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Fathers of the Church

Festal Letter XIII


We notice in the Festal Letters the same simplicity of style, vigor and warmth that pervades Athanasius’s other writings. Naturally the coming Easter season occupies a prominent place and a tone of joy predominates. (Quasten) In this letter, Athanasius repeats a common theme in his correspondence: Christians should glory in their afflictions as a means of being perfected in Christ. By looking past temporal things to the reward that awaits them, the faithful can accept all things as part of God's plan of salvation for them.


During the third century it had become a custom with the bishops of Alexandria to announce the beginning of Lent and the correct date of Easter each year to the suffragan sees by a letter issued usually shortly after Epiphany. Such a pastoral contained in addition a discussion of current ecclesiastical affairs or problems of Christian life and exhortations to observe the fast, to almsgiving and the reception of the sacraments. Dionysius of Alexandria is the first known to have sent such Easter Letters. Athanasius remained loyal to this tradition, even when he was in exile. Shortly after his death these letters were brought together by one of his friends and the collection was given wide distribution. (Quasten) At the time of publication only the first thirteen of these letters were extant, in Syriac; others have since been discovered. For many of the letters, further information about the circumstances of composition may be found in the early Index to the Festal Letters.

by Athanasius in 341 | translated by Payne-Smith

Coss. Marcellinus, Probinus; Praef. Longinus; Indict. xiv; Easter-day, xiii Kal. Maii, xxiv Pharmuthi; Aera Dioclet. 57.

AGAIN, my beloved brethren, I am ready to notify to you the saving feast, which will take place according to annual custom. For although the opponents of Christ have oppressed you together with us with afflictions and sorrows; yet, God having comforted us by our mutual faith, behold, I write to you even from Rome. Keeping the feast here with the brethren, still I keep it with you also in will and in spirit, for we send up prayers in common to God, 'Who hath granted us not only to believe in Him, but also now to suffer for His sake.' For troubled as we are, because we are so far from you, He moves us to write, that by a letter we might comfort ourselves, and provoke one another to good[4a]. For, indeed, numerous afflictions and bitter persecutions directed against the Church have been against us. For heretics, corrupt in their mind, untried in the faith, rising against the truth, violently persecute the Church, and of the brethren, some are scourged and others torn with stripes, and hardest of all, their insults reach even to the Bishops. Nevertheless, it is not becoming, on this account, that we should neglect the feast. But we should especially remember it, and not at all forget its commemoration from time to time. Now the unbelievers do not consider that there is a season for feasts, because they spend all their lives in revelling and follies; and the feasts which they keep are an occasion of grief rather than of joy. But to us in this present life they are above all an uninterrupted passage [to heaven]—it is indeed our season. For such things as these serve for exercise and trial, so that, having approved ourselves zealous and chosen servants of Christ, we may be fellow-heirs with the saints. For thus Job: 'The whole world is a place of trial to men upon the earth[5a].' Nevertheless, they are proved in this world by afflictions, labours, and sorrows, to the end that each one may receive of God such reward as is meet for him, as He saith by the prophet, 'I am the Lord, Who trieth the hearts, and searcheth the reins, to give to every one according to his ways.'

2. Not that He first knows the things of a man on his being proved (for He knows them all before they come to pass), but because He is good and philanthropic, He distributes to each a due reward according to his actions, so that every man may exclaim, Righteous is the judgment of God! As the prophet says again, The Lord trieth the just, and discerneth the reins.' Again, for this cause He tries each one of us, either that to those who know it not, virtue may be manifested by means of those who are proved, as was said respecting Job; 'Thinkest thou that I was revealed to thee for any other cause, than that thou shouldest be seen righteous?' or that, when men come to a sense of their deeds, they may be able to know of what manner they are, and so may either repent of their wickedness, or abide confirmed in the faith. Now the blessed Paul, when troubled by afflictions, and persecutions, and hunger and thirst, 'in everything was a conqueror, through Jesus Christ, Who loved us.' Through suffering he was weak indeed in body, yet, believing and hoping, he was made strong in spirit, and his strength was made perfect in weakness[9a].

3. The other saints also, who had a like confidence in God, accepted a like probation with gladness, as Job said, 'Blessed be the name of the Lord.' But the Psalmist, 'Search me, O Lord, and try me: prove my reins and my heart.' For since, when the strength is proved, it convinceth the foolish, they perceiving the cleansing and the advantage resulting from the divine fire, were not discouraged in trials like these, but they rather delighted in them, suffering no injury at all from the things which happened, but being seen to shine more brightly, like gold from the fire, as he said, who was tried in such a school of discipline as this; 'Thou hast tried my heart, Thou hast visited me in the night-season; Thou hast proved me, and hast not found iniquity in me, so that my mouth shall not speak of the works of men.' But those whose actions are not restrained by law, who know of nothing beyond eating and drinking and dying, account trials as danger. They soon stumble at them, so that, being untried in the faith, they are given over to a reprobate mind, and do those things which are not seemly[13a]. Therefore the blessed Paul, when urging us to such exercises as these, and having before measured himself by them, says, 'Therefore I take pleasure in afflictions, in infirmities.' And again, 'Exercise thyself unto godliness.' For since he knew the persecutions that befel those who chose to live in godliness, he wished his disciples to meditate beforehand on the difficulties connected with godliness; that when trials should come, and affliction arise, they might be able to bear them easily, as having been exercised in these things. For in those things wherewith a man has been conversant in mind, he ordinarily experiences a hidden joy. In this way, the blessed martyrs, becoming at first conversant with difficulties, were quickly perfected in Christ, regarding as nought the injury of the body, while they contemplated the expected rest.

4. But all those who 'call their lands by their own names,' and have wood, and hay, and stubble in their thoughts; such as these, since they are strangers to difficulties, become aliens from the kingdom of heaven. Had they however known that 'tribulation perfecteth patience, and patience experience, anti experience hope, and hope maketh not ashamed,' they would have exercised themselves, after the example of Paul, who said, 'I keep under my body and bring it into subjection, test when I have preached to others, I myself should be a castaway.' They would easily have borne the afflictions which were brought upon them to prove them from time to time, if the prophetic admonition had been listened to by them; 'It is good for a man to take up Thy yoke in his youth; he shall sit alone and shall be silent, because he hath taken Thy yoke upon him. He will give his cheek to him who smiteth him; he will be filled with reproaches. Because the Lord does not cast away for ever; for when He abases, He is gracious, according to the multitude of His tender mercies.' For though all these things should proceed from the enemies, stripes, insults, reproaches, yet shall they avail nothing against the multitude of God's tender mercies; for we shall quickly recover from them since they are merely temporal, but God is always gracious, pouring out His tender mercies on those who please [Him]. Therefore, my beloved brethren, we should not look at these temporal things, but fix our attention on those which are eternal. Though affliction may come, it will have an end, though insult and persecution, yet are they nothing to the hope which is set [before us]. For all present matters are trifling compared with those which are future; the sufferings of this present time not being worthy to be compared with the hope that is to come. For what can be compared with the kingdom? or what is there in comparison with life eternal? Or what is all we could give here, to that which we shall inherit yonder? For we are 'heirs of God, and joint-heirs with Christ.' Therefore it is not right, my beloved, to consider afflictions and persecutions, but the hopes which are laid up for us because of persecutions.

5. Now to this the example of Issachar, the patriarch, may persuade, as the Scripture saith, 'Issachar desires that which is good, resting between the heritages; and when he saw that the rest was good, and the land fertile, he bowed his shoulder to labour, and became a husbandman.' Being consumed by divine love, like the spouse in the Canticles, he gathered abundance from the holy Scriptures, for his mind was captivated not by the old alone, but by both the heritages. And hence as it were, spreading his wings, he beheld afar off 'the rest' which is in heaven, and,— since this 'land' consists of such beautiful works,—how much more truly the heavenly [country] must also [consist] of such; for the other is ever new, and grows not old. For this 'land' passes away, as the Lord said; but that which is ready to receive the saints is immortal. Now when Issachar, the patriarch, saw these things, he joyfully made his boast of afflictions and toils, bowing his shoulders that he might labour. And he did not contend with those who smote him, neither was he disturbed by insults; but like a strong man triumphing the more by these things, and the more earnestly tilling his land, he received profit from it. The Word scattered the seed, but he watchfully cultivated it, so that it brought forth fruit, even a hundred-fold.

6. Now what does this mean, my beloved, but that we also, when the enemies are arrayed against us, should glory in afflictions[8a], and that when we are persecuted, we should not be discouraged, but should the rather press after the crown of the high calling in Christ Jesus our Lord? and that being insulted, we should not be disturbed, but should give our cheek to the smiter, and bow the shoulder? For the lovers of pleasure and the lovers of enmity are tried, as saith the blessed Apostle James, 'when they are drawn away by their own lusts and enticed.' But let us, knowing that we suffer for the truth, and that those who deny the Lord smite and persecute us, 'count it all joy, my brethren,' according to the words of James, 'when we fall into trials of various temptations, knowing that the trial of our faith worketh patience.' Let us rejoice as we keep the feast, my brethren, knowing that our salvation is ordered in the time of affliction. For our Saviour did not redeem us by inactivity, but by suffering for us He abolished death. And respecting this, He intimidated to us before, saying, 'In the world ye shall have tribulation.' But He did not say this to every man, but to those who diligently and faithfully perform good service to Him, knowing beforehand, that they should be persecuted who would live godly toward Him.

7. 'But evil-doers and sorcerers will wax worse and worse, deceiving and being deceived., If therefore, like those expounders of dreams and false prophets who professed to give signs, these ignorant men being drunk, not with wine, but with their own wickedness, make a profession of priesthood, and glory in their threats, believe them not; but since we are tried, let us humble ourselves, not being drawn away by them. For so God warned His people by Moses, saying, 'If there shall rise up among you a prophet, or a dreamer of dreams, and shall give signs and tokens, and the sign or the token shall come to pass which he spake to thee, saying, Let us go and serve strange gods, which ye have not known; ye shall not hearken unto the words of that prophet or that dreamer of dreams. For the Lord your God trieth you, that He may know whether you will love the Lord your God with all your heart.' So we, when we are tried by these things, will not separate ourselves from the love of God. But let us now keep the feast, my beloved, not as introducing a day of suffering, but of joy in Christ, by Whom we are fed every day. Let us be mindful of Him Who was sacrificed in the days of the Passover; for we celebrate this, because Christ the Passover was sacrificed. He Who once brought His people out of Egypt, and hath now abolished death, and him that had the power of death, that is the devil, will likewise now turn him to shame, and again grant aid to those who are troubled, and cry unto God day and night.

8. We begin the fast of forty days on the thirteenth of Phamenoth (9 Mar.), and the holy week of Easter on the eighteenth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 13); and resting on the seventh day, being the twenty-third (Apr. 18), and the first of the great week having dawned on the twenty-fourth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 19),, let us reckon from it till Pentecost. And at all times let us sing praises, calling on Christ, being delivered from our enemies by Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. Greet one another with a holy kiss. All those who are here with me salute you. I pray, my beloved brethren, that ye may have health in the Lord.

[He wrote this also from Rome. Here endeth the thirteenth Letter.]

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.

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