Why is Easter 50 days long?

Celebrate the joys of the season well past Easter Sunday

PHOTO: Amanda Carden/Shutterstock

“Michael,” I shouted, “your time’s up! Come out of there!” My frustration was building as I stood in front of the inflated carnival castle filled with small children jumping and bouncing to their hearts’ delight. My 3-year-old son, Michael, had been in there for his allotted time, plus some, and the carnie collecting tickets was getting angry.

“Michael!” I said as sharply and authoritatively as I could. He grinned, and went back to jumping, working his way toward the back of the bouncy house, far out of the reach of his embarrassed dad.

“Michael! Right now!” I yelled.

Bounce, bounce, bounce!

“Which one’s Michael?” a little girl standing in line asked. Lots of kids were watching and lots of parents were glad he was my kid instead of theirs. Sighing, I handed over another ticket, and went in after my bouncing bundle of joy.

Michael that day was indeed experiencing pure joy, rebelling against all attempts to cut it short. How can such joy be contained in a mere few minutes? How can it be lived by a stopwatch?

Children are not the only ones among us to experience pure joy and want it to last. Surely the first disciples experienced it with Christ’s Resurrection. It’s the same joy we sometimes see on the faces of the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil, as they are washed clean of sin and rise to a new life of grace. It’s a joy that can’t be contained in just a moment. That’s why the Church, from as early as the third century, let the Easter joy overflow into a 50-day season from Easter to Pentecost, in which kneeling in prayer was forbidden and the newly baptized delved into the meaning of what they had experienced.

Our ancestors found great symbolic meaning in these 50 days of Easter. For example, 50 days is seven weeks — a week of weeks plus one day. That extra day was the Eighth Day, the same name they gave to Sunday — the day of resurrection, the day that symbolized eternity. It’s not just the start of a new seven-day week but the beginning of a whole new creation. Fifty days is also just about one-seventh of the whole year, so these 50 days hold the same relationship to the year as Sunday does to the week. That’s why the 50 days of Easter are known as the Great Sunday of the entire year.

And there’s more. Easter, like Christmas, has an octave, and the eight days from Easter Sunday to Divine Mercy Sunday are celebrated as one great day, the Sunday (so to speak) of the Easter season. In the early Church the newly baptized wore their white baptismal garments throughout this week, and after Christians gained power, this whole week was a legal holiday in many parts of the Roman Empire.

While 50 days of unmitigated joy seems hard for us to sustain today, the season still has meaning. It’s the time when we are meant to experience what it means when we say Christ is risen. It’s the season when we hear and ponder the beginnings of our Church, the gifts of the Spirit, and the meaning and mission of discipleship, on what joining in the Eucharist commits us to be and do. For no matter how glorious this 50-day taste of the heavenly banquet is meant to be, God eventually calls us out of the celebration and reminds us to move on and live what we’ve celebrated in all the moments of our lives.

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