Fifty Days to Behold
As of the Easter Vigil on April 4, we have entered the seven-week Easter Season which concludes on Pentecost Sunday, which falls on May 24 of this year. This is one of those unfortunate scheduling quirks where Pentecost coincides with Memorial Day Weekend and the solemnity of the former is diluted somewhat by the festivities of the latter. The Easter Season as a whole combines the three great acts of victorious redemption: the Resurrection itself, the Ascension or glorification of Christ at the right hand of the Father, and Pentecost—God’s presence in the Church until the Second Coming.
For liturgical or worshipping purposes, the Church has chosen to use Luke’s calendar of events as recorded in his Gospel. This is the 50 day spread: Jesus remaining on earth for forty days till his Ascension, and the Holy Spirit’s majestic descent upon the Jerusalem gathering ten days later. If the number “40” sounds familiar, it is the metaphor employed by many Scriptural authors to denote a period of time. We actually do not know precisely how long the Easter-Pentecost era extended. St. Paul (then the persecuting Saul of Tarsus) reports a dramatic encounter with the risen Christ at a considerable period of time after the reported Gospel events. In any case, the numbers provided in the Gospels are most likely metaphorical, indicating simply “a period of time.” If Luke’s account of the disciples on the road to Emmaus is any indication, the time of Jesus’ post-resurrection encounter and instruction of the disciples may have been a considerable period of time, certainly longer than forty days.
Although the Church makes great use of St. John’s Gospel during the Easter Season, it did not borrow John’s calendar. The fourth evangelist records the Resurrection, Ascension and Pentecost events occurring inside of a 24-hour window! Yesterday’s (Sunday’s) Gospel records, among other things, the conferral of the Holy Spirit upon the ten present apostles (Judas and Thomas being absent) as he breathed upon them in the upper room. In John, the Ascension/glorification occurs between Jesus’ Easter morning appearance to Mary Magdalene ( ”Do not touch me, for I have not yet ascended to my Father”) and the Easter evening meal, where Jesus invites wholesale inspection of his wounds. John has no description of human events surrounding the Ascension.
Historically the first few Sundays of Easter have featured the key Gospel texts of Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. Next Sunday’s Gospel (Luke 24:35-48) describes Luke’s account of the upper room appearance. In this account the emphasis is quite different from John’s: Jesus uses the appearance to explain for them what he had painstakingly explained to the Emmaus walkers, how the scandal of the cross was foretold in the Scripture and was ordained in God’s plan from the beginning. Between last week and next week, we can see how each evangelist brought different catechetical emphases to what is basically a very similar story line.
The Fourth Sunday of Easter is warmly remembered by Catholic lifers as “Good Shepherd Sunday.” All three cycles draw from John 10, where Jesus describes himself as both the caring master and the honest, legitimate master. One critical aspect of John’s Gospel—written as it was so late in time; near 100 AD-- is preservation of the tradition of Jesus as handed down by legitimate, recognized heirs. Historians note that this time frame coincides with a shift toward more structured Church governance, away from charismatic preacher and toward established and respected bishops, such as the great St. Ignatius of Antioch. Good Shepherd Sunday thus contains a catechetical theme of fidelity to the true shepherds of the present time. However, the compassion of the Shepherd is the overarching affective mood of this day. As an aside, it is puzzling to me that a very recent observance has been injected into the Easter Sunday feasts, the “Divine Mercy” observance included in yesterday’s Mass. Given the existing assignment of Scripture readings, this 2000+ insertion seems rather repetitive or redundant. Sadly, the young homilist in my church preached on the chaplet rather than the incredibly rich array of yesterday’s readings.
The Sunday Gospels of the remainder of the Easter Season (with the exception of the Feast of the Ascension) are drawn from Jesus’ final discourse to his disciples. This is a multi-chapter segment located in the Last Supper narrative of John’s Gospel. In these readings Jesus summarizes the key points of his teaching, allowing for the fact that much of what he is saying will not take on greater clarity until the Paraclete (the Spirit or Holy Spirit) is breathed upon them. The Easter Season will conclude on Pentecost, where Luke’s dramatic descent of the Spirit in Jerusalem, in tongues of fire, will be proclaimed in the first reading from the Acts of the Apostles.
The Easter Season Sunday liturgies are the only weekend feasts in which the first reading is drawn from the New Testament, specifically the Acts of the Apostles, in which Luke chronicles the life of the post-Resurrection Church filled with the Holy Spirit. And what about St. Mark, our year B Evangelist? Given that his Easter narrative contains all of eight lines, aside from the Easter Vigil we won’t be seeing him again until early June, when the Easter Season is completed, and his account of the Last Supper will be proclaimed on the Feast of Corpus Christ. With one major break in the summer, Mark will take us through the rest of the year until the Feast of Christ the King in late November.
St. Mark’s Feast, by the way is coming up soon, on April 25. This day coincides with a long custom of conducting a procession with the singing of the litany of the saints, presumably a prayer for a good growing season. Similar litanies/processions were held on the Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday prior to Ascension Thursday and were known as Rogation Days. The 1970 directives indicate that the procession on St. Mark’s Day and the Rogation Days may be observed if permitted by the national conferences of bishops in a particular country.
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