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The Joy of Easter and the Easter Duty

Happy Easter! My hopeful prayer is that you experience, in this Easter Season, true joy in a personal encounter with the Risen Lord.

The Church’s firehose of imagery and traditions and sacred liturgy has been blasting fully at our little drinking cups. Holy Week and the Sacred Triduum can overwhelm as we reach the apex of the Easter Vigil and Sunday’s light.

In these columns I’ve been tasked to take on the Sunday readings of Holy Mass in the Vetus Ordo to help you prepare for your full, conscious and active participation (SC 14). Since I’m late this week, and I write on Easter Sunday, I was therefore resolved to make this brief. I have, of course, failed once again and I beg your indulgence.

I thought that since the Gospel is rather straight forward, we could attend to the Epistle from 1 Cor 5:7-8. It’s brief, after all, and I wanted to be brief, right?

Not so fast. We begin, as always, with context for our pericopes, those cuttings of Scripture used in our sacred liturgical worship. Let’s read the Epistle for our Easter Sunday.

Lesson from the first letter of St. Paul the Apostle to the Corinthians (1 Cor 5:7-8)

Brethren, cleanse out the old leaven that you may be a new lump, as you really are unleavened. For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.  Let us, therefore, celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.

Holy Church gave us this pair of verses to underscore the reality of Christ as the Paschal Lamb and to connect the Cross with the Last Supper.

On that first Holy Thursday, leading up to the beginning of Passover, some quarter of a million lambs were slain in the Temple for the evening meals of the denizens and pilgrims in Jerusalem. All those lambs were a foreshadowing of what would be fulfilled by Christ on Calvary. That Paul talks about the lamb and unleavened bread, surely reflects the fact that he believed that the ritual meal which Christ shared with the Apostles was the Passover meal.

Here’s where my desire to be brief goes off the rails.

Keep in mind that some scholars believe that, because of details in the Gospel of John’s account, the Last Supper was not the Passover meal on the evening of the 15th of the Jewish calendar month Nissan, the day the lambs were slain, but rather it was on the evening before, on 14 Nissan. On the other hand, the Synoptic Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke are clear: the Last Supper is the Passover meal of 15 Nissan. John’s account has phrases like “before the feast of Passover” for the Supper and “it was the day of Preparation of the Passover” for the Crucifixion, thus setting up a seeming contradiction with the Synoptics.

However, the contradiction between John and the Synoptics is resolved by understanding that Passover was observed like we observe Easter and its Octave: the whole week after Passover (15-21 Nissan) was, in effect, Passover.

The Lord was crucified on 15 Nissan, which is the solar day after Passover began. He died at the ninth hour. The Jews were in haste to get the bodies down off their crosses before sunset because it was the day of “Preparation of the Passover,” meaning preparation for the sabbath that fell within Passover week. They were concerned that by leaving the dead bodies on the crosses at that time, in full view and close by the city where so many pilgrims were would render countless Jews ritually unclean and unsuited for the sabbath observance.

“Before the feast of Passover” means before the Passover meal of Passover, not before the day of Passover.” “Preparation for the Passover” means preparation for the sabbath that fell during Passover, understood as being the whole week, just as we say that the Monday, Tuesday, etc., after Easter is… Easter. That resolves the seeming contradiction between John and the Synoptics about the chronology of the Last Supper, the Crucifixion and, therefore the number of days, three, Christ was in the tomb before His Resurrection.

I digress… what Paul writes some twenty years after the Ascension of the Lord in 1 Cor 5 shows that he, and those to whom he was writing, believed that the Last Supper was the Passover meal of the slain lamb and the unleavened bread.

That’s some chronological context for your Holy Thursday and Good Friday prep for next year.

What about the context of the reading from Paul? This might surprise.

If we go back a few verses, we find that 1 Cor 5 deals with a serious scandal “of a kind that is not found even among pagans.” In their community there is a man guilty of the sin of porneia, who is “living with his father’s wife (v. 1).

Paul is concerned that that man’s unrepentant presence in their gatherings will render them “unworthy” of the Body and Blood of the Lord: he will defile the Church. You know what Paul will say about that, also in 1 Cor. This context, therefore, sheds light on that image of “leaven.” A little leaven, yeast, makes the whole lump of dough leavened. That man’s presence, Paul says, in their company affects the whole assembly. Just as at Passover all leaven had to be purged from homes and unleavened bread was to be used, so too the community must be cleansed of unworthiness. Going on in 1 Cor we read (vv. 9-13):

I wrote to you in my letter not to associate with immoral men; not at all meaning the immoral of this world, or the greedy and robbers, or idolaters, since then you would need to go out of the world. But rather I wrote to you not to associate with any one who bears the name of brother if he is guilty of immorality or greed, or is an idolater, reviler, drunkard, or robber—not even to eat with such a one. For what have I to do with judging outsiders? Is it not those inside the church whom you are to judge? God judges those outside. “Drive out the wicked person from among you.”

“Who am I to judge?”, indeed.

Of course, “driving out” is a denial of Communion. Excommunication is not for vengeance or factionalism. It is medicinal, therapeutic. Its harshness and the spiritual peril for the excommunicated person should hopefully sober him into repentance and reconciliation. It is the course of true charity.

For leaders of the Church to avoid addressing the problem of manifest public sinners in the Eucharistic assembly is a scandal which outstrips that which Paul was faced with, for we have the benefit of his teaching and the Church’s millennial experience.

Paul’s teaching here is clear. Sexual immorality must be judged because it defiles the Church. This is the context for Paul’s phrase: “For Christ, our paschal lamb, has been sacrificed.” We can extend this beyond only sexual immorality to other mortal sins, but this was the context of Paul’s teaching.

In addition, what Paul lays down also highlights the fact that what the Corinthians were doing was gather to eat a Eucharistic meal, the Last Supper renewed: Holy Mass in its earliest manifestation.

Ne longior, let us be mindful of the moral message within our beautiful Easter feast and season.

There are reasons why Holy Church has a law that imposes on us the obligation of confession and Holy Communion “at least once a year” (can. 989). This is what traditionally is called “Easter Duty” – prescribed in 1215 by the 4th Lateran Council – because this is the time of year when people generally accomplished this obligation. Remember that in times past there was not the strong sense (today even to be honest), the psychological pressure to receive Communion at every Mass. This has resulted in billions of sacrilegious Communions about which Paul was so concerned with the Corinthians. How does that not weaken us all as a Church? Paul also told the Corinthians – and us – in that same letter:

Whoever, therefore, eats the bread or drinks the cup of the Lord in an unworthy manner will be guilty of profaning the body and blood of the Lord. Let a man examine himself, and so eat of the bread and drink of the cup. For any one who eats and drinks without discerning the body eats and drinks judgment upon himself. That is why many of you are weak and ill, and some have died (1 Cor 11: 27-30 – RSV).

Holy Mother Church understands how critically important it is for our present, earthly life and for our eternal judgment for us to be confessed and to be nourished with the Eucharist. To go for a very long time without confession and Communion is perilous. But to receive Communion, unconfessed and unshriven is deadly. Hence, the obligation imposed by law, not to control us but to save us. Holy Church does this for our benefit. And I do mean “our,” for we are all in this together.

Paul gave his stern teaching in 1 Cor 5 about the Eucharistic meal with sinners in the assembly: manifest public sinners. Every sin you or I commit drags down the whole Church. My sins hurt you and yours hurt me. But the manifest scandal of the infamous public sinner damages the Church far more severely because scandal leads to other sins by more people.

I am confident that if you are reading this today, you are more than likely diligent in all those things pertaining to your vocation and to your eternal soul. It may happen, however, that just as Easter brings to the door of churches many who won’t be seen again until Christmas, perhaps someone reading this right now has not been particularly honest and thoughtful in approaching Holy Communion, has not been in the state of grace. Perhaps someone reading this has not been to confession for a very long time.

Make Easter real! Grasp the extended, saving hand of Christ! Rise from the dead! There is no sin so great or so often repeated that cannot be forgiven and washed clean in the Blood of our Paschal Lamb who was slain and who is now risen.

Go to confession. Receive Holy Communion with the perfect freedom of a child of God.

My hopeful prayer is that you experience, in this Easter Season, true joy in a personal encounter with the Risen Lord.


Photo by Allison Girone. Used with Permission. 

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