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Easter: Fifty Days of Rejoicing

By Jennifer Gregory Miller (bio - articles - email) | Apr 22, 2014

The Lord has risen from the dead, as he said;
let us all exult and rejoice,
for he reigns for all eternity, alleluia.
(Entrance Antiphon, Monday within the Octave of Easter)

After Lent's forty days of preparation for Easter, it would be anticlimatic to celebrate the feast of Easter for only one day. Jesus is risen! He is alive! Holy Mother Church in her wisdom ensures that we celebrate the resurrection longer than we do the season of penance. The Paschal Mystery, Christ’s passion, death and resurrection, is central to our faith. Jesus conquered sin and death and reopened the gates of heaven, which were closed due to the original sin of Adam and Eve. Through His victory over death and our rebirth in baptism we share in everlasting life.

While the Resurrection is the nucleus and celebrated in our Faith every day, we particularly "exult and rejoice" during the Octave of Easter and Easter season  “The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated as one feast day, sometimes called ‘the great Sunday’” (General Norms for the Liturgical Year and Calendar), which echoes St. Augustine "The fifty days of Easter exclude fasts, since it is in anticipation of the banquet that awaits us on high." (Sermon 252). But fifty days of rejoicing is a long period of time to sustain joy. There are few external manifestations in our culture that remind us of the extended feast, so we need to be intentional in different ways to keep focus on thanksgiving and joy from Easter to Pentecost.

We first turn to how the Church celebrates this Easter season. The priest wears white or gold vestments all through the season. Throughout the Easter season the Paschal or Easter candle, which is an image of the Risen Christ, remains on the altar and is lit at every Mass. Then the Easter season has several "divisions": Easter Sunday, Easter Octave, Divine Mercy Sunday (Quasi Modo or Low Sunday), Solemnity of the Ascension, and preparation for Pentecost.

The Easter Octave

Paschal Candle image by Jennifer Gregory MillerThe first eight days during the Easter season are called the Octave of Easter. During this time the Church considers every day another Easter, with the focus on the newly baptized, celebrating the liturgy of Easter Sunday until the Second Sunday of Easter. There are some differences in the Mass found only during the Octave:

  1. Before the Gospel is proclaimed, the ancient Sequence Victimae Paschali is read or sung.
  2. The Alleluia verse throughout the week is "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad, Alleluia."
  3. Before the Holy, Holy, there is also a special preface of Easter.
  4. When Eucharistic Prayer I is used, there is a proper form for the "In communion with those..." (Communicantes):

    Celebrating the most sacred night (day)
    of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh,
    and in communion with those whose memory we venerate,
    especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary,
    Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ,

  5. A proper "Therefore, Lord we pray" (Hanc Igitur) is also used in the Eucharistic Prayer I:

    Therefore, Lord, we pray:
    graciously accept this oblation of our service,
    that of your whole family,
    which we make to you
    also for those to whom you have been pleased to give
    the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit,
    granting them forgiveness of all their sins;
    order our days in your peace,
    and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
    and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
    Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

  6. Finally, at every dismissal of Mass:

    Deacon or Priest: Go forth, the Mass is ended, alleluia, alleluia.

    or Go in peace, alleluia, alleluia.

    Response: Thanks be to God, alleluia, alleluia.

The Octave closes on the second Sunday of Easter, the Feast of Divine Mercy. This year Blessed John XXIII and Blessed John Paul II will be canonized on Sunday, giving another theme to develop during this season.

Focus on the Easter Readings and Liturgy

The most obvious way to celebrate the Easter season is to attend extra Masses during the week and receive our glorified Christ in Holy Communion. By following the New Testament and the daily readings from the Mass we can really enter the heart of the Easter message. There are different Resurrection accounts and appearances of Christ we can meditate upon throughout the Easter season: the women meeting the angel at the tomb; Mary Magdalene meeting Jesus in the garden; John and Peter rushing to the tomb; Jesus appearing to the Apostles in the Upper Room, both without and with St. Thomas; Jesus on the shore; and of course, the disciples recognizing Jesus at Emmaus. During the entire Easter season the first reading is always taken from the Acts of the Apostles. The Acts is so action-packed and interesting that it is perfect to read aloud to children. The Apostles and disciples of Jesus radiate pure Easter joy...something we should emulate: Christ is risen, the gates of heaven are opened and we now may share eternal life with Him!

The Directory of Popular Piety and the Liturgy has a section dedicated to the season of Easter, which includes several suggestions, such as praying the Via Lucis (Stations of Light) and joining with Mary in her joy at the Resurrection.

Using the Five Senses

Utilizing all five senses: sight, sound, touch, taste and smell, throughout the fifty days, helps emphasize the joy of the Easter season. The following are simple ideas particularly applicable for families.

SIGHT: Visual reminders of Easter can be displayed around the house until Pentecost! The decorations can reflect the religious meaning of Easter. White and gold are the liturgical colors of Easter and pastel colors reflect spring and new life. The tablecloths, placemats, napkins, even kitchen towels and potholders can incorporate the Easter colors.

There are Easter symbols and imagery to incorporate through the season. First of all, there is imagery we can recall from the Easter Liturgy, particularly the Easter Vigil:

  • Water: Reminds us of our Baptism
  • Paschal Candle: "Christ our Light" -- the wax and light have particular significance.
  • Chi Rho with Wreath: Christogram of Christ with the wreath of victory of the resurrection
  • Alpha and the Omega: First and last letters of the Greek alphabet, Christ being the beginning and end of all things.
  • Paschal Lamb (with Easter Banner): "Christ our Paschal Lamb has been sacrificed" (1 Cor 5:7). The Easter Banner is a white flag with a red cross symbolizing the victory over death.
  • The Bee and Beeswax: These are particular symbols used in the Easter Vigil, tied with the Paschal Candle and included the Exsultet. The bee is a symbol of the Resurrection because it emerges from the honeycomb cell as Jesus emerged from the tomb. The bee also seems to be dormant during winter and emerging in the spring, just like the Resurrection.

Butterfly Napkin ring made from Peacock feathersBesides the Liturgy, there are many other Easter symbols that can be reminders of the resurrection throughout the season:

  • The Phoenix: Mythical bird which rises again out of its ashes.
  • The Butterfly: The butterfly emerges from the seemingly dead chrysalis just as Jesus rises from the dead.
  • The Peacock: The bird is said to annually shed its tail feathers and grow new feathers and more brilliant and finer than before.
  • Bursting Pomegranate: The fruit bursts with life-giving seeds. It represents the power of Christ who burst out of the tomb on Easter Sunday.
  • The Swallow: This bird was believed to sleep in the water all winter, and reappear as new life in the spring, just as Jesus's body "slept" in the tomb and rose again.
  • Easter Lily: The white flower blooms from a dead bulb, symbolizing immortality.
  • Jonah and the Fish: Because Jonah emerged from the fish after 3 days, he is a type of Christ.
  • The Dolphin: The fish of Jonah was often portrayed as a dolphin, so the dolphin became a symbol of the resurrection.
  • The Rabbit or Hare: One does not need to look askance at the Easter Bunny. Ade Bethune explains:

    The rabbit's burrow, like the tomb wherein Christ lay, is a dark hole in the earth. From this 'tomb' he too arises, and with bounding agility skims over hill and dale, a figure of our bodies as they will rise on the Last Day in the likeness of our risen Lord ("The Easter Rabbit", Friar, April 1958).

  • The Egg: This has been one of the most ancient signs of the resurrection. New life is born from the shell, which is similar to the tomb.

Eggs are the most traditional and popular symbol. Decorated eggs can be used liberally throughout the house, whether wooden, plastic, ceramic, or traditionally decorated eggs such as pysanky.

And of course, decorating with Easter flowers, particularly the Easter lily, is especially fitting.

Getting outside and enjoying nature is a way to focus on the new life of spring. Spring outings like a walk, picnic, or a hike are opportunities to identify some symbols of the Resurrection.

Holy cards and different depictions of the Risen Christ and His appearances, particularly reproductions of art masterpieces make wonderful displays. Incorporating several picture books on the Easter story to be read and shown throughout the season falls under two senses, sight and hearing.

TOUCH: Doing various Easter crafts and games is a great way to get our hands involved. There's so much preparation before Easter Sunday that it is more relaxing to do art projects during the fifty days. We can be calmer and more productive, and give more time to the projects to have them done well!

This is a perfect time to do various egg crafts, such as the ancient art of Ukrainian pysanky. I mentioned that writing pysanky can be a contemplative work. I know I sound like a broken record, but even without being "experts", we really enjoy making our pysanky. Our family worked on the eggs through Lent, inviting different friends and family to learn and enjoy the process, but now we can do it more in leisure. We leave the materials accessible, and it can be messy at times. Working with the beeswax and flame and incorporating symbols and colors can remind us of Easter.

Planting a garden and watching the new life grow illustrates rebirth and new life of Christ and for us Christians. I discussed a Mary Garden for the Annunciation, but the spring and new life are all reminders of the Resurrection.

If you didn't do this before Easter, making or decorating a candle imitating the Paschal candle used in Church is a wonderful way to bring another symbol of the risen Christ into the home. When decorating, we can read about the Easter Vigil and the significance of the Paschal Candle, or “Light of Christ.” Other ideas: coloring pictures, eggshell mosaics, jigsaw puzzles depicting the resurrection.

SOUNDS: This would include Vocal Prayers and Music. There are so many beautiful Easter hymns that are the treasure of the Church. “Ye Sons and Daughters,” “Regina Coeli,” “Alleluia, Sing to Jesus” are just a few. For a classical choice, Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” will put the Easter spring in one’s step!

During the Octave of Easter, use as an ending to all prayers or as a greeting what the Church uses throughout the Octave:

V. This is the day the Lord has made, Alleluia!
R: Let us rejoice and be glad in it, Alleluia!

A Polish and Slavic custom that keeps the Easter focus in mind is to greet one another throughout the Easter season with the greeting:

V. Christ is risen, Alleluia!
R. He is risen indeed, Alleluia

During the Easter season, the Regina Coeli (Queen of Heaven) is prayed every day at noon and 6:00, instead of the Angelus:

V. Queen of Heaven, rejoice, alleluia:
R. For he whom you merited to bear, alleluia.

V. Has risen, as he said, alleluia.
R. Pray for us to God, alleluia.

V. Rejoice and be glad, O Virgin Mary, alleluia.
R. Because the Lord is truly risen, alleluia.

Let us pray. O God, who by the Resurrection of your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, granted joy to the whole world: grant, we beg you, that through the intercession of the Virgin Mary, his Mother, we may lay hold of the joys of eternal life. Through the same Christ our Lord. Amen.

TASTE: Food and drink are inseparable from celebration of feasts. There are so many different recipes, especially Easter breads and desserts from a variety of countries that one could test and taste all through fifty days and still not have tried them all. The different breads and cakes all have symbolism that points to the resurrection, such as the rising of the cakes and breads, the shapes of the breads, and the use of the rich ingredients. Older fasting laws were much stricter, and there were many years were eggs or dairy were not permitted. The hens would start laying before Lent was over, and so the eggs would be piling up, waiting to be used. So many of the Easter recipes call for multiple eggs, to use the excess, but also for the for celebration of the end of fasting and rejoicing at the resurrection. This Holy Week due to sickness we didn't have time to bake all our favorite goods by Easter morning, so we will spread out some of the goodies through the Octave and season.

SMELL: Foods and flowers fall under this sense, also. The scents from Easter lilies, hyacinths and tulips just enforce the idea that springtime brings new life, including the life of Jesus through the Resurrection.

Peace and Joy in Our Hearts

The first word Jesus said when He appeared to his Apostles was "Peace". There has been much time and preparation leading up to Easter, but keeping Easter joy doesn't mean frenzied or constant activity. We can walk with Mary and the Apostles as they experienced these events. They cherished the times with the Risen Jesus, listening to His explanation of Scripture and how all things came to be fulfilled. While I list many ideas for activity throughout the Easter season, it doesn't mean I'm suggesting piling on one activity after another. We are pondering all these events. We are retelling them in our readings, in our thoughts, in our singing -- we are keeping the Easter joy and peace in our hearts. As my pastor says every year, "Pace yourself -- Easter is fifty days!"

Easter is the heart of the Church’s liturgy and liturgical year. The Church gives us fifty days to give thanksgiving to God for the gift of Christ’s victory over sin and death and express joy at the resurrection and opening of heaven to all men. Through our celebration of this season, let us strive to deepen our understanding of this great mystery and bear witness to Christ through our lives.

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