Thursday, May 1, 2014

The Easter Octave

At some point over the years, the Church recognized that some celebrations require more than just one day to do them justice. And the octave, an eight day period of celebration, was born.  

I'd like to think that the idea of the liturgical octave came from the musical octave -- the interval between one musical pitch and another with half or double its frequency -- called the "basic miracle of music."  After all, few real celebrations happen without music.

In any event, in the fourth century, annual liturgical feasts began to be honored with an octave. The first such feasts were Easter, Pentecost and, in the East, Epiphany. Later, Christmas was given an octave.  During the Middle Ages the number of octaves expanded to include almost every imaginable feast day, including saints days.  This included days like the feasts of Corpus Christi or the Holy Innocents.  In addition to these, the patron saint of a particular nation, diocese, or church was often celebrated locally with an octave. 

It sorta got out of hand and, just when it looked like the feasting days might outnumber the actual working days, the church started cutting back.  By 1955, only the octaves of Christmas, Easter and Pentecost remained.  And then, in 1969, Pentecost was jettisoned from the elite eight-day holidays.

And so, we just completed the celebration of the octave of Easter.  The day that completes the octave is called simply the Second Sunday of Easter, or sometimes Low Sunday.  It has also been called St. Thomas Sunday, after doubting Thomas, the central character of the Gospel of the day.   (In the Gospel, when the disciples tell Thomas that "we have seen the Lord," he replies, "Except I shall see in his hands the print of the nails, and put my finger into the print of the nails, and thrust my hand into his side, I will not believe."  Thomas seems to have anticipated Carl Sagan's aphorism -- endorsed by Christopher Hitchens -- that "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.")

This Sunday has one other quite distinctive name:  Quasimodo Sunday.  Lest you think that the day is intended as some kind of tribute to the unlikely protagonist of a Victor Hugo novel, be advised that the name of the Sunday pre-dates Notre-Dame de Paris by many years.  In fact, the character Quasimodo is so named in part because Frollo, the Archdeacon of Notre Dame, discovers him on Quasimodo Sunday.  

Instead, the last day of the Easter octave derives its name from first words of the Introit -- the entrance chant -- of the Mass for the day: "Quasi modo geniti infantes" ("As newborn babes"). "Quasi" in Latin means "almost" and "modo" means "the standard measure."  In the Introit, the words are simply translated as "like" or "as."   The character Quasimodo is "almost the standard measure" of a human being.  Here's what Hugo says:  
He baptized his adopted child, and named him Quasimodo, either because he wished to mark in this way the day upon which the child was found, or because he wished to show by this name how imperfect and incomplete the poor little creature was. Indeed, Quasimodo, one eyed, hunchbacked, and knock kneed, was hardly more than half made.
Anyway,the great octave of Easter is over and we have to wait until Christmas for another 8-day celebration.

The Incredulity of Saint Thomas-Caravaggio 


James R said...

OK, that picture is pretty disturbing. Similarly, so is the Thomas/Carl Sagan aphorism of "Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence." It may be true emotionally, but not scientifically. In science all claims require the same amount of evidence. Whether you want to prove F=ma or light travels faster than 186,000 mi/sec, you need empirical evidence of the same amount. Currently, the confidence of 5 sigma (standard deviations) is required. For the result to be wrong would be as likely as getting 21 heads in a row.

James R said...

More to the topic, why octave? Following music seems nice. Was our musical system established in the 4th century? And why did music use an octave? I hope the standard answer isn't "It sounds pleasant to the ear."

Don't get me wrong, I think octave is great. The larger question is why didn't the church use it more? How about the week? (We could have gotten all 3-day weekends.) sacraments? deadly sins, creation of the world? etc.?

Big Myk said...

As to the musical octave, I don't fully understand it, but it's a question of biology. Our brain recognizes sound by frequency. Going up one octave doubles the frequency, and going down one octave halves the frequency. The human ear recognizes the connection in frequencies multiplied or haved by two. Middle C sounds like and upper C or a lower C. Maybe Kevin can explain.

As to the liturgical octave, the real answer is: nobody knows. One theory is that certain Jewish celebrations of 8-days just carried over into Christianity. That theory has been mostly rejected because, for its first 300 years, there were no octaves. Octaves in Christianity, as far as we know, began with Constantine. There is no mention in the record of earlier liturgical octaves.

The other slight problem is that seven was a more important number for the Hebrews.

So, here is the most prevalent theory. After, Constantine became a Christian, he gave many public buildings (basilicas) to the church. The church may have been casting about for a proper way to turn these secular structures into religious ones. They may have looked to the Jewish Feast of Dedication, an eight-day holiday commemorating the rededication of the Temple in Jerusalem after it had been desecrated by the Greeks. Today, we call this feast, Hanukkah.

In any event, the Christians of the fourth century may have thought that 8-days were an appropriate period to consecrate public buildings for religious use. Because so many building were given to the church at the time, it became a widespread practice. Anyway, that's the theory.

James R said...


As to the music, the doubling or halving the frequency makes perfect sense, but my question is why divide that into eighths? Why not sevenths or tenths? Like you, I would love to hear from Kevin. I understand he understands the math of music.