The Easter cycle is quite similar to the Christmas cycle I explored in the previous post. There is an extended period of preparation, Lent, which leads up to the events of Easter, and an extended period of celebration after Easter which finishes on the feast of Pentecost. The origins of Lent appear to be as a time of preparation for baptism in those places that celebrated baptisms at Easter. However, it has long since become primarily a time for attending to a more disciplined life of faith.
The recovery of a long Eastertide is relatively recent, but, unlike Epiphany, Easter is not fighting any strong cultural currents, and it has deeper roots. Moreover the tone of joy naturally suits the uplifting mood of time outside the church, at least in the northern hemisphere, as we move into spring and (sometimes) early summer, and leave the winter months behind. As an old Easter hymn says:
Lo, the fair beauty of earth, from the death of the winter arising,Salve, festa dies by Venantius Fortunatus (6th century) as translated by the editors of the English Hymnal (New English Hymnal 109)
every good gift of the year, now with its Master returns.
There are some places where the two lectionaries diverge. In particular, the Revised Common Lectionary (followed here also by the Church of England) offers the alternative of remembering the Transfiguration of Jesus on the last Sunday (as they called it) after Epiphany, instead of on the 2nd Sunday of Lent like the Roman Catholic Lectionary. According to its compilers, this allowed for it to be treated as the last Sunday of an Epiphany season for those who wanted to do that.1 It still works as an introduction to Lent, but the reason for reading these stories in Lent was also a powerful reminder that the reason for embracing particular spiritual disciplines is to create some space in our lives for the Spirit’s transforming work.
The readings of Lent in one way or another invite us to contemplate how we respond to the gift of God. The liturgy that surrounds them tends to be stripped back. The Gloria in Excelsis is left out of the Eucharist, and there is no use of any “Alleluia” to greet the gospel. It is also normal to avoid hymns which use the word. It is not that Lent is meant to be joyless, but that by paring the mood down, we set up a greater contrast with our Easter celebrations.
You may have noticed that it’s quite hard to get Lent match a period of forty days. It has not always started on Ash Wednesday in all church traditions, and in some it is still treated as ending with the more intense time of Maundy Thursday evening through Good Friday to Holy Saturday evening. It is possible to get an exact forty days also by including the final days before Easter but excluding the Sundays. Since the lectionary is very clear we are keeping the Sundays of Lent, it doesn’t make much sense to me to leave them out! I think it is better not to worry too much about counting days, and treat the whole season as an opportunity to grow in faith. After all, most round numbers in the Bible shouldn’t be treated as numbers to do sums with, but as rather more symbolic amounts of time.
Eastertide, by contrast with Lent, is marked with joy. One marked feature of the lectionary is that there is no Old Testament reading as there is for the rest of the year. The first reading in Eastertide comes from the Acts of the Apostles. This is not intended to denigrate the Old Testament in any way. A number of those readings from Acts are from apostolic sermons based on Old Testament texts. It is a way of saying Easter is supremely a new covenant, good news of Christ season, and the decision to use Christian texts is intended to underline that idea. It is especially appropriate because much of Acts presents stories of the earliest Christian preaching of the resurrection – a more dominant note than the crucifixion.
All the readings in Eastertide celebrate the resurrection of Christ, and the hope of new life for humanity and creation. Within that celebration there are two particular days marked out, based on the story as Luke tells it. He gives the timescale of forty days of instruction from the risen Jesus, before he is taken from the apostles’ sight (Acts 1:3), placing Ascension Day on Thursday of the 6th week of Easter, and he narrates the events of the Spirit’s coming on the day of Pentecost, fifty days after Passover / Easter.
Matthew’s gospel gives us no timescale, and John (and probably Paul) collapse the complex of resurrection and the gift of the spirit, theologically at least, into a single event. As with the Christmas story, where Luke gives us Annunciation, Visitation, Naming and Presentation as well as birth, it is primarily Luke’s writings that form the basis of much of our church calendar as he gives a timetable for the events that follow Easter.
- For anyone who fancies becoming a bit of a lectionary nerd, the Introduction to the Revised Common Lectionary can be downloaded as a PDF from this page: https://www.commontexts.org/rcl/