May 21, 2017
Why is the season of Easter forty-nine days long and are there any important feast days, besides Easter, that happen during this time?
The Christmas Season is dominated by special feast days. Following the Feast of the Nativity (i.e. Christmas Day) are: The Feast of St. Stephen (December 26), The Feast of St. John the Evangelist (December 27), The Feast of the Holy Innocents (December 28), The Feast of the Holy name (January 1), and the Feast of the Epiphany, all of which are defined as occurring in this season. Easter is mostly just Easter, which is something by itself. The Feast Days which occur in Easter are the Feast of St. Mark the Evangelist (probably my favorite Evangelist), the Feast of the Ascension (the sixth Thursday after Easter, or the 40th day), and the Feast of the Pentecost.
The season of Easter became known, not for a host of special feast days, but for being the Great Fifty Days (Including Pentecost), special for being part of Easter. In classical times the recent initiates (i.e. those baptized, who were normally adults and older children) were catechized in the meaning of Communion and the life of the baptized. Therefore, this was the central season and festival of the Christian year. No other aspect of Christianity matched the celebration of Easter.
Building on this celebration the Feast of the Ascension was firmly established on the Christian calendar by the fourth century, or the time in which Constantine promoted the church first to legal and then to official status. The feast day is based primarily on the reading in the Acts of the Apostles (1:12), even though the same author, at the end of the Gospel of Luke (24:50-53) seems to imply that Jesus withdrew physically from Bethany on the evening of the Resurrection. Ascension marks the solemn ending of appearances, forty days after the Resurrection occurs, and would seem to allow enough time for Paul's witness in 1 Corinthians that Jesus appeared first to Cephas (Peter), then to the twelve, then to more than 500 brothers at one time, then to James, then to all the apostles, then to Paul. If Paul's recitation of the tradition is correct, it deems more likely that it took place over some time and that time is noted by the Church as Easter.
The ten days between the Ascension and Pentecost are marked by our prayers and the Proper preface recited in the Great Thanksgiving for the feast day and the Sixth Sunday after Easter. They are considered a time of anticipation when the Church waits expectantly for the outpouring of God's spirit upon a newly created people—the followers of Jesus, who become the "people of the way," and then on to becoming the Church.
The Rev. David Lucey