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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 78. The Easter Cycle.


Easter is the oldest and greatest annual festival of the church. As to its essential idea and observance, it was born with the Christian Sunday on the morning of the resurrection.731731   The late Dr. Fried. Strauss of Berlin, an eminent writer on the church year (Das evangelische Kirchenjahr, p. 218), says: ”Das heilige Osterfest ist das christliche Fest schlechthin. Es ist nicht blos Hauptfest, sondern das Fest, das einmal im Jahre vollstandig auftritt, aber in allen andern Festen von irgend einer Seite wiederkehrt, und eben dadurch diese zu Festen macht. Nannte man doch jeden Festtag, ja sogar jeden Sonntag aus diesem Grunde dies paschalis. Daher musste es auch das ursprüngliche Fest in dem umfassendsten Sinne des Wortes sein. Man kann nicht sagen, in welcher christlichen Zeit es entstanden sei; es ist mit der Kirche entstanden, und die Kirche ist mit ihm entstanden.” Like the passover with the Jews, it originally marked the beginning of the church year. It revolves entirely about the person and the work of Christ, being devoted to the great saving fact of his passion and resurrection. We have already spoken of the origin and character of this festival,732732   Vol. i. § 99 (p. 373 ff.). and shall confine ourselves here to the alterations and enlargements which it underwent after the Nicene age.

The Easter festival proper was preceded by a forty days’ season of repentance and fasting, called Quadragesima, at least as early as the year 325; for the council of Nice presupposes the existence of this season.733733   In its fifth canon, where it orders that provincial councils be held twice a year, before Quadragesima (πρὸ τῆς τεσσαρακοστῆς), and in the autumn. This fast was an imitation of the forty days’ fasting of Jesus in the wilderness, which itself was put in typical connection with the forty days’ fasting of Moses734734   Ex. xxxiv. 28. and Elijah,735735   1 Kings xix. 8. and the forty years’ wandering of Israel through the desert. At first a free-will act, it gradually assumed the character of a fixed custom and ordinance of the church. Respecting the length of the season much difference prevailed, until Gregory I. (590–604) fixed the Wednesday of the sixth week before Easter, Ash Wednesday as it is called,736736   Dies cinerum, caput jejunii, or quadragesimae. as the beginning of it. On this day the priests and the people sprinkled themselves with dust and ashes, in token of their perishableness and their repentance, with the words: “Remember, O man, that dust thou art, and unto dust thou must return; repent, that thou mayest inherit eternal life.” During Quadragesima criminal trials and criminal punishments, weddings, and sensual amusements were forbidden; solemn, earnest silence was imposed upon public and private life; and works of devotion, penances and charity were multiplied. Yet much hypocrisy was practised in the fasting; the rich compensating with exquisite dainties the absence of forbidden meats. Chrysostom and Augustine are found already lamenting this abuse. During the days preceding the beginning of Lent, the populace gave themselves up to unrestrained merriment, and this abuse afterward became legitimized in all Catholic countries, especially in Italy (flourishing most in Rome, Venice, and Cologne), in the Carnival.737737   From caro and vale; flesh taking its departure for a time in a jubilee of revelling. According to others, it is the converse: dies quo caro valet; i.e., the day on which it is still allowed to eat flesh and to indulge the flesh. The Carnival, or Shrove-tide, embraces the time from the feast of Epiphany to Ash Wednesday, or, commonly, only the last three or the last eight days preceding Lent. It is celebrated in every city of Italy; in Rome, especially, with masquerades, races, dramatic plays, farces, jokes, and other forms of wild merriment and frantic joy, yet with good humor; replacing the old Roman feasts of Saturnalia, Lupercalia, and Floralia

The six Sundays of Lent are called Quadragesima prima, secunda, and so on to sexta. They are also named after the initial words of the introit in the mass for the day: Invocabit (Ps. xci. 15), Reminiscere, (Ps. xxv. 6), Oculi (Ps. xxxiv. 15), Laetare (Is. lxvi. 10), Judica (Ps. xliii. 1), Palmarum (from Matt. xxi. 8). The three Sundays preceding Quadragesima are called respectively Estomihi (from Ps. xxxi. 2) or Quinquagesima (i.e., Dominica quinquagesimae diei, viz., before Easter), Sexagesima, and Septuagesima; which are, however, inaccurate designations. These three Sundays were regarded as preparatory to the Lenten season proper. In the larger cities it became customary to preach daily during the Quadragesimal fast; and the usage of daily Lenten sermons (Quadragesimales, or sermones Quadragesimales) has maintained itself in the Roman church to this day.

The Quadragesimal fast culminates in the Great, or Silent, or Holy Week,738738   Septimana sancta, magna, muta; hebdomas nigra, or paschalis; ἑβδομὰς μεγάλη, Passion Week. which is especially devoted to the commemoration of the passion and death of Jesus, and is distinguished by daily public worship, rigid fasting, and deep silence. This week, again, has its prominent days. First Palm Sunday,739739   Dominica palmarum; ἑορτὴ τῶν βαίων. which has been, in the East since the fourth century, in the West since the sixth, observed in memory of the entry of Jesus into Jerusalem for His enthronement on the cross. Next follows Maundy Thursday,740740   Feria quinta paschae, dies natalis eucharistiae, dies viridium; ἡμεγάληπέμπτη. The English name, Maundy Thursday, is derived from maundsor baskets, in which on that day the king of England distributed alms to certain poor at Whitehall, Maund is connected with the Latin mendicare, and French mendier, to beg. in commemoration of the institution of the Holy Supper, which on this day was observed in the evening, and was usually connected with a love feast, and also with feet-washing. The Friday of the Holy Week is distinguished from all others as Good Friday,741741   Dies dominicae passionis; παρασκευή, πάσχα σταυρώσιμον, ἡμέρα τοῦ σταυροῦ. In German Char-Freitag either from the Greek χάρις, or, more probably, from the Latin carus, beloved, dear, comp. the English Good Friday. Other etymologists derive it from carena (carême), i.e., fasting, or from kar (küren, to choose), i.e., the chosen day; others still from karo-parare, i.e., preparation-day. the day of the Saviour’s death; the day of the deepest penance and fasting of the year, stripped of all Sunday splendor and liturgical pomp, veiled in the deepest silence and holy sorrow; the communion omitted (which had taken place the evening before), altars unclothed, crucifixes veiled, lights extinguished, the story of the passion read, and, instead of the church hymns, nothing sung but penitential psalms. Finally the Great Sabbath,742742   Μέγα or ἅγιον σάββατον; sabbatum magnum, or sanctum. the day of the Lord’s repose in the grave and descent into Hades; the favorite day in all the year for the administration of baptism, which symbolizes participation in the death of Christ.743743   Rom. vi. 4-6. The Great Sabbath was generally spent as a fast day, even in the Greek church, which usually did not fast on Saturday.

In the evening of the Great Sabbath began the Easter Vigils,744744   Vigiliae paschales; παννυχίδες. which continued, with Scripture reading, singing, and prayer, to the dawn of Easter morning, and formed the solemn transition from the πάσχα σταυρώσιμον to the πάσχα ἀναστάσιμον, and from the deep sorrow of penitence over the death of Jesus to the joy of faith in the resurrection of the Prince of life. All Christians, and even many pagans, poured into the church with lights, to watch there for the morning of the resurrection. On this night the cities were splendidly illuminated, and transfigured in a sea of fire; about midnight a solemn procession surrounded the church, and then triumphally entered again into the “holy gates,” to celebrate Easter. According to an ancient tradition, it was expected that on Easter night Christ would come again to judge the world.745745   Comp. Lactantius: Inst. divin. vii. c. 19; and Hieronymus ad Matt. xxv. 6 (t. vii. 203, ed. Vallarsi): “Unde traditionem apostolicam permansisse, ut in die vigiliarum Paschae ante noctis dimidium populos dimittere non liceat, expectantes adventum Christi.”

The Easter festival itself746746   Festum dominicae resurrectionis; ἑορτὴἀναστάσιμος, κυριακὴμεγάλη. began with the jubilant salutation, still practized in the Russian church: “The Lord is risen !” and the response: “He is truly risen!747747   “Dominus resurrexit.”—“Vere resurrexit.” Then the holy kiss of brotherhood scaled the newly fastened bond of love in Christ. It was the grandest and most joyful of the feasts. It lasted a whole week, and closed with the following Sunday, called the Easter Octave,748748   Octava paschae, pascha clausum; ἀντίπασχα. Octaveis applied in genera to the whole eight-days’ observance of the great church festivals; then especially to the eighth or last day of the feast. or White Sunday,749749   Dominica in albis. Also Quasimodogeniti, from the Introit for public worship, 1 Pet. ii. 2 (“Quasimodo geniti infantes,”” As new-born babes,” &c.). Among the Greeks it was called καινὴ κυριακή. when the baptized appeared in white garments, and were solemnly incorporated into the church.



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