A few days ago during the Easter Triduum, we celebrated the Paschal Mystery which is the basis of our faith and is the culmination of the entire Church year. But it cannot be “done” in only three days. Every Sunday (and indeed, every Mass) is the communal setting in which we proclaim, “Christ has died; Christ is risen; Christ will come again!” We humans live in the earthly realm of time. But it takes us an “eternity” to “own” the realities and mysteries that are rooted in the Beyond. So the Church helps us to celebrate Easter by appealing to our sense of symbol.In the Bible, numbers are often used with symbolic meaning. The number “7” in Scripture traditionally designates fullness, wholeness, perfection, completion. A familiar example of this is found in Jesus’ answer to Peter when he asked: “Lord, how often must I forgive my brother or sister who wrongs me? As often as seven times?” And Jesus answered: “Not seven, I tell you, but seventy-seven times” (Matt. 18:21,22). In other words, there is no limit to the call to forgive; when we never stop forgiving, that will be enough!
Another example of the symbolic “7” comes early in the Book of Genesis: “On the seventh day God completed the work he had been doing. He rested on the seventh day. God blessed the seventh day and made it holy . . .” (Gen. 2:2).
Symbolism around the number “7” figures big in the Church’s “calculation” of the Easter Season – the Fifty Days of Easter. One foundation for that way of thinking comes from the Book of Daniel. Daniel prayed: “We have sinned . . . Now, our God, listen to the prayer and pleading of your servant.” While Daniel was still speaking, Gabriel suddenly flew down at the hour of the evening sacrifice and gave Daniel the interpretation of his vision. “Seventy weeks are decreed for your people and your holy city, for putting an end to transgression, for placing the seal on sin” (Dn. 9:24), Biblical scholars tell us that, according to Hebrew understanding, “weeks” meant “weeks of years” – thus 7 x 70 years – the 490 years (approx.) between Jeremiah’s prophecy of the restoration of Israel and the time when that historical event actually came about.
So the Liturgical Calendar’s Fifty Days of Easter has biblical, mystical significance. For us (as for the people in biblical times) the number “7” represents fullness of time. Christ restores to us the fullness of life in God by suffering, dying, and rising from the dead. Without sounding overly mathematical, the Church arrived at the number “50” in this way: Our Easter celebration is seven weeks of seven days, or what our ancestors called “the week of weeks”. Each year we are given forty-nine days as the symbolic time in which to incorporate into our lives the mystery of Jesus’ dying and rising.
But with God, there is always more! The number 50 is achieved by seven times seven plus one. Pentecost is that New Day, by which time, with the coming of the Spirit, we have become a New People. Our Easter season is thus a promise and foretaste of eternity, of fullness of life that never ends.
It would not take us earthlings very long simply to visualize the empty tomb with the stone rolled away; it would not be hard for us just to imagine “the linen cloths on the ground, and also the cloth that had been over his head; this was not with the linen cloths but rolled up in a place by itself” (Jn. 20:7); nor is it very taxing just to picture Jesus up on his feet again and walking. We could easily do that in less time than just one (Easter) Sunday.
What we are invited to “do” in the Fifty Days of Easter is to savour the power of the Risen Lord that invades our life and offers hope to all the ups and downs of a lifetime. Celebrating the Fifty Days of Easter involves trusting that Jesus is with us, in life, here and now – a foretaste of the Fullness of Life that will be ours in Heaven. In short, what we are meant to “do” between Easter Sunday and Pentecost is focus our faith on the image of life to which Paul challenged the Philippians: “All I want is to know Christ and the power of his resurrection and to share his sufferings by reproducing the pattern of his death in the hope that I may take my place in the resurrection of the dead” (Phil. 3:10,11). Then these fifty days become but a spiritual icon for all the days of (my) Life!