When looking at the Easter season in the old and new calendars, the most annoying challenge right off the bat is the fact the numbering system changed. The modern system is “The #th Sunday in Easter” starting with Easter Day, and the traditional system is “The #th Sunday after Easter”, starting with the modern Easter II. So if you just use numerical shorthands, the old and new calendars will be off by one. I suppose the modern system was making a point of identifying Eastertide as a single unit, rather than a succession of days following the high point of Easter day itself.
Anyway, the traditional calendar with its one-year lectionary had a certain flow to it which is relatively well imitated in the modern calendar. We’ll get to the modern one in a couple days; today we’re just looking at traditional Eastertide.
The resurrection of Jesus is clearly set forth, complete with multiple witnesses in the Gospel reading (John 20:1-10), today’s celebration aptly applies the resurrection to all God’s people. The Epistle (Colossians 3:1-11) chimes in with the reminder that we have died with Christ and been raised with Christ, by virtue of our union with him in Baptism. The Epistle then goes on to direct us toward heavenly Christ-like lifestyles and attitudes, which is also the prayer of the Collect.
The Octave Day – The First Sunday after Easter Day
The focus remains very close to Easter Day itself: examining the benefits of the resurrection of Christ for us. And they are many: the Collect notes the dual doctrines of justification and sanctification that flow from his death and resurrection, the Gospel (John 20:19-23) speaks of the gift of the Holy Spirit, and the Epistle (1 John 5:4-12) points us knowing this testimony from God.
The Second Sunday after Easter Day
Today the Easter focus on the resurrection is expanded to include how Jesus was also an example for us to follow. Specifically, we follow him as sheep follow their shepherd. The Collect and lessons each speak of God as our shepherd, gathering us, keeping us safe, and holding us close to him. Thus today is commonly nicknamed “Good Shepherd Sunday.” But it is the Epistle (1 Peter 2:19-25)) and the Collect that turns these beautiful descriptions into instructions: we are to follow and imitate Jesus, even if it means suffering for doing nothing wrong. Knowing of his resurrection gives us hope for ours, too.
The Third Sunday after Easter Day
This Sunday we are reminded of a consistent biblical pattern: suffering and pain is temporary, while joy is eternal. In the Gospel (John 16:16-22), Jesus pointed this out to his disciples concerning his approaching death and resurrection. The Collect and Epistle (1 Peter 2:11-17), then, take this theme and apply it very practically: because we know that the pain and suffering of life this world is temporary and the joy of God’s kingdom is eternal, we ought to live in such a way that is consistent with that eternal life.
The Fourth Sunday after Easter Day
This Sunday, we are reminded that the resurrection life in Christ is one that is patterned after and ordered by God. The Epistle reading (James 1:17-21) describes this by asserting that we must listen to the word of God, because it saves us and renews us. Additionally, it mentions gifts from above, and the Gospel reading (John 16:5-15) gives an example of this: the Holy Spirit who leads us into all God’s truth. The Collect, finally, takes these themes of listening, and gifts, and disciplines them into one beautiful and coherent prayer.
The Fifth Sunday after Easter Day (Rogation Sunday)
For the past couple weeks, hints of a change of focus have arisen as the Gospel readings have focused more and more on the departing of Jesus and the arrival of the Holy Spirit. Now, with the Ascension Day approaching, this focus begins to take center stage as all today’s propers deal with the idea of gifts and provision from God. The Gospel (John 16:23-33) speaks of the coming gift of the Holy Spirit. What the Epistle reading (James 1:22-27) does, and subsequently the Collect, is turn towards us and remind us of the responsibility that comes with such wonderful gifts: thinking and living according to the will and life of the Spirit given to us.
When you look at the course of the season, there are three major contours that can be traced.
- The Epistles move from the exalted “theological” writings of 1 John to the more balanced writings of 1 Peter to the bluntly practical writings of James. This is something like descending a staircase from the lofty heights of Easter toward the more tangible earthly mission that will be given in Ascensiontide and Pentecost.
- The Gospel lessons are all from John. In general, his gospel book tends to be treated as the “festal” book, containing the exalted texts for the high points of the Christian year such as this.
- Overall, these Sundays move from dealing with the resurrection of Jesus into his Upper Room Discourse where he speaks extensively of the Holy Spirit. The Easter resurrection focus this transitions toward the topics of Pentecost.
One oddity resulting from these seasonal progressions is the fact that there are several readings from week to week that take you out of sequence, even backwards, through single passages. This happens with 1 Peter 2 for two Sundays, and with John 16 in the last three Sundays. Again it should be pointed out that in the classical prayer book tradition, continuous readings through Scripture was the function of the daily office lectionary; the Sunday Communion lectionary dealt with Gospel topics on a seasonal basis.
Anyway, that is the traditional set of Sundays in the Easter season. If you’re more familiar with the revised common lectionary you will probably still recognize some of this shape. But we’ll get into that, and the comparison between them, later this week.