Fathers of the Church
Festal Letter XIV
by Athanasius in 342 | translated by Payne-Smith
Cuss. Augustus Constantius III, Constans II; Praef. the same Zonginus; Indict. xv; Easter-day iii Id. Apr., xvi Pharmuthi; Aera Dioclet. 58.
THE gladness of our feast, my brethren, is always near at hand, and never fails those who wish to celebrate it. For the Word is near, Who is all things on our behalf, even our Lord Jesus Christ, Who, having promised that His habitation with us should be perpetual, in virtue thereof cried, saying, 'Lo, I am with you all the days of the world.' For as He is the Shepherd, and the High Priest, and the Way and the Door, and everything at once to us, so again, He is shewn to us as the Feast, and the Holyday, according to the blessed Apostle; 'Our Passover, Christ, is sacrificed.' He it was who was expected, He caused a light to shine at the prayer of the Psalmist, who said, 'My Joy, deliver me from those who surround me;' this being indeed true rejoicing, this being a true feast, even deliverance from wickedness, whereto a man attains by thoroughly adopting an upright conversation, and being approved in his mind of godly submission towards God. For thus the saints all their lives long were like men rejoicing at a feast. One found rest in prayer to God, as blessed David, who rose in the night, not once but seven times. Another gave glory in songs of praise, as great Moses, who sang a song of praise for the victory over Pharaoh, and those task- masters. Others performed worship with unceasing diligence, like great Samuel and blessed Elijah; who have ceased from their course, and now keep the feast in heaven, and rejoice in what they formerly learnt through shadows, and from the types recognise the truth.
2. But what sprinklings shall we now employ, while we celebrate the feast? Who will be our guide, as we haste to this festival? None can do this, my beloved, but Him Whom you will name with me, even our Lord Jesus Christ Who said, 'I am the Way.' For it is He Who, according to the blessed John, 'taketh away the sin of the world.' He purifies our souls, as Jeremiah the prophet says in a certain place, 'Stand in the ways and see, and enquire, and look which is the good path, and ye shall find in it cleansing for your souls.' Of old time, the blood of he-goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkled upon those who were unclean, were fit only to purify the flesh[9a]; but now, through the grace of God the Word, every man is thoroughly cleansed. Following Him, we may, even here, as on the threshold of the Jerusalem which is above, meditate beforehand on the feast which is eternal, as also the blessed Apostles, together following the Saviour Who was their Leader, have now become teachers of a like grace, saying, 'Behold, we have left all, and followed Thee.' For the following of the Lord, and the feast which is of the Lord, is not accomplished by words only, but by deeds, every enactment of laws and every command involving a distinct performance. For as great Moses, when administering the holy laws, exacted a promise from the people, respecting the practice of them, so that having promised, they might not neglect them, and be accused as liars, thus also, the celebration of the least of the Passover raises no question, and demands no reply; but when the word is given, the performance of it follows, for He saith, 'And the children of Israel shall keep the Passover;' intending that there should be a ready performance of the commandment, while the command should aid its execution. But respecting these matters, I have confidence in your wisdom, and your care for instruction. Such points as these have been touched upon by us often and in various Letters.
3. But now, which is above all things most necessary, I wish to remind you, and myself with you, how that the command would have us come to the Paschal feast not profanely and without preparation, but with sacramental and doctrinal rites, and prescribed observances, as indeed we learn from the historical account, 'A man who is of another nation, or bought with money, or uncircumcised, shall not eat the Passover.' Neither should it be eaten in 'any' house, but He commands it to be done in haste; inasmuch as before we groaned and were made sad by the bondage to Pharaoh, and the commands of the task-masters. For when in former time the children of Israel acted in this way, they were counted worthy to receive the type, which existed for the sake of this feast, nor is the feast now introduced on account of the type. As also the Word of God, when desirous of this, said to His disciples, 'With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you.' Now that is a wonderful account, for a man might have seen them at that time girded as for a procession or a dance, and going out with staves, and sandals, and unleavened bread. These things, which took place before in shadows, were typical But now the Truth is nigh unto us, 'the Image of the invisible God, ' our Lord Jesus Christ, the true Light, Who instead of a staff, is our sceptre, instead of unleavened bread, is the bread which came down from heaven, Who, instead of sandals, hath furnished us with the preparation of the Gospel, and Who, to speak briefly, by all these hath guided us to His Father. And if enemies afflict us and persecute us, He again, instead of Moses, will encourage us with better words, saying, 'Be of good cheer; I have overcome the wicked one.' And if after we have passed over the Red Sea heat should again vex us or some bitterness of the waters befall us, even thence again the Lord will appear to us, imparting to us of His sweetness, and His life-giving fountain, saying, 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink.'
4. Why therefore do we tarry, and why do we delay, and not come with all eagerness and diligence to the feast, trusting that it is Jesus who calleth us? Who is all things for us, and was laden in ten thousand ways for our salvation; Who hungered and thirsted for us, though He gives us food and drink in His saving gifts. For this is His glory, this the miracle of His divinity, that He changed our sufferings for His happiness. For, being life, He died that He might make us alive, being the Word, He became flesh, that He might instruct the flesh in the Word, and being the fountain of life, He thirsted our thirst, that thereby He might urge us to the feast, saying, 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me, and drink.' At that time, Moses proclaimed the beginning of the feast, saying, 'This month is the beginning of months to you.' But the Lord, Who came down in the end of the ages, proclaimed a different day, not as though He would abolish the law, far from it, but that He should establish the law, and be the end of the law. 'For Christ is the end of the law to every one that believeth in righteousness;' as the blessed Paul saith, 'Do we make void the law by faith? far from it: we rather establish the law.' Now these things astonished even the officers who were sent by the Jews, so that wondering they said to the Pharisees, 'No man ever thus spake.' What was it then that astonished those officers, or what was it which so affected the men as to make them marvel? It was nothing but the boldness and authority of our Saviour. For when of old time prophets and scribes studied the Scriptures, they perceived that what they read did not refer to themselves, but to others. Moses, for instance, 'A prophet will the Lord raise up unto you of your brethren, like unto me; to him hearken in all that he commands you.' Isaiah again, 'Behold, a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and ye shall call his name Emmanuel.' And others prophesied in different and various ways, concerning the Lord. But by the Lord, of Himself, and of no other, were these things prophesied; to Himself He limited them all, saying, 'If any man thirst, let him come to Me'—not to any other person, but to 'Me.' A man may indeed hear from those concerning My coming, but he must not henceforth drink from others, but from Me.
5. Therefore let us also, when we come to the feast, no longer come as to old shadows, for they are accomplished, neither as to common feasts, but let us hasten as to the Lord, Who is Himself the feast, not looking upon it as an indulgence and delight of the belly, but as a manifestation of virtue. For the feasts of the heathen are full of greediness, and utter indolence, since they consider they celebrate a feast when they are idle; and they work the works of perdition when they feast. But our feasts consist in the exercise of virtue and the practice of temperance; as the prophetic word testifies in a certain place, saying, 'The fast of the fourth, and the fast of the fifth, and the fast of the seventh, and the fast of the tenth [month], shall be to the house of Judah for gladness, anti rejoicing, and for pleasant feasts.' Since therefore this occasion for exercise is set before us, and such a day as this is come, and the prophetic voice has gone forth that the feast shall be celebrated, let us give all diligence to this good proclamation, and like those who contend on the race course, let us vie with each other in observing the purity of the fast, by watchfulness in prayers, by study of the Scriptures, by distributing to the poor, and let us be at peace with our enemies. Let us bind up those who are scattered abroad, banish pride, and return to lowliness of mind, being at peace with all men, and urging the brethren unto love. Thus also the blessed Paul was often engaged in fastings and watchings, and was willing to be accursed for his brethren. Blessed David again, having humbled himself by fastings, used boldness, saying, 'O Lord my God, if I have done this, if there is any iniquity in my hands, if I have repaid those who dealt evil with me, then may I fall from my enemies as a vain man.' If we do these things, we shall conquer death; and receive an earnest of the kingdom of heaven.
6. We begin the holy Easter feast on the tenth of Pharmuthi (April 5), desisting from the holy fasts on the fifteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (April 10), on the evening of the seventh day. And let us keep the holy feast on the sixteenth of the same month Pharmuthi (April 11); adding one by one [the days] till the holy Pentecost, passing on to which, as through a succession of feasts, let us keep the festival to the Spirit, Who is even now near us, in Jesus Christ, through Whom and with Whom to the Father be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen.
[The fifteenth and sixteenth are wanting.]
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.