The Second Sunday of Easter has undergone more changes than a spring day in Montana. A sweeping survey of this Easter feast day reveals a fascinating and intriguing evolution.
Victor Hugo’s famed character, Quasi Modo in the “Hunchback of Notre Dame” drew his name from the Second Sunday of Easter.
Quasi Modo was the tiny, screaming babe, a newborn infant discovered in a wooden cradle at the foot of St. Christopher’s statue at Notre Dame Cathedral.
This little boy derived his name from the first words of the opening antiphon of the Second Sunday of Easter, which reads in Latin “Quasi modo geniti infants.” The words “as newborn babes” refer not to this little fondling, but to those who had been re-born in Baptism at Easter. The nickname stuck on this tiny orphan, who came to be known as Quasi Modo – the Hunchback of Notre Dame.
Dating back to the Seventh Century, the Second Sunday of Easter was called “Dominica in Albis” Sunday – the day when those who had been baptized at the Easter Vigil set aside their albs, and attended liturgy for the first time in common attire. While this is still a custom we observe, the complicated title “Dominica in Albis” has lapsed into disuse.
For years on end, the Second Sunday of Easter has been informally called “Low Sunday,” especially among pastors and liturgists. This nickname appears to denote the comparatively low number of parishioners in attendance at Mass following the spike in numbers on Easter Sunday.
Low Sunday may also indicate the low level of energy that priests and parish staffs experience following the labor intensive days preceding the Easter Triduum. Low Sunday may be a liturgical version of the post partum blues experienced by those who invested so much time and energy preparing for the days of Lent and Easter. Is this not the human side of the Church showing through the glow of Resurrection and Easter joy?
At one point, the Second Sunday of Easter was called “Didymus Sunday,” a reference to Thomas the Apostle, whose name means twin. Thomas was both disciple and doubter. Didymus Sunday is rooted in John’s powerful Gospel of Christ’s mercy toward Thomas, who was persistent in his unbelief.
Thomas demanded physical proof of Christ’s appearance to the apostles. He was vulnerable for divine retribution and anger, but instead received the blessing of Christ’s tender mercy. That is why St. Gregory the Great opined, “St. Thomas the Doubter has done more for us by his disbelief than all the other disciples have done by their belief.”
A lesser known title for today’s feast is Deuteroprote Sunday, a name still actively used in the Byzantine Church. The title means, “second highest Sunday.” This title is derived from the fact that the Second Sunday of Easter falls within the Easter Octave, and is a continuance of Easter joy. Deuteroprote Sunday stands in stark contrast to our latter day moniker “Low Sunday.”
In our own time, the late Pope John Paul II gave special emphasis to the gospel message of mercy contained in the Gospel readings for the Second Sunday of Easter, and gave this special feast the title “Divine Mercy Sunday.”
Divine Mercy Sunday has particular import to the people of Poland, and a special meaning for the Universal Church.
The title Divine Mercy Sunday is a specific name drawn from the life and writings of Sister Faustina Kowalski, daughter of Poland and a woman who was raised to the rank of Sainthood in 2001.
Sister Faustina dedicated her life to the promulgation and renewal of the Church’s message of mercy. She consistently wrote, “Mankind will not have peace until it turns with trust to God’s divine mercy.”
At Sister Faustina’s canonization ceremony, Pope John Paul II said that Divine Mercy “is a gift that the Church receives from Jesus Christ, and offers to humanity at the dawn of the Third Millennium.”
On May 23, 2000, the Congregation for Divine Worship set aside the Second Sunday of Easter as a day for the Church to extend “a perennial invitation to the Christian world to face, with confidence in Divine benevolence, the difficulties and trials that humankind will experience in the years to come.”
When the late Holy Father declared the Second Sunday of Easter as Divine Mercy Sunday, he enjoined Catholics everywhere to become practitioners of mercy in their own lives, so this gift can be experienced and shared widely with the world in need.
Pope John Paul knew and understood the power of God’s merciful love, which was driven home to him following the assassination attempt on his life. He left the world a powerful legacy that is capsulized in his poignant encyclical entitled “Dives in Misericordia,” meaning rich in mercy. The encyclical is a reflection that expands and elaborates upon the theology of mercy and forgiveness.
In an age beset by violence, hatred, bigotry and animosity, Divine Mercy Sunday offers a prescription for an age-old illness that infects people and nations in real and harmful ways.
Ultimately, Divine Mercy Sunday is rooted in the Easter message of hope where the life, death and resurrection of Jesus offer the world a remedy for the troubles that riddle the human heart.
The Responsorial Psalm of the Second Sunday of Easter proclaims three times that “His mercy endures forever.” The number three has particular theological meaning in Scripture, where the triple repetition of numbers indicates emphasis, insistence, or messages of great importance.
Divine Mercy Sunday helps us see and experience the healing power of the Easter message, and challenges us to apply the power of Divine Mercy in our own lives.
Divine Mercy Sunday contains a message that is ever ancient, ever new – Easter is the gift that keeps on giving!
That is why we proclaim with such great joy, “Lord, by your cross and resurrection you have set us free. You are the Savior of the world!”
Published in The Montana Catholic, Vol. 23, No. 4, April 20, 2007.