Easter is so great a Feast, and its meaning so wondrous, that the Church asks us not simply to celebrate it, but also to live it for a season. As if one Sunday were not enough, we first celebrate a “perfect” week of Sundays, during this, the Easter week. And then take that perfect number seven itself a perfect number of times, and one gets the length of the season, which stretches to “Pentecost”—Greek for “Fifty” (the number one gets by counting forty-nine inclusively, in the ancient manner).
Perhaps Lent seemed long to you. But I suspect sorrow and contrition come easier to most of us than joy and hope. How will you succeed in living a Christian Easter without fail until May 20th? A simple resolution: find other Christians who will agree to exchange with you each day the ancient response, “Christ is risen!” –“He is risen indeed!” Or make Mary herself your partner in this exercise, by saying or singing the Regina caeli at noon.
We can gain insight into the season, to help us live it better, by contrasting it with Christmas, also a season. The Incarnation and the Passion are the two great events in the history of humankind. Both come together in the sacrifice of the Mass: the one mystery really presented in the transubstantiated elements, the other in the separation of the flesh and blood. And yet the feasts and the seasons are very different.
Christmas is, as it were, a feast of the world. Whereas Easter, for all the public pomp of Easter morning liturgies, and beauty of Easter dress, is a feast of the Church. The world loves to celebrate a Christmas season: it simply gets the dates wrong. It celebrates the season a few weeks too early. Even without the gift-giving, so obviously attractive for the world’s commerce, and still everyone appreciates carols sung to an infant king in his crib, or the promise of reconciliation between God and man.
But there is no Easter season for the world. It’s as if the world, in northern countries at least, senses that it has Spring, and therefore needs no holiday with a supernatural provenance. The correct effort of Christendom to claim pagan symbols of Spring for Christianity has generally been a failure. We see in our day that the world has already moved on to Masters Week, and opening days at ballparks. It is already looking forward to cookouts on Memorial Day.
But Easter is not in the first instance for the world: it is for the Church. The Church after all did not exist at the Nativity. That mystery had witnesses chosen from among the world as if from random. And these witnesses had no office or task as a result. The magi returned to their own lands. The shepherds returned to their fields and resumed tending their sheep. The evangelist Mark does not even include the Nativity in his Gospel.
The Nativity story might have been lost with no essential loss to Christian teaching. Mary indeed studied the scenes and, “storing them up in her heart,” contemplated them. She was surely the source for other Evangelists, but in her role generally as Mother of the contemplative life of the Church.
Yet the Church was born from the Passion, and the witnesses of the Resurrection were chosen in advance and trained for that office. We understandably wish to present the Gospel as aimed at everyone. We live in an age of brittle egos and sense that others widely yearn for acceptance and affirmation. And yet Holy Thursday is also the anniversary of the institution of the priesthood. It is the feast of the New Commandment (mandatum = maundy), which only a follower of Christ can intentionally observe.
Good Friday is also the Feast of the Birth of the Church: as the Catechism so beautifully puts it, “As Eve was formed from the sleeping Adam’s side, so the Church was born from the pierced heart of Christ hanging dead on the cross.” Moreover, it is the Feast of our adoption, in the Church, as children of Mary, “Behold, your mother.” These are all feasts “of the household.”
As for the Resurrection, it’s always a puzzle why Our Lord appeared almost solely to his followers: “This man God raised on the third day and granted that he be visible, not to all the people, but to us, the witnesses chosen by God in advance.” (Acts 10:40)
Cardinal Newman, in an astute sermon on the problem (“Witnesses of the Resurrection”), says that God surely chose the method that was best. If Jesus appeared to people at large, as he did in his public ministry, he would have startled them at first but then have been rejected again. Only a few men knew Jesus well enough to be certain that it was the risen man was the same one who had suffered. Perhaps most importantly, it was the intention of God to propagate the Good News, “by means of His own intimate friends.” (original emphasis)
The Resurrection, then, is a mystery in the first instance revealed to the Church and received by the Church. Easter is thus fundamentally an Apostolic feast. It is impossible to celebrate Easter without celebrating the Apostolic tradition at the same time. That is why our Protestant brethren, without the latter, will sometimes try to make belief in the Resurrection a matter of forensic proof.
A Christian dealing with the world may be tempted to leave out a step. In his book on the Second Vatican Council, Sources of Renewal, then-Archbishop of Krakow, Karol Wojtyla, said that the fundamental question of the Council was Ecclesia, quid dicis de te ipsa? (“Church, what do you say of yourself?”
The Council’s answer has its roots in Holy Week. We can do no better, in the Easter season, than to fall in love with the Church again and to become ourselves more deeply apostolic.
*Image: Christ Appearing to His Disciples After the Resurrection by William Blake, c. 1795 [National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.]