Question: In Evangelical Lutheran Worship there is the “Time After Pentecost.” In the Roman Catholic Lectionary the Sundays after Pentecost are called “Ordinary Time.” What has become of the Pentecost Season?
Answer: Actually, there has never been a Pentecost Season if by “season” is meant a time in the church year with a particular focus like Advent. By the late Middle Ages all the Sundays were designated “after Pentecost” or (in the Western and Northern European countries) “after Trinity.” They were numerical Sundays, like 7th Sunday after Pentecost (6th Sunday after Trinity). That’s where the name “ordinary” really comes from: ordinal, meaning number. In the Roman Lectionary all of the Sundays in “ordinary time” are counted sequentially, beginning with the Sunday after the Epiphany. So when counting resumes after Pentecost it could be (depending on the number of Sundays after the Epiphany) the 5th Sunday in Ordinary Time.
These Sundays are not “ordinary” in the sense of being unimportant or of lesser importance than Sundays in Advent, Christmas, Lent, or Easter. Every Sunday is a celebration of the resurrection of Christ and therefore a “little Easter.” In fact, liturgical renewal has so emphasized the importance of Sundays that it has discouraged replacing them with “lesser festivals.” Feast days that fall on a Sunday are transferred to Monday in the Roman Catholic and Episcopal calendars. Lutherans are ambivalent about this. Some festivals have acquired such importance that they would not be transferred. Yet we have the inconsistency of festivals with designated weekday locations, like Corpus Christi, which should be observed on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday since it is the delayed octave of Maundy Thursday, being transferred to a Sunday by some national Catholic Bishops’ Conferences. For Roman Catholics, like liturgical Protestants, the Sunday propers in ordinary time can be supplanted by other celebrations and observances.
In any event, a trinity of festivals inaugurates the second half of the church year, the Time After Pentecost: Trinity Sunday, Corpus Christi, and the Nativity of St. John the Baptist (June 24).
In brief, the Festival of the Holy Trinity was embraced throughout the Western church by the fourteenth century as the octave of Pentecost. This meant that it was the octave of the last day of the octave of octaves that comprised the Fifty Days of Easter. (You need to understand the principle of octaves in order to understand the development of the church year calendar.) Trinity Sunday is not observed in the Eastern churches because in their calendar the Sunday after Pentecost is celebrated as All Saints’ Sunday. But in the late Middle Ages in the West a special devotion to the Holy Trinity developed in response to the plagues known as the Black Death. Hundreds of Trinity churches were dedicated throughout Europe during these times of pestilence. See Francis X. Weiser, Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, 1952), 254ff.
As I argued in “Frank Answers About Trinity Sunday,” by the time of the universal observance of Trinity Sunday in the Western Church it was really not about a doctrine but about the Trinitarian life of church and society. In Year A of the Roman and Revised Common lectionaries the First Reading for Trinity Sunday is Genesis 1. The Trinitarian interest in this priestly creation narrative is seen in God creating by his breath (wind/Spirit) through his word (“God said”/Logos = Son). However, in vs. 26 God said “Let us make man in our image.” The church fathers took this to mean God was speaking to himself. The verse continues: “male and female he created them.” There is a promise of a third (“be fruitful and multiply”). The God who is a Community of persons created humanity as a community of persons.
In typical late medieval Western images of the Holy Trinity the Father upholds the sacrifice of his Son for the reconciliation of sinful and suffering humanity to himself. The Spirit portrayed as a dove is the bond between the Father and the Son.
The Feast of Corpus Christi was established in the thirteenth century on the Thursday after Trinity Sunday as the delayed octave of Maundy Thursday. Its celebration on a Thursday is meant to associate it with Jesus’ institution of the Eucharist during the Last Supper, commemorated on Maundy Thursday, and this is the first free Thursday after the octave of octaves of Paschaltide and Trinity Sunday, which is the octave of Pentecost.
In the calendar of the Catholic Church, the feast is now officially known as the Solemnity of the Body and Blood of Christ. In many countries where Corpus Christi is not a public holiday, the feast is now transferred to the Sunday after Trinity Sunday by Catholic Bishops’ Conferences and by those Anglicans who observe it. (It is not found in the calendars of all Anglican Prayer Books, although it is now in the calendar of the Church of England).
The promulgation of Corpus Christi as a feast in the Church Year calendar was primarily due to the petitions, over a forty-year period, of the thirteenth-century Augustinian nun Juliana of Cornillon (1193–1258) in Liège. Juliana, from her early youth, had a great devotion to the blessed sacrament, and always longed for a special feast in its honor. She petitioned the learned Dominican Hugh of St-Cher, Jacques Pantaléon (Archdeacon of Liège who later became Pope Urban IV), and Robert de Thorete, Bishop of Liège, to establish a feast in honor of the blessed sacrament. At that time bishops could order feasts in their dioceses, so in 1246 Bishop Robert ordered a celebration of Corpus Christi to be held each year thereafter. But the celebration of Corpus Christi became widespread only after both St. Juliana and Bishop Robert de Thorete had died. In 1263 Pope Urban IV investigated claims of a eucharistic miracle at Bolsena, in which a consecrated host began to bleed, and in 1264 issued the papal bull Transiturus de hoc mundo in which Corpus Christi was made a feast throughout the entire Latin Rite.
The feast of Corpus Christi was promoted at a time when there were, on the one hand, heretical groups like the Cathari who denied the efficacy of the sacraments, and, on the other hand, pious women like the Beguines whose devotion centered on the Eucharist and the humanity of Jesus, particularly his Passion. Both groups had attracted followers around Liège. Corpus Christi caught on as a response to this conflict of pieties during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. No less a theologian than the Dominican Thomas Aquinas was commissioned to compose liturgical texts for this feast.
Elements of this liturgy have come to be used not only on the Feast of Corpus Christi itself but also throughout the liturgical year in observances related to the Blessed Sacrament. The hymn Aquinas composed for Vespers of Corpus Christi, Pange lingua gloriosi corporis mysterium (“Now, my tongue, the mystery telling, of the glorious body sing”), is also used on Holy Thursday during the procession with the Blessed Sacrament to the altar of repose, thus tying Corpus Christi to Maundy Thursday, and the last two stanzas of are also used as is a separate hymn, Tantum Ergo (“Therefore we before him bending this great sacrament revere”), which is sung at Solemn Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, thus tying together Corpus Christi to Solemn Benediction. O Salutaris Hostia (“O saving Victim”), another hymn sung at Benediction of the Blessed Sacrament, comprises the last two verses of Verbum Supernum Prodiens (“The Word descending from above”), Aquinas’s hymn for Lauds of Corpus Christi. Aquinas also composed the propers for the Mass of Corpus Christi, including the sequence Lauda Sion Salvatorem (“Zion, praise your Savior”). This was the basis of Martin Luther’s communion hymn, Gott sei gelobet (“O God, we praise you”).
Corpus Christi became one of the most popular festivals in late medieval Europe. At the end of the Mass, it became customary to have an outdoor Procession with the Blessed Sacrament. See the image above this post of an outdoor Corpus Christi procession in Poland, involving the whole town in its great procession. The procession was not an original part of the feast, and its inclusion has to be seen as part of the development of exposition and veneration of the Blessed Sacrament outside Mass. Like many feast days in medieval Europe, the day continued with games, eating and drinking, and plays. Cycles of mystery plays which enacted biblical stories, ending with the Doomsday play, were performed on Corpus Christi. In this sense Corpus Christi wrapped up the events of salvation history celebrated liturgically since Advent. See Miri Rubin, Corpus Christi: The Eucharist in Late Medieval Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991).
Gentile Bernini’s painting of the Corpus Christi procession in St. Mark’s Square, Venice in the late 15th century.
Corpus Christi was so popular that it was hard for the Reformation to suppress it. remained on some Lutheran calendars until the end of the sixteenth century. It would seem that, without the exposition or showing of the sacrament, the feast might be restored in Lutheran churches as a way of devoting a Sunday exclusively to preaching about the sacrament of the altar. The three years’ readings in the Roman Lectionary provide suitable propers. Also, the prayer composed by St. Thomas for the Mass, “Lord God, who left to us in a wonderful sacrament a memorial of your passion,” has long been used as a post-communion prayer in Lutheran worship books, and could serve as a suitable prayer of the day. This could be a day for an outdoor parish picnic.
Several saints’ days of summer became universal throughout the church. The Feast of the Nativity of St. John the Baptist is celebrated on June 24 and is one of the oldest festivals of the Christian church. It was listed by the Council of Agde in 506 as one of that region’s principal festivals. Like Christmas, it was celebrated with three masses: a vigil, at dawn, and at midday. It is also celebrated in the Eastern Orthodox churches as The Nativity of John the Forerunner with an All-Night Vigil ending with the Eucharist. It has an “after-feast” of one day. The feast always falls during the Apostles’ Fast.
It occurs on June 24 because it is three months after the celebration on March 25 of the annunciation, when the Archangel Gabriel told the Virgin Mary that her cousin Elizabeth was in her sixth month of pregnancy, and six months before the Christmas celebration of the birth of Jesus. The date of June 24 rather than June 25 could have been arrived at because of the Roman custom of counting backwards from the next calendar; hence eight days before July, as Christmas would be eight days before January.
This purpose of the feast has been eclipsed by the Scandinavian Midsummer Day festival, which, with its maypole, dancing, midnight on the shores of lakes, may be a remnant of pre-Christian pagan midsummer festivals. Already in the seventh century, St. Eligius warned against midsummer activities and encouraged new converts to avoid them in favor of the celebration of St. John the Baptist’s birth. However, we should note that because of inaccuracies in the calendar the summer solstice was in the middle of June before the adoption of the Gregorian calendar in 1582.
Among the festivals of June is the Feast of Saints Peter and Paul which is universally celebrated on June 29. It commemorates the martyrdom in Rome of the apostles Peter and Paul. The celebration is of ancient origin, the date selected being either the anniversary of their death or of the translation (moving) of their relics. The date may also have usurped the celebration of the founding of Rome by Romulus and Remus on a date in late June or early July when a solar eclipse was calculated to have occurred. Thus, in a sense, the Feast celebrated the refounding Christian Rome on the two great apostles.
For Eastern Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians this feast also marks the end of the Apostles’ Fast (which began on the Monday following All Saints’ Sunday—i.e., the second Monday after Pentecost). It is considered a day of recommended attendance, whereon one should attend the All-Night Vigil (or at least Vespers) on the eve, and the Divine Liturgy on the morning of the feast (there are, however, no “Days of Obligation” in the Eastern churches). For those who follow the traditional Julian calendar, June 29 falls on the Gregorian calendar date of July 12.
The Day of Peter and Paul has acquired ecumenical significance in recent times. On this day the pope and the Patriarch of Constantinople have officiated at services designed to bring their two churches closer to intercommunion. This was especially the case during the pontificate of Pope John Paul II, as reflected in his encyclical Ut Unum Sint. But it could also be a day of special significance for Roman Catholics and Protestants, whose churches have theologically appealed to Peter and Paul, respectively, as sources of authority. It could be a good day on which to schedule ordinations to the sacred ministry of the word and sacraments.
These are just the feasts of June within the Time After Pentecost. June is a busy month in the liturgical calendar that resists getting into “Ordinary Time.” The observance of these festivals would promote awareness of the contributions of Christianity to Western culture. Significant festivals yet to come during “Ordinary Time” that could fall on a Sunday are the Dormitian (Falling Asleep) of Mary the Mother of our Lord on August 15, St. Michael and All Angels on September 29, (for Lutherans) Reformation Day on October 31, and All Saints’ Day/All Souls Day on November 1/2. The Time After Pentecost ends on the Festival of Christ the King, which is always the last Sunday of the church year.
If there is any structure to the Time after Pentecost it is trinitarian: themes of creation certainly fit the summer months in the northern hemisphere.
Michaelmas (September 29), with its reading from Revelation 12 describing the cosmic battle between God and Satan, inaugurates a theme of redemption.
November between All Saints’ Day (November 1) and Christ the King has long been designated kingdomtide. It looks forward to the second coming of Christ, the resurrection of the dead, and the last judgment.
I think it would be more appropriate to call this long stretch of the church Time after Trinity rather than after Pentecost.
Pastor Frank Senn