People began to ask me the question sometime around February 1 this year: “So, what are you giving up for Lent?” Sometimes I get the sense that this question is often posed as a post–New Year’s revival of those resolutions that are often made at the end of the year and somehow don’t quite stick.
Looking at the Season of Lent through a lens of “giving something up” is so common that one might get the sense that the purpose of this liturgical season is to endure an annual 40-day experience of deprivation and test of one’s willpower. The truth is that Lent has more to do with creating space to prune old (and often bad) habits and make room for new ones that draw us closer to God. But what happens to those new habits after Easter? Does the joy and celebratory aspect of the liturgical season (and its warmer weather) offer an invitation to disregard the new virtues and better habits that were forged throughout Lent?
The irony is that the 50 days of Easter comprise the second longest season in the liturgical calendar. The fact that the Easter season is 10 days longer than Lent should suggest that there is something jubilant and triumphal that eclipses the penitential nature of Lent. And yet, no one ever asks, “What are you doing for Easter?”, other than going to Mass, attending a nice brunch and maybe an Easter-egg hunt. The good news is that the church has some definitive ideas about how to live out and enter into this glorious liturgical season.
The liturgical reforms that occurred after the Second Vatican Council structured the season of Easter in a way that recalls both the Jewish roots of Christianity and the salvific actions of the Trinity. The Jewish festival of Shavuot (“weeks”) was prescribed by God as a part of the Law given to Moses on Mount Sinai in the Book of Exodus: “and you shall observe the feast of weeks, the first fruits of wheat harvest, and the feast of ingathering at the year’s end” (Ex 34:22 RSV). This Jewish feast of weeks around the grain harvest was celebrated 50 days after Passover and recalls the Israelites’ liberation from the slavery they endured in Egypt and God’s gift of the Torah to his chosen people.
In the modern liturgical calendar, the season of Easter spans the 50 days, or seven weeks, from Easter Sunday to Pentecost. The word Pentecost actually comes from the Greek translation of the Hebrew Bible, where Pentēkostē (meaning “fiftieth”) is used to mark the celebration of Shavuot on the fiftieth day after Passover. It is interesting to note that the Greek translation of the second chapter of Acts describes the coming of the Holy Spirit on the singular day of Pentecost (Acts 2:1). However, when Saint Jerome translated this passage into Latin, he wrote, “and when the days of Pentecost were accomplished, they were all together in one place.” This change suggests that perhaps Saint Jerome thought there was something special and important for the early Christian community about the entire 50-day season. Today, the seven Sundays from Easter to Pentecost are celebrated as one “great Sunday” where the faithful are to recall the action of the Holy Spirit, through the Father and the Son, who creates, renews, animates, and strengthens the church.
Easter is the season to rejoice in the Risen Christ and renew one’s vocation as a Christian. When Jesus was baptized in the Jordan River, the Holy Spirit descended upon him and he was proclaimed to be the beloved Son of God. Jesus’s baptism was the defining event in the Gospels that inaugurated his mission and public ministry. Similarly, the white albs, or vestments, placed on the catechumens following their baptism at the Easter Vigil are a sign of their new life in Christ and point to the new life all Christians are called to live in light of Christ’s resurrection. Something similar should occur in the hearts of all Christians during Easter and throughout its 50 days.
Christ’s resurrection from the dead was not just a singular event to be recalled at Mass. The resurrection is a herald to new life and new beginnings. Like the earth, which is awakened from its cold winter slumber throughout the Easter season, the faithful are called to conversion amid the new signs of life that come forth in spring. This begs the question, “What are you doing for Easter?” Or, better, yet, “What are you becoming for Easter?” The best answer is that we experience a spiritual rebirth and become more Christlike, by removing spiritual obstacles and applying the ascetical practices of Lent. The Easter season should be about recovering our identity as beloved children of God that was affirmed at baptism and moving forward with a renewed personal commitment to our Christian vocation.
Like the disciples in the wake of Christ’s death and resurrection, the faithful can call upon the Holy Spirit to strengthen their Christian resolve and mission. Even though Jesus had foretold his passion, death, and resurrection, the disciples were overcome with sorrow, disappointment, and fear and didn’t quite understand what it meant to be raised from the dead. While Jesus also promised to send the Holy Spirit to comfort and inspire them, it is likely that they didn’t really understand what that meant either.
Throughout the Easter season, the first readings at Mass are taken from the book of Acts, which recounts the formation of the first Christian communities. In Acts, the faithful learn that it is the Holy Spirit who galvanized this group of frightened disciples into a community that evangelized the world as they knew it. While the disciples may have been unsure about their mission and what to do after Jesus was buried, that ambiguity was removed through the descent of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.
We can look to this same event for similar inspiration. Uncertainty and even fear about one’s Christian vocation can be overcome through the advocacy of the third person of the Trinity. The key to this discernment is also revealed in the book of Acts, where one learns that the first followers of Jesus were united and inspired to action through community, prayer, and the breaking of the bread. Today’s Christians can look to these same pillars for support throughout Easter in discovering how they are being called to live out lives of Christian discipleship.
Another essential member of this unified community of believers was Mary. She was there among the disciples in the Upper Room at Pentecost and was likely additional inspiration to all who were gathered. After all, it wasn’t her first encounter with the Holy Spirit. The faithful should always look to the Blessed Mother and her intercession throughout Easter and beyond to inflame one’s discipleship. The month of May is always within the Season of Easter, and since it is a month dedicated to Mary, it is appropriate to look to her to aid in one’s spiritual rebirth.
The Gospel of Luke tells us that the Holy Spirit came upon and overshadowed Mary as a teenager at the Annunciation. There, she gave her assent to become the Mother of God and bring Christ into the world. In Mary and in every other holy person, it is the Holy Spirit who enables them to do what they cannot do on their own. The Holy Spirit is not merely an invisible reality; the third person of the Trinity is God himself, a life-force that moves, transforms, leads, speaks, and overcomes what may, at times, seem to be overwhelming obstacles.
As the spouse of the Holy Spirit, the Blessed Mother brought new life into the world when she offered her fiat. In effect, Mary’s response to the angel Gabriel was, “I may not fully understand what God has in mind for me. However, if God calls out to me, I will respond and I will accept whatever it is he asks me to do.” She is the supreme model of what it means to be a Christian disciple and what it means to be led by the Holy Spirit throughout the season of Easter.
So, what are you doing for Easter? The penitential season of Lent has passed and the season of rebirth and renewal is here. Its 50 days are a period of inspiration that serve as a call to action to all the faithful. As the second longest liturgical season of the year, it is appropriate to pray and reflect on what this means and looks like for every Christian today. But it is also important to realize that Easter is not simply a period of time on the liturgical calendar. In many ways, Easter defines who we are as Christians who live in the light of Christ’s glorious Resurrection. In an Angelus address in 1986, Pope St. John Paul II said, “We are an Easter people and Alleluia is our song.” In this context, it is clear that Easter is not just a season, it is a way of life.
Stephen B. Kass is an adjunct professor of Catholic Studies at Seton Hall University, where he teaches a course in Sports and Spirituality for the Department of Catholic Studies. Professor Kass has led numerous retreats, parish missions, and workshops across the country, and has been featured on national Catholic radio programs. He holds an MA in theology from Seton Hall University and served as an officer in the US Navy.
Photo: “Anastasis fresco, Chora Church, Istanbul” by Till Niermann is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0