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Musical Musings: Easter

The Tide of Easter

by Gary D. Penkala

The General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar speak of the importance of the Easter celebration:

The Easter triduum is the culmination of the entire liturgical year. Thus the solemnity of Easter has the same kind of preeminence in the liturgical year that Sunday has in the week. The Easter Vigil, during the holy night when Christ rose from the dead, ranks as the "mother of all vigils." [#18,21]

Because the joy and exuberance of the Resurrection is so great, the Church multiplies the day of Easter by seven, making a full week called Easter Week (or the Octave of Easter, including the following Sunday). Each day of this week is ranked as a solemnity: the Gloria is sung, the Easter Sequence (Victimæ paschali laudes) may be sung, the double alleluia is added to the dismissal. The celebration of this great week is also multiplied by seven, forming a complete season of seven weeks called Eastertide. To these 49 days (the perfect number 7 times the perfect number 7) is added the 50th day, Pentecost, closing Eastertide (pente means 50 in Greek).

The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one "great Sunday." [General Norms #22]

The Season of Easter is arbitrarily divided into two parts. There are forty days from Easter to the Solemnity of the Ascension (mirroring Lent), and ten more days from Ascension to Pentecost (which constitutes an unofficial Novena to the Holy Spirit, a sort of mini-Advent awaiting the coming of the Paraclete). The Sundays in this season are technically called the Second, Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh Sunday "of Easter," although the Second Sunday of Easter is now assigned the title "Divine Mercy Sunday" and the Solemnity of the Ascension is transferred to the Seventh Sunday of Easter in places where it is not celebrated as a holyday of obligation.

These joyful fifty days may also be called "Eastertide," which is synonymous with Easter Season. The Catholic Source Book describes the suffix "-tide"

Through the ages people have thought of time as a vast, flowing sea, with its ebb and flow, its rising and falling. Just as the tide has its ebb and flow, so an occasion has a build up, and a denouement. So naturally, it became traditional for a feast - a festive moment - to have a season: not just time, but a tide. So Christmas time becomes Yuletide, and so on with Shrovetide, Eastertide, Whitsuntide: time flowing through the seasons, even as it does through the day: noontide, eventide, all with their glad or sad tidings.

The Lectionary takes an unusual turn during Eastertide. There are no readings whatsoever from the Old Testament. On Sundays, selections are read from the Acts of the Apostles as the First Reading. On weekdays of Eastertide, the Acts of the Apostles is read in a continuous fashion from day to day, with the whole book completed by the end of the season. Second Readings on Sundays come from I Peter, I John, and the unusual Book of Revelation, during Years A, B, and C, respectively. The Gospel readings are almost exclusively from Saint John. As the light of the resurrected Christ shines through the universe making all things new, the psalms (the Judeo-Christian "hymnal") remain our only reminder of the pre-Messianic times.

Several celebrations and titles were formerly a part of Eastertide, but have been altered or eliminated with the calendar reforms of the newer Roman Missal:

  • Low Sunday - The Sunday after Easter. This Sunday closed the Octave of Easter, which began on Easter and included two Sundays. Easter would have been the "high" Sunday, while a week later we would have found the "low" Sunday (in comparison). The Second Sunday of Easter (still the last day of the Easter Octave) can now be called "Divine Mercy Sunday," owing to the revelation to Saint Faustina Kowalska.
  • Greater Litanies - A public prayer asking for blessings on crops. This originated as a Christian replacement for a pagan procession in Rome on April 25 in honor of Robigus, the god of frost. Christians processed on the same day (now the feast of Saint Mark) to Saint Peter's Basilica for Mass. The Litany of the Saints was prayed as part of the procession.
  • Crouchmas - An old English name for the former feast called "The Finding of the Holy Cross," which was celebrated on May 3. Derived from an ancient word for cross (coming from the Latin crux).
  • Rogation Days (the Lesser Litanies) - The word for supplication in Latin gives us rogation, in Greek it gives us litany. The Litany of the Saints was appointed to be sung in procession on these days, imploring God's blessing for a successful harvest. The Rogation Days (Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday before Ascension Thursday) were called the Lesser Litanies because they were of more recent origin than the Greater Litanies above. These were also days of penitential observance.
  • Expectation Week - The days between Ascension Thursday and Pentecost when the apostles prayed for the coming of the Holy Spirit. The title of this time has vanished, but the mood and the themes of the readings still conveys this expectant faith.
  • Whitsunday - An older name for Pentecost, taken from the white garments worn by the neophytes. In some northern European countries, baptism of the elect was postponed until Pentecost when the temperature of the outside streams was more conducive to a comfortable initiation. Hence, their white garments gave the feast its early English name.

There is one element of Eastertide that has definitely not changed: it is still fifty days long. The Resurrection, the Ascension (Christ's return to heavenly glory) and Pentecost (the sending of the Holy Spirit) are all continuing facets of the marvelous plan of Redemption put in place by God the Father. Celebrate the entire season with festive rejoicing, with exuberant song, and, yes, with Easter hymns. There is technically nothing wrong with singing "Jesus Christ Is Ris'n Today" on Pentecost -- it is a day within the Easter Season, and it commemorates the fulfillment of the Easter event. Do not let the length of the season, or the distractions in May (and even June), or "festival overload" to affect your scheduling Easter hymns right up to Pentecost. How will the congregation come to a distinct liturgical awareness of the season if music directors are timid about celebrating it for fifty days? When I taught elementary school music in a parochial school, I used to wish my students a "Happy Easter" daily, right up to the Friday before Pentecost!

For a listing of Eastertide music available from CanticaNOVA Publications, visit:

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