INTRODUCTION TO THE GREAT FIFTY DAYS
We seem to be better at penitence than we are at celebration. We love to prepare for a feast—look at all the preparations we make for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but we really don’t know how to extend a celebration, let alone how to make one last for fifty days. That’s why Lent is such a great ritual and devotional success, and the Easter Season, apart from the feasts that begin and end it, is such a seemingly inconsequential part of the liturgical year. Yet this is the season par excellence for celebration: “These days above all others are the days for the singing of the Alleluia.” This statement in the General Norms for the Liturgical Year and the Calendar serves as an accurate summary of this season’s intended focus, and the document elaborates: “The fifty days from Easter Sunday to Pentecost are celebrated in joyful exultation as one feast day, or better as one ‘great Sunday’” (no. 22).
The Easter Season is modeled on the Jewish “counting of the omer” (the first cutting of the barley harvest offered to God)—the fifty days of the spring harvest between Pesach and Shavuot (the Feast of Weeks or Pentecost, see Leviticus 23:15–16:21). Like the Jewish festival, which begins with the celebration of liberation from slavery and ends with a celebration of the giving of the Torah, the Christian season begins with the celebration of liberation through the Paschal Mystery and ends with the celebration of the gift of the Holy Spirit, the Advocate who is also the “Spirit of truth” (see John 14:17).
So how do we get from where we are to where we ought to be? How do we get better at extended celebration? Perhaps we get there by imitating the sort of sliding focus of the celebration that the liturgical books offer us. A celebration can’t be all singing or all dancing or all appetizers or main courses or desserts, but a good celebration incorporates all of these elements. Similarly, the Easter Season offers us these foci for celebration: the paschal candle, Alleluia, the stories of the early Church, texts from the Fourth Gospel, and ideas provided by the entrance antiphons.
We wrap up our celebration of the Fifty Days on Pentecost, the only other day beside Easter with an extended vigil and a required sequence. Though Pentecost initially served as the conclusion of the Easter Season, that connection had been lost by the time of the Gelasian Sacramentary (between the sixth and the eighth centuries). By then, Pentecost had developed its own octave, and soon Sundays began to be counted “after Pentecost.” Now Pentecost has been restored to its place as the solemn conclusion of the Easter Season. The Vigil Mass of Pentecost in its “extended form” is designed to be celebrated like an echo of the Easter Vigil, by reading all of the assigned texts from the Old Testament and following them with appropriate psalms and psalm-prayers. It may also be celebrated in “simple form” as a usual Sunday Mass with three readings and a psalm. The sequence Veni, Sancte Spiritus is used at Mass on the day of Pentecost, but not at the vigil. Like the Easter sequence, it is a required text and should be sung in its entirety. It could be used as a prayer for enlightenment while the Gospel Book is processed solemnly through the congregation.
Singing the Easter Season
Perhaps more than any other element of the liturgy, music has a way of evoking the spirit of the various liturgical seasons. During the Easter Season, pastoral musicians have a wealth of resources from which to draw in helping their communities to enter into its spirit. Here are several suggestions for singing the liturgies of Easter.
Make It Last! The Easter Season continues for fifty days, beginning on Easter Sunday and concluding on Pentecost. The music for the entire season should be distinguished by a festive spirit.
Be Attentive. Pay attention to special ritual dimensions of the Easter Season. Musicians should prepare for several ritual elements that are unique to this season:
Unify the Season. Use musical settings of acclamations and other parts of the Mass to unify the season.Using the same musical settings of the Alleluia, the responsive acclamations of the Eucharistic Prayer, the song during the rite of sprinkling, the Gloria, the Agnus Dei, and other parts of the Mass throughout the entire season helps the assembly to experience the unity of Easter time. Several familiar settings of the Alleluia are drawn from sources long associated with the season, including the familiar and simple chant setting or the Alleluia refrains from “O Sons and Daughters” (O filii et filiae), “The Strife Is O’er” (Victory), and “Good Christians All” (Gelobt Sei Gott).
You can also use familiar melodies to unify the season. They may not be quite as well-known as Christmas carols, but there are plenty of familiar melodies associated with the Easter Season. Additionally, several widely used hymnals and service books include hymn texts for Easter Sunday, Ascension, and Pentecost that all use the same tune, such as “Hail Thee, Festival Day” (Salve Festa Dies) or texts set to Lasst uns erfreuen—a very familiar, versatile, and joyful melody.
Be Sensitive to the Season’s Movement. The Easter Season celebrates the glory and abiding presence of the risen Christ not only from the perspective of the empty tomb (Easter Sunday), but in many other ways. To name just a few: appearances to the disciples (Second and Third Sundays); the breaking of bread (Third Sunday); the Good Shepherd (Fourth Sunday); the love of believers for one another (Sixth Sunday); the glorification of Christ (Ascension Day); the mission of the community to give witness (Ascension Day and the readings from Acts); the sending of the Spirit (Pentecost). Pastoral musicians should take advantage of the vast repertoire of sung texts that allows the community to sing its joy and faith in the many aspects of the Easter mystery. The joy of the community on Easter Sunday may have a triumphant sound, as in “Jesus Christ Is Risen Today,”but the joy of some later Sundays may sound more tender and reflective, as in “Unless a Grain of Wheat.”
Be Mystagogical. For the newly initiated in our midst (and for all of us, really), the Easter Season is a time of mystagogy. Following the celebration of sacramental initiation at the Easter Vigil, our gathering on each Sunday of Easter to experience Christ’s real presence in Word and Eucharist is meant to draw us more deeply into the meaning of our baptism. Through baptism, we are intimately connected with Christ in his dying and rising and now have a share in his new life. By baptism we have received the Holy Spirit and have been entrusted with the mission of Christ to give witness to the Gospel. Pastoral musicians contribute to the mystagogy of the neophytes and of the whole community by choosing texts with an ear shaped by the Word that is proclaimed in our midst during this season.
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad!
(This introduction has been excerpted and adapted from Singing the Year of Grace: A Pastoral Music Resource [NPM Publications, 2009].)
NOTE: For the list of abbreviations for the various hymnals, song books, and publishers, see “Key to the Music Suggestions.”