EASTERTIDE: The Great Fifty Days

Volume 11, No. 4 (April 2016)

As Michael Farley has written,

Easter is a season of celebration. Easter is a time of joyfully retelling and remembering the true story that Jesus was not defeated by death, but rose again from the grave three days later (Matthew 28; Mark 16; Luke 24; John 20)! . . .

Christianity stands or falls with the resurrection of Jesus. The Apostle Paul wrote, “If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain . . . if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins . . . if in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied . . .but in fact Christ has been raised from the dead…” (1 Corinthians 15:14, 17, 19, 20). (“The Meaning of Easter,” centralpresworship.net)

The resurrection is at the center of the apostolic preaching of the gospel, from Pentecost on (Acts 2:24-32; 3:15-26; 4:10; 5:30; 10:40; 13:30-37; 17:31; 26:8). Christmas is never mentioned in the book of Acts.

Easter, the great celebration of the resurrection of our Lord, is not just a day; it’s a season. Historically the period from Resurrection Sunday until Pentecost was observed as the “Great 50 Days.” James White quotes Augustine on the subject:

“These days after the Lord’s resurrection form a period, not of labor, but of peace and joy. That is why there is no fasting, and we pray standing, which is a sign of resurrection. This practice is observed at the altar on all Sundays, and the Alleluia is sung, to indicate that our future occupation is to be no other than the praise of God.” (in Introduction To Christian Worship, 61-62)

Laurence Stookey comments on the implications and some practical applications:

“Easter” is the period of eight Sundays [until Pentecost], comprising fifty days, often called as a unit “the Great Fifty Days.” For the explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord is too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.

The recovery of Easter as “the Great Fifty Days” of the year can move the church along toward a fuller understanding of what the resurrection of its Lord implies. Easter is not one closing day at the end of a lengthy period of Lent. Easter is one extended rejoicing in the resurrection that more than exceeds in length the Lenten disciplines. The first day of the season, Easter Day, is the opening of a protracted celebration, even as the Resurrection is itself the opening to a vast new reality.

“The First Sunday After Easter” implies Easier is over, having lasted only one day. But “the Second Sunday of Easter” (for the same date) indicates that Easter is an extended season, whose essential character is shared by all of its parts. The careful use of “Easter Day” rather than “Easter” for the opening occasion further presses this point.

Once Easter is seen as a season, congregations can work at distinctive worship practices throughout the Great Fifty Days in order to tie the weeks together more clearly in the hearts of worshipers. For example, on Sundays Two through Seven, one stanza of a hymn used on Easter Day might be sung as an acclamation (“Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” is one possibility). (Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church, 54, 56-7)

In a seminar entitled “Singing the Great Fifty Days” at the Calvin Symposium on Worship in January 2016, Zebulun Highben of Muskingum University presented the following thesis and recommendations:

The significance of Easter as the church’s “Feast of Feasts,” a 50-day celebration lasting from Easter Sunday through Pentecost, is often more of a theological/ liturgical ideal than alive experience of a congregation. Church musicians can help their congregations mark the continuity of the festival through musical/liturgical choices that connect its seven Sundays.

  1. Observe a musical “fast” in Lent that ends in the Easter season. [by avoiding certain kinds of music, e.g. Alleluias; Zebulun points out that Bach presented no cantatas during Lent]
  2. Extend the elaborations of Easter Sunday through all seven weeks. [echos of Easter]
    1. Give hymnody the royal treatment [concertatos, descants]
    2. Incorporate instruments
    3. Vary your use of the Psalms
  3. Use recurring pieces of liturgical music. [Easter-themed]
  4. Program hymns and anthems that highlight connections between resurrection and communion.
  5. Treat Pentecost and Easter Sunday as musical bookends.
  6. Connect Easter (backward) to Christmas and (forward) to Pentecost.

I was teaching once during the Easter season in Kiev, the capital of Ukraine, at a seminar hosted by the large Central Baptist Church. On Sunday morning, the pastor got up and greeted the people with the words, “Christ is risen!” Immediately the people sprang to their feet and responded with, “He is risen indeed!” An organ chord played, and the people energetically sang the great Easter Troparion, borrowed by the Baptists from the Orthodox tradition (!) in that country (and, less surprisingly, used by Rimsky Korsakov in his “Russian Easter Overture”):


Throughout the Easter season, the people in that church would likewise greet each other in the hallway with the “Christ is risen!”/”He is risen indeed!” exchange. And even on the streets, believers would greet each other in the same way.

Another time, at a Bible school in Chisinau, Moldova, during the Easter season, I found that there were hand lettered cards on the tables in the dining hall with the same twofold proclamation.

Obviously the resurrection is central to these Christians, and the entire Easter season is one for celebration and joy: because He is risen indeed!

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