Once all the eggs are found and colorful jellybeans enjoyed, and the chocolate bunny has lost his ears, Catholics still have Easter to celebrate. The Sunday that changed everything is brought into a fuller celebration in the liturgical calendar as an octave, that is, eight days, each remembered as Easter Sunday itself.
This special time invites the faithful to delve deeper and deeper each day, living in the paschal mystery.
But Eastertide doesn’t end there. Easter Sunday is simply the first day that changed life completely, so it is properly celebrated for 50 whole days. The last day of the Easter season is Pentecost, the feast of the coming of the Holy Spirit, named in Greek for the word “50th” or “Pentecoste.”
During these long 50 days are two other key feasts, Divine Mercy Sunday and Ascension Thursday. The Sunday after Easter was proclaimed Divine Mercy Sunday by Pope St. John Paul II. That Sunday, which takes place at the end of the octave, is the continuation of the same mercy and divine love that flowed from the washing of the feet to the cup at the Last Supper, through the cross on Good Friday and out through the side of Jesus in blood and water, to the whole world.
Ascension Thursday is 40 days after Jesus rose from the dead, returning with His resurrected body to guide and comfort His grieving friends and family. He reminded them that He would always be with them, to the end of time. Then He ascended into heaven on a cloud. The connection between Ascension Thursday and Holy Thursday, the sacred institution of the Eucharist and institution of the sacrament of service, the priesthood, is mirrored in the continual self-gift of Jesus’ body again.
While His physical leaving might seem to signal the opposite, it is in fact where He was going that offers the faithful hope. Jesus left earth to be physically in and open heaven for all. He leaves knowing that nine days later, the Father will send the Holy Spirit to sustain His people for the future, creating a new birth of the Church at Pentecost.
This is where the concept of a novena comes from, Chapter 1 of Acts, where Mary and the Apostles pray together. The gifts that the Church now daily relies upon, such as exposition of the Blessed Sacrament, adoration, spiritual communion and many others, all have roots in this Easter season.
While the world is still troubled by the coronavirus pandemic, Catholics have the unique opportunity to live the very real principal of “both/and.” We, as a people of the Resurrection, whose very hope and life hung on a cross, are still suffering too. Our family members and friends are sick and dying of the contagious virus, and there has been much mental and emotional strain the past year; our communities have been devastated by a loss of jobs, in-person friendships and security; and snowballed fear flourished in a world separated by more than 6 feet. We know daily these struggles and sorrows.
But we know and believe too that neither death nor viruses, social distancing nor pandemics, have the last word. In this whole long, liturgical season of Easter, let us be an Easter people. Let us share the joy that we say with our Alleluias! Let us share the love that overcomes all shifting sadness, which even the tomb cannot contain. Let us live Easter well.
What this looks like in action is unique for each person, as it was for each saint. But sharing the truth of the Easter season surely stems from one’s contemplation, prayer and relationship with God. We can look to the example of Mary and the Apostles, praying together for nine days straight, perhaps in uncertain times or fear. We can trust in Jesus’ words that He is with us until the end of time. We can grow into the reality of what a spiritual communion truly is, to value the future physical reception of the Eucharist even more.
“We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song!” preached St. Augustine around A.D. 400, and St. John Paul II echoed his words years later. In 2021, how can we be people of the Resurrection to our world, men and women with hope to bring?
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