The Great Fifty Days: Seven service plans from Easter to Ascension, page 1 of 2

Eastertide offers the church a wonderful opportunity to explore what Laurence Stookey calls the “explosive force of the resurrection of the Lord,” a feat that is “too vast to be contained within a celebration of one day.” Eastertide can also give churches the chance to experience weekly communion for a short period of seven celebrative weeks. And it can reclaim for the contemporary church the historical season known as The Great Fifty Days—the days from Easter to Pentecost. (For reasons of space, we have not included the service for Pentecost Sunday.)

In practice, though, too few churches extend the Easter celebration beyond Sunday dinner. And by limiting our Easter celebration to one day each year, we who preach the fall and redemption of all creation in our sermons may be teaching something entirely different with our liturgies.

In many churches, there is a gap between a theology that is based on the resurrection of Jesus Christ and a liturgy that no longer gives it central place. Easter Sunday has become the joyful end to the solemn weeks of Lent, rather than the beginning of the season of Eastertide. Perhaps this is because our Easter celebrations have emphasized the re-creation of the historical event instead of exploring its theological meaning. In direct contrast, the early church celebrated Easter Sunday as a “graduation” day for new converts, and church members used the season of Eastertide to review and deepen their understanding of their faith—a faith grounded in the resurrection.

These services attempt to reclaim the focus of the early church—to broaden our understanding of the effect of the resurrection on the church and its beliefs. Each contains two New Testament readings. The first is a narrative—a “teaching moment”—that occurred before Jesus’ death. This is our opportunity to read these accounts with “pre-Easter” eyes and try to see what Jesus’ words may have meant in the pre-resurrection context. It is followed each week by a sung prayer asking God to open our eyes to see Jesus—as the two in Emmaus saw him after the resurrection. The second reading is a post-resurrection narrative or epistle that sheds light on the first. The pastor then uses the sermon to help the congregation see the connection between the resurrection and the teaching of the day.

Beginning and ending the “Proclamation” section of the liturgy with references to the Holy Spirit is an attempt to move away from a focus on the resurrection as nothing more than a historical reenactment, and to remind the church that the Holy Spirit was indeed active before Pentecost. (Another way to introduce the Holy Spirit early in Eastertide is by adding red to the traditional white and gold colors in the worship center on Easter evening when Jesus breathes the Holy Spirit on the disciples.) It is also an attempt to tie together the entire season into one lengthened celebration of Pascha—the celebration of Christ’s victorious passion and death, his resurrection and ascension, and the sending of the Spirit upon the Church.

The Lord’s Supper as Celebration

Eastertide is a perfect time to celebrate the Supper weekly. In these services we want to see Jesus through resurrection-tinted glasses. Where do we see him more clearly than in the breaking of the bread?

On Easter Sunday we can observe the Lord’s Supper as a feast with the risen Lord. On Ascension Day we can explore the mystery that although Christ no longer lives among us on earth, “in his divinity, majesty, grace, and Spirit he is not absent from us for a moment,” as the Heidelberg Catechism says (Q&A 47). On Pentecost the focus can be on the Holy Spirit, whose work we recognize each week in the Prayer of Consecration.

The Great Fifty Days

Although very little is known about worship practice in the first few centuries, there is evidence to suggest that early in its history the church celebrated Pascha over a fifty-day period, and that this period was marked by rejoicing.

One thing we do know about early Eastertide observances is that by the fourth century, the week following Easter Sunday focused on explaining the mysteries of the resurrection to the newly baptized. Eastertide was a time for the community and the newly baptized to reaffirm and grow in their faith together. For that reason, the liturgies in these services explore the doctrines that grow out of the resurrection so that both young and mature Christians can grasp, each year, a bit more of the paschal mystery.

Easter Morning service

We Gather to Worship

Prelude


Welcome and Call to Worship
Christ is risen!

The Lord is risen indeed!

Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord Jesus Christ.

Amen.


Hymn: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today” PsH 388, PH 113, RL 325, SFL 172, TC 277, TWC 234
stanzas 1-3


Gospel Reading: John 20:1-18


Note: For a dramatic reading of this passage, scroll down to the excerpt on this page.


Response
This is the gospel of Christ.

Thanks be to God.

Profession of Faith (Heidelberg Catechism,

Lord’s Day 17)

How does Christ’s resurrection benefit us?

First, by his resurrection he has overcome death, so that he might make us share in the righteousness he won for us by his death.

Second, by his power we too are already now resurrected to a new life.

Third, Christ’s resurrection is a guarantee of our glorious resurrection.

Hymn: “Christ the Lord Is Risen Today,” stanzas 4-5

We Bow in Prayer and Confession
O Christ, after your resurrection you appeared to your disciples; you breathed on them that they might receive the Holy Spirit. You gave joy and exultation to the whole creation. Through your victory, we pray to you:

Hear us, Lord of glory.

O Christ, breathe on us your peace, that our eyes may be opened to recognize you in the breaking of the bread, and to follow wherever you lead.

Hear us, Lord of glory.

Sung Prayer: “Open Our Eyes, Lord” SNC 80

Scripture Reading
Matthew 25:31-40: The Judgment of the Nations

Note: For a group reading of this passage, visit www.reformedworship.org.

Prayer of Confession
Let us pray.

Almighty God, in raising Jesus from the grave, you shattered the power of sin and death.

We confess that we remain captive to doubt and fear, bound by the ways that lead to death. We overlook the poor and the hungry and pass by those who mourn. We are deaf to the cries of the oppressed and indifferent to calls for peace. We despise the weak and abuse the earth you made.

Forgive us, God of mercy.

Help us to trust your power to change our lives and make us new, that we may know the joy of life abundant, given in Jesus Christ, the risen Lord.

Assurance of Pardon: Romans 6:1b-10

Hymn: “Baptized in Water” PsH 269, PH 492, TWC 758

Scripture: Psalm 98:1-3 (read responsively)

Hymn: “Hail, O Once-Despised Jesus” PsH 395, RL 333, TH 176

We Hear the Word Proclaimed

Sung Prayer for Illumination: “Break Now the Bread of Life” PsH 282, TH 146, TWC 315

Scripture: Luke 3:21-22

Sermon: “Baptized, We Rise”

Sermon Outline

1. At his baptism, Jesus is called God’s Son.
At our baptism, we are called God’s children.

2. At his baptism, Christ united himself with our
fallen condition.

At our baptism, we are united with Christ in his

death and resurrection.

3. At his baptism, Christ accepted the guilt of humanity.

At our baptism, we are freed from guilt and given new life.

Prayer of Application

We Respond with Thanksgiving

Hymn: “We Know That Christ Is Raised” PsH 271, PH 495, RL 528

Offering
We Celebrate the Lord’s Supper
The Lord be with you.
And also with you.
Lift up your hearts.
We lift them up to the Lord.
Let us give thanks to the Lord our God.

It is right to give our thanks and praise. It is our joy and our peace, at all times and in all places, to give thanks to you, holy Father, Almighty, everlasting God, through Christ our Lord.

When we were unfaithful to you, you kept faith with us; your love remained steadfast. We thank you that you did not abandon us in our sin, but sent prophets and teachers to lead us into the way of salvation.

Above all, we thank you for sending Jesus, your Son, to deliver us from the way of sin and death by the obedience of his life, by his suffering upon the cross, and by his resurrection from the dead. We praise you that he now reigns with you in glory and ever lives to pray for us.

We thank you for the Holy Spirit, who leads us into truth, defends us in adversity, and out of every people unites us into one holy church.

Therefore with the whole company of saints in heaven and on earth we worship and glorify you, God most holy, and we sing with joy.

Hymn: “Holy, Holy, Holy Lord” SNC 252

According to Luke, when our risen Lord was at table with two of his followers, he took the bread, and blessed and broke it, and gave it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized him.

This is the Lord’s table. Our Savior invites those who trust him to share the feast, which he has prepared.

In thanks for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, in the joy of his resurrection, in the assurance of our union with him, we offer our very selves to you to be a living and holy sacrifice dedicated to your service.

Great is the mystery of our faith.

Dying you destroyed our death, rising you restored our life. Lord Jesus, come in glory.

Gracious God, pour out your Holy Spirit upon us and upon these your gifts of bread and wine, that the bread we break and the cup we bless may be the communion of the body and blood of Christ.

By your Spirit make us one with Christ, that we may be one with all who share this feast, united in ministry in every place. As this bread is Christ’s body for us, send us out to be the body of Christ in the world.

Our breaking of the bread is our sharing in the body of Christ. Take, eat, remember, and believe that the body of our Lord was offered for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.

Our giving thanks for the cup of blessing is our sharing in the blood of Christ. Take, drink, remember, and believe that the precious blood of our Lord was shed for the complete forgiveness of all our sins.

[For Easter Sunday, or throughout Eastertide, consider placing the baptismal font at the front of your center aisle and inviting people to come forward for communion: “As you pass by the baptismal font on your way to partake, you are invited to place the sign of the water on your forehead as a reminder that through your baptism, you have been united with Christ in his death and resurrection.”]

Communion Songs
“As We Walk Along Beside You” PsH 299

“Alleluia, Alleluia! Give Thanks” PsH 402, PH 106, TWC 240

“I Love You, Lord” SNC 16

“Oh, How Good Is Christ the Lord” PsH 401

“Oh, How He Loves You and Me” SFL 163

Congregational Prayer
We Are Sent to Love and Serve the Lord

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge and love of God, and of his Son Jesus Christ, our Lord; and the blessing of God Almighty, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, be among you and remain with you always.

Amen.

Go in peace to love and serve the Lord.

Keep us faithful in your service until Christ comes in final victory, and we shall feast with all your saints in the joy of your eternal realm.

Hymn: “Come, You Faithful, Raise the Strain” PsH 389
stanza 3

Postlude

Traditional services require traditional music. The choices here are very fitting. For congregations wishing to supplement their use with some more contemporary musical selections, here is a sampling of titles taken from Sing! A New Creation (Faith Alive Resources, 2001). —RR

Alleluia (Honduras) (149)
Alleluia! Jesus Is Risen (150)
Celtic Alleluia (148)
He Is Exalted (41)
He Is Lord (160)
Lord, I Lift Your Name on High (157)
Psalm 47: Clap Your Hands (156)

Communion Songs
Bless the Lord (256)
Eat This Bread (254)
Haleluya!/Halleluiah (261)
I Am the Bread of Life (152)
Let Us Talents and Tongues (258)
Now the Feast (248)
Table of Plenty ( 247)
This Is the Feast of Victory (262)

Recommended Reading
Bonneau, Normand. The Sunday Lectionary: Ritual Word, Paschal Shape. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1998.

Hickman, Saliers, Stookey, and White. The New Handbook of the Christian Year. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1992.

Stookey, Laurence Hull. Calendar: Christ’s Time for the Church. Nashville: Abingdon Press, 1996.

Talley, Thomas. The Origins of the Christian Year. Collegeville: The Liturgical Press, 1986.

Excerpt

Dramatic Readings for "The Great Fifty Days"

Dramatic Reading of John 20:1-18

Female: Early on the first day of the week, while it was still dark, Mary Magdalene went to the tomb and saw that the stone had been removed from the entrance. So she came running to Simon Peter and the other disciple, the one Jesus loved, and said, "They have taken the Lord out of the tomb, and we don't know where they have put him!"

Male 1: So Peter and the other disciple stated for the tomb. Both were running, but the other disciple outran Peter and reached the tomb first. He bent over and looked in at the strips of linen lying there but did not go in. Then Simon Peter, who was behind him, arrived and went into the tomb. He saw the strips of linen lying there, as well as the burial cloth that had been around Jesus' head. The cloth was folded up by itself, separate from the linen. Finally the other disciple, who had reached the tomb first, also went inside. He saw and believed. (They still did not understand from Scripture that Jesus had to rise from the dead.)

Female: Then the disciples went back to their homes, but Mary stood outside the tomb crying. As she wept, she bent over to look into the tomb and saw two angels in white, seated where Jesus' body had been, one at the head and the other at the foot.

Male 1 & 2: They asked her, "Woman, why are you crying?"

Female: "They have taken my Lord away," she said, "and I don't know where they have put him. At this, she turned around and saw Jesus standing there, but she did not realize that it was Jesus.

Male 2: "Woman," he said, "why are you crying? Who is it you are looking for?"
Female: Thinking he was the gardener, she said, "Sir, if you have carried him away, tell me where you have put him, and I will get him."

Male 2: Jesus said to her, "Mary."

Female: She turned toward him and cried out in Aramaic, "Rabboni!" (which means Teacher).

Male 2: Jesus said, "Do not hold on to me, for I have not yet returned to the Father. Go instead to my brothers and tell them, 'I am returning to my Father and your Father, to my God and your God.'"

Female: Mary Magdalene went to the disciples with the news: "I have seen the Lord!" And she told them that he had said these things to her.

Group Reading of Matthew 25:31-40

Reader 1: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Reader 2: Then the King will say to those on his right, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me."

Reader 3: Then the righteous will answer him, "Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go visit you?"

Reader 2: The King will reply, "I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me."

Victoria Cok is a member of the Worship Commission of the Christian Reformed Church. She is currently studying at Calvin Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her e-mail address is vickbc@aol.com.