Jonathan Baker reads ahead to the Easter Week gospels
What feels like a hundred years ago, when I was the Vicar of Holy Trinity, Reading, a Solemn Mass was celebrated every day in the Christmas and Easter Octaves. My predecessor, the late Canon Brian Brindley, wrote to me, commiserating that he had left me with such a burden. There were plenty of other challenges, but the determination of the parishioners to maintain these liturgies made the undertaking nothing but a joy. That remains the only period in my ministry when I have kept the Octaves anything like so thoroughly or with such splendour. I have missed the experience every year since.
The Easter Octave is different from the Christmas Octave, of course, with its various saints, colours and themes. Each of the Easter days is a Solemnity, and the whole octave can be justly considered as one unbroken celebration, and each day within it a liturgical recapitulation of Easter Day itself. (I use here the Roman nomenclature ‘Solemnity’. The Common Worship Calendar lists every day in Easter Week as a (lesser) Festival. The Book of Common Prayer provides a proper Collect and readings for Easter Monday and Tuesday.) The Easter Day sustainment will be obvious to those who are accustomed to praying the Divine Office. Every morning, at Lauds, and every evening, at Vespers, the antiphons, psalms and canticles are those of Easter Day, while the short responsory at both is replaced with the text (taken from Psalm 118): This is the day which was made by the Lord: let us rejoice and be glad, alleluia.
At mass, certain features likewise recur daily throughout the Octave. Perhaps most striking among these is the Sequence (one of only four retained in the modern Roman Rite), Victimae Paschali (‘Christians, to the paschal victim’) composed in the eleventh century and translated, among others, by John Mason Neale. For those familiar with its traditional plainchant setting, this text evokes the joy of the resurrection as surely as Conditor alme sidorum marks out Advent. Alleluia may always be used as the psalm response, and the double alleluia (with its own season-defining chant) is added to the dismissal. The Roman Canon provides a proper form of the Communicantes and of the Hanc Igitur for use throughout the Octave. The former stresses the bodily reality of the resurrection: Christ is risen secundum carnem, according to the flesh. The latter emphasises the link between the celebration of the paschal mystery and the rites of Christian initiation. The oblation is offered especially for those whom the Lord has been ‘pleased to give the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit’.
The connection between baptism and Easter is made repeatedly in the various texts of the (Roman) mass throughout the Easter Octave. On Easter Monday, for example, the Collect is addressed to God ‘who gives constant increase to your Church by new offspring’. On Thursday, the Collect likewise speaks of ‘those reborn in the font of Baptism’. On Friday, the Communion Antiphon is taken from St Paul’s letter to the Galatians (3.27): ‘All of you who have been baptised in Christ have put on Christ, alleluia’.
The First Reading at mass (from the Acts of the Apostles) charts the growth of the early Church. There is a special emphasis on St Peter (whom we last met in the Scriptures during the Solemn Liturgy of Good Friday). On Easter Day we have Peter’s address to Cornelius and his household (Acts 10). On Monday and Tuesday, we read extracts from Peter’s speech on the Day of Pentecost, and on Wednesday and Thursday his healing of the cripple at the Beautiful Gate and its aftermath. Easter Friday and Saturday take the story on to Peter’s encounter with the priests and scribes in Jerusalem. Peter, who denied his Lord three times and fled in shame, has, in the power of the risen Christ, become an evangelist, teacher, healer and leader of the apostolic band.
The Gospel readings consist, fittingly, of a selection of resurrection appearances from each of the four. On Monday, we are with the women who meet the risen Jesus as they run from the tomb; he greets them and tells them not to be afraid. Meanwhile the chief priests and the elders discuss how they are to deal with reports of the empty tomb. Tuesday brings us the story (from St John) of Mary Magdalen, weeping near the tomb. She is named and called by the one she supposes to be the gardener. Wednesday finds us on the Emmaus Road. The Lord explains the Scriptures and makes Himself present in the breaking of the bread. On Thursday, (St Luke again), the risen Christ shares grilled fish with the disciples on the sea-shore and again unfolds the Scriptures to them. Friday: the great catch of fish (St John) and another Easter breakfast by the sea. On Easter Saturday, one ending of St Mark’s Gospel, and the Lord’s command to the Eleven, ‘Go out to the whole world, proclaim the Good News to all creation’. Finally, on Sunday, the Octave Day of Easter, we are given St Thomas’s words to make our own: ‘My Lord and My God!’