Fathers of the Church
Festal Letter XI
by Athanasius in 339 | translated by Payne-Smith
Cost. Constantius Augustus II, Constans I: Praefect, Philagrius the Cappadocian, for the second time; Indict. xii; Easter-day xvii Kal. Mai, xx Pharmuthi; Aera Dioclet. 55.
THE blessed Paul, being girt about with every virtue, and called faithful of the Lord—for he was conscious of nothing in himself but what was a virtue and a praise, or what was in harmony with love and godliness—clave to these things more and more, and was carried up even to heavenly places, and was borne to Paradise; to the end that, as he surpassed the conversation of men, he should be exalted above men. And when he descended, he preached to every man; 'We know in part, and we prophesy in part; here I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.' For, in truth, he was known to those saints who are in heaven, as their fellow-citizen. And in relation to all that is future and perfect, the things known by him here were in part; but with respect to those things which were committed and entrusted to him by the Lord, he was perfect; as he said, 'We who are perfect, should be thus minded.' For as the Gospel of Christ is the fulfilment and accomplishment of the ministration which was supplied by the law of Israel, so future things will be the accomplishment of such as now exist, the Gospel being then fulfilled, and the faithful receiving those things which, not seeing now, they yet hope for, as Paul saith; 'For what a man seeth, why doth he also hope for? But if we hope for those things we see [not], we then by patience wait for them.' Since then that blessed man was of such a character, and apostolic grace was committed to him, he wrote, wishing 'that all men should be as he was.' For virtue is philanthropic, and great is the company of the kingdom of heaven, for thousands of thousands and myriads of myriads there serve the Lord. And though a man enters it through a strait and narrow way, yet having entered, he beholds immeasurable space, and a place greater than any other, as they declare, who were eye- witnesses and heirs of these things. 'Thou didst place afflictions before us.' But afterwards, having related their afflictions, they say, 'Thou broughtest us forth into a wide place;' and again, 'In affliction Thou hast enlarged us.' For truly, my brethren, the course of the saints here is straitened; since they either toil painfully through longing for those things which are to come, as he who said, 'Woe is me that my pilgrimage is prolonged;' or they are distressed and spent for the salvation of other men, as Paul wrote to the Corinthians, saying, 'Lest, when I come to you, God should humble me, and I should bewail many of those who have sinned already, and not repented for the uncleanness and fornication and lasciviousness which they have committed.' As Samuel bewailed the destruction of Saul, and Jeremiah wept for the captivity of the people. But after this affliction, and sorrow, and sighing, when they depart from this world, a certain divine gladness, and pleasure, and exultation receives them, from which misery and sorrow, and sighing, flee away.
2. Since we are thus circumstanced, my brethren, let us never loiter in the path of virtue; for hereto he counsels us, saying, 'Be ye followers of me, as I also am of Christ.' For he gave this advice not to the Corinthians only, since he was not their Apostle only, but being 'a teacher of the Gentiles in faith and verity,' he admonished us all through them; and in short, the things he wrote to each particular person are commandments common to all men. On this account in writing to different people, some he exhorted as, for instance, in the Epistles to the Romans, and the Ephesians, and Philemon. Some he reproved, and was indignant with them, as in the case of the Corinthians and Galatians. To some he gave advice, as to the Colossians and Thessalonians. The Philippians he approved of, and rejoiced in them. The Hebrews he taught that the law was a shadow to them. But to his elect sons, Timothy and Titus, when they were near, he gave instruction; when far away, he put them in remembrance. For he was all things to all men; and being himself a perfect man, he adapted his teaching to thee need of every one, so that by all means he might rescue some of them. Therefore his word was not without fruit; but in every place it is planted and productive even to this day.
3. And wherefore, my beloved? For it is right that we should search into the apostolic mind. Not only in the beginning of the Epistles, but towards their close, and in the middle of them, he used persuasions and admonitions. I hope therefore that, by your prayers, I shall in no respect falsely represent the plan of that holy man. As he was well skilled in these divine matters, and knew the power of the divine teaching, he deemed it necessary, in the first place, to make known the word concerning Christ, and the mystery regarding Him; and then afterwards to point to the correction of habits, so that when they had learned to know the Lord, they might earnestly desire to do those things which He commanded. For when the Guide to the laws is unknown, one does not readily pass on to the observance of them. Faithful Moses, the minister of God, adopted this method; for when he promulgated the words of the divine dispensation of laws, he first proclaimed the matters relating to the knowledge of God: 'Hear, O Israel, the Lord thy God is one Lord.' Afterwards, having shadowed Him forth to the people, and taught of Him in Whom they ought to believe, and informed their minds of Him Who is truly God, he proceeds to lay down the law relating to those things whereby a man may be well- pleasing to Him, saying, 'Thou shall not commit adultery; thou shall not steal;' together with the other commandments. For also, according to the Apostolic teaching, 'He that draweth near to God must believe that He is, and that He is a rewarder of them that seek Him.' Now He is sought by means of virtuous deeds, as the prophet saith; 'Seek ye the Lord, and when 'ye have found Him, call upon Him; when He is near to you, let the wicked forsake his ways, and the lawless man his thoughts.'
4. It will also be well if a man is not offended at the testimony of the Shepherd, saying in the beginning of his book, 'Before all things believe that there is one God, Who created and established all these things, and from non-existence called them into beings.' And, further, the blessed Evangelists—who recorded the words of the Lord— in the beginning of the Gospels, wrote the things concerning our Saviour; so that, having first made known the Lord, the Creator, they might be believed when narrating the events that took place. For how could they have been believed, when writing respecting him who [was blind] from his mother's womb, and those other blind men who recovered their sight, and those who rose from the dead, and the changing of water into wine, and those lepers who were cleansed; if they bad not taught of Him as the Creator, writing, 'In the beginning was the Word?' Or, according to Matthew, that He Who was born of the seed of David, was Emmanuel, and the Son of the living God? He from Whom the Jews, with the Arians, turn away their faces, but Whom we acknowledge and worship. The Apostle therefore, as was meet, sent to different people, but his own son he especially reminded, 'that he should not despise the things in which he had been instructed by him,' and enjoined on him, 'Remember Jesus Christ, who rose from the dead, of the seed of David, according to my Gospel.' And speaking of these things being delivered to him, to be always had in remembrance, he immediately writes to him. saying, 'Meditate on these things: be engaged in them.' For constant meditation, and the remembrance of divine words, strengthen' piety towards God, and produces a love to Him inseparable and not merely formal; as he, being of this mind, speaks about himself and others like- minded, saying boldly, 'Who shall separate us from the love of God 6?' For such men, being confirmed in the Lord, and possessing an unshaken disposition towards Him, and being one in spirit (for 'he who is joined to the Spirit is one spirit'), are sure 'as the mount Sion;' and although ten thousand trials may rage against them, they are founded upon a rock, which is Christ. In Him the careless take no delight; and having no continuous purpose of good, they are sullied by temporal attacks, and esteem nothing more highly than present things, being unstable and deserving reproof as regards the faith. For 'either the care of this world, or the deceitfulness of riches, chokes them;' or, as Jesus said in that parable which had reference to them, since they have not established the faith that has been preached to them, but continue only for a time, immediately, in time of persecution, or when affliction ariseth through the word, they are offended. Now those who meditate evil we say, [think] not truth, but falsehood and not righteousness, but iniquity, for their tongue learns to speak lies. They have done evil, and have not ceased that they might repent. For, persevering with delight in wicked actions, they hasten thereto without turning back, even treading under foot the commandment with regard to neighbours, and, instead of loving them, devise evil against them, as the saint testifies, saying, 'And those who seek me evil have spoken vanity, and imagined deceit all the day.' But that the cause of such meditation is none other than the want of instruction, the divine proverb has already declared; 'The son that forsaketh the commandment of his father meditateth evil words.' But such meditation, because it is evil, the Holy Spirit blames in these words, and reproves too in other terms, saying, 'Your hands are polluted with blood, your fingers with sins; your lips have spoken lawlessness, and your tongue imagineth iniquity: no man speaketh right things, nor is there true judgment.' But what the end is of such perverse imagining, He immediately declares, saying, 'They trust in vanities and speak falsehood; for they conceive mischief, and bring forth lawlessness. They have hatched the eggs of an asp, and woven a spider's web; and he who is prepared to eat of their eggs, when he breaks them finds gall, and a basilisk therein.' Again, what the hope of such is, He has already announced. 'Because righteousness does not overtake them, when they waited for light, they had darkness; when they waited for brightness, they walked in a thick cloud. They shall grope for the wall like the blind, and as those who have no eyes shall they grope; they shall fall at noon-day as at midnight; when dead, they shall groan. They shall roar together as a bear, or as a dove.'
This is the fruit of wickedness, these rewards are given to its familiars, for perverseness does not deliver its own. But in truth, against them it sets itself, and it tears them first, and on them especially it summons ruin. Woe to them against whom these are brought; for 'it is sharper than a two-edged sword,' slaying beforehand and very swiftly those who will lay hold of it. For their tongue, according to the testimony of the Psalmist, is a 'sharp sword, and their teeth spears and arrows.' But the wonderful part is that while often he against whom men imagine [harm] suffers nothing, they are pierced by their own spears: for they possess, even in themselves, before they reach others, anger, wrath, malice, guile, hatred, bitterness. Although they may not be able to bring these upon others, they forthwith return upon and against themselves, as he prays, saying, 'Let their sword enter into their own heart.' There is also such a proverb as this: 'The wicked is held fast by the chain of his sins.'
5. The Jews in their imaginings, and in their agreeing to act unjustly against the Lord, forgot that they were bringing wrath upon themselves. Therefore does the Word lament for them, saying, 'Why do the people exalt themselves, and the nations imagine vain things?' For vain indeed was the imagination of the Jews, meditating death against the Life, and devising unreasonable things against the Word of the Father.' For who that looks upon their dispersion, and the desolation of their city, may not aptly say, 'Woe unto them, for they have imagined an evil imagination, saying against their own soul, let us bind the righteous man, because he is not pleasing to us.' And full well is it so, my brethren; for when they erred concerning the Scriptures, they knew not that 'he who diggeth a pit for his neighbour falleth therein; and he who destroyeth a hedge, a serpent shall bite him.' And if they had not turned their faces from the Lord, they would have feared what was written before in the divine Psalms: 'The heathen are caught in the pit which they made; in the snare which they hid is their own foot taken. The Lord is known when executing judgments: by the works of his hands is the sinner taken.' Let them observe this, and how that 'the snare they know not shall come upon them, and the net they hid take them.' But they understood not these things, for had they done so, 'they would not have crucified the Lord of glory 7.'
6. Therefore the righteous and faithful servants of the Lord, who 'are made disciples for the kingdom of heaven, and bring forth from it things new and old;' and who 'meditate on the words of the Lord, when sitting in the house, when lying down or rising up, and when walking by the way;'— since they are of good hope because of the promise of the Spirit which said, 'Blessed is the man that hath not walked in the counsel of the ungodly, nor stood in the way of sinners, nor sat in the seat of corrupters; but his delight is in the law of the Lord, and in His law doth he meditate day and night;'—being grounded in, faith, rejoicing in hope, fervent in spirit, they have boldness to say, 'My mouth shall speak wisdom, and the meditation of my heart shall be of understanding.' And again, 'I have meditated on all Thy works, and on the work of Thy hands has been my meditation.' And, 'If I have remembered Thee on my bed, and in the morning have meditated on Thee.' Afterwards, advancing in boldness, they say, 'The meditation of my heart is before Thee at all times.' And what is the end of such an one? He cites immediately; 'The Lord is my Helper and my Redeemer.' For to those who thus examine themselves, and conform their hearts to the Lord, nothing adverse shall happen; for indeed, their heart is strengthened by confidence in the Lord, as it is written, 'They who trust in the Lord are as mount Sion: he who dwelleth in Jerusalem shall not be moved for ever.' For if at any time, the crafty one shall be presumptuously bold against them, chiefly that he may break the rank of the saints, and cause a division among brethren; even in this the Lord is with them, not only as an avenger on their behalf, but also when they have already been beaten, as a deliverer for them. For this is the divine promise; 'The Lord shall fight for you.' Henceforth, although afflictions and trials from without overtake them, yet, being fashioned after the apostolic words, and 'being stedfast in tribulations, and persevering in prayers' and in meditation on the law, they stand against those things which befall them, are well-pleasing to God, and give utterance to the words which are written, 'Afflictions and distresses are come upon me; but Thy commandments are my meditation.'
7. And whereas, not only in action, but also in the thoughts of the mind, men are moved to deeds of virtue, he afterwards adds, saying, 'Mine eyes prevent the dawn, that I might meditate on Thy words.' For it is meet that the spiritual meditations of those who are whole should precede their bodily actions. And does not our Saviour, when intending to teach this very thing begin with the thoughts of the mind? saying, 'Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath already committed adultery:' and, 'Whosoever shall be angry with his brother, is guilty of murder.' For where there is no wrath, murder is prevented; and where lust is first removed, there can be no accusation of adultery. Hence meditation on the law is necessary, my beloved, and uninterrupted converse with virtue, 'that the saint may lack nothing, but be perfect to every good works.' For by these things is the promise of eternal life, as Paul wrote to Timothy, calling constant meditation exercise, and saying, 'Exercise thyself unto godliness; for bodily exercise profiteth little; but godliness is profitable for all things, since it has the promise of the present life, and of that which is eternal.'
8. Worthy of admiration is the virtue of that man, my brethren! for through Timothy he enjoins upon all, that they should have regard to nothing more than to godliness, but above everything to adjudge the chief place to faith in God. For what grace has the unrighteous man, though he may feign to keep the commandments? Nay rather, the unrighteous man is unable even to keep a portion of the law, for as is his mind, such of necessity must be his actions; as the Spirit says, reproving such; 'The fool hath said in his heart, there is no God.' After this the Word, shewing that actions correspond with thoughts, says, 'They are corrupt; they are profane in their machinations.' The unrighteous man then, in every respect corrupts his body; stealing, committing adultery, cursing, being drunken, and doing such like things. Even as Jeremiah, the prophet, convicts Israel of these things, crying out and saying, 'Oh, that I had a lodge far off in the wilderness! then would I leave my people and depart from them: for they are all adulterers, an assembly of oppressors, who draw out their tongue as a bow; lying and not truth has prevailed upon the earth, and they proceed from iniquities to iniquities; but Me they have not known.' Thus, for wickedness and falsehood, and for deeds, in which they [proceed] from iniquity to iniquity, he reproves their practices; but, because they knew not the Lord, and were faithless, he charges them with unrighteousness.
9. For faith and godliness are allied to each other, and sisters; and he who believes in Him is godly, and he also who is godly, believes the more. He therefore who is in a state of wickedness, undoubtedly also wanders from the faith; and he who fails from godliness, falls from the true faith. Paul, for instance, bearing testimony to the same point, advises his disciple, saying, 'Avoid profane conversations; for they increase unto more ungodliness, and their word takes hold as doth a canker, of whom are Hymenaeus and Philetus.' In what their wickedness consisted he declares, saying, 'Who have erred from the faith, saying that the resurrection is already past.' But again, desirous of shewing that faith is yoked with godliness, the Apostle says, 'And all those who will live godly in Jesus Christ shall suffer persecution.' Afterwards, that no man should renounce godliness through persecution, he counsels them to preserve the faith, adding, 'Thou, therefore, continue in the things thou hast learned, and hast been assured of.' And as when brother is helped by brother, they become as a wall to each other; so faith and godliness, being of like growth, hang together, and he who is practised in the one, of necessity is strengthened by the other. Therefore, wishing the disciple to be exercised in godliness unto the end, and to contend for the faith, he counsels them, saying, 'Fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life.' For if a man first put away the wickedness of idols, and rightly confesses Him Who is truly God, he next fights by faith with those who war against Him.
10. For of these two things we speak faith and godliness—the hope is the same, even everlasting life; for he saith, 'Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life.' And, 'exercise thyself unto godliness, for hath the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come.' For this cause, the Ario-maniacs, who now have gone out from the Church, being opponents of Christ, have digged a pit of unbelief, into which they themselves have been thrust; and, since they have advanced in ungodliness, they 'overthrow the faith of the simple;' blaspheming the Son of God, and saying that He is a creature, and has His being from things which are not. But as then against the adherents of Philetus and Hymenaeus, so now the Apostle forewarns all men against ungodliness like theirs, saying, 'The foundation of God standeth sure, having this seal, The Lord knoweth them that are His; and, Let every one that nameth the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.' For it is well that a man should depart from wickedness and deeds of iniquity, that he may be able properly to celebrate the feast; for he who is defiled with the pollutions of the wicked is not able to sacrifice the Passover to the Lord our God. Hence, the people who were then in Egypt said, 'We cannot sacrifice the Passover in Egypt to the Lord our God.' For God, Who is over all, willed that they should go far away from the servants of Pharaoh, and from the furnace of iron; so that being set free from wickedness, and having carefully put away from them all strange notions, they might receive the knowledge of God and of virtuous actions. For He saith,
Go far from them: depart from the midst of them, and touch not the unclean things.' For a man will not otherwise depart from sin, and lay hold on virtuous deeds, than by meditation on his acts; and when he has been practised by exercise in godliness, he will lay hold on the confession of faith, which also Paul, after he had fought the fight, possessed, namely, the crown of righteousness which was laid up; which the righteous Judge will give, not to him alone, but to all who are like him.
11. For such meditation and exercise in godliness, being at all times the habit of the saints, is urgent on us at the present time, when the divine word desires us to keep the feast with them if we are in this disposition. For what else is the feast, but the constant worship of God, and the recognition of godliness, and unceasing prayers from the whole heart with agreement? So Paul wishing us to be ever in this disposition, commands, saying, 'Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks,6.' Not therefore separately, but unitedly and collectively, let us all keep the feast together, as the prophet exhorts, saying, 'O come, let us rejoice in the Lord; let us make a joyful noise unto God our Saviour.' Who then is so negligent, or who so disobedient to the divine voice, as not to leave everything, and run to the general and common assembly of the feast? which is not in one place only, for not one place alone keeps the feast; but 'into all the earth their song has gone forth, and to the ends of the world their words.' And the sacrifice is not offered in one place, but 'in every nation, incense and a pure sacrifice is offered unto God.' So when in like manner from all in every place, praise and prayer shall ascend to the gracious and good Father, when the whole Catholic Church which is in every place, with gladness and rejoicing, celebrates together the same worship to God, when all men in common send up a song of praise and say, Amen; how blessed will it not be, my brethren! who will not, at that time, be engaged, praying rightly? For the walls of every adverse power, yea even of Jericho especially, failing down, and the gift of the Holy Spirit being then richly poured upon all men, every man perceiving the coming of the Spirit shall say, 'We are all filled in the morning with Thy favour, and we rejoice and are made glad in our days.'
12. Since this is so, let us make a joyful noise with the saints, and let no one of us fail of his duty in these things; counting as nothing the affliction or the trials. which, especially at this time, have been enviously directed against us by the party of Eusebius. Even now they wish to injure us, and by their accusations to compass our death, because of that godliness, whose helper is the Lord. But, as faithful servants of God, knowing that He is our salvation in the time of trouble:—for our Lord promised beforehand, saying, 'Blessed are ye when men revile you and persecute you, and say all manner of evil against you falsely, for My sake. Rejoice, and be exceeding glad, for your reward is great in heavens.' Again, it is the Redeemer's own word, that affliction shall not befall every man in this world, but only those who have a holy fear of Him:—on this account, the more the enemies hem us in, the more let us be at liberty; although they revile us, let us come together; and the more they would turn us aside from godliness, let us the more boldly preach it saying, 'All these things are come upon us, yet have we not forgotten Thee,' and we have not done evil with the Ario-maniacs, who say that Thou hast existence from those things that exist not. The Word which is eternally with the Father, is also from Him.
13. Let us therefore keep the feast, my brethren, celebrating it not at all as an occasion of distress and mourning, neither let us mingle with heretics through temporal trials brought upon us by godliness. But if anything that would promote joy and gladness should offer, let us attend to it; so that our heart may not be sad, like that of Cain; but that, like faithful and good servants of the Lord, we may hear the words, 'Enter into the joy of thy Lord.' For we do not institute days of mourning and sorrow, as some may consider these of Easter to be, but we keep the feast, being filled with joy and gladness. We keep it then, not regarding it after the deceitful error of the Jews, nor according to the teaching of the Arians, which takes away the Son from the Godhead, and numbers Him among creatures; but we look to the correct doctrine we derive from the Lord. For the guile of the Jews, and the unbounded impiety of the Arians, cause nothing but sad reflections, for the former at the beginning slew the Lord; but these latter take away His position of having conquered that death to which the Jews brought Him, in that they say He is not the Creator, but a creature. For if He were a creature, He would have been holden by death; but if He was not holden by death, according to the Scriptures, He is not a creature, but the Lord of the creatures, and the subject of this immortal feast.
14. For the Lord of death would abolish death, and being Lord, what He would was accomplished; for we have all passed from death unto life. But the imagination of the Jews, and of those who are like them, was vain, since the result was not such as they contemplated, but turned out adverse to themselves; and 'at both of them He that sitteth in the heaven shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision 9.' Hence, when our Saviour was led to death, He restrained the women who followed Him weeping, saying, 'Weep not for Me;' meaning to shew that the Lord's death is an event, not of sorrow but of joy, and that He Who dies for us is alive. For He does not derive His being from those things which are not, but from the Father. It is truly a subject of joy, that we can see the signs of victory against death, even our own incorruptibility, through the body of the Lord. For since He rose gloriously, it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since His body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption ". For as by one man, as saith Paul (and it is the truth), sin passed upon all men, so by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall all rise. 'For,' he says, 'this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality 13.' Now this came to pass in the time of the Passion, in which our Lord died for us, for 'our Passover, Christ, is sacrificed 14.' Therefore, because He was sacrificed, let each of us feed upon Him, and with alacrity and diligence partake of His sustenance; since He is given to all without grudging, and is in every one 'a well of water flowing to everlasting life.'
15. We begin the fast of forty days on the ninth of the month Phamenoth (Mar. 5); and having, in these days, served the Lord with abstinence, and first purified ourselves, we commence also the holy Easter on the fourteenth of the month Pharmuthi (April 9). Afterwards, extending the fast to the seventh day, on the seventeenth 17 of the month, let us rest late in the evening. And the light of the Lord having first dawned upon us, and the holy Sunday on which our Lord rose shining upon us, we should rejoice and be glad with the joy which arises from good works, during the seven weeks which remain—to Pentecost—giving glory to the Father, and saying, 'This is the day which the Lord hath made: we will rejoice and be glad in it[18'], through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, through Whom to the same, and to His Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Salute one another with a holy kiss. All the brethren who are with me salute you. That ye may have health in the Lord, I pray, brethren beloved.
[Here endeth the eleventh Letter of holy Athanasius.]
Taken from "The Early Church Fathers and Other Works" originally published by Wm. B. Eerdmans Pub. Co. in English in Edinburgh, Scotland, beginning in 1867. (NPNF II/IV, Schaff and Wace). The digital version is by The Electronic Bible Society, P.O. Box 701356, Dallas, TX 75370, 214-407-WORD.