The Easter season has begun and in our Catholic faith, Easter is the primary holy day and season of the year. Many folks look at Christmas as the biggest feast of the church year because it represents God coming in the flesh. Thinking that Christmas is the main feast of the church is understandable, but that is not the case.
Easter is the day around which the entire church year revolves.
Easter’s significance beckons us to go back to the beginning of our human story, back to the time of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve committed that original, prideful sin of disobedience. They ate the fruit of the tree from which God forbade them to eat. That original sin put a gaping wound in the relationship between God and man. Thus, mankind lost paradise and his perfect relationship with God.
Over time God tried to set things right by way of covenants, by way of the sacrificial system. But those covenants relied on fallible humans also abiding by the agreements. The human side of the covenants always wound up unfulfilled. In the fullness of time, God sent his only Son into the world as the Messiah to both the Jewish people and to the world. This Messiah, Jesus Christ, instituted a new and everlasting covenant in his blood. He was the incarnation of God in the world. He showed us how to live as God would want. He was faithful to his mission of salvation, even to the point of death. This time Christ made a covenant in which he represented both the human and the divine side of it. This covenant would be sealed in his blood. So his sacrifice was the perfect one as Christ was at once both the priest and the sacrificial victim.
Christ’s sacrifice was so perfect that all of man’s past deeds and deeds yet-to-come could be forgiven, and his place in creation could be restored. The Easter sign that death had been conquered, and that mankind had a new beginning was Christ’s resurrection.
Christ’s resurrection was not the same as Lazarus being raised. Lazarus was brought back to life, but he was as he was before. While Christ was the same person upon resurrection, he was nonetheless different. Christ was the same person as he was before his passion but his body had been glorified.
The resurrected Christ continues to be present to his people even today, and until the end of time, in the Blessed Sacrament, the holy Eucharist.
On Easter and in the Easter season we remind ourselves and the world that Christ’s opened the gates of heaven to humanity once again and restored the ability of mankind to have the hope of final rest in heaven. God’s promise that he would abide with his people was lived out in Christ’s death and resurrection. On that first Easter morning mankind became a new creation, a redeemed people.
The word Easter finds its origins in several word roots. The oldest root is found in an old Norse term austr, meaning the “east” or the place of the rising sun, which we know happens from the east. From this root we get “Austria” (the eastern lands of the German) and “Australia” (a continent in the far east). “Aust” is similar to that of the German term “Ostern” (Easter), which has its root in the word “ost” (east). The term “east” in its kernel form does not just refer to a point of direction. East refers to what happens in the east in terms of the sun: the morning comes first to the east; the light of a new day comes from the east.
Interestingly, an Anglo-Saxon pagan goddess had the name “Eostre,” because she was the goddess of sunrise. Her name is drawn from the same “ost” word root. Easter is from that traditional sense of the term ost (east), which speaks to the beginning of light and of a new day.
Easter for us is the beginning of the new day. Jesus Christ, from the geographical perspective of first century Christians of Rome and Athens, was the Son of God, the light of the world rising in the east.
The Son and the Moon
You probably have noticed that the date of Easter moves around, unlike the date of Christmas, Dec. 25.
Easter’s date is premised on a lunar (moon-based) calendar; however the world we live in operates primarily on a solar (sun-based) calendar. So, while the date of Easter “moves” every year on our solar-based calendar, it lands on the same lunar calendar day every year.
Back in the day, this caused some wailing and gnashing of teeth, because what had been an “immovable feast” (set date) on a lunar calendar, became a “movable feast” as civilization moved toward a solar-based calendar.
The church addressed this issue in the year 325 A.D., when the Council of Nicaea placed Easter on the first Sunday following the first full moon after March 20, which is the vernal equinox, when the sun is directly above the Earth’s equator. This date allowed pilgrims to have moonlight for the traveling to the great Easter festivals of that day. According to this method, Easter could be celebrated as early as March 22 and as late as April 22.
For us as Catholics and for most of Christianity, much of our liturgical calendar is dictated by Easter. There are many holy days in Lent and Easter that revolve around that Sunday after the first full moon of March. The days set by Easter are Ash Wednesday, Pentecost, the Ascension of the Lord, the feasts of Sacred Heart of Jesus, Immaculate Heart of Mary, Corpus Christi, and Trinity Sunday.
The End of the New Beginning
If Easter starts first full moon after March 20, when does it end? Prior to 1970, the Easter Season ended on Ascension Thursday and Pentecost was set off into its own “octave.” With the liturgical renewal after the Second Vatican Council, the end of Easter season was deemed to be Pentecost. Thus the Easter season was restored its 50-day length, which finds roots in ecclesial antiquity.
One of the individual duties of a Catholic hinges on this broader definition of Easter: the church teaches that a Catholic is to receive holy Communion at least once a year during the “Easter Season.” The church is referring to the Lent-Easter cycle when its commands this.
Octave of Easter
The Beatles sang, “I ain’t got nothing but love, babe, eight days a week.” So, too, it is in the church, during times we call “octaves.” Easter is not just celebrated in its fullness on Easter Sunday, but rather for a period of eight days beginning on Easter. These eight days are known as an “octave” (from the Latin “octo,” meaning “eight.”
The church teaches that Easter is to be celebrated, as a solemnity, from Easter Sunday through the Second Sunday of Easter (Divine Mercy Sunday or, from an earlier tradition, “Low Sunday”). This eight-day period is the octave of Easter. The only other holy day in the contemporary period that gets an octave attached to it is Christmas — Dec. 25 through Jan. 1 is the octave of Christmas. During these octaves, all days are to be treated like the high holy day of its particular season.
By rising, restored our life
Easter season is here and now. I think the words of the preface said during Easter Mass sums this season up best.
“It is truly right and just, our duty and our salvation, at all times to acclaim you, O Lord, but on this day above all to laud you yet more gloriously, when Christ our Passover has been sacrificed. For he is the true Lamb who has taken away the sins of the world; by dying he has destroyed our death, and by rising, restored our life.”
That preface from Easter Sunday Mass says what we need to know about Easter – namely, Christ is risen from the dead, and because of that our lives are restored. Alleluia.
Next: Ascension, Pentecost and more.
Father Lentini is principal of St. Thomas More Academy in Magnolia.