land where there is nothing but gladness, light, life, joy, calm, and the sweet hope of immortality. Thus does she produce, in those of her children who have no elevation of soul, sentiments in harmony with the great feast, such as the most perfect feel; and by this means all, both fervent and tepid, unite their voices in one same hymn of praise to our risen Jesus.
The great liturgist of the twelfth century, Rupert, Abbot of Deutz, thus speaks of the pious artifice used by the Church to infuse the spirit of Easter into all: “There are certain carnal minds that seem unable to open their eyes to spiritual things, unless roused by some unusual excitement; and for this reason the Church makes use of such means. Thus, the Lenten fast, which we offer up to God as our yearly tithe, goes on till the most sacred night of Easter; then follow fifty days without so much as one single fast. Hence it happens, that while the body is being mortified, and is to continue to be so till Easter Night, that holy night is eagerly looked forward to even by the carnal-minded; they long for it to come; and, meanwhile, they carefully count each of the forty days, as a wearied traveler does the miles. Thus, the sacred solemnity is sweet to all, and dear to all, and desired by all, as light is to them that walk in darkness, as a fount of living water is to them that thirst, and as ‘a tent which the Lord that pitched’ for wearied wayfarers.”
What a happy time was that when, as St. Bernard expresses it, there was not one in the whole Christian army that neglected his Easter duty, and when all, both just and sinners, walked together in the path of the Lenten observances! Alas! Those days are gone, and Easter has not the same effect on the people of our generation! The reason is that a love of ease and a false conscience lead so many Christians to treat the law of Lent with as much indifference as if there were no such law existing. Hence, Easter comes upon them as a feast—it may be as a great feast—but that is all; they experience little of that thrilling joy which fills the heart of the Church during this season, and which she evinces in everything she does. And if this be their case even on the glorious day itself, how can it be expected that they should keep up, for the whole fifty, the spirit of gladness, which is the very essence of Easter? They have not observed the fast, or the abstinence, of Lent: the mitigated form in which the Church now presents them to her children, in consideration of their weakness, was too severe for them! They sought, or they took, a total dispensation from this law of Lenten mortification, and without regret or remorse. The Alleluia returns, and it finds no response in their souls: how could it? Penance has not done its work of purification: it has not spiritualized them; how, then, could they follow their risen Jesus, whose life is henceforth more of heaven than of earth.
But these reflections are too sad for such a season as this: let us beseech our risen Jesus to enlighten these souls with the rays of his victory over the world and the flesh, and to raise them up to himself. No, nothing must now distract us from joy. “Can the children of the Bridegroom mourn, as long as the Bridegroom is with them?” Jesus is to be with us for forty days; he is to suffer no more, and die no more; let our feelings be in keeping with his now endless glory and bliss. True, he is to leave us, he is to ascend to the right hand of his Father; but he will not leave us orphans; he will send us the divine Comforter, who will abide with us forever. These sweet and consoling words must be our Easter text: “The children of the Bridegroom cannot mourn, as long as the Bridegroom is with them.” They are the key to the whole Liturgy of this holy season. We must have them ever before us, and we shall find by experience that the joy of Easter is as salutary as the contrition and penance of Lent. Jesus on the cross, and Jesus in the Resurrection, it is ever the same Jesus; but what he wants from us now is that we should keep near him, in company with his blessed Mother, his disciples, and Magdalene, who are in ecstasies of delight at his triumph, and have forgotten the sad days of his Passion.
But this Easter of ours will have an end; the bright vision of our risen Jesus will pass away; and all that will be left to us is the recollection of his ineffable glory, and of the wonderful familiarity wherewith he treated us. What shall we do, when he who was our very life and light leaves us and ascends to heaven? Be of good heart, Christians! You must look forward to another Easter. Each year will give you a repetition of what you now enjoy. Easter will follow Easter, and bring you at last to that Easter in heaven which is never to have an end, and of which these happy ones of earth are a mere foretaste. Nor is this all. Listen to the Church. In one of her prayers she reveals to us the great secret, how we may perpetuate our Easters even here in our banishment—“Grant to thy servants, O God, that they may keep up, by their manner of living, the Mystery they have received by believing!” So, then, the Mystery of Easter is to be ever visible on this earth; our risen Jesus ascends to heaven but he leaves upon us the impress of his Resurrection, and we must retain it within us until he again visits us.
And how could it be that we should not retain this divine impress within us? Are not all the mysteries of our divine Master ours also? From his very first coming in the Flesh, he has made us sharers in everything he has done. He was born in Bethlehem: we were born together with him. He was crucified: our “old man was crucified with him.” He was buried: “we were buried with him.” And therefore, when he rose from the grave, we also received the grace that we should “walk in the newness of life.”
Such is the teaching of the Apostles, who thus continues: “We know that Christ rising again from the dead, dieth now no more; death shall no more have dominion over him: for in that he died to sin, (that is, for sin,) he died once; but in that he liveth, he liveth unto God.” He is our head, and we are his members: we share in what is his. To die again by sin would be to renounce him, to separate ourselves from him, to forfeit that Death and Resurrection of his which he mercifully willed should be ours. Let us, therefore, preserve within us that life, which is the life of our Jesus, and which yet belongs to us as our own treasure; for he won it by conquering death, and then gave it to us, with all his other merits. You, then, who before Easter were sinners, but have now returned to the life of grace, see that you die no more; let your actions bespeak your resurrection. And you to whom the Paschal solemnity has brought growth in grace, show this increase of more abundant life by your principles and your conduct. `Tis thus all will “walk in the newness of life.”
With this, for the present, we take leave of the lessons taught us by the Resurrection of Jesus; the rest we reserve for the humble commentary we shall have to make on the Liturgy of this holy season. We shall then see, more and more clearly, not only our duty of imitating our divine Master’s Resurrection, but the magnificence of this grandest Mystery of the Man-God. Easter—with its three admirable manifestations of divine love and power, the Resurrection, the Ascension, and the Descent of the Holy Ghost—yes, Easter is the perfection of the work of our Redemption. Everything, both in the order of time and in the workings of the Liturgy, has been a preparation for Easter. The four thousand years that followed the promise made by God to our first parents were crowned by the event that we are now to celebrate. All that the Church has been doing for us from the commencement of Advent had this same glorious event in view; and now that we have come to it, our expectations are more than realized, and the power and wisdom of God are brought before us so vividly that our former knowledge of them seems nothing in comparison with our present appreciation and love of them. The angels themselves are dazzled by the grand Mystery, as the Church tells us in one of her Easter hymns, where she says: “The angels gaze with wonder on the change wrought in mankind: it was flesh that sinned, and now Flesh taketh all sin away, and the God that reigns is the God made Flesh.”
Eastertide, too, belongs to what is called the Illuminative Life; nay, it is the most important part of that life, for it not only manifests, as the last four seasons of the liturgical year have done, the humiliations and the sufferings of the Man-God: it shows him to us in all his grand glory; it gives us to see him expressing in his own sacred humanity the highest degree of the creature’s transformation into his God. The coming of the Holy Ghost will bring additional brightness to this illumination; it shows us the relations that exist between the soul and the Third Person of the blessed Trinity. And here we see the way and the progress of a faithful soul. She was made an adopted child of the Heavenly Father; she was initiated into all the duties and mysteries of her high vocation by the lessons and examples of the Incarnate Word; she was perfected by the visit and indwelling of the Holy Ghost. From this there result those several Christian exercises which produce within her an imitation of her divine Model, and prepare her for that Union to which she is invited by him who gave to them “that received him, power to be made sons of God,” by a birth that is “not of blood, nor of the flesh, but of God.”