The Church celebrates the Easter Octave this week. “Octave” is from the Latin word for “eight” and an Octave is an eight day celebration. Strictly speaking, we will be celebrating Easter Day from this Sunday through next Sunday, a way of acknowledging that the Resurrection, and our experience of the Resurrection in the sacraments is central to our faith. We also celebrate Christmas as an Octave, underlining the centrality of the Incarnation in our Christian lives.
Where did this custom come from? If you read the Book of Exodus, Chapter 12, you’ll find the institution of the Feast of Passover and the Unleavened Bread, which is being celebrated by Jews around the world this entire week. God commands Moses that the Israelites are to celebrate this solemn feast for seven days. Seven days is an uncanny number of days making up a week; in four weeks one cycle of the moon is completed and we’re back where we began in terms of the phases of the moon. It is a way of counting time that seems ordained by the heavens.
But the celebration described in Exodus 12 begins at sunset before the first of the seven days, so the primitive Church included this as an additional day. The celebration of the Passion and Resurrection of Christ–Palm Sunday through Easter Sunday, was the early Christian version of Passover. Throughout the ancient Mediterranean cultures, speculations about numbers had its consistency: seven was a complete set (seven days to a week, seven visible planets) while the number eight represents going one better. The Church Fathers interpreted seven as the total of temporal existence and the eighth day not so much the next week, for example, but the entrance into eternity. Thus a writer like St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430) proposed that the celebration of Easter, the eighth day of Holy Week, takes us out of time into eternity. The Easter Octave itself is symbolic of dwelling, adoring in that eternal reality of the Risen Christ, our human condition taken into God’s life.
Of course, this is symbolic. Throughout the Easter Octave even people in monasteries cook and clean, keep appointments–dare I saw it?–bake and wrap fruitcakes. We, too, experience our ups-and-downs, our misunderstandings, our joys and tedium. But the liturgy reminds us that this is all provisional and does not determine the meaning of our lives. By looking at our mundane chores from this perspective, might we not glimpse the light of the Resurrection shining through our human lives?