Paschaltide and Ascension
“If you love feasts, you will find plenty among us Christians; not merely feasts that last only for a day, but such as continue for several days together… Put all the feasts of the Gentiles together, and they do not amount to our fifty days of Pentecost,” Tertullian boasted in the third century.
St. Maximus of Turin (†450) also gives his praise of Paschaltide, writing, “These fifty days are for us a continuous festal-time (per hos quinquaginta dies nobis est continuata festivitas). Each of these days is reckoned as Sunday. The Lord disposed that, just as we should be saddened by His Passion in the fasting of Lent, so we should be made joyful by His Resurrection in Paschaltide.” The period of fifty days between Easter and Pentecost are indeed the highlight of the liturgical year and are a continuous celebration of the Resurrection of Christ. The testimony of St. Irenaeus and many other Church Fathers shows that the season already at their time was considered to be particularly solemn, spent in the midst of the most vivacious joys.
The Latin term Tempus Paschale is rendered in English with the various terms Paschaltide, Paschal Time, and Eastertide. In more ancient times, as seen by Tertullian’s statement above, the whole period was called Pentecost, from the Greek for fifty days (pentekosté). This latter term has given its name since then to the fiftieth day itself, the feast of the Descent of the Holy Ghost. From Easter to Pentecost there are eight Sundays, which is therefore an octave of Sundays, and, as St. Hilary of Poitiers wrote, “a week of weeks.” After Pentecost, the season continues in a way, with the Octave of Pentecost, albeit with some differences which distinguish that week from Paschaltide proper.
The Octave of Easter
The season opens with the Octave of Easter. During this week following Easter, it was the custom in ancient times for the newly baptized catechumens (called neophytes) to wear white tunics, along with a binding-cloth or veil which covered the place on their heads where they had received the Sacred Chrism after their baptism. They would visit the baptistery each day in procession, and would there receive continued instruction in the Faith. They would originally wear these tunics until Sunday, but in the seventh century the last baptistery catechism and the setting aside of the tunics was anticipated to Saturday. The Epistle still used on the Saturday of the Octave of Easter was originally a final exhortation to these new Catholics: “As newborn babes, desire the rational milk without guile, that thereby you may grow unto salvation… You are a chosen generation, a kingly priesthood, a holy nation, a purchased people: that you may declare His virtues, Who hath called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” (I Peter 2:1-10). At Hippo, St. Augustine used the occasion to reiterate the Catholic teaching on the resurrection of the body as a hallmark of the Christian religion (which is why cremation has a distinctly anti-Christian overtone).
The Sunday following Easter was called Dominica in albis depositis (shortened to in albis), referring to the neophytes’ having “set down” their tunics the day before. The English term Low Sunday may also refer to the same concept, or it may be a reference to a Sarum Introit. The other name for the day is Quasimodo Sunday, from the Introit of the Mass—Quasimodo geniti infantes—which itself refers to the Epistle cited above. With the theme being that of spiritual childhood, the station church is that of the fourteen-year-old martyr St. Pancras.
Among the liturgical features of the Octave, there are the antiphon Haec dies, which is given particular importance in the Divine Office, and the continuation of the texts of the Easter Mass, such as the sequence Victimae paschali laudes, the proper Hanc igitur and Communicantes, and the abundant use of the Alleluia throughout the Mass and Office, which is even added twice to the Ite Missa est. Among the liturgical features of Paschaltide as a whole, there is the ancient tradition of using the Gospel texts most frequently from St. John, with only a few exceptions. In addition, there is a special common for martyrs during Paschaltide. In the usual common, there is frequent reference to their dolorous passion (e.g., tormenta passi sunt), whereas in the Paschal common, the references are more often to the glorious triumph of the martyrs and their glory in Heaven (e.g., gloriam regni tui dicent).
The Major Litanies
The joy of Paschaltide is briefly interrupted by the penitential processions of the Rogations, that is of the major litanies, which take place on April 25, the Feast of St. Mark, and the minor litanies, which take place on the three days preceding the Ascension, called the Rogation Days for that reason.
The major litanies, known as such since at least the time of Pope St. Gregory the Great, refer to the great Springtime procession which has been historically used to beseech from God a successful outcome to the sowing of crops. Similar processions were known in ancient Rome as the ambarvalia, the most important of them known as the robigalia, which took place on April 25. When the Church instituted the procession of the major litanies, perhaps as a form of Christianizing the previous custom, it initially maintained even the same processional route through the city and out of the Flaminian Gate. The procession would then double back to St. Peter’s, where a solemn stational Mass would be celebrated.
The procession has a penitential character, despite its placement in Paschaltide.
A liturgical Ordo from the twelfth century describes how the pope, together with the bishops, cardinals, and all the other clergy of every order, would depart from the Lateran residence barefoot and process towards St. Peter’s, stopping for a brief repose at the churches along the way. Arriving at St. Peter’s Basilica, and having washed his feet—ablutis pedibus—the pope celebrated the Mass.
The Rogation Days
The minor litanies are a Gallican custom rather than Roman, although they eventually took on great importance at Rome as well. They are attributed to St. Mamertus, the bishop of Vienne en Dauphiné. In AD 470, there was a series of severe earthquakes and other calamities which struck the area. The holy bishop, with the Ascension of the Lord coming up, decreed a three-day fast among the people with sighs and contrition (appropinquante ascensione Domini, indixit jejunium triduanum in populo cum gemitu et contritione), accompanied by a procession with the litanies. Similar processions had been held in Vienne in years previous, but had fallen into disuse. With the painful impression of the recent calamities, the processions were completely revived and spread from there.
Bishop Sidonius Appolinaris (†488) instituted them in his diocese of Auvergne. Shortly thereafter, the synod of Orleans (AD 511) prescribed the processions and definitively fixed them to the three days before Ascension Thursday, consecrating them as Rogation Days. Sometime later, St. Caesarius of Arles (†543) wrote, “The Church in the whole world regularly celebrates these three days (istos tres dies regulariter in toto mundo celebrat Ecclesia),” though he was referring to the whole of Gaul. In Rome they were introduced later, at the beginning of the ninth century under Pope Leo III (†816). In England they were called “gangdays” (from gangen, to walk); the processions were held with hymns, canticles, and litanies, with prayers offered at different stopping points or stations for the blessing of the fields, as still seen in the Litany of the Saints today: Ut fructus terrae dare et conservare digneris—That Thou vouchsafe to give and preserve the fruits of the earth.
All Catholics of whatever rank took part in the processions, even kings, princes, and magistrates, going barefoot, clad in sackcloth and ashes. The holy emperor Charlemagne used to walk barefoot from his palace to the stational church. At Milan and other places, there was a ritual imposition of ashes like that of Ash Wednesday. The processions were very long and the return home was not until the evening. Psalms were chanted along the processional route, with lessons from Sacred Scripture read at the various stations. At the last station, Mass was celebrated, and the fast was broken. The Rogation Days are no longer days of fast, nor have they been for centuries—it is Paschaltide, after all—and the penitential practice is noted only in the procession and Mass, both in violet.
While litanic prayers were nevertheless used for these processions in the first three centuries of their existence, the Litany of the Saints in the form now used is from a later date. Its origin is traced to the Abbey of Saint-Riquier around AD 802-803. The ritual of the Rogations processions there prescribed that as soon as the procession left the cloister, psalms were sung in alternation, then the schola puerorum would sing the Apostles’ Creed, the Nicene Creed, the Athanasian Creed, and then begin the litania generalis, corresponding to the Litany of the Saints. After the Litany, the Laudes Regiae was intoned, which is the ancient hymn imploring the prosperity of Christendom, and from which Christus Vincit is taken.
The participation of the saints in the Rogation processions is edifying. St. Elizabeth of Hungary would walk in company of the poorest women, clad in course cloth. St. Charles Borromeo celebrated them with extraordinary rigor in Milan, fasting on only bread and water, and starting the procession early in the morning with the sprinkling of ashes at the Duomo; the procession on each of the three days was universally attended by clergy and laity.
St. Augustine (†430) attests that the Ascensio Domini in coelum, the feast of the Ascension of the Lord into Heaven, was observed everywhere at his time. St. John Chrysostom (†407) regarded it as an ancient and universal feast. Around AD 325, St. Eusebius referred to it as a “solemn day,” and there are references by St. Gregory of Nyssa (†394) and in the Apostolic Constitutions to the feast under the name still used by the Greeks: the Assumption of the Lord (analépsis), corresponding to the terminology of the Acts of Apostles and the Gospels: He was taken up into heaven, assumptus est in caelum. Two sermons of St. Leo the Great for the Ascension are extant, in which he underscores that the Ascension of Christ advances us (Christi ascensio nostra provectio est).
The Mass is found in all of the ancient Sacramentaries, and the Anamnesis of the Roman Canon (Unde et memores) calls it His “glorious Ascension.” The texts of the Mass express the jubilation of Heaven in the triumph of Christ and His return to the Father. The preface of the Mass is a fusion of two prefaces given in the Leonine Sacramentary, while the special Communicantes used in the Canon is from St. Leo the Great (†461) with a slight adjustment from the hand of St. Gregory the Great (†604).
On Ascension Day, the Paschal Candle is extinguished after the Gospel, which concludes with the brief description of the Ascension by St. Mark. The rubric is clearly given in the 1570 Missal of St. Pius V and is the conclusion of the Paschal Candle’s role as a symbolic representation of the Risen Christ; the Candle is to be retired until the next Easter Vigil. For the Ascension Mass in the Ambrosian Rite of Milan, the Paschal Candle is slowly lifted up to the ceiling in a more vivid reenactment of the sacred event.
In the early fifth century, John Cassian wrote, “The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost must be celebrated with the same solemnity and joy as the forty days that precede them.” Therefore, the joys of Paschaltide continue, and during the nine days leading to the Vigil of Pentecost (Saturday), the Church implores the pouring out of the Holy Ghost upon all her members in a particular way during the upcoming Feast.
The liturgical texts for the grace-laden days of Paschaltide are a fitting glorification of the triumph of Christ, Who conquered sin and death, and Who, in both His divinity and His humanity, hypostatically ever-joined, is seated at the right hand of the Father. He has opened the gates of Heaven for His chosen people, the faithful members of His Mystical Body, the Church, and He responds to the Church’s plea by preparing the hearts of the faithful for the outpouring of the Paraclete upon them in every age, until He comes again in glory.