50 Days of Easter Celebration
By Fr. Tirso Villaverde
St. Thomas of Canterbury, Chicago
Recently, I got asked why the Easter season would last for fifty days in the Catholic Church’s liturgical calendar and what the significance might be for the number fifty. The answer to that question was rather simple.
First of all, for Catholics as it is with all Christians, the impact of Easter is much more than just one single day. Unfortunately, the secular world does not celebrate holidays in the same way. As we have seen with Christmas, the secular and consumerist world celebrates Easter for only a period of twenty-four hours. Once that time has elapsed, Easter quickly disappears from the mind of secular society. However, as the Church has done with the mystery of Christ’s birth, she does the same with the mystery of Jesus’ death and resurrection. Namely, the Easter season lasts for much longer than one day to serve as a powerful reminder to us that the story of Jesus did not end on the cross nor did it end with the empty tomb. Instead, the story of Jesus continues to live because the Word of God lives in the hearts of every person who professes faith in Jesus as Lord and Savior.
But, the question remains, “why fifty days specifically?” Again, the answer to this is rather simple. The Easter season is fifty days long simply because that was when the Feast of Pentecost fell in the ancient Jewish calendar.
The word “Pentecost” comes from the Greek meaning “fiftieth.” It was the word that was used to translate the name of the Jewish Feast of Weeks, or Shavuot. This particular feast came after Passover and was celebrated for seven weeks. It commemorates the anniversary of the day when God gave His People the Law (Torah). It was precisely this feast that drew to Jerusalem a large crowd of visitors from various ethnic backgrounds and languages on the day when the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles and disciples empowering them to proclaim God’s marvelous deeds (Acts 2:1-13). As Acts of the Apostles tells us, the disciples began to speak of God and the crowd was amazed because they heard the message each in their respective languages. It is for this simple reason that the Church’s liturgical calendar designates the Easter season to be for fifty days based on the historical and cultural information we have from the New Testament.
The “Christianization” of the Pentecost feast seemed an appropriate coincidence, though. The Jewish feast of Shavuot, as was mentioned, celebrates the anniversary of when the ancient Israelites received the gift of God’s Law, the Torah. The Torah can also be referred to as the Pentateuch from the Greek meaning “the five books.” The Torah consists of the first five books of the Old Testament, namely, Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy. In the Jewish faith, the Torah is a central concept and is a gift that is treasured deeply. The Torah is so revered that the scroll that has written on it the first five books of the Old Testament is adorned in some way to distinguish it from all others. It is the one item in a Jewish synagogue that is essential and must be protected at all cost. This is just how precious a gift God’s Law is to the Jewish people because the Torah dictates a way of living for those who follow it. It offers the way to remain faithful to the commands of God. For this reason, the feast of Shavuot is still a major feast.
Similar to the Jewish understanding, the Christian feast of Pentecost is important because it also offers a way of life for those who choose to follow the ways of Jesus. In a way, we can understand the feast of Pentecost also as a sort of anniversary of the time when God gave His Church a new law. For the Christian faith, though, the feast of Pentecost celebrates the coming of the Holy Spirit. This time, instead of having God’s law written on paper or stone, the Holy Spirit came upon the disciples in order that the law of God might now be written on the hearts of the faithful according to the words of Jeremiah 31:33 (echoed also in Hebrews 10:16).
The fifty days of Easter until Pentecost simply serve as a reminder that the Word of God is alive in the hearts of all the faithful who profess faith in Jesus. May this time of Easter joy motivate every Christian to share this gift of God to the entire world.