The very idea of resurrection shatters all the categories of comprehension with which we make sense of our world. It draws us instead into a reality that transcends present possibility . . . [At the empty tomb] we are met, at the far limits of our resources, with limitlessness.
(Wendy Wright)Wendy M. Wright, The Rising: Living the Mysteries of Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, (Nashville, TN: Upper Room Books, 1994), 117–118.
No one can understand the real structure of the liturgical cycle of the year unless he understands that the center, the day that gives meaning to all days and therefore to all time, is the yearly commemoration of Christ’s Resurrection at Pascha. Pascha is always the end and always the beginning. We are always living after Pascha, and we are always going towards Pascha. . . . Though it may seem strange to you, it is important to realize that every Sunday is a little Pascha.
(Fr. Alexander Schmemann)
From the heart of the Christian year, Easter rises, a high holy day that celebrates the core idea of the Christian faith. More than a single day, Easter is a season that reminds us of the Resurrection and calls us to live in its light in word and deed.
Easter is first a season of the Christian year, Eastertide, which is the joyful time between Easter and Pentecost. Some Christians call it the Great Fifty Days. It puts the Resurrection into sharp focus, and if we pay attention, if we press in to the Resurrection of Jesus and all it means, we will carry its rich reserve of resources into all our days. Chief among these resources is the circumstantial evidence of the Resurrection—the rolled stone, the folded cloth, the empty tomb. We have also the testimony of his disciples. Mary Magdalene, who met the Lord in the garden and told Peter and John; Peter and John, who ran to the tomb to see for themselves; the Ten, without Thomas, whom Jesus visited on the evening of that first day. And then we have Thomas himself, to whom Jesus offered visceral evidence of both his death and his Resurrection.
Bright Week, the eight days from Easter to St. Thomas Sunday, pulls all of this surprised joy into one celebratory week. The church remembers the accounts of those first witnesses to the risen Christ, rejoicing with them that death has been defeated and the “eternal kind of life” has been made available to all who believe. Christianity, as N. T. Wright says in The Challenge of Jesus, has only ever been a resurrection movement. The Resurrection of Jesus was, he suggests, the engine of early Christianity. It must continue to be so today, and the week following Easter can lift us up, carrying us through Ascension and its promise of our own resurrection, and on to Pentecost and the arrival of the promised Holy Spirit.
Second, Easter is a season of the Christian life, the season of resurrection that must infuse our whole observance of the Christian year. We celebrate the Resurrection of Jesus in our own lives because we have put our faith in a risen Christ. He is not merely a great teacher whose words we appreciate and analyze and apply, knowing all the while that he lies in a tomb. No, Jesus is the living Son of God, who has defeated death by his death and risen victorious. He is also the one who, as Peter put it, has “the words of eternal life” (Jn. 6:68All Scripture quotations are from The Holy Bible, English Standard Version® (ESV®), copyright © 2001 by Crossway, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.).
Finally, with Jesus’ Resurrection, every Sunday becomes not merely the first day but the “eighth day,” “the Lord’s day,” on which Christians worship and remind one another of their eschatological hope. The apostle Paul boils that promise down to “we shall not all sleep [remain dead], but we shall all be changed” (1 Cor. 15:51). It also becomes more than the Sabbath, a day of rest from labor, and is an incursion of the eternal Sabbath rest into the hustle of worldly life.
In the segments below, we’ll consider each of these: the history and celebration of Bright Week and St. Thomas Sunday, or Antipascha, in the history and life of the Church; Easter as inaugurating a season of resurrection; and Sunday as the Lord’s day.
02. Bright Week, Antipascha, and the Sunday of St Thomas
When a minister declares on Easter, “Alleluia, Christ is risen!” and the people answer, “The Lord is risen indeed, alleluia!” it’s a joyful call to Christians wounded by the world, still walking through the valley of shadow. The call and response celebrates the Lord’s Resurrection, but as Paul makes clear, the risen Christ is the “firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1 Cor. 15:20). He will be joined when he returns by “those who belong to Christ” (1 Cor. 15:23). So the promise of our own eternal life is embedded in every celebration of Jesus’ Resurrection, and Easter is the greatest of these celebrations.
But it is not the only such celebration. The eight days after a great feast are sometimes called an octave, and the Easter octave has been observed since at least the fourth century. Egeria, whose travel diary we have consulted in other essays, writes, “these feasts of Pascha are celebrated over eight days.”
Bright Week, begins on Easter (Pascha in many Orthodox churches) and ends on the following Sunday of Thomas. The name “Bright Week” probably originates from the fact newly baptized catechumens from Pascha have been illuminated and are bright with the light of Christ. The whole week for them was a time of regeneration and renewal, and they enacted this truth by wearing white robes for the week after their baptism. Thus, the week has sometimes been called “White Week.”
It’s also sometimes known as Renewal Week, a time of renewal for all Christians and not just the newly baptized. “It is a time,” one writer says, “for the faithful to bear spiritual fruit and generate new virtues for our own illumination as well.”
At the Council of Trullo in 692, the gathered fathers determined that
From the holy day of the Resurrection of Christ our God until New Sunday [i.e., Thomas Sunday] for a whole week the faithful in the holy churches should continually be repeating psalms, hymns and spiritual songs, rejoicing and celebrating Christ, and attending to the reading of the Divine Scriptures and delighting in the Holy Mysteries. For in this way shall we be exalted with Christ; raised up together with Him.
The seven days of Bright Week are seen as one day, a continuous celebration of Easter. In Orthodox churches, the Royal Doors that normally conceal the altar are open, symbolizing the open door of Christ’s empty tomb as well as the rent veil of the Jewish Temple, which was torn in two at the moment Christ died (Mt. 27:51). Christians are encouraged to read John and Acts, the New Testament books that focus most on new beginnings.
The celebration of Bright Week truly begins with Bright Monday, a holiday in some Orthodox countries. It extends the reality of Easter into the world beyond the church’s walls. Even returning to work, though, one can carry the light shone at Easter. “The Resurrection echoes into Monday,” Phil Thompson writes at The Gospel Coalition, “making every job site a patch of holy ground, every lunch room an altar of worship, every moment on the clock a call to worship, every blue-collar believer a white-robed priest.”Phil Thompson, “Bright Monday: Living in the Light of Easter,” The Gospel Coalition. April 10, 2023, https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/bright-monday.
Some traditions are still observed. A long-standing tradition in Rome, one that has been revived in recent years, is to visit seven “station churches” throughout the week, one on each day. In addition, some Christians have begun observing the Via Lucis, the Stations of Light, during Eastertide. These stations commemorate Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances, in a parallel to the Stations of the Cross, or Via Crucis, used during Lent.
The “Resurrection party” continues all that week, until the Sunday after Easter, which is sometimes called Antipascha. Despite its appearance, the word means not “against Pascha” but “opposite to Pascha.” In other words, it occurs oppositeEaster, at the other end of Bright Week. On that day, doubt and belief about the Resurrection converge in one man.
03. St Thomas
According to John’s Gospel, Jesus visited the disciples on the evening of Easter Sunday, “the first day of the week” (Jn. 20:19). But as John explains in verse 24, Thomas was absent. Though the disciples told him they had seen Jesus, he declared that only a physical encounter would convince him that Jesus was alive. He famously said, “Unless I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side, I will never believe” (v. 25).
Though he has traditionally been called “Doubting” Thomas, the emphasis of St Thomas Sunday is on the grace of God to manifest the Resurrection more fully and capture Thomas’s mind and heart. One Vespers hymn goes so far as to call Thomas’s unbelief “good”:
O good unbelief of Thomas,
which hath led the hearts of the faithful to knowledge!
The observance of St. Thomas Sunday follows the story John tells in his Gospel. “Eight days later, . . .” John wrote, “Jesus came and stood among them” (v. 26). Thomas had told the other disciples he would need to see and touch Jesus’ wounds to be convinced. After greeting them in peace, Jesus offers Thomas exactly the evidence he had demanded. “Do not disbelieve,” he adds, “but believe” (v. 27). The Lord answered Thomas’s unbelief not with a simple rebuke but with compassion and signs. And Thomas responded with faith.
Some Eastern church icons title this event, “The Doubting Thomas,” and this characterization has spilled into the Western church, too. But in Greek, the inscription of some reads, “The Touching of Thomas,” and the Slavonic inscription is, “The Belief of Thomas.” When Saint Thomas touched the Life-giving side of the Lord, he no longer had any doubts.
One of the most powerful artistic representations of this event, painted in 1602 by Caravaggio, captures Thomas’s move from doubt to faith. In “The Incredulity of St Thomas” Jesus guides the apostle’s finger into his side, as Thomas’s whole face seems lifted in surprise.
A side note: We might read Jesus’ follow-up comment to Thomas as a rebuke, as if he were saying, “Oh, now you believe!” But the early church remembers Thomas as an ardent and faithful evangelist who was martyred in northern India. His fervor likely stemmed from the power of this encounter with Jesus. The great preacher John Chrysostom says of him,
“The wonderful thing is this; that we see one who was so weak before the Crucifixion, become after the Crucifixion, and after having believed in the Resurrection, more zealous than any. So great was the power of Christ. The very man who dared not go in company with Christ to Bethany, the same while not seeing Christ ran well nigh through the inhabited world, and dwelt in the midst of nations that were full of murder, and desirous to kill him.”
It’s fitting, then, that we should begin our Sundays after Easter remembering Thomas, whose road to belief, littered with obstacles, became a high-speed evangelistic highway into the known world.
If we believe with St. Thomas, our life becomes one long act of bearing witness. And that witness is supported after Bright Week in Eastertide. The season is the longest on the Christian calendar at fifty days, stretching through Ascension until Pentecost in many churches.
There is no fasting during Bright Week, but fasting practice returns in the week after to remind Christians of the Cross and encourage a cruciform life. Still, in keeping with Eastertide’s celebratory nature, the Easter Acclamation continues as a regular greeting: “Alleluia! Christ is risen!” and its response “The Lord is risen indeed! Alleluia!”
In the Christian liturgy of the Book of Common Prayer, “Christ has died, Christ has risen” is followed with “Christ will come again!” The Easter season points us not only the to the wonder of Jesus’ Resurrection from the dead on the third day, but it also points to the last day, when “the dead in Christ will rise” and “we will always be with the Lord” (1 Thess. 4:16–17). It is an acknowledgement that Jesus actually died, that his was the necessary and complete sacrifice. But it also celebrates that in his death, death died, and in his Resurrection, we are all raised from death. All who believe in him are raised from death. The Resurrection is thus central to the thought and practice of a Christian.
Our model for this resurrection focus is the apostle Paul. N. T. Wright says that Paul was “the classic example of the early Christian who has woven resurrection so thoroughly into his thinking and practice that if you take it away the whole thing unravels in your hands.”N. T. Wright, The Challenge of Jesus: Rediscovering Who Jesus Was & Is, (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2015), 140. So the Sundays following Easter, in the early church’s tradition, focused on key events related to Jesus’ Resurrection and the one we enjoy in the gospel:
- After St. Thomas, the readings and iconography focus on the “myrrh-bearing women,” the women who discover the empty tomb while bringing spices to prepare Jesus’ body.
- The next Sunday remembers the paralyzed man healed by Jesus in John 5. Jesus tells the man to “Get up, take up your bed, and walk,” and he is healed “at once” (Jn. 5:8–9).
- The Sunday of the Samaritan woman commemorates Jesus’ offer of the kingdom’s living water to a woman of Samaria (Jn. 4:5–42).
- The blind man healed by Jesus in John 9 is next. Blind since birth, the man obeys Jesus’ command to wash and he is healed. The hymn for that day reminds hearers of their own spiritual blindness, and the need for healed eyes to see the “resplendent Light” of Jesus.
- The last Sunday remembers the church fathers who gathered at Nicea for the first ecumenical council. Their work created the deposit of church teaching that has been preserved in the Nicene Creed.
These stories from the Gospels can remind us of the truth. They can help to press the reality of Easter into every corner of our lives. And we need it. We need to “absorb the reality that Christ is risen.”K. C. Ireton, The Circle of Seasons: Meeting God in the Church Year (Downers Grove, IL: InterVArsity Press, 2008), 92. We need a powerful sense of resurrection in order to stand amid the darkness and death of the fallen world. Resurrection, writes Fr. Alexander Schmemann, is the great Christian joy, the center of life to which a Christian must reorient himself in order to experience the new world and new sense of time that Jesus offers. He continues,
Resurrection is the appearance in this world, completely dominated by time and therefore by death, of life that shall have not end. The One who rose again from the dead does not die anymore. In this world of ours, not somewhere else, not in any “other” world, there appeared one morning someone who is beyond death and yet in our time.
To those outside its rich tradition, the church’s calendar can seem like an endless rush of celebrations, dulling our spiritual senses. One may feel like to visitor to Rome, who, by the end of day two or three, begins to feel dull to the wonder all around him.
But we dare not miss the wonder to a Christian presented every single Sunday. Almost immediately after Jesus’ Resurrection, the first day of the week was transformed. It became a window into the kingdom Jesus had promised, as Christians gathered to remind one another of Jesus’ life and teaching.
In a real sense, every Sunday calls us to live as if we were the travelers who met Jesus on the road to Emmaus. When they expressed their doubts about recent events, he reoriented them. He explained that they’d been telling the wrong story. So he opened the Scriptures and retold Israel’s story in the light of the Crucifixion and Resurrection. And their eyes are opened to the ultimate reality of the Kingdom.
Every Sunday, as the Schmemann quote above says, is a little Easter. We can never lose sight of the fact our faith depends on the Resurrection, and we have to keep telling ourselves the story. Paul understood and taught this. He told the Corinthians,
If Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. . . . If Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Cor. 15:14, 17–19)
But Christ has been raised, he concludes, and we now look forward to a day “When all things are subjected to him, . . . that God may be all in all” (v. 28). Put another way, on the last day, everything will be made right—everything sad will come untrue, as J. R. R. Tolkien put it.
Until that day, we not only celebrate resurrection every Sunday, “a little Pascha,” but we also practice resurrection, living into the truth of it and thinking, speaking, and acting as believers.
06. Suggestions for Practice
- Caravaggio’s painting of Thomas offers a rich focus for meditation and contemplation. Read the account of this encounter from John 20, and consider the mercy of Christ to Thomas—and to us—in a moment of profound doubt. Try to see your own doubt not as reason for despair but for hope, as an occasion for God to manifest himself more fully in your life.
- Consider observing the Via Crucis, alone or with friends. You can find one suggested pattern online here.
- The call to “practice resurrection” comes from a poem by Wendell Berry, “Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front.” Berry suggests several powerful images for what practicing resurrection might involve, beginning with the line, “So, friends, every day do something that won’t compute.” Read and consider what it might mean in your own circumstance.