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The exuberant joy of Easter is best described by St. John Chrysostom (AD 347–407) in his Paschal Homily, read on Easter morning in many Eastern Churches:
If any man be devout and loveth God, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumphal feast!
If any man be a wise servant, let him rejoicing enter into the joy of his Lord.
If any have labored long in fasting, let him how receive his recompense.
If any have wrought from the first hour, let him today receive his just reward.
If any have come at the third hour, let him with thankfulness keep the feast.
If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him have no misgivings, because he shall in nowise be deprived therefore.
If any have delayed until the ninth hour, let him draw near, fearing nothing.
And if any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him, also, be not alarmed at his tardiness.
For the Lord, who is jealous of his honor, will accept the last even as the first.
He giveth rest unto him who cometh at the eleventh hour, even as unto him who hath wrought from the first hour.
And he showeth mercy upon the last, and careth for the first. And to the one he giveth, and upon the other he bestoweth gifts.
And he both accepteth the deeds, and welcometh the intention, and honoreth the acts and praises the offering.
Wherefore, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord.
Receive your reward, both the first, and likewise the second.
You rich and poor together, hold high festival!
You sober and you heedless, honor the day!
Rejoice today, both you who have fasted and you who have disregarded the fast.
The table is full-laden; feast ye all sumptuously.
The calf is fatted; let no one go hungry away.
Enjoy ye all the feast of faith: receive ye all the riches of loving-kindness.
Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal Kingdom has been revealed.
Let no one weep for his iniquities, for pardon has shown forth from the grave.
Let no one fear death, for the Savior's death has set us free.
He that was held prisoner of it has annihilated it.
By descending into Hell, he made Hell captive.
He embittered it when it tasted of his flesh.
And Isaiah, foretelling this, did cry: Hell, said he, was embittered when it encountered thee in the lower regions.
It was embittered, for it was abolished.
It was embittered, for it was mocked.
It was embittered, for it was slain.
It was embittered, for it was overthrown.
It was embittered, for it was fettered in chains.
It took a body, and met God face to face.
It took earth, and encountered Heaven.
It took that which it saw, and fell upon that which cannot be seen.
O Death, where is thy sting?
O Hell, where is thy victory?
Christ is risen, and thou art overthrown!
Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen!
Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice!
Christ is risen, and life reigns!
Christ is risen, and not one dead remains in the grave.
For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of those who have fallen asleep.
To him be glory and dominion unto ages of ages.
(English translation from Wikisource.)
This is the day upon which Christianity is founded. Jesus Christ, the incarnate God, was crucified and died, but because he is the perfect, eternal God, he has risen from the dead. Through his Resurrection, he has proven once and for all that his is the incarnate God and the Messiah. Jesus took on the guilt of human sins, but God's love and mercy overcame our guilt. In the words of St. Paul, “For by a man came death, and by a man the resurrection of the dead. And as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all shall be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:21-22). Because of the Resurrection, we have the sure hope of redemption.
Date of Easter
The date of Easter was very controversial in the early church. The full history and methods of computation of the date of Easter (known as computus) are a story for another time. The most recent change to the method of computation was in 1583, when Rome switched from the Julian Calendar to the Gregorian Calendar. Easter is on the Sunday following the Paschal full moon. This is defined as the first full moon that falls on or after the spring equinox. However, the ecclesiastical definitions of a full moon and the spring equinox are a bit different from the astronomical definitions. A full moon is defined as the fourteenth day of the lunar month, and the spring equinox is defined to be March 21. Thus, the earliest Easter can be is March 22 (last happened in 1818 and will next happen in 2285), and the latest it can be is April 25 (last happened in 1943 and will next happen in 2038). To make things more confusing, the Eastern Churches still use the Julian Calendar, so they have a different date for Easter.
The document De anno et ejus partibus, printed in the front matter of the Roman Missal, has tables and formulas for numerically calculating the date of Easter. The date of Easter is traditionally announced to the faithful after the Gospel on the feast of Epiphany on January 6 each year. In this age of technology, it is very easy to find the date of Easter for any past or future year on the internet. However, for many centuries, this was not the case, so the Church always made sure her faithful could know the date of the year's greatest feast. Furthermore, much of the Church's calendar is dependent on the date of Easter.
Paschal Matins and Lauds
The liturgical celebration of Easter begins with the Easter Vigil the previous evening, which includes First Vespers of Easter. It is followed by Compline and then by Paschal Matins and Lauds, which was considered the pinnacle of Holy Week in medieval times and was usually offered publicly with great solemnity.
The altar is adorned as for the principle feast of the year, with six lighted candles and flowers. The priest wears a white cope. (Cloth of gold may be used in place of white.)
Matins begins as usual with the Invitatory. The antiphon at the Invitatory is simply, “Surrexit Dominus. Alleluia.” (“The Lord is risen. Alleluia.”) There is a special, slightly more elaborate tone for the Invitatory at Matins today, owing to the solemnity of the feast. This is the first time the Invitatory has been sung since before the Triduum. The words of Psalm 94 apply particularly well to Easter: “Come let us praise the Lord with joy: let us joyfully sing to God our savior.”
The Invitatory is followed by a single nocturn of three psalms and three readings. There are no hymns at the Divine Office during the Octave of Easter. The psalms of Matins are Psalms 1, 2, and 3, which are the usual psalms at the first nocturn on Sundays. The first antiphon begins, “Ego sum qui sum,” meaning, “I am who I am,” words first spoken to Moses, the first of the Old Testament prophets (Exodus 3:14), fully manifested and revealed in the Resurrection. The readings are from the Homily of St. Gregory the Great on Mark 16:1-7, the Gospel of the Mass. Similarly, the two responsories (following the first and second readings) are from the Gospel. The third lesson is followed by the Te Deum, which has not been sung since before Septuagesima.
At Lauds, we sing the usual, joyful psalms for Sunday Lauds I. (This is the first time the first scheme of Lauds has been used since before Septuagesima.) Like at Matins, the antiphons are taken from the Gospel account of the Resurrection. As the fourth psalm, like every Sunday, we sing the Canticle of the Three Children from Daniel 3:57-75, 56, in which the Hebrew children praise God for saving them from King Nebuchadnezzar's fiery furnace. We heard this story in the twelfth prophecy of the Easter Vigil. On Easter morning, we can apply this canticle to our praise to God for saving us from the fires of hell through the Resurrection.
The capitulum, hymn, and verse are all omitted. In their place, at every hour of the Divine Office during the Octave of Easter, we sing Psalm 117:24: “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.” It is sung to a melismatic chant. This is also the Gradual of Easter Sunday. The altar is incensed at the Benedictus. Lauds ends with, “Benedicamus Domino. Alleluia, alleluia.” This conclusion is used for Lauds and Vespers throughout the Octave of Easter, but not the other hours.
Side note – Timing of the Easter Vigil and Paschal Matins and Lauds
As I have stated before, the Easter Vigil was held on Saturday morning for many centuries. At Westminster Cathedral in 1939, the Easter Vigil began at 9:00 a.m. Compline was sung later that day at 5:15 p.m., followed by Paschal Matins and Lauds at 5:30 p.m. This has the practical advantage that Paschal Matins and Lauds can easily be offered publicly. If the Easter Vigil is held on Saturday evening, ending at almost midnight, then the priest must pray Compline, Matins, and Lauds before saying the following morning's Mass, and it is just not practical to offer Paschal Matins and Lauds publicly.
On the other hand, if the Easter Vigil is held on Saturday morning, and it is indeed to be held after None as is traditional, then the priest would have to pray Prime, Terce, Sext, and None all before 9:00 a.m., which defeats the purpose of the Divine Office to sanctify each part of the day. Alternatively, the priest could say some or all of those hours after the Easter Vigil, which introduces the awkwardness of saying the Divine Office of the Triduum, when Christ is still in the tomb, after we have already celebrated the Resurrection.
My proposed solution would be to have the Easter Vigil starting at about 3:00 p.m., because like other vigils, it occurs liturgically after None. It would then end around 7:00 p.m. Compline would probably be in private, and the clergy can actually get to sleep at a reasonable hour on Saturday night. Paschal Matins and Lauds could then be offered early Sunday morning, followed by the usual slate of Sunday Masses. Of course, this is all pure speculation.
Mass of Easter Sunday
Like every Sunday, High Mass is preceded by the Asperges ceremony. Instead of the chant Asperges me that is usually sung at this time, during Paschaltide, we sing the chant Vidi aquam (page 4 of the PDF booklet for Easter Sunday). The antiphon is taken from the Prophet Ezekiel's vision in Ezekiel 47. Water flowed out from the right side of the temple toward the east, becoming ever deeper and mightier. Every manner of creature came to the water and gained life. This vision has a threefold meaning. First, it represents the four rivers flowing from the Garden of Eden (Genesis 2:10-14). Second, it represents the water flowing from the side of Christ (John 19:34). Finally, it represents the waters of Baptism flowing from the Church, the mystical Body of Christ. The accompanying psalm verse is from Psalm 117:1: “Give praise to Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever.”
The Introit for Easter Sunday is taken from Psalm 138, beginning with the words of King David foreshadowing our Lord's Resurrection: “I arose, and am still with thee.” Our Lord said after his Resurrection, “Behold I am with you all days, even to the consummation of the world” (Matthew 28:20). The Introit continues, “Thou hast laid thy hand upon me, alleluia; thy knowledge is become wonderful, alleluia, alleluia.” These words of King David are a prayer of praise to God. They are followed by the beginning of the psalm, “Lord, thou hast proved me, and known me: thou hast know my sitting down, and my rising up.” This echoes what St. Peter said to Jesus when Jesus confronted him after the Resurrection: “Lord, thou knowest all things” (John 21:17).
The chant of the Introit originates from Old Roman Chant, probably around the seventh or eighth century. A scanned manuscript of the 1225 Roman Missal from the National Library of Spain shows that this chant melody was fundamentally the same then as it is today, using a primitive musical notation with only one staff line. It is shown below side-by-side with the modern chant notation, which was developed in the Middle Ages but not fully standardized until the nineteenth century by the monks of the Abbey of Solesmes in France.
The Introit of Easter Sunday is also a fine example of the divine beauty of Gregorian Chant. To a listener accustomed to modern music, it sounds as if it were in a minor key, though of course the concept of major and minor keys is far removed from any form of plainchant. It might sound too somber or gloomy and thus inappropriate for such a high feast as Easter. However, within Gregorian Chant, this is a beautiful and elaborate melody that does not convey gloom, but rather the highest praise to God. A chant such as this one, not in a “minor key” but rather in the fourth Gregorian mode, is perfectly fitting for use in the Mass of Easter Sunday. This is the beauty of Gregorian Chant. It does not reflect human emotions, nor anything else on earth, but rather our worship and praise given to God, which is why it is the most appropriate music for Catholic liturgy.
The very short Epistle for Easter Sunday is from 1 Corinthians 5:7-8 (page 11). St. Paul declares Jesus Christ to be the true Paschal Lamb who was sacrificed for us. In Judaism, leavened bread represented corruption and sin. Thus, St. Paul commands us, “Brethren, purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new paste, as you are unleavened,” turning away from our sinful habits and becoming pure like unleavened bread. This is why unleavened bread was always commanded for the Passover and is still commanded for the Mass in the Western Church. (The Eastern Churches use leavened bread.) St. Paul echoes Jesus's command to continue the Passover feast (Luke 22:19, 1 Corinthians 11:25), writing, “Therefore let us feast, not with the old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” When we assist in the Mass, we ought to offer ourselves to God, so that we may truly feast with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.
This Epistle is followed by the Gradual, Haec dies (pages 11-12). As mentioned previously, it is also sung at every hour of the Divine Office during the Octave of Easter. Like all Graduals, it is melismatic, and like most of the Easter Sunday liturgy, it is ancient. “This is the day which the Lord hath made: let us be glad and rejoice therein.” These words of King David (Psalm 117:24) refer first and foremost to Easter, the day of the Lord's Resurrection, the day that the Lord made for his people since the moment of Adam's fall. This verse is followed by the first verse of the same psalm: “Give praise to Lord, for he is good: for his mercy endureth for ever,” which we also sang as part of the Vidi aquam. After the Gradual is the Alleluia Verse, which is taken from the Epistle: “Alleluia, alleluia. Christ our Pasch is sacrificed.”
Usually, the word “Alleluia” is repeated after the Alleluia Verse. However, on Easter, the Church extends her joyful acclamation in the Sequence, Victimae paschali laudes, composed around the eleventh century (pages 13-14). After we sing in the Alleluia Verse, “Christ our Pasch is sacrificed,” we begin the Sequence, “Christians to the Paschal Victim offer your thankful praises!” This Sequence is a hymn of praise for the Resurrection. In particular, it expresses the joy of St. Mary Magdalene, who was formerly a great sinner but was given the grace to be the first person to see our risen Lord. In the Sequence, an apostle charges St. Mary Magdalene, “Speak, Mary, declaring what thou sawest wayfaring,” to which she responds, “The tomb of Christ who now liveth: and likewise the glory of the Risen. Bright Angels attesting, the shroud and napkin resting. Yea, Christ my hope is arisen: to Galilee he goeth before you” (Matthew 26:32, John 20:11-18). Often, the men sing the lines attributed to the apostle, and the women sing the lines attributed to St. Mary Magdalene, but this is not obligatory.
The Gospel for Easter Sunday is Mark 16:1-7, the story of the women bringing spices to the tomb. St. Mark identifies the women as “Mary Magdalene, and Mary mother of James, and Salome.” “Mary mother of James” is the mother of St. James the Lesser. She is sometimes identified with Mary of Clopas mentioned in John 19:25. Mary Salome is often believed to be the wife of Zebedee and the mother of St. James the Greater and St. John. These three women are venerated in Eastern Christianity as the “Myrrhbearers.” There are apocryphal accounts that these three were all daughters of St. Anne, but this is most likely not true.
The women approach the tomb “very early in the morning, the first day of the week.” Thus, the Resurrection is connected with the very beginning of creation. Furthermore, since Christ sanctified the first day of the week with his Resurrection, the Church continues to observe the sanctity of the first day of the week by obliging all her members to assist at Mass. Since Jesus arose in the morning, Mass is traditionally offered in the morning. Evening Masses were not permitted until 1953. When the women arrive at the tomb, they find the great stone miraculously rolled back and an angel sitting upon it. As always when angels appear to humans, the women are commanded, “Do not be afraid” (Genesis 21:17, Ezekiel 2:6, Luke 2:10). This angel at the tomb is described as a “young man...clothed with a white robe.” Just as St. Gabriel told the shepherds the joyful news of our Lord's birth thirty-three years prior (Luke 2:10-12), the angel at the tomb tells the women the glorious news of our Lord's resurrection. Jesus himself still does not yet appear in the Gospel, as he does not reveal himself to his apostles until the evening of the Resurrection (Luke 24:13-32, John 20:19-23).
After the Gospel, the Credo is sung as usual. The Offertory Verse from Psalm 75:9-10, “The earth trembled and was still,” refers to the earthquake on the morning of the resurrection (Matthew 28:2). The Preface of Easter is sung. At the end of Mass, “Alleluia, alleluia” is appended to the Ite Missa est.
computus – The calculation of the date of Easter.
Paschal full moon – The first full moon occurring on or after March 21, which determines the date of Easter.
Paschal Matins and Lauds – The hours of Matins and Lauds on Easter Sunday.