Wallace Stevens, a noted United States poet, wrote: “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”
These words are worth pondering, since they point to an essential mystery of Christianity: By death we are born to the beauty of new life. For centuries, Easter blossomed in the blood death of martyrs. These women and men — and we are told that the majority of them were women — were authentic disciples. Nothing artificial about them. Their deaths became the mother of faith. In the beauty of their bloodshed, the living icon of Christ crucified and risen was made manifest. They were the heroic witnesses of the promise of possibility beyond all possibility. In them, death gives birth to the beauty of hope. They are Easter faith incarnate. And we are overcome with paschal joy!
In this article, I wish to proffer a meditation on this joyful promise by exploring the title suggested to me by the editor of this journal: The Easter Octave — The Longest Day. Our pondering will proceed in three parts: first, let us consider the days after Easter as the afterglow of delight, following the profound sacramental encounter with Christ at the Great Vigil celebration; second, how can eight days really be one? And, finally, what happens to us, the Church, if we were to allow these days to do their work in our hearts — to make of us more than artificial disciples?
An Afterglow of the Vigil
The Merriam-Webster online dictionary offers two definitions for afterglow: a glow remaining where a light has disappeared and a pleasant effect or feeling that lingers after something is done, experienced or achieved, as in basking in the afterglow of success.
Something certainly was done at the Easter Vigil, and it took 40 days and 40 nights to get there. Since Ash Wednesday, which in 2018 fell on Valentine’s Day, the Church has been in Lenten mode. (An interesting note, that the last time Valentine’s Day and Ash Wednesday coincided was 1945. The next time will be 2024, then 2029. It will not happen again until 2170!) With the conjunction of these two significant dates, creative minds have been playing with the two meanings. One of the most creative observations, in my opinion, is that you cannot have Valentine’s Day without Lent — Va-LENT-ine.
What a clever thought to bring us right back to afterglow.
The term “afterglow” can be associated with married couples on their wedding days. Many times the bride and groom “glow” for hours after the matrimony ritual ... right into the honeymoon. Furthermore, there is, indeed, a pleasant feeling that remains in the wedding guests, as they bask in the radiance of a newly wedded couple in love.
Afterglow oftentimes is used to describe the lightness of heart that remains after moments of intimate love, when two lovers celebrate that they are each other’s Valentine. And in love, there is sacrifice. In love, there is more than romance. In their Valentine love, there is, at the heart, Lent.
The word “Lent,” by the way, means “springtime,” the beginning of new life that is summoned when we give our hearts to each other and to God, which may be indistinguishable. As the Ash Wednesday reading suggests, “Rend your hearts, not your garments” (Jl 2:13). It seems that real springtime love is a surrendering of the sour heart into the sweet heart, and that’s what Lent is all about.
Lent is 40 days to open our hearts for the divine Valentine to ravish us and to take from our bodies our stony hearts and to give us the divine heart, the Valentine heart of God. Together with the catechumens we time travel — it sometimes is called “kairos” — into the waters of life and death; the water and the oil that make us beautiful; the water and the oil and the bread and the wine that enliven our hearts with afterglow!
No wonder we sing of that Easter night: “O night when heaven is wedded to earth, and the divine and the human are made one.” Now that is something to experience; that is something that is done for us; that is something the Spirit achieves in willing hearts — and so we bask in the afterglow of such a bedazzlement. And it takes 40 days to get there.
Eight Are One
The Church’s calendar evolved by the fourth century, ascertaining the date of Easter on a Sunday and fixing it as a lunar festival, connected to the spring equinox. The sense of liturgical time, the kairos mentioned above, enters here. It is a sense of time that causes us to linger, to be mindful, if you will, and to savor the beauty of the mysteries of life and death without rushing. And so, as centuries passed, the experience of Easter night became the center of all time and space, reaching back and forth into the cosmos.
And so, to prolong such wonder, the eight days of Easter were inaugurated in the calendar of yearly festivals by the fourth century. The origin of the practice of such a prolongation has its roots in the need for a post-baptismal catechesis for the neophytes — the newly baptized at the Easter Vigil. We see such an eight-day catechesis, known as mystagogy, in the existing writings of the great early teacher-bishops — Ambrose of Milan, Augustine of Hippo, John Chrysostom and Theodore of Mopsuestia — whose sacramental catechesis is an important resource for the Church’s theology of the sacraments.
And so, in the power of the experience of the sacraments of initiation, the afterglow is extended for eight days of prayerful reflection, and it concludes on the eighth day, the Second Sunday of Easter, also known as Low Sunday, as compared to the peak night/day of Easter the week before. This eighth day also has been called Quasimodo Sunday, not after the notorious hunchback, but after the first words of the Introit antiphon of that day: “Quasi modo geniti infantes, alleluia; rationabile, sine dolo lac concupiscite” (“As newborn babes, long for the pure milk, alleluia.”) These words refer to the newly baptized, who put aside their white baptismal garments after the extended week of mystagogical catechesis.
To be noted here is the fact that since the pontificate of Pope St. John Paul II, the Second Sunday of Easter also has the title in the revised Roman Missal as Divine Mercy Sunday. The devotional naming of this octave day of Easter is founded in the saintly pontiff’s personal devotion to the writings of St. Faustina Kowalska. St. Faustina wrote a diary that gives testimony to her visions of Christ. In her accounting, Christ shows himself as a fountain of mercy to all people. Christ invites sinners to trust in God and to come into the red and white light shining from the center of the heart of God. The nine days of prayer in anticipation of Divine Mercy Sunday, a novena, begins on Good Friday and continues through the octave of Easter. This novena gives another dimension of unity to the eight days: a week to contemplate the mercy of God shown in the death of the first martyr, Jesus Christ, whose death makes all beauty flourish.
A fresco painting depicts Jesus descending to hell and liberating the righteous men through his resurrection. Thoom / Shutterstock.com
So how do eight days become one? In the richness of experience, and in the colorful imagination of the Christian community, of course. But this begs the question: Can anything be sustained for so long anymore in our day and age?
As I wrote this, the world was preparing for the Winter Olympics in South Korea. These games began Feb. 8 and continued until Feb. 25. That is a long time to sustain attention and enthusiasm; 17 days is more than double the Easter octave. How do the TV producers do it? The answer is that they create experiences that create afterglow, and that take years to prepare.
How can we make the Christian experience of beauty and death more subjectively alluring than winter sports and the excitement of winning a gold medal? After all, do we not claim at Easter, as we sing in the Easter Sequence, that “life and death have contended in that combat stupendous” and that Christ wins in the end?
I am not sure how this can be accomplished. To help sustain Easter for eight days — let alone for the 50 days toward Pentecost — the Church certainly can use the expertise of many of our best ministers to coordinate parish opportunities and to share the afterglow of the Resurrection. It also means that we make sure that our Easter Vigil is a breathtaking gift, done in the dark, as a real celebration of love after 40 days of preparation. It also means that our personal minds must be stilled enough to allow God to do what only God can do, and that is to enter us deeply and immerse us in the blood of the Lamb until we are drowned and inebriated with joy.
Our eight days as one may not be as spectacular as the Winter Olympics, but they certainly will be more modest and filled with much more of wisdom’s afterglow.
What Can Happen to Us?
Let us consider two opportunities extended to us during the Easter Octave.
First, one dimension of afterglow is that in-depth experiences leave us speechless. Afterglow basks. Afterglow interiorizes. It seems that being still is essential to keeping Easter always. The octave is a chance to practice appreciation for what is unfolding now, in the eternal movement of stillness.
We are called to do this in memory of Christ. To remember takes stillness, and to remember well takes depth. Might we consider basking in the afterglow of Easter night by spending time in stillness during this octave? For me, there is no alternative to this. Easter makes us still, and in this stillness all movement happens, and the joy of the motionless becomes the exuberance of the dance of God — ever moving, ever still.
And second, this great day invites us into giving thanks and praise with greater joy than ever for what we are given in the stillness of the Great Night.
I have been taken by the writings of Benedictine Brother David Steindl-Rast. If you are unfamiliar with his work, I invite you to consider making it a point to spend some time with his writings during the Easter Octave this year. He inspires gratitude, and he insists it is the way to know God.
His book “Gratefulness, The Heart of Prayer: An Approach to Life in Fullness” (Paulist Press, $17.95) is a masterpiece. Without thanks and praise for the gift given, for the possibility offered, there is no salvation. We say this very sentiment each time the priest prays the preface at the beginning of the Eucharistic prayer.
Fulfilling Our Desires
As we began, so let us conclude: “Death is the mother of beauty. Only the perishable can be beautiful, which is why we are unmoved by artificial flowers.”
Wallace Stephens got it. And we have run with it.
In the death of Christ, the beauty of the Resurrection is revealed — a true epiphany that leaves us speechless. In beauty we are mesmerized by love. In turn, we bask in the afterglow, and our breaths are taken away by the breath of the Spirit.
It takes a lifetime to be still enough to appreciate the wonder and miracle of such joy. The early martyrs shed their blood as testimony to their desire to receive such beauty. In some cases, they shed their blood as an expression of thanks for the beauty that already had ravished them in mystical delight.
And we, with the newly initiated, have been given the longest day to bask in the promise of life. May we become more authentically grateful. In thanks and praise may we be immersed in the wonder of Easter — so immersed that we are able to deal with everything that life affords us. And like the martyrs, when death calls may we be ready to sing “alleluia” for endless days.
FATHER RICHARD FRAGOMENI, Ph.D, is a priest of the Diocese of Albany, New York, and a professor of liturgy and preaching at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.