The length of the Easter season is one of those subjects that can start internet fights. Some say it’s 50 days long, beginning on Easter Day and ending on the Day of Pentecost. Others retort that it’s 40 days, beginning on Easter Day and ending with the Ascension. Meanwhile, perhaps the majority of church-goers look on in bewilderment or bemusement. Why does it matter? What’s the big deal? Surely there are bigger fish to fry.
Let’s explore this debate in chronological order, so we can see how this disagreement came about, and why it matters to those who argue about it.
The Classical Prayer-Book Tradition
The changing of the seasons were not marked out quite so overtly in the old prayers books as they are in the new. The Sunday Collects and Lessons were not typically marked out into season-based sections like they are in the 2019 book, so you had to rely upon the specific “name” of each Sunday, and the short list of Proper Prefaces early in the Communion prayers. In both cases, Easter and Ascension are treated separately. This sets out a demarcation: Eastertide ends when Ascension Day kicks in. Thus we get images like this from Enid Chadwick’s beloved book, My Book of the Church’s Year:
Note, “THE GREAT FORTY DAYS”… that’s Eastertide.
The emphasis this takes is on the gospel narrative of events: Jesus was raised from the dead, met with his disciples at various times, and ascended to the right hand of the Father 40 days later. This also lines up the calendar with the Apostles’ Creed: “the third day he rose again; he ascended into heaven, and is seated at the right hand…” In the ascension we see Jesus as Priest, making intercession for us, and Jesus as King, seated at the right hand of God. It is a festal season, and closely related to Easter, but it takes on a theological emphasis that is distinct from Easter before it and Pentecost after it.
The Modern (or modernist?) Prayer-Book Tradition
The 1979 Prayer Book (and probably others like it) changed this up quite dramatically. First of all, the name “Sunday after the Ascension” was changed to “the 7th Sunday of Easter”. Ascensiontide still got its own Proper Preface, but a new feature of the liturgy – the opening acclamation – was provided for various seasons of the year, and the Easter acclamation (Alleluia, Christ is risen / The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!) was appointed for the entire stretch from Easter to Pentecost. Ascension Day and Ascensiontide were not removed from the calendar, but they were rolled into the Easter season, turning “the great forty days” into “the great fifty days.”
Now, there is a biblical precedent for this perspective: two of the primary Old Testament feasts (Passover and Tabernacles) are fifty days apart, and became the Christian Easter and Pentecost. By emphasizing the fifty days, instead of the forty plus ten, the new calendar system highlights the Old Testament precedent for the Gospel.
The 2019 Prayer-Book Tradition
What we receive in the 2019 Prayer Book is something of a mixed bag when it comes to the length of Easter. As usual, Ascension still has its own Preface. Like the 1979 book, Ascensiontide has no acclamation of its own; it still gets the Easter call-and-response. But the name of the Sunday in this season is back to “The Sunday after Ascension,” so there’s room for debate if it counts as Easter or not. Room for debate, that is, until you read the calendar rubrics on page 689. When discussing days of discipline, denial, and special prayer, it says:
The weekdays of Lent and every Friday of the year (outside the 12 Days of Christmas and the 50 days of Eastertide) are encouraged as days of fasting. Ember Days and Rogation Days may also be kept in this way.
This rather seals the deal: the 2019 Prayer Book sets forth a 50-day Eastertide.
Unlike the 1979 Prayer Book, there is a nuance, or a balance: the 7th Sunday of Easter is not “the seventh Sunday of Easter,” but the “Sunday after the Ascension.” So although the “season” is still “Eastertide” in one sense, it has entered into a different phase: new Sunday nomenclature, new Proper Preface.
So if you’re a “50 days of Easter” kind of person, pay this balance (not to mention our historical tradition!) more careful attention. We are apparently encouraged to use the 50-day language, according to our calendar rubrics. But the Sunday after the Ascension is informed more by Ascension Day than by Easter Day. Whether you call that ten day period the last part of Eastertide or Ascensiontide, be sure to afford it the distinct theological and Gospel-narrative emphasis it was meant to communicate. On that Sunday, tell people “Christ is risen!” is no longer just about his resurrection, but about his rising bodily into heaven. Make sure the Easter songs and hymns give way to songs and hymns about the ascension of Christ. Crown him with many crowns and Hail the day that sees him rise are perhaps the two most famous examples.
If you want to read more about Ascension Day and its mini-season (or subset of Easter, if you insist), click here! In my experience this is one of the most under-rated parts of the church year, and it has much to offer.