The Easter Octave
This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it, alleluia!
With the whole Church we rejoice at the resurrection of Christ! The Church celebrates the Easter season or Eastertide. St. Athanasius said “[t]he fifty days from the Sunday of the Resurrection to Pentecost Sunday are celebrated in joy and exultation as one feast day, indeed as one ‘great Sunday’“ (General Norms of the Liturgical Calendar), but the first eight days or octave specifically celebrate the solemnity of Easter every day. As a companion piece to the Octave of Christmas, I thought I’d expand on the Easter Octave.
Two Principal Solemnities
There are two principal feasts in the Liturgical Year: Easter and Christmas. These are both solemnities and in the current liturgical calendar are the only feast days that have octaves attached (the 1962 Extraordinary Form calendar also has an Octave of Pentecost). Solemnities are festive and exceptional days, the highest ranked feasts of the liturgical calendar marked with special characteristics:
11. Solemnities are counted as the principal days in the calendar and their observance begins with Evening Prayer I of the preceding day. Some also have their own vigil Mass for use when Mass is celebrated in the evening of the preceding day.
The celebration of Easter and Christmas, the two greatest solemnities, continues for eight days, with each octave governed by its own rules. (General Norms of the Liturgical Calendar)
And Friday in the Octave of Easter is not a day of abstinence, because it is a solemnity (see Canon 1251 from the 1983 Code of Canon Law).
What Is an Octave?
An octave is the eight-day period during which Easter or Christmas is celebrated, and includes the actual feast. The eighth day is also called the octave or “octave day,” and days in between are said to be “within the octave”:
Octave means an eight-day celebration, that is, the prolongation of a feast to the eighth day (dies octava) inclusive. The feast itself is considered the first day, and it is followed by six days called “days within the octave.” The eighth or octave day is kept with greater solemnity than the “days within the octave” (With Christ Through the Year by Bernard Strasser, 1947, p. 39).
The Easter Octave begins on Easter Sunday and ends on the Second Sunday of Easter of the Divine Mercy with every day being another solemnity or another “little Easter.” The current title for each of the octave is “Monday in the Octave of Easter,” “Tuesday in the Octave of Easter” etc., but commonly called “Easter Monday,” “Easter Tuesday,” and so forth. The Easter Octave “overrides” any other feasts on the calendar.
The Greatest Week of the Church Year
Christ is risen! He is risen indeed! The comprehension and joy of this amazing gift of Christ conquering sin and death by His death and resurrection cannot be confined to just one day. The Church as a mother understands the needs of man. Within the liturgical calendar there is a built-in pattern that corresponds to human rhythms: times of preparation and penance building up to major feasts with celebrations that are prolonged, and multi-level feast days spread throughout the year. The Easter Octave gives us time to impress upon our souls the mysteries, joys and graces of the greatest feast of the Church. Each day of the Octave the liturgy dwells on the mysteries of the resurrection of Christ and our own resurrection through the sacrament of Baptism.
The greatness and uniqueness of the Octave of Easter within the Liturgical Year needs to be proclaimed:
If Holy Week is the most sacred and most important week of the entire ecclesiastical year, it is because it draws its importance from Good Friday, the day on which Christ, the God-Man and Redeemer, died on the cross for us. Rightly therefore can this week be considered the most serious and awe-inspiring in the Church’s calendar. But Easter Week is the antithesis of Holy Week. Since the resurrection was the most significant event in the life of our Lord who by means of this wonderful and undeniable fact made His divinity known to the entire world, Easter is the highest Sunday and Easter Week the great week of the entire Church year. No other feast is ever celebrated during this week (With Christ Through the Year, 1947, Bernard Strasser, p. 144).
The Liturgy of Easter Week indicates that every day within the Octave is treated the same as the original solemnity of Easter. The Liturgy of the Hours repeats the prayers for Sunday Week I every day of the octave for Lauds (Morning Prayer) and Vespers (Evening Prayer). The Responsory for Lauds, Vespers and Compline (Night Prayer) is replaced by Psalm 118:24, often referred to as the Easter psalm: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us be glad and rejoice in it.” In the Mass, the same verse is used for the Alleluia for the Ordinary Form, and the Extraordinary Form this verse is the Gradual all week.
The Mass also has a special Communicantes (In communion...) to insert every day of the Easter Octave when the Roman Canon or First Eucharistic Prayer is prayed:
Celebrating the most sacred night (day)
of the Resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ in the flesh,
and in communion with those whose memory we venerate,
especially the glorious ever-Virgin Mary,
Mother of our God and Lord, Jesus Christ...
There is also a special Hanc Igitur (Therefore, Lord, we pray...) during the Eucharistic Prayer:
Therefore, Lord, we pray:
graciously accept this oblation of our service,
that of your whole family,
which we make to you
also for those to whom you have been pleased to give
the new birth of water and the Holy Spirit,
granting them forgiveness of all their sins;
order our days in your peace,
and command that we be delivered from eternal damnation
and counted among the flock of those you have chosen.
(Through Christ our Lord. Amen.)
As mentioned, although each day is a solemnity, the Easter Octave is governed by its own rules for the Mass. The Gloria is repeated each day, but only on the two Sundays, Easter and Divine Mercy, the Octave Day, that there is a second reading and the Creed or renewal of baptismal Promises are included.
Finally, the beautiful ancient Easter sequence Victimae Paschali Laudes can be said or sung before the Gospel every day during the Octave:
Christians, to the Paschal Victim
Offer your thankful praises!
A Lamb the sheep redeems;
Christ, who only is sinless,
Reconciles sinners to the Father.
Death and life have contended
in that combat stupendous:
The Prince of Life, who died, reigns immortal.
Speak, Mary, declaring
What you saw, wayfaring.
“The tomb of Christ, who is living,
The glory of Jesus’ resurrection;
Bright angels attesting,
The shroud and napkin resting.
Yes, Christ my hope is arisen;
To Galilee he goes before you.”
Christ indeed from death is risen,
our new life obtaining.
Have mercy, victor King, ever reigning!
A special consideration for the sick and homebound during the Octave of Easter comes from the Instruction Paschalis Sollemnitatis (The Preparation and Celebration of the Easter Feasts): “It is highly recommended that Communion be brought to the sick also, especially during the Easter octave” so they may share with the whole Church in the paschal celebration.
The Unfolding and Savoring of the Easter Story
All throughout the Easter season, the first reading of the Mass is from the book of the Acts of the Apostles. Last week during the Triduum we left Peter sad, repentant and afraid. Throughout Easter Week we see his transformation in Christ—Peter is now strong and unafraid. He cannot be kept from preaching about Christ and sharing the Good News. And different stories of the early Church are also read through the Octave: Philip the Deacon with the eunuch from Ethiopia, and Peter and John curing the cripple. We see how the Risen Jesus changes lives. The story of the Risen Jesus cannot be contained.
Although we will hear the Resurrection narratives from the Gospel throughout the Sundays of the Easter season, it is during Easter Week that the first appearances of the Risen Jesus are unfolded. Monday is from Matthew 28:8-15, where the women meet Jesus, and the chief priests pay off the Roman guards to say the disciples stole the body of Jesus. Tuesday is from John 20:11-18, Mary Magdalene’s meeting with Jesus in the garden: “Noli me tangere—Do not touch me.” The Road to Emmaus from Luke 24:13-35 is Wednesday’s Gospel, Thursday is Jesus’ first appearance to the disciples in the Upper Room (without Thomas), from Luke 24:35-48. On Friday the Apostles return to Galilee to fish, and Jesus appears to them on the shore: “Children, have you caught anything to eat?” (John 21:1-14). Saturday is the excerpt from Mark’s Gospel, Mark 16:9-15, which is a short summary of the Resurrection appearances we had heard from other Gospels. Finally, the Octave of Easter closes with Jesus appearing to the Disciples and revealing Himself to a doubting Thomas (John 20:19-31).
Of course we cannot comprehend the fullness of this great Easter mystery in our lifetime, but we are given Easter in eight days to slowly take in the marvels God has done!
Two ideas determine the choice of the various texts and lessons.... The antiphons of the Introit and other chants, the Collects, and various prayers remind the neophytes, baptized during the Paschal Vigil, that the Lord has bought them with a great price, that He has led them into a new country, a land flowing with milk and honey, and they have become a new people, populus acquisitionis, a people purchased by God Himself, His own people, called from the shadow of darkness to the fullness of light, who hereafter must live in peace and in joy. It is the call of the Gentiles in place of the Jews, a favorite theme in the liturgy, which we shall meet especially in the Sundays after Pentecost. All this instruction must not find us indifferent, as though its application were only to the neophytes of long ago. We, too, have been baptized and therefore these lessons are applicable to us.
During this Octave, then, we have a kind of anthology of the resurrection, showing it to us in all its different aspects, and completing the Paschal liturgy. Baptism, according to St. Paul’s sublime doctrine, is also a resurrection, a rising from the death of sin to a new life. We shall find this idea recurring again and again in the Easter Octave. Hardly anywhere in the liturgical cycle shall we find such striking unity of thought, and nowhere do all the prayers combine so well to emphasize and develop the main thesis (The Year’s Liturgy, Volume One, by Fernand Cabrol, OSB, 1938).
Neophytes and Baptism
As mentioned, so much of the Easter Octave’s tone is focused both on the Paschal Mystery and the newly baptized, or neophytes. The early church did not have masses every day (see Collect-ing for Advent for more background), but the Easter Octave had a special Mass for each day of the week which unfolded the faith for the neophytes. Adolf Adam explains:
At the daily celebration of the Eucharist these neophytes were introduced more fully to the mysteries of faith and especially to the sacraments of initiation which they had received during the Easter Vigil. The Easter homilies of Asterius are probably the earliest known example of such ‘mystagogical catechesis,’ although the best-known examples are surely the five mystagogical Catechesis of Bishop Cyril (John?) of Jerusalem in the second half of the fourth century and the Ambrosian writings De mysteriis and De sacramentis. According to Augustine the Easter octave represents an ecclesiae consensus, or unanimous practice of the Church, that is as ancient as Lent. The faithful had to refrain from work and take part in the daily liturgy.
Part of the “established” liturgy for the Octave was also the Roman Station Churches. I’ve shared about our Roman Pilgrimage following the Station Churches. The journey did not end with Lent, but continues through the Easter Octave. Each day during Easter Week has a special statio, and six of the eight churches are major basilicas. (I’m including the Italian name because that is what we used this Lent.)
Station Churches of the Easter OctaveEaster SundayS. Maria MaggioreSt. Mary MajorEaster MondayS. Pietro in VaticanoSt. Peter’sEaster TuesdayS. Paolo fuori le MuraSt. Paul Outside the WallsEaster WednesdayS. Lorenzo fuori le MuraSt. Lawrence Outside the WallsEaster ThursdaySanti ApostoliThe Twelve Holy ApostlesEaster FridayS. Maria ad MartyresSt. Mary “at the Martyrs” (former Pantheon)Easter SaturdayS. Giovanni in LateranoSt. John Lateran
My sons noticed that two station churches were not used in Lent, and it is during this Easter Week that we visit these churches. “S. Maria ad Martyres” is the Pantheon, now dedicated to the Blessed Virgin Mary and all Martyrs. The second church is dedicated to St. Pancras. Both of these are minor basilicas. These Easter Octave station churches were chosen for both their “dignity” as basilicas, but the tradition is also praying with the station saint. The example of the lives (and deaths) of the saints are placed before us so that we can meditate on what it means to follow Christ. To believe in His resurrection will be life-changing, as we see in the lives of the Twelve Apostles, St. Paul, St. Lawrence, St. Pancras and all the unnamed martyrs.
This week was also called “white week” (or the Easter “week of renewal”). The newly baptized would wear their white garments all week. What an inspiring sight it must have been to be a pilgrim to each statio in Rome and share Mass with the neophytes in their white robes. The Octave Day was often called Dominica in albis (White Sunday or Sunday in white garments) because that was the day the neophytes would lay aside their baptismal white. After the 7th century when the Vigil Mass was moved to Holy Saturday, the laying aside would be on the Saturday (station at St. Pancras).
Octave of Easter
As with the Octave of Christmas, the Octave or eighth day is not as liturgically important as the feast day of Easter, but it is higher in importance than the preceding six days of the Octave. The Easter Octave is concluded by the Second Sunday of Easter, which has many titles. The current designation is Sunday of Divine Mercy, designated by St. John Paul II. But it is also known as Low Sunday, to differentiate this Sunday from the Easter solemnity. The other name, as mentioned above, Dominica in Albis or White Sunday still continues in the tradition of children receiving their First Communion and the renewal of baptismal vows by the faithful. The final title for this Sunday is Quasi Modo, taken from the first line in the Introit or Entrance Antiphon of the Mass: Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia... (As newborn babes, alleluia).
The closing of the greatest week of the liturgical year does not mean an end of Easter. The Easter season continues until Pentecost, a sum total of 50 days! The number of days of celebrating is longer than the preparation of the Lenten season, again illustrating the central importance of the Paschal Mystery.
In the spirit of the Easter Octave, let us continue to celebrate the solemnity of Easter: This is the day the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it!