Eastertide : celebration which keeps going
After all the joy and excitement of Easter Sunday, the Church settles down to enjoy the Easter season which lasts through six more Sundays. Eastertide ends with the Ascension and then Pentecost, so specifically this is the period after the Resurrection but while Jesus is still on earth. He is still the central character, but he comes and goes at this stage in the story. It is no longer just the story of what happens to him or what he does.
It is fascinating to see how the focus of the narrative shifts. Jesus is there, but intermittently. He pays visits to the apostles, to put heart into them, but he often finds them cowering in the Upper Room. They are trying to work out what to do next, in a world which has been totally altered by Jesus’ return from the dead.
But what happened next?
We are so used to the idea that Jesus is the living Lord that we don’t give the apostles enough credit for how hard this must have been. We learn about his Resurrection as soon as we learn about his death on the cross, and the length of the annual wait from Good Friday to the Easter liturgies is fixed and familiar. But the apostles had no missals, Gospels or road maps of any kind. They really were making it up as they went along, with Jesus appearing now and then to keep them on the right path and repeat the same message over and over again until they could let themselves believe it.
2nd Sunday, still celebrating but also moving on
The second Sunday after Easter is still part of the Easter narrative itself. The Gospel is the same for each of the three liturgical years, the story of Thomas and his encounter with the Risen Lord. It is nearly the same psalm (117/118), just with a different verse in the middle, and, as if to emphasize the point, it is the same psalm that we have been singing since the end of the Easter Vigil and Easter Sunday. Like a musical octave, the Easter octave strikes the same note. What shows the change of emphasis which is starting to happen, is that the First Reading is taken from Acts.
The purpose of the First Reading
Usually the First Reading comes from the Old Testament, and indeed, at the Easter Vigil, we have an orgy of Old Testament readings before we get to the Gospel. It can be a historical echo of events in Jesus’ life, or a fascinating parallel, or evidence of God’s slow plan of salvation from the shadowy beginnings of life to the prophets’ desperate attempts to pass on God’s message. But now, after the Resurrection, everything is changed, changed utterly: and we start needing to focus on what happens next. The next significant event in the story of Jesus’ earthly life is the Ascension, but we don’t want to get there yet, because we are still celebrating Easter. So the gospel readings assigned for the rest of the Easter season are in a sense marking time; – in fact, they go backwards. They give us an opportunity to reflect on Jesus’ earlier words, because there are a lot more of those, especially in John’s Gospel, than we have already had room for (we will see this again in the Sundays of Ordinary Time).
The Gospel is usually the main narrative
The gospels for these Sundays of the Easter season, then, are not usually taking the story forward. After the second Sunday of Easter, the three liturgical years diverge, not for the usual reason, that they are taking their readings in sequence from a different evangelist (A : Matthew, B : Mark, C : Luke), because nearly all the gospel readings for Eastertide are taken from John; but they all take different bits out of John’s Gospel, so as to include more of Jesus’ actual teaching. But this is of course a recap of earlier events; time has gone back, not forwards.
Eastertide Year C : the gospels
I’m going to concentrate on Eastertide Year C (this year), because otherwise there will be too much to talk about (if it’s worth it, I’ll cover the other years as they come up). In Year C, all the Eastertide Sunday gospels are from John’s Gospel. Second Sunday of Easter is the same for all three years, the story of Thomas, taken from John (chapter 20), as I said before. The third Sunday is the story of the miraculous draught of fishes and Jesus’ charge to Peter; that is another event after the Resurrection (John 21). Then we have (4th Sunday) a reading from John 10 about Jesus as the Good Shepherd (very brief, vv 27-30); (5th Sunday), what Jesus says after Judas has gone out to betray him (again very short, John 13 vv31-35, and very obviously back to a previous period), and (6th Sunday) Jesus’ promise in John 14 that he will send the Holy Spirit, and foretelling his departure, like an envoi, and a preparation for the Ascension which will shortly follow (the following Thursday, or in some Lectionaries, the following Sunday).
First Readings : not OT but Acts
The current action, as it were, has moved to the First Reading, because we need to know how the apostles are managing and what they are doing in this changed world they now inhabit. Jesus is not staying with them as he used to, teaching as he goes along. Where is the story? Where is the main character? Who is the main character? The apostles are having to work out how to put this new faith into practice. We are not looking for historical parallels, because nothing like this has ever happened before. The Old Testament has been put on pause while we work this out.
Second Readings from Revelation
Year C is particularly interesting because it uses Revelation as the source of the Second Readings for this same period (in Years A and B, we have readings from the letters of Peter (A) and John (B), keeping the emphasis on the doings of the early Church, as opposed to Paul’s letters which we have for most of the rest of the year, which tend to be more about doctrine). The readings from Acts in Year C move about inside the book, giving us a general overview of how the early Christians lived. We get further into the story than in the other years, even into the early travels of Paul and Barnabas, and I think this is why these readings are coupled with the book of Revelation, because Revelation has always been a comfort to the oppressed and persecuted, and the later chapters of Acts describe the persecutions as they took hold.
…and all reinforced by the (carefully chosen) psalms
And of course all this affects the choice of psalms. They are there to respond to the first reading, reinforce its message and act as a bridge to the second reading. Their link to the Old Testament readings on an ordinary Sunday is usually fairly clear, and they are out of the same historical context, even if we can’t be sure which is older; but here we have the psalms of David being used as a commentary on early Christian events, after Jesus’ departure, and after the great temporal rupture of the Resurrection. The context is completely other. We are singing the Lord’s songs in a totally strange land. One striking thing is that none of the Eastertide psalms is at all unusual. They all occur elsewhere in the Church’s year, sometimes more than once. They are the usual psalms which everyone is already familiar with. It is the context which has changed.
First Reading and psalm, 2nd Sunday : starting the (new) story
We start in Acts 5 (so after the Ascension and the revolution of Pentecost), where the author describes ‘the faithful’ as meeting ‘by common consent in the Portico of Solomon’. All still good Jews, at this stage, almost like another Jewish grouping or sect. No one else dares to join them openly but their reputation is good, the numbers of believers increases, and there are many miracles, so people take their sick out of doors and place them where Peter’s shadow will fall across them so that they might be healed. The psalm in response to this is still the Easter psalm (117/118), because we are still celebrating and everything is going well. It is the second reading which darkens the mood slightly, as John introduces himself: ‘I am your brother and share your sufferings, your kingdom, and all you endure’, but then moves on to describe Jesus appearing to him, telling him not to be afraid (as so often) and charging him to write down what he sees. The Gospel, as I said earlier, is the story of Thomas -and the end of John’s Gospel in some of the early manuscripts. The focus of the story is shifting.
This First Reading is only ten verses later, in the same chapter of Acts, but the clouds are gathering in our new story. The high priest demands an explanation from these observant Jews with their inconvenient add-on doctrine. Peter and the apostles have the chance to bear witness before the Sanhedrin, and this time they are released, but they have been warned again, and it’s clear that trouble is in the offing. The psalm (29/30) celebrates release from danger, acknowledging the reality of suffering (‘At night there are tears’) but showing an unshakeable faith in victory for the right side (‘but joy comes with dawn’), which is then shown in the celebration in the Second Reading (Revelation 5).
4th Sunday : the story develops
We leap forward several chapters this week to find Paul and Barnabas taking the story forward as they deliberately widen their appeal (Acts 13). The Jews in Antioch mostly aren’t interested, even though Paul and Barnabas are still attending the synagogue religiously. So they preach to the pagans, who are very happy to hear them, and are expelled from the town. The answering psalm (99/100) makes us into the rejoicing pagans, hearing and accepting the word of God : ‘We are his people, the sheep of his flock‘, and we stay with this sheep imagery, with the persecuted martyrs of the Second Reading being led by the Lamb, and the Gospel being part of Jesus’ discourse on the Good Shepherd. I couldn’t resist quoting Bach’s Sheep may safely graze in the accompaniment to the Alleluia verse because it was so apposite.
Paul and Barnabas set off for Iconium at the end of last week’s reading, and they are already retracing their steps, heading for Antioch again. This gives us a very clear idea of how the young churches were beginning to stand on their own feet. Elders are appointed, the visitors encourage the locals to persevere in their efforts, and they move on again, going back to report to HQ – and, crucially, explaining how the mission has broadened to include those who weren’t Jews to start with, ‘the pagans’, people like us. This has been a very successful trip, even though there are regular mentions of sufferings and hardships, and the psalm for this week (144/145) celebrates that success : ‘All your creatures shall thank you, O Lord’, not just some of them, and ‘Yours is an everlasting kingdom’. The second reading is one of the most beautiful sections of Revelation (21 :1-5) describing the new Jerusalem, the establishment of this kingdom and the end of death and suffering.
6th Sunday : the next stage of the story
Now the question of whether you have to be a Jew as well as a Christian has come to a head, and there has to be a council of ‘the whole church’ to sort it out. Here we see the Church operating as a Church, raising important questions, deliberating and discussing, and then making a judgment which is promulgated to the members. We don’t have the discussion in this reading, but you can look it up, it’s all there in the text; here we have just the conclusion ‘decided by the Holy Spirit and by ourselves’ (note the order). Earlier Peter has come to the same conclusion about God calling also the pagans, when he meets Cornelius after having his dream about the tablecloth (Acts 10ff).
The psalm (66/67) emphasizes the universality, one might almost say catholicity, of the Church’s final decision :’the nations […] the peoples[…] the ends of the earth’ and the response beautifully endorses it : ‘Let all the people praise you, O God; let all the peoples praise you ‘ (my italics). The second reading continues the description of the new Jerusalem, and the Gospel goes back to Jesus’ words about the Holy Spirit and his own departure, as we get ready for the Ascension. But although the Lord is leaving the earth, we have seen that the Church, though still small and feeling its way, has the leadership it needs to continue the work it has been given.
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