How does the Catholic Church reckon the time of Easter Sunday? What miracles occurred to help prove the true date of Easter? Find out this and more about the Paschal festivities!
Excerpted from Dom Prosper Gueranger's The Liturgical Year.
The History of Paschal Time
We give the name of Paschal Time to the period between Easter Sunday and the Saturday following Whit Sunday. It is the most sacred portion of the Liturgical Year, and the one towards which the whole Cycle converges. We shall easily understand how this is, if we reflect upon the greatness of the Easter Feast, which is called the Feast of Feasts, and the Solemnity of Solemnities, in the same manner, says St. Gregory, [Homilia, xxii.] as the most sacred part of the Temple was called the Holy of Holies; and the Book of Sacred Scripture, wherein are described the espousals between Christ and the Church, is called the Canticle of Canticles. It is on this day, that the mission of the Word Incarnate attains the object towards which it has hitherto been unceasingly tending: mankind is raised up from his fall, and regains what he had lost by Adam’s sin.
Christmas gave us a Man-God; three days have scarcely passed, since we witnessed His infinitely precious Blood shed for our ransom; but now, on the day of Easter, our Jesus is no longer the Victim of death: He is a Conqueror, that destroys death, the child of sin, and proclaims life, that undying life which He has purchased for us. The humiliation of His swathing-bands, the sufferings of His Agony and Cross, these are passed; all is now glory,—glory for Himself, and glory also for us. On the day of Easter, God regains, by the Resurrection of the Man-God, His creation such as He made it at the beginning; the only vestige now left of death, is that likeness to sin which the Lamb of God deigned to take upon Himself. Neither is it Jesus alone that returns to eternal life; the whole human race also has risen to immortality together with our Jesus. "By a man came death," says the Apostle; "and by a Man the Resurrection of the dead: and as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive." [I Cor. 15:21, 22].
The anniversary of this Resurrection is, therefore, the great Day, the day of joy, the day par excellence; the day to which the whole year looks forward in expectation, and on which its whole economy is formed. But as it is the holiest of days,—since it opens to us the gate of Heaven, into which we shall enter because we have risen together with Christ,—the Church would have us come to it well prepared by bodily mortification and by compunction of heart. It was for this that she instituted the Fast of Lent, and that she bade us, during Septuagesima, look forward to the joy of her Easter, and be filled with sentiments suitable to the approach of so grand a solemnity. We obeyed; we have gone through the period of our preparation; and now the Easter sun has risen upon us!
But it was not enough to solemnize the great Day when Jesus, our Light, rose from the darkness of the tomb: there was another anniversary which claimed our grateful celebration. The Incarnate Word rose on the first day of the week,—that same day, where on, four thousand years before, He, the Uncreated Word of the Father, had begun the work of the Creation, by calling forth light, and separating it from darkness. The first day was thus ennobled by the creation of light. It received a second consecration by the Resurrection of Jesus; and from that time forward Sunday, and not Saturday, was to be the Lord’s Day. Yes, our Resurrection in Jesus which took place on the Sunday, gave this first day a pre-eminence above the others of the week: the divine precept of the Sabbath was abrogated together with the other ordinances of the Mosaic Law, and the Apostles instructed the faithful to keep holy the first day of the week, which God had dignified with that twofold glory, the creation and the regeneration of the world. Sunday, then, being the day of Jesus’ Resurrection, the Church chose that day, in preference to every other, for its yearly commemoration.
The Pasch of the Jews, in consequence of its being fixed on the fourteenth of the moon of March, (the anniversary of the going out of Egypt,) fell by turns on each day of the week. The Jewish Pasch was but a figure; ours is the reality, and puts an end to the figure. The Church, therefore, broke this her last tie with the Synagogue; and proclaimed her emancipation, by fixing the most solemn of her Feasts on a day, which should never agree with that on which the Jews keep their now unmeaning Pasch. The Apostles decreed, that the Christian Pasch should never be celebrated on the fourteenth of the moon of March, even were that day to be a Sunday; but that it should be everywhere kept on the Sunday following the day on which the obsolete calendar of the Synagogue still marks it.
Nevertheless, out of consideration for the many Jews who had received baptism, and who formed the nucleus of the early Christian Church, it was resolved that the law regarding the day for keeping the new Pasch, should be applied prudently and gradually. Jerusalem was soon to be destroyed by the Romans, according to our Savior’s prediction; and the new City, which was to rise up from its ruins and receive the Christian colony, would also have its Church, but a Church totally free from the Jewish element, which God had so visibly rejected. In preaching the Gospel and founding Churches, even far beyond the limits of the Roman Empire, the majority of the Apostles had not to contend with Jewish customs; most of their converts were from among the Gentiles. St. Peter, who in the Council of Jerusalem had proclaimed the cessation of the Jewish Law, set up the standard of emancipation in the City of Rome; so that the Church, which through him was made the Mother and Mistress of all Churches, never had any other discipline regarding the observance of Easter, than that laid down by the Apostles, namely, that it should be kept on a Sunday.
There was, however, one province of the Church, which for a long time stood out against the universal practice: it was Asia Minor. The Apostle St. John, who lived for many years at Ephesus,—where indeed he died,—had thought it prudent to tolerate, in those parts, the Jewish custom of celebrating the Pasch; for many of the converts had been members of the Synagogue. But the Gentiles themselves, who, later on, formed the mass of the faithful, were strenuous upholders of this custom, which dated from the very foundation of the Church of Asia Minor. In the course of time, however, this anomaly became a source of scandal: it savored of Judaism, and it prevented unity of religious observance, which is always desirable, but particularly so in what regards Lent and Easter.
Pope St. Victor, who governed the Church from the year 193, endeavored to put a stop to this abuse; he thought the time had come for establishing unity in so essential a point of Christian worship. Already, that is in the year 160, under Pope St. Anicetus, the Apostolic See had sought, by friendly negotiations, to induce the Churches of Asia Minor to conform to the universal practice; but it was difficult to triumph over a prejudice, which rested on a tradition held sacred in that country. St. Victor, however, resolved to make another attempt. He would put before them the unanimous agreement which reigned throughout the rest of the Church. Accordingly, he gave orders, that Councils should be convened in the several countries where the Gospel had been preached, and that the question of Easter should be examined. Everywhere there was perfect uniformity of practice; and the historian Eusebius, who lived a hundred and fifty years later, assures us, that the people of his day used to quote the decisions of the Councils of Rome, of Gaul, of Achaia, of Pontus, of Palestine, and of Osrhoene in Mesopotamia. The Council of Ephesus, at which Polycrates, the bishop of that city, presided, was the only one that opposed the Pontiff, and disregarded the practice of the universal Church.
Deeming it unwise to give further toleration to the opposition, Victor separated from communion with the Holy See the refractory Churches of Asia Minor. This severe penalty, which was not inflicted until Rome had exhausted every other means of removing the evil, excited the commiseration of several bishops. St. Irenaeus, who was then governing tile See of Lyons, pleaded for these Churches, which, so it seemed to him, had sinned only through a want of light; and he obtained from the Pope the revocation of a measure which seemed too severe. This indulgence produced the desired effect. In the following century, St. Anatolius, Bishop of Laodicea, in his Book on the Pasch, written in 276, tells us that the Churches of Asia Minor had then, for some time past, conformed to the Roman practice.
About the same time, and by a strange coincidence, the Churches of Syria, Cilicia and Mesopotamia, gave scandal by again leaving the Christian and Apostolic observance of Easter, and returning to the Jewish rite of the fourteenth of the March moon. This schism in the Liturgy grieved the Church; and one of the points to which the Council of Nicaea directed its first attention, was the promulgation of the universal obligation to celebrate Easter on the Sunday. The Decree was unanimously passed, and the Fathers of the Council ordained, that "all controversy being laid aside, the Brethren in the East should solemnize the Pasch on the same day as the Romans, the Alexandrians, and the rest of the faithful." [Spicilegium Solesmense] So important seemed this question, inasmuch as it affected the very essence of the Christian Liturgy, that St. Athanasius, assigning the reasons which had led to the calling of the Council of Nicaea, mentions these two: the condemnation of the Arian heresy, and the establishment of "uniformity in the observance of Easter." [Epist. ad Afros Episcopos]
The Bishop of Alexandria was commissioned by the Council to see to the drawing up of astronomical tables, whereby the precise day of Easter might be fixed for each future year. The reason of this choice was, that the astronomers of Alexandria were looked upon as the most exact in their calculations. These tables were to be sent to the pope, and he would address letters to the several Churches, instructing them as to the uniform celebration of the great Festival of Christendom. Thus was the unity of the Church made manifest by the unity of the holy liturgy; and the Apostolic See, which is the foundation of the first, was likewise the source of the second. But, even previous to the Council of Nicaea, the Roman Pontiff had addressed to all the Churches, every year, a Paschal encyclical, instructing them as to the day on which the solemnity of the Resurrection was to be kept. This we learn from the synodical Letter of the Fathers of the great Council held at Arles, in 314. The letter is addressed to Pope St. Sylvester, and contains the following passage: "In the first place, we beg that the observance of the Pasch of the Lord may be uniform, both as to time and day, in the whole world, and that You would, according to the custom, address Letters to all concerning this matter." [Concil. Galilae. t. 1].
This custom, however, was not kept up for any length of time, after the Council of Nicaea. The want of precision in astronomical calculations occasioned confusion in the method of fixing the day of Easter. It is true, this great Festival was always kept on a Sunday; nor did any Church think of celebrating it on the same day as the Jews; but, since there was no uniform understanding as to the exact time of the Vernal Equinox, it happened sane years, that the Feast of Easter was not kept., in all places, on the same day. By degrees, there crept in a deviation from the rule laid down by the Council, of taking the 21st of March as the day of the Equinox. There was needed a reform in the Calendar, and no one seemed competent to bring it about. Cycles were drawn up contradictory to one another; Rome and Alexandria had each its own system of calculation; so that, some years, Easter was not kept with that perfect uniformity which the Nicene Fathers had so strenuously labored for: and yet, this variation was not the result of anything like party-spirit.
The West followed Rome. The Churches of Ireland and Scotland, which had been misled by faulty cycles, were, at length, brought into uniformity. Finally, science was sufficiently advanced in the 16th century for Pope Gregory XIII to undertake a reform of the calendar. The Equinox had to be restored to the 21st of March, as the Council of Nicaea had prescribed. The pope effected this by publishing a Bull, dated February 24, 1581, in which be ordered that ten days of the following year, namely from the 4th to the 15th of October, should be suppressed. He thus restored the work of Julius Caesar, who had, in his day, turned his attention to the rectification of the Year.
Easter was the great object of the reform, or, as it is called, the New Style, achieved by Gregory XIII. The principles and regulations of the Nicene Council were again brought to bear on this the capital question of the liturgical year; and the Roman Pontiff thus gave to the whole world the intimation of Easter, not for one year only, but for centuries. Heretical nations were forced to acknowledge the divine power of the Church in this solemn act, which interested both religion and society. They protested against the calendar, as they had protested against the Rule of Faith. England and the Lutheran States of Germany preferred following, for many years, a Calendar which was evidently at fault, rather then accept the New Style, which they acknowledged to be indispensable; but it was the work of a pope! [Great Britain adopted the New Style, by Act of Parliament, in the year 1732.—Tr.] The only nation in Europe that keeps up the Old Style is Russia, whose antipathy to Rome obliges her to be thus ten or twelve days behind the rest of the civilized world.
All this shows us how important it was to fix the precise day of Easter; and God has several times shown by miracles, that the date of so sacred a Feast was not a matter of indifference. During the ages when the confusion of the cycles and the want of correct astronomical computations occasioned great uncertainty as to the Vernal Equinox, miraculous events more than once supplied the deficiencies of science and authority. In a letter to St. Leo the Great, in the year 444, Paschasinus, Bishop of Lilybea [The modern Marsala] in Sicily, relates that under the pontificate of St. Zozinius,—Honorius being Consul for the eleventh, and Constantius for the second time,—the real day of Easter was miraculously revealed to the people of one of the churches there. In the midst of a mountainous and thickly wooded district of the Island was a village called Meltinas. Its church was of the poorest, but it was dear to God. Every year, on the night preceding Easter Sunday, as the priest went to the baptistery to bless the font, it was found to be miraculously filled with water, for there were no human means wherewith it could be supplied. As soon as baptism was administered, the water disappeared of itself, and left the font perfectly dry. In the year just mentioned, the people, misled by a wrong calculation, assembled for the ceremonies of Easter Eve. The Prophecies having been read, the priest and his flock repaired to the baptistery,—but the font was empty. They waited, expecting the miraculous flowing of the water, wherewith the catechumens were to receive the grace of regeneration: but they waited in vain, and no baptism was ad ministered. On the following 22nd of April, the font was found to be filled to the brim, and thereby the people understood that that was the true Easter for that year. [Sti. Leonis Opera, Epist. iii.]
Cassiodorus, writing in the name of King Athalaric to a certain Severus, relates a similar miracle, which happened every year on Easter Eve, in Lucania, near the small Island of Leucothea, at a place called Marcilianum. There was a large fountain there, whose water was so clear, that the air itself was not more transparent. It was used as the font for the administration of baptism on Easter Night. As soon as the priest, standing under the rock where with nature had canopied the fountain, began the prayers of the blessing, the water, as though taking part in the transports of the Easter joy, arose in the font; so that, if previously it was to the level of the fifth step, it was seen to rise up to the seventh, impatient, as it were, to effect those wonders of grace whereof it was the chosen instrument. God would show by this, that even inanimate creatures can share, when He so wills it, in the holy gladness of the greatest of all days. [Cassiodorus, Variarum, lib. vii. epist. xxxiii.]
St. Gregory of Tours tells us of a font, which existed even then, in a church of Andalusia, in a place called Osen, and whereby God miraculously certified to His people the true day of Easter. On the Maundy Thursday of each year, the bishop, accompanied by the faithful, repaired to this church. The bed of the font was built in the form of a cross, and was paved with mosaics. It was carefully examined, to see that it was perfectly dry; and after several prayers had been recited, every one left the church, and the bishop sealed the door with his seal. On Holy Saturday the pontiff returned, accompanied by his flock; the seal was examined, and the door was opened. The font was found to be filled, even above the level of the floor, and yet the water did not overflow. The bishop pronounced the exorcisms over the miraculous water, and poured the chrism into it. The catechumens were then baptized; and as soon as the sacrament had been administered, the water immediately disappeared, and no one could tell what became of it. [De Gloria Martyrum, lib. i. Cap. xxiv.] Similar miracles were witnessed in several churches in the East. John Moschus, a writer in the 7th century, speaks of a baptismal font in Lycia, which was thus filled every Easter Eve; but the water remained in the Font during the whole fifty days, and suddenly disappeared after the Festival of Pentecost. [Pratum spirituale, cap. ccxv.]
We alluded, in our History of Passiontide, to the decrees passed by the Christian emperors, which forbade all law proceedings during the fortnight of Easter, that is, from Palm Sunday to the Octave day of the Resurrection. St. Augustine, in a sermon he preached on this Octave, exhorts the faithful to extend to the whole year this suspension of law-suits, disputes, and enmities, which the civil law interdicted during these fifteen days.
The Church puts upon all her children the obligation of receiving Holy Communion at Easter. This precept is based upon the words of our Redeemer, who left it to His Church to determine the time of the year, when Christians should receive the Blessed Sacrament. In the early ages, Communion was frequent, and, in some places, even daily. By degrees, the fervor of the faithful grew cold towards this august Mystery, as we gather from a decree of the Council of Agatha (Agde), held in 506, where it is defined, that those of the laity who shall not approach Communion at Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, are to be considered as having ceased to be Catholics. [Concil. Agath., canon xviii.] This decree of the Council of Agatha was accepted as the law of almost the entire Western Church. We find it quoted among the regulations drawn up by Egbert, Archbishop of York, as also in the third Council of Tours. In many places, however, Communion was obligatory for the Sundays of Lent, and for the last three days of Holy Week, independently of that which was to be made on the Easter Festival.
It was in the year 1215, in the IV General Council of Lateran, that the Church, seeing the ever growing indifference of her children, decreed with regret that Christians should be strictly bound to Communion only once in the year, and that that Communion of obligation should be made at Easter. In order to show the faithful that this is the uttermost limit of her condescension to lukewarmness, she declares, in the same Council, that he that shall presume to break this law, may be forbidden to enter a church during life, and he deprived of Christian burial after death, as he would be if he had, of his own accord, separated himself from the exterior link of Catholic unity. [Two centuries after this, Pope Eugenius IV, in the Constitution Digna Fide, given in the year 1440, allowed this annual Communion to be made on any day between Palm Sunday and Low Sunday inclusively.—In England, by permission of the Holy See, the time for making the Easter Communion extends from Ash Wednesday to Low Sunday.—Tr.] These regulations of a General Council show how important is the duty of the Easter Communion; but, at the same time, they make us shudder at the thought of the millions, throughout the Catholic world, who brave each year the threats of the Church, by refusing to comply with a duty, which would both bring life to their souls, and serve as a profession of their faith. And when we again reflect upon how many even of those who make their Easter Communion, have paid no more attention to the Lenten Penance than if there were no such obligation in existence, we cannot help feeling sad, and we wonder within ourselves, how long God will bear with such infringements of the Christian Law?
The fifty days between Easter and Pentecost have ever been considered by the Church as most holy. The first week, which is more expressly devoted to celebrating our Lord’s Resurrection, is kept up as one continued Feast; but the remainder of the fifty days is also marked with special honors. To say nothing of the joy, which is the characteristic of this period of the year, and of which the Alleluia is the expression,—Christian tradition has assigned to Eastertide two practices, which distinguish it from every other Season. The first is, that fasting is not permitted during the entire interval: it is an extension of the ancient precept of never fasting on a Sunday, and the whole of Eastertide is considered as one long Sunday. This practice, which would seem to have come down from the time of the Apostles, was accepted by the religious rules of both East and West, even by the severest. The second consists in not kneeling at the Divine Office, from Easter to Pentecost. The Eastern Churches have faithfully kept up the practice, even to this day. It was observed for many ages by the Western Churches also; but now, it is little more than a remnant. The Latin Church has long since admitted genuflections in the Mass during Easter time. The few vestiges of the ancient discipline in this regard, which still exist, are not noticed by the faithful, inasmuch as they seldom assist at the Canonical Hours.
Eastertide, then, is like one continued Feast. It is the remark made by Tertullian, in the 3rd century. He is reproaching those Christians who regretted having renounced, by their Baptism, the festivities of the pagan year; and he thus addresses them:
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. The Pagans keep each of their Feasts once in the year; but you have to keep each of yours many times over, for you have the eight days of its celebration. Put all the Feasts of the Gentiles together, and they do not amount to our fifty days of Pentecost." [De Idolatria, cap. xiv.]
St. Ambrose speaking on the same subject, says:
If the Jews are not satisfied with the Sabbath of each week, but keep also one which lasts a whole month, and another which lasts a whole year;—how much more ought not we to honor Our Lord’s Resurrection? Hence our ancestors have taught us to celebrate the fifty days of Pentecost as a continuation of Easter. They are seven weeks, and the Feast of Pentecost commences the eighth.... During these fifty days, the Church observes no fast, as neither does she on any Sunday, for it is the day on which Our Lord rose: and all these fifty days are like so many Sundays." [In Lucam, lib. viii. cap. xxv.]