The Traditional Catholic Liturgy

Adapted from The Liturgical Year by Abbot Gueranger

The History of Paschal Time

We give the name of Paschal Time to the period between Easter Sunday and the Saturday following Pentecost Sunday. It is the most sacred portion of the liturgical year, and the one towards which the whole cycle converges. We shall easily understand how this is, if we reflect upon the greatness of Easter, which is called the Feast of feasts, in the same manner, says St. Gregory, as the most sacred part of the Temple was called the Holy of holies. It is on this day that the mission of the Word Incarnate attains the object towards which it has hitherto been tending: man is raised up from his fall and regains what he had lost by Adam's sin.

Christmas gave us a Man-God; three days have scarcely passed since we witnessed His infinitely Precious Blood shed for our ransom; but now, on the day of Easter, our Jesus is no longer the victim of death: He is a conqueror, who destroys death, the child of sin, and proclaims life, that undying life which He has purchased for us. The humiliation of His swaddling clothes, the sufferings of His agony and Cross, these are passed; all is now glory – for Himself and also for us. As yhe anniversary of this Resurrection is, therefore, the holiest of days – since it opens to us the gates of Heaven, into which we shall enter because we have risen together with Christ – the Church wishes us to come to it well prepared by bodily mortification and by compunction of heart. It was for this that She instituted the fast of Lent, and that She bade us, during Septuagesima, to look forward to the joy of Easter, and be filled with sentiments suitable to the approach of so grand a solemnity. We obeyed; we have gone through the period of preparation; and now the Easter Sun has risen upon us!

But it was not enough to solemnize the great day when Jesus, our Light, rose from the darkness of the tomb: there was another anniversary which claimed our grateful celebration. The Incarnate Word rose on the first day of the week – that same day whereon, four thousand years before, He, the uncreated Word of the Father, had begun the work of creation, by calling forth light, and separating it from darkness. The first day was thus ennobled by the creation of light. It received a second consecration by the Resurrection of Jesus; and from that time forward Sunday, not Saturday, was to be the Lord's Day. Yes, our Resurrection in Jesus, which took place on Sunday, gave this first day a pre-eminence above the others of the week: the Divine precept of the Sabbath was abrogated together with the other ordinances of the Mosaic Law, and the Apostles instructed the faithful to keep holy the first day of the week, which God had dignified with that twofold glory – the creation and regeneration of the world. Sunday, then, being the day of Jesus' Resurrection, the Church chose that day, in preference to every other, for its yearly commemoration. The Passover of the Jews, in consequence of its being fixed on the fourteenth of the moon of March (the anniversary of the going out of Egypt), fell by turns on each day of the week. The Jewish Passover was but a figure; ours is the reality, and puts an end to the figure. The Church, therefore, broke this last tie with the Synagogue; and proclaimed her emancipation, by fixing the most solemn of her feasts on a day which should never agree with the now meaningless Passover. The Apostles decreed that the Christian Pasch should never be celebrated on the fourteenth of the moon of March, even were that day to be a Sunday; but that it should be kept on the following Sunday.

There was, however, one province of the Church which for a long time stood out against the universal practice: it was Asia Minor. The Apostle St. John, who lived for many years at Ephesus, had thought it prudent to tolerate, in those parts, the Jewish custom of celebrating the Pasch; for many of the converts had been Jews. But the Gentiles themselves, who later on formed the majority of the faithful, were strenuous upholders of this custom. In the course of time, this anomaly became a source of scandal: it savored of Judaism, and it prevented unity of religious observance, which is always desirable, but particularly so in what regards Lent and Easter.

Pope St. Victor, who governed the Church from the year 193, endeavored to put a stop to this abuse; he thought the time had come for establishing unity in so essential a point of Christian worship. Earlier negotiations under Pope St. Anicetus had failed to overcome the prejudice of the church in Asia Minor. St. Victor therefore gave orders that councils should be convened in the several countries where the Gospel had been preached, and that the question of Easter should be examined. Everywhere else there was perfect uniformity of practice; and the historian Eusebius, who lived 150 years later, assures us that the people of his day used to quote the decisions of the Councils of Rome, Gaul, Achaia, Pontus, Palestine and Mesopotamia. The Council of Ephesus (not to be confused with the General Council held centuries later in that city) was the only one that opposed the Pope, and disregarded the practice of the Universal Church.

St. Victor used severity and mercy to obtain the desired effect, and in the following century the church of Asia Minor conformed to the Roman practice. About the same time, by a strange coincidence, the churches of Syria, Cilicia and Mesopotamia gave scandal by returning to the Jewish custom. This schism in the Liturgy grieved the Church; and one of the points to which the Council of Nicea directed its first attention was the promulgation of the universal obligation to celebrate Easter on a Sunday. The decree was unanimously passed and the Fathers of the Council ordained that "all controversy being laid aside, the brethren in the East should solemnize the Pasch on the same day as the Romans and Alexandrians and the rest of the faithful."

The Jesuit, Christopher Clavius of Bamberg helped calculate the new calendar.

This custom, however, was not kept up for any length of time after the Council of Nicea. The want of precision in astronomical calculations occasioned confusion in the method of fixing the day of Easter. It is true, this great festival was always kept on a Sunday; but since there was no uniform understanding as to the exact time of the vernal equinox, it happened some years, that the feast of Easter was not kept, in all places, on the same day. By degrees, there crept in a deviation from the rule laid down by the Council, of taking March 21st as the legal day of the equinox. A reform in the Calendar was needed, and no one seemed competent to undertake it. Finally, science was sufficiently advanced in the 16th century for Pope Gregory XIII to do so. The equinox was restored to its legal day by a Papal Bull, dated February 24, 1581, in which the Pope ordered that ten days of the following year – from October 4th to the 15th – should be suppressed. The Gregorian Calendar, also called the New Style, contained precise regulations for leap years as well as calculations for the date of Easter. The Roman Pontiff thus gave to the whole world the standard, not for one year only, but for centuries. Heretical nations were forced to acknowledge, albeit reluctantly, the divine power of the Church in this solemn act, which interested both religion and society.

The Church imposes upon all her children the obligation of receiving Holy Communion at Easter time. This precept is based upon the words of our Redeemer, who left it to His Church to determine the time of the year when Christians should receive the Blessed Sacrament. In the early ages Communion was frequent, and in some places daily. By degrees the fervor of the faithful grew cold towards this august mystery.

It was in the year 1215, in the 4th General Council of the Lateran, that the Church, seeing the ever-growing indifference of her children, decreed with regret that Christians should be strictly bound to Communion only once a year, at Easter. In order to show the faithful that this is the uttermost limit of her condescension, she declares in the same Council that he that shall presume to break this law may be forbidden to enter a church during life, and be deprived of Christian burial after death. These regulations show how important is the duty of the Easter Communion; but, at the same time, they make us shudder at the thought of those who brave each year the threats of the Church, by refusing to comply with a duty, which would both bring life to their souls and serve as a profession of their Faith. And when we reflect upon how many have paid no more attention to the Lenten penance than if there were no such obligation in existence, we cannot help but wonder how long God will bear with such blatant arrogance and defiance of His Church's Law.

In 1440 Pope Eugenius IV allowed this Communion to be made between Palm Sunday and Low Sunday. Later the Church extended this time beyond the borders of Paschal time, and allowed the obligation to be fulfilled between the First Sunday of Lent and Trinity Sunday.

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