Contemplating, year after year, the splendid architecture of the Fifty Days, a liturgical cycle spanning from Pascha to Pentecost, one cannot escape the sense of witnessing something tremendously meaningful. This third (or is it actually the first, since this is when the Orthodox yearly cycle of scriptural readings begins?) section of the liturgical year maps the eschatological horizon, being symbolically structured on an eight Sunday schema which illustrates the mystical number eight, the numerical symbol of the age to come. Cosmologically speaking, eight is the number which designates the final state of the universe, the completion of the Kingdom of heaven in the unending day of the world (see Paschal Canon, Ode 9). The eighth day crowns the aeons of creation, signified, in Genesis 1, by the number of six days, and providence, signified by the seventh day. Photos 1 and 2 illustrate this significance in the Celtic Christian art of Northwestern England and the Neobyzantine art of Australia. Eschatologically shaped, the Fifty Days represent a foretaste, an anticipatory experience of the fulfilment of God’s creative project, revealing the essence of the Orthodox understanding of life and conveying a message for the spiritually mature faithful.
Photo 1: Eight paradisal trees circling Christ’s cross. Tombstone. Chapel of St John’s College, Durham UK, 4 March 2018. © Doru Costache
Photo 2: Eight eschatological windows circling the horizon of future glory. Cupola. Katholikon of Pantanassa Monastery, Mangrove Mountain NSW, 18 Oct 2012. © Doru Costache
At the core of the Fifty Days cycle are found the Forty Days between Pascha and the Ascension, an annual reiteration of the intense experience of the disciples with the risen Lord. As we find in the apostolic reading, which is the same for Pascha and Ascension, “he was seen by them during forty days, speaking of the things pertaining to the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3). Scripture does not disclose the content of this mystical instruction, perhaps for the reasons which the Lord indicated in John 16:12. It seems that to make sense of this culminating instruction from the risen Christ is the task at hand for the Church, year after year, since we face the same challenge annually. In this connection, we must assume that, within the symbolic framework of the Forty Days of paschal celebration, the Church, in its Spirit-guided journey toward the fullness of truth (see John 16:13), aims to decipher this culminating teaching. In tune with this assumption, the following exploration of the scriptural passages read in the six Sundays between Pascha and Ascension glimpses at important pointers to what one may call the paschal revolution inaugurated by the risen Christ’s gospel. Given the mysterious silence of Acts 1:3 with reference to this content, I refer to passages from known teachings of the Lord, passages which seem to have been selected by the ancient Church precisely because of their quality to point to what must have been aspects of the final revelation of Christ’s teaching.
I hope that my using the term “revolution” will not seem an exaggeration; after all, etymologically the word means “return,” here, indeed, with an eschatological twist. Specifically, from the very first moment till the end, throughout the Forty Days of the paschal season we proclaim our passing from death to life and from the earth to heaven together with our Lord (see Paschal Canon, Ode 1). In so doing, we proclaim our return to the truth and beauty to which God has called us from the establishing of the world, that our destination is heavenly and eschatological, not retrograde and anachronistic. And we do so by pondering the teaching of our Lord, whose wisdom revolutionises the Church’s conservatism, its complacent habit to consider without discernment the shells of the Gospel, without drawing form it its true lessons, its mind-changing and life-giving kernel, its message. In fact, we are supposed to return to a wisdom which aids us to embrace the truth in its eschatological fullness, not just its past manifestations. Put otherwise, a wisdom which guides us to look at things in the Church and in the world with the perfect eyes of our eschatological condition, as our Byzantine icons, with their transfigured imagery, teach us. Indeed, the icons do not picture historical figures; they depict the final shape of things, thus teaching, like the Gospel itself, to look at the past and the present through the lens of Christ’s Holy Spirit, the lens of Pentecost.
The worshipping Church explores and thus foretastes the mystery of our renewal through the six Sundays of the paschal season. Each of the six Sundays represents a gate towards the mystery of Christ’s final instruction, the key to decipher this code being the intersection point of the apostolic and gospel readings. The power that fuels the Church’s implementation of the paschal revolution is, of course, the grace of the Spirit, as signified by the contextualisation of the Forty Days within the broader schema of the Fifty Days.
The First Sunday: Holy Pascha
Summary of the readings. (Acts 1:1-8) before his Ascension, the risen Lord teaches his disciples, initiating them into the mysteries of the Kingdom of God. (John 1:1-17) the divine Logos, creator of the cosmos who is everywhere present, became flesh to enlighten those who believe in him and to give them the opportunity to become children of God.
Wisdom. A reiteration of the apostolic conviviality with the risen Christ, the Forty Days of celebration represent an anticipated experience of the Kingdom of God, the content of which is revealed as a double movement: the Son of God becomes Son of Man and the faithful, as a consequence, become sons and daughters of God. In the light of its first Sunday, the paschal season, an experience of enlightenment (for which reason adult baptisms are traditionally officiated during the paschal vigil), invites us to contemplate the content and to appropriate the outcomes of the Kingdom of God which the risen Lord has inaugurated. Indeed, Christ is the light which the darkness has not vanquished, and his faithful are those enlightened by believing in him and his Gospel. The content of this experience is the full participation of God in humanity and of humanity in God, an experience anticipated by the incarnation (John 1:14), mediated by the liturgical life of the Church (Luke 22:30), and eschatologically consummated (Revelation 21:3). To celebrate the paschal season is to walk—since Pascha/Pesach means transition, exodus—the distance between what we currently are and what we are supposed to be. The paschal enlightenment is instrumental to that end. The opposite of the paschal revolution is a church (not Church) and a world which surrendered to darkness, ignorance, hatred, injustice, violence.
The Second Sunday: Antipascha
Summary of the readings. (Acts 5:12-20) arrested by the Sadducees, the apostles are freed by an angel who exhorts them to courageously proclaim the Gospel or “all the words of this [new] life.” (John 20:19-31) Thomas experiences spiritual awakening, becoming a forerunner of those who, believing in Christ, “have life in his name.”
Wisdom. Thomas’ awakening, indicated by the acknowledgment of the risen Lord as God, represents a positive symmetrical to the opening of the earthly eyes of Adam and Eve, whose experience typifies the loss of spiritual sight. Celebrating the new life inaugurated by Christ, the paschal journey/revolution invites spiritual awakening as a prerequisite of the self’s spiritual transformation. In turn, spiritual transformation is the only way to attain the fullness of life. In short, the first outcome of the journey is spiritual awakening, which conditions our progression towards the fullness of life. As disciples, this is the teaching we must preach: awakening to/for life, not mineralised commonplaces. The opposite of the paschal revolution is a church (not Church) and a world stuck in a feedback loop deprived of zenithal opening.
The Third Sunday
Summary of the readings. (Acts 6:1-7) compelled by the growing number of the faithful, the Church institutes the rank of deacons, dedicated to the community’s social service. (Mark 15:43–16:8) the devout myrrh-bearer women are sent by the angel to tell the apostles the good news of Christ’s resurrection.
Wisdom. The paschal revolution of the self, contemplated in the previous Sunday, makes possible the transformation of gender and social relations. An enlightened, liberated person (John 8:31-32), whose mind and life are transformed by the Gospel, can no longer act on the customs of the world. This stage of the paschal revolution unfolds according to the Christological paradigm of the communication of characteristics between the Lord’s two natures: within the one Christ, divinity puts on human features and humanity divine features. As suggested in Galatians 3:27-8, a similar transformation must take place in the faithful, not only vertically, through becoming Christlike in fellowship with the Lord, but also horizontally, sharing in the features of the entire constituency of the Church. The two passages illustrate just that. Through and together with the seven deacons of Acts 6, Christian men are called to participate in the feminine charisma of serving to others, comprising the gifts of humility and compassion. Through and together with the myrrh-bearers, Christian women are called to the masculine charisma of speaking in public, acquiring social dignity. I refer to masculine and feminine in their social significance at the time when the New Testament was written. We fully celebrate Pascha by learning to give and receive from each other, within Christ and his Church. In short, the second outcome of the journey is the capacity of the entire ecclesial body to become a chosen, priestly, and royal nation (1 Peter 2:9-10) by learning from one another, by engaging in the preaching of the paschal revolution and by implementing it in our lives. The opposite of the paschal revolution is a church (not Church) and world of discrimination, injustice, and violence.
The Fourth Sunday
Summary of the readings. (Acts 9:32-42) aspects of the activity of St Peter: healing of Aeneas and resurrection of Tabitha in the name of Christ. (John 5:1-15) Jesus healed the paralytic of Bethesda, asking him to sin no more.
Wisdom. The paralytic and the beneficiaries of Peter’s Christ-given healing power are metaphors of the entire fallen humanity, corrupted, weak, and hopeless in the face of death. Unveiling sin as the spiritual cause of our decay, the catalyst of our mortality, the Lord of life gives hope of personal renewal to all who cooperate with him towards their own transformation. By healing the mind from the wounds produced by sinfulness—a spiritual resurrection associated with the paschal enlightenment—the Lord prepares the final defeat of bodily death through bodily resurrection. The best exegesis of the two resurrections, of the mind and of the body, are the words of Christ related in John 5:24-25 (spiritual resurrection)a and 5:28-29 (physical resurrection). The third outcome of the paschal revolution is the restoration of our wholeness, spiritually and bodily. Effected in this very life, this outcome will be fulfilled at the eschaton, at the resurrection of all. Indeed, although all will resurrect, only those who have transformed their minds and lives in the here will now will reap the highest fruits of this gift, as Saint Paul teaches (1 Corinthians 15:35-41). The opposite of the paschal revolution is decay and mortality, to be buried in the hopeless grave of eternal oblivion.
The Fifth Sunday
Summary of the readings. (Acts 11:19-30) banished from Judea, many Christians went to Antioch, preaching to and converting pagans. (John 4:5-42) Christ tells the Samaritan woman that true believers are no longer bound by a place and ethnically conditioned. Faith is atopic and transnational. Only those who transcend the problems of perception concerning otherness can worship God reverently.
Wisdom. The paschal revolution of human relations, proposed by the Third Sunday, further entails the overcoming of issues related the otherness, to different cultures, languages, and ethnicity. This dimension is powerfully illustrated by the message of Pentecost, where the Holy Spirit grants to all nations charismatic unity in the truth revealed by the exalted Christ, which truth must be proclaimed in all the languages, not in the dead languages of our ancestors and ancestresses. Whomever is willing to transcend the barrier of alterity has to undertake personal renewal by embracing Christ, the source of renewed life, and his Gospel, the guidance to life, and by drinking the “living water” of the Holy Spirit. Thus s/he becomes a “fountain of water springing up into everlasting life.” One is not renewed until one does not become living water for others, regardless their background—or without becoming, as Father Dumitru Stăniloae preached, spiritual bread for others. The meaning of the water imagery utilised in John 4 finds its ultimate disclosure in Revelation 21-22, with the procession of the nations toward the New, transnational Jerusalem (symbol of the Church), the tree of life (symbol of Christ) and the river of life (symbol of the Holy Spirit). In short, as one is renewed in Christ and the Spirit within the Church whose members, from all the nations, are welcomed on the ground of their commitment to the transnational Gospel, one is supposed to become compassionate towards the other, irrespective of her/his background. The opposite of the paschal revolution is what we see in the contemporary church (not Church) and world, where otherness means division, injustice, violence, hatred—homo homini lupus.
The Sixth Sunday
Summary of the readings. (Acts 16:16-34) aspects of the activity of Saint Paul: he freed a slave-girl possessed by a divination spirit and baptised the household of a Philippian chief-jailer. (John 9:1-38) Jesus, the light of the world, gives sight to a blind man, who acknowledges the Son of God/Man (the various manuscript traditions give different solutions to the attribute of Christ in John 9:35).
Wisdom. Being far from the Light of the world because of constantly reiterating the irrational choice of Adam and Eve for spiritual blindness, humanity is spiritually myopic. Together with Thomas, the blind man, the possessed slave-girl, and the enraged Philippians represent metaphors of our deplorable state of alienation from God and our very nature. But in Christ and in his name we are granted the opportunity to recover spiritual sight and maturity. True celebration of the paschal season is to relearn what we have forgotten about ourselves, what we mystically are in Christ, and what our call is—to become seers of God (“we have beheld his glory,” states the Gospel of the Pascha) and so the salt and the light of the world (see Matthew 5:13-16). This is the third recurrence of the topic of enlightenment during the Forty Days of the paschal season, pointing out its centrality for the paschal revolution and the overall ecclesial experience. Without agreeing to be enlightened by Christ, we condemn ourselves to the limitations caused by sinfulness, the blindness of our souls. The opposite of the paschal revolution is the darkness of the church (not Church) and this world—the darkness of ignorance which inflicts wounds on others, deceives, hates, and destroys.
Recapitulating the revolutionary message of the paschal Hexaemeron (six days, all Sundays this time round) of the Forty Days, we note the following:
- (the first Sunday) since Christ is God and Logos incarnate, those who acknowledge him are granted to become sons and daughters of God, reborn spiritually;
- (the second Sunday) those who acknowledge Christ through the opening of spiritual eyes, with Thomas, are the inheritors of the new—or the newness of—life;
- (the third Sunday) living in a Christlike manner or walking the path of virtue, which transcends the gender division, the inheritors of the new life experience the richness of sharing all the charismata bestowed by God on humankind;
- (the fourth Sunday) the newness of life consists in inner transformation, fully experienced by the saints who, overcoming all prejudice concerning otherness, worship God reverently and become life-bearers and givers of life;
- (the fifth Sunday) the newness of life brings inner healing from the paralysis of sin, like a second elevation from the dust of the earth (see Genesis 2:7), a retrieval of our spiritual verticality;
- (the sixth Sunday) the newness of life brings healing of the spiritual blindness produced by sin; it causes us to regain our spiritual sight.
The paschal revolution is further intensified and amplified by the remaining Sundays of the Fifty Days season. The Forty Days occasion our transformation in the fashion of Christ. But we are not yet perfect. Our imperfection and need to stay the course is signified by the festival of Ascension, where Christ becomes invisible to us, signifying that our transformation is ongoing. After realising the difference between Christ and those renewed in Christ at Ascension, in the Seventh Sunday (symbol of this world) we contemplate together with the holy fathers, namely, traditionally, Christ as the One who is our doorway to eternal life. This points to the fact that the entire process of spiritual awakening and transformation mapped by the Forty Days is possible with, in, and through Christ, known and acknowledged as Son of his Father (John 17:3), as already proclaimed by the First Sunday (John 1:14). Further on, in the fiftieth day, the Pentecost or the Eighth Sunday (symbol of the eschaton) those renewed in Christ receive the Holy Spirit, the gift of living in God and in a Godlike manner. This amounts to our participation in the fullness of life and the charismata bestowed upon God’s people by the Father, through the incarnate, crucified, risen, and ascended Son, in the Holy Spirit. This is the content of the Gospel and the object of the paschal revolution; this is also the power which fuels our journey towards appropriating the outcomes of salvation. Beyond the paschal Hexaemeron of Forty Days and beyond the Fifty Days, the mystery of renewal is concretely manifested in the Ninth Sunday after Pascha: of All Saints. This is another eschatological anticipation, since it celebrates the accomplished members of the Church, the saints, known and unknown, dead and alive—as typified in the ritual of prothesis by reference to the nine saintly ranks—in truth the people of God who bear all the signs of the paschal revolution. Following the full cycle of Fifty Days, this Ninth Sunday suggests that when it is seriously taken the yearly cycle of Fifty Days brings about a bountiful crop of new saints. Amen. So say we all.
To trace with absolute certainty the unheard words of the risen Lord, the way they were delivered for forty days to his disciples, remains for the time being an utter impossibility. Within the framework of the liturgical celebration, however, we can contemplate at least the approximation of those words and the ultimate consequences of the Gospel. Even though the liturgical cycle may offer a partial deciphering of those words, and notwithstanding my meagre analysis, it is still possible to progress—in the Spirit—towards a fuller comprehension should we undertake to live by what was outlined in the foregoing.
Less explored by contemporary authors, when not simply ignored, the spiritual message of the Fifty Days represents the completion of the Lenten journey. It reveals the core of the Gospel—a powerful message of renewal and transformation whose concrete manifestations are the innumerable witnesses of the paschal revolution, Christ’s saints. We should aim to become children of the Fifty Days, not only of Lent.
Acknowledgment. An earlier and far simpler version of this essay was published in The Greek Australian Vema (May 2008) 6-7.
9 April 2018 © AIOCS