The Spirit of Eastertide
March and April are months central to the Paschal cycle which comprises several sections: the time of Septuagesima, Lent, Easter, Ascension, and Pentecost. After the forty days of the tithes each Christian offers God come the fifty days of the Paschal time called Eastertide. As we concentrate on the latter, we wish to grasp its leitmotiv, and then concentrate more specifically on the Easter celebration itself and some of its popular customs.
God willed that the Christian Easter and Pentecost should be prepared by the Mosaic Law, fifteen hundred years before the fact, and this reality is our own heritage. During these days, what is placed before our eyes are two great manifestations of God’s benefits to man: the Pasch of Israel and the Christian Pasch; the Pentecost of Sinai and the Pentecost of the Church.
What is the meaning of the Pasch? To the Hebrews, the Pesach or Passover referred to the passing of the exterminating angel who spared the Hebrew families protected by the blood of lambs spread on the door posts, just before they would flee towards liberty and the Promised Land.
For the Christians, eternity is the true Pasch. The human race was dead, victim of the sentence passed on Adam, condemned to lie mere dust in the tomb; the gates of life shut against it. But the Son of God rises from His grave and takes possession of eternal life. And He is not the only one: “He is the first-born from the dead,” says St. Paul. In the Church’s eyes, we have already risen with our Jesus, and already possess eternal life. That is why we sing the Alleluia, with which the streets and squares of the celestial Jerusalem resound endlessly. After going through Lent, as we have resolved to die no more that death which kills the soul, we are entitled to sing our Alleluia.
Eternity is the true Pasch and it needs be celebrated on Sunday, the first day of the week. The Synagogue by God’s command kept holy the Saturday in honor of God’s resting after the six days of creation. The Church honors Christ’s work. Early on the eighth day, He rises to life and the life is one of glory. Abbot Rupert explains: “Rightly was the seventh (day) 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 up front by the number of weeks which form Eastertide. These weeks are seven; they form a week of weeks, and their next day is again a Sunday, the feast of Pentecost. St. Hilary explains it thus: “If we multiply seven by seven, we shall find that this 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.” Said otherwise, after the seven ages of the Church militant there will come the eternal day of the Church triumphant.
If Lent leads us through the Purgative Life, Eastertide is referred to as the Illuminative Life. It reveals to us the grandest Mystery of the Man-God, the risen Christ, but also the three admirable manifestations of divine love and power, the Resurrection, the Ascension and the Descent of the Holy Ghost. Easter is truly the perfection of the work of Redemption. Here Christ is expressing in His own sacred Humanity the highest degree of the creature’s transformation into his God. And with the coming of the Holy Ghost adding up brightness and intimacy, there result those several Christian exercises which produce within the soul an imitation of her divine Model and prepare her for that Unitive Life to which her Redeemer invited her.
The Easter Celebration
The feast of the Resurrection is exalted above all other feasts. The saints and Church Fathers refer to it as the “peak (akropolis) of all feasts,” surpassing “all others like the sun among stars.”
The Church used a pious artifice to infuse of the spirit of Easter into all, including ‘carnal minds.’ Abbot Rupert explains: “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 hath pitched’ for wearied wayfarers.”
The English term Easter and the German Ostern come from a common origin, which to the Norsemen meant the season of the rising and growing sun, the season of new birth. The same root is found in the name for the place where the sun rises, East, Ost. It meant originally the celebration of the spring sun, which had its birth in the East and brought new life upon earth. This symbolism was transferred to the supernatural meaning of our Easter, to the new life of the Risen Christ, the eternal and uncreated Light.
Since there is an intimate bond between the Resurrection of Christ and the sacrament of baptism, the Church united these two ‘resurrections’ in a common ritual. It celebrates the ‘new life’ not only of Christ as the Head, but also of His Mystical Body. This is why the prayers of the liturgy in the Paschal week constantly reflect those two thoughts: the Resurrection of Our Lord and the baptism of the faithful.
The rising of Christ is symbolized particularly with the Paschal candle, lit from the Easter fire, originally a pagan Germanic tradition of setting big bonfires at the beginning of spring. The celebration of light gave rise to many poems, the most known being Inventor Rutilis of Prudentius in 405:
Eternal God, O Lord of Light,
Who hast created day and night:
The sun has set, and shadows deep
Now over land and waters creep;
But darkness must not reign today:
Grant us the light of Christ, we pray.
With the procession of the Easter candle came the Easter Song or Exultet, followed by long passages of the Bible called the “prophecies,” finishing the formation of the catechumens. Towards midnight, the bishop and clergy went in procession to the baptismal font, originally a large basin built in a round or octagonal structure outside the Church. There they were formally baptized into the “life-giving waters.” It is in relation to this that the Church today offers all the faithful present the chance to renew their baptismal vows. Long after midnight, the vigil was concluded with the customary prayers of the litanies and celebration of the Holy Sacrifice.
The Easter greetings are still quite common in the Greek Church: “Christos aneste”—Christ is risen—with the answer “Alethos aneste”—He is risen truly. So do the Russians “Christos voskres. Vo istinu voskres.” The Poles offer a wish “Wesolego Alleluia”—a joyful alleluia to you!
Among the hymns to celebrate the feast, most famous is the Alleluia! O Filii et Filiae, by the Franciscan Jean Tisserand in 1494. The Regina Caeli Laetare is a 14th-century poem, sung during the entire Eastertide, which serves also as the substitute to the thrice daily Angelus. Handel’s oratorio of the Messiah offers the Hallelujah Chorus during which all audiences rise from their seats. Goethe in his Faust of 1832 offers us a brief and forceful Easter song.
Christ is arisen:
Joy to all mortals
Freed from the threatening
Creeping and deadening
Serpents of evil.
The providence of God has harmonized the visible with the supernatural work of grace by designing that the Resurrection of Christ take place during the season where Nature herself seems to rise from the grave. This is symbolized in food. The Easter egg among Indo-European races is the symbol of fertility. To pagans, it was a most startling event to see a new and live creature emerge from a seemingly dead object. In Christian terms, the egg becomes a symbol of the rock tomb out of which Christ emerged to the new life of His resurrection. Moreover, the egg, formerly forbidden all along Lent, gave significance to the Easter joy.
The Easter bunny has its origin in pagan fertility lore. Hare and rabbit were the most fertile animals pagans knew, serving as symbol of abundant new life in spring. This has never been a Christian thing. Yet, the bunny has acquired a cherished role in Easter as the legendary producer of Easter eggs for children in many countries. In Germany, the Easter bunny was believed to lay red eggs on Maundy Thursday and eggs of other colors the night before Easter Sunday. They are a favorite Easter pastry in Northern Europe.
We shall close this folkloric tour with sweet things. In Hungary and thereabout, people bake their ham (the pig is a symbol of abundance and an Easter favorite) with bread dough. The bread of the Slavs is called Paska. The German and Austrian oblong or twisted bread with raisins is called Osterstollen. The Poles’ favorite is the mazurki filled with nuts and fruit.