Fathers of the Church
Festal Letter XIX
by Athanasius in 347 | translated by Payne-Smith
Coss. Rufinus, Eusebius; Praef. the same Nestorius; Indict. v; Easter-day Prid. Id. Apr., Pharmuthi xvii; Arra Dioclet. 63; Moon 15.
'BLESSED is God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ,' for such an introduction is fitting for an Epistle, and more especially now, when it brings thanksgiving to the Lord, in the Apostle's words, because He hath brought us from a distance, and granted us again to send openly to you, as usual, the Festal Letters. For this is the season of the feast, my brethren, and it is near; being not now proclaimed by trumpets, as the history records, but being made known and brought near to us by the Saviour, Who suffered on our behalf and rose again, even as Paul preached, saying, 'Our Passover, Christ, is sacrificed.' Henceforth the feast of the Passover is ours, not that of a stranger, nor is it any longer of the Jews. For the time of shadows is abolished, and those former things have ceased, and now the month of new things[4a] is at hand, in which every man should keep the feast, in obedience to Him who said, 'Observe the month of new things, and keep the Passover to the Lord thy Gods.' Even the heathen fancy they keep festival, and the Jews hypo-critically feign to do so. But the feast of the heathen He reproves, as the bread of mourners, and He turns His face from that of the Jews, as being outcasts, saying, 'Your new moons and your sabbaths My soul hateth.'
2. For actions not done lawfully and piously, are not of advantage, though they may be reputed to be so, but they rather argue hypocrisy in those who venture upon them. Therefore, although such persons feign to offer sacrifices, yet they hear from the Father, 'Your whole burnt- offerings are not acceptable, and your sacrifices do not please Me; and although ye bring fine flour, it is vanity, incense also is an abomination unto Me.' For God does not need anything; and, since nothing is unclean to Him, He is full in regard to them, as He testifies, by Isaiah, saying, 'I am full.' Now there was a law given about these things, for the instruction of the people, and to prefigure things to come, for Paul saith to the Galatians; 'Before faith came, we were kept guarded under the law, being shut up in the faith which should afterwards be revealed unto us; wherefore the law was our instructor in Christ, that we might be justified by faith.' But the Jews knew not, neither did they understand, therefore they walked in the daytime as in darkness, feeling for, but not touching, the truth we possess, which [was contained] in the law; conforming to the letter, but not submitting to the spirit. And when Moses was veiled, they looked on him, but turned away their faces from him when he was uncovered. For they knew not what they read, but erroneously substituted one thing for another. The prophet, therefore, cried against them, saying, 'Falsehood and faithlessness have prevailed among them.' The Lord also therefore said concerning them, 'The strange children have dealt falsely with Me; the strange children have waxen old.' But how gently does He reprove them, saying, 'Had ye believed Moses, ye would have believed Me, for he wrote of Me.' But being faithless, they went on to deal falsely with the law, affirming things after their own pleasure, but not understanding the Scripture; and, further, as they had hypocritically made a pretence of the plain text of Scripture, and had confidence in this, He is angry with them, saying by Isaiah, 'Who hath required these of your hands?' And by Jeremiah, since they were very bold, he threatens, 'Gather together your whole burnt-offerings with your sacrifices, and eat flesh, for I spake not unto your fathers, nor commanded them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning whole burnt- offerings and sacrifices.' For they did not act as was right, neither was their zeal according to law, but they rather sought their own pleasure in such days, as the prophet accuses them, beating clown their bondsmen, and gathering themselves together for strifes and quarrels, and they smote the lowly with the fist, and did all things that tended to their own gratification. For this cause, they continue without a feast until the end, although they make a display now of eating flesh, out of place and out of season. For, instead of the legally-appointed lamb, they have learned to sacrifice to Baal; instead of the true unleavened bread, 'they collect the wood, and their fathers kindle the fire, and their wives prepare the dough, that they may make cakes to the host of heaven, and pour out libations to strange gods, that they may provoke Me to anger, saith the Lord.' They have the just reward of such devices, since, although they pretend to keep the Passover, yet joy and gladness is taken from their mouth, as saith Jeremiah, 'There hath been taken away from the cities of Judah, and the streets of Jerusalem, the voice of those who are glad, and the voice of those who rejoice; the voice of the bridegroom, and the voice of the bride.' Therefore now, 'he who among them sacrificeth an ox, is as he who smiteth a man, and he who sacrificeth a lamb is as he who killeth a dog, he that offereth fine flour, is as [if he offered] swine's blood, he that giveth frankincense for a memorial, is as a blasphemer.' Now these things will never please God, neither thus hath the word required of them. But He saith, 'These have chosen their own ways; and their abominations are what their soul delighteth in.'
3. And what does this mean my brethren? For it is right for us to investigate the saying of the prophet, and especially on account of heretics who have turned their mind against the law. By Moses then, God gave commandment respecting sacrifices, and all the book called Leviticus is entirely taken up with the arrangement of these matters, so that He might accept the offerer. So through the Prophets, He blames him who despised these things, as disobedient to the commandment, saying, 'I have not required these at your hands. Neither did I speak to your fathers respecting sacrifices, nor command them concerning whole burnt- offerings.' Now it is the opinion of some, that the Scriptures do not agree together, or that God, Who gave the commandment, is false. But there is no disagreement whatever, far from it, neither can the Father, Who is truth, lie; 'for it is impossible that God should lie,' as Paul affirms. But all these things are plain to those who rightly consider them, and to those who receive with faith the writings of the law. Now it appears to me- -may God grant, by your prayers, that the remarks I presume to make may not be far from the truth—that not at first were the commandment and the law concerning sacrifices, neither did the mind of God, Who gave the law, regard whole burnt-offerings, but those things which were pointed out and prefigured by them. 'For the law contained a shadow of good things to come.' And, 'Those things were appointed until the time of reformation.'
4. Therefore, the whole law did not treat of sacrifices, though there was in the law a commandment concerning sacrifices, that by means of them it might begin to instruct men and might withdraw them from idols, and bring them near to God, teaching them for that present time. Therefore neither at the beginning, when God brought the people out of Egypt, did He command them concerning sacrifices or whole burnt-offerings, nor even when they came to mount Sinai. For God is not as man, that He should be careful about these things beforehand; but His commandment was given, that they might know Him Who is truly God, and His Word, and might despise those which are falsely called gods, which are not, but appear in outward show So He made Himself known to them in that He brought them out of Egypt, and caused them to pass through the Red Sea. But when they chose to serve Baal, and dared to offer sacrifices to those that have no existence, and forgat the miracles which were wrought in their behalf in Egypt, and thought of returning thither again; then indeed, after the law, that commandment concerning sacrifices was ordained as law; so that with their mind, which at one time had meditated on those which are not, they might turn to Him Who is truly God, and learn not, in the first place, to sacrifice, but to turn away their faces from idols, and conform to what God commanded. For when He saith, 'I have not spoken concerning sacrifices, neither given commandment concerning whole burnt- offerings,' He immediately adds, 'But this is the thing which I commanded them, saying, Obey My voice, and I will be to you a God, and ye shall be to Me a people, and ye shall walk in all the ways that I command you.' Thus then, being before instructed and taught, they learned not to do service to any one but the Lord. They attained to know what time the shadow should last, and not to forget the time that was at hand, in which no longer should the bullock of the herd be a sacrifice to God, nor the ram of the flock, nor the he-goat, but all these things should be fulfilled in a purely spiritual manner, and by constant prayer, and upright conversation, with godly words; as David sings, 'May my meditation be pleasing to Him. Let my prayer be set forth before Thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as the evening sacrifice.' The Spirit also, who is in him, commands, saying, 'Offer unto God the sacrifice of praise, and pay to the Lord thy vows. Offer the sacrifice of righteousness, and put your trust in the Lord.'
5. Samuel, that great man, no less clearly reproved Saul, saying, 'Is not the word better than a gift(7a)?' For hereby a man fulfils the law, and pleases God, as He saith, 'The sacrifice of praise shall glorify Me.' Let a man 'learn what this means, I will have mercy, and not sacrifice,' and I will not condemn the adversaries. But this wearied them, for they were not anxious to understand, 'for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.' And what their end is, the prophet foretold, crying, 'Woe unto their soul, for they have devised an evil thought, saying, let us bind the just man, because he is not pleasing to us. The end of such abandonment as this can be nothing but error, as the Lord, when reproving them, saith, 'Ye do err, not knowing the Scriptures.' Afterwards when, being reproved, they should have come to their senses, they rather grew insolent, saying, 'We are Moses' disciples; and we know that God spake to Moses;' dealing the more falsely by that very expression, and accusing themselves. For had they believed him to whom they hearkened, they would not have denied the Lord, Who spake by Moses, when He was present. Not so did the eunuch in the Acts, for when he heard, 'Understandest thou what thou readest?' he was not ashamed to confess his ignorance, and implored to be taught. Therefore, to him who became a learner, the grace of the Spirit was given. But as for those Jews who persisted in their ignorance; as the proverb saith, 'Death came upon them. For the fool dies in his sins
6. Like these too, are the heretics, who, having fallen from true discernment, dare to invent to themselves atheism. 'For the fool saith in his heart, There is no God. They are corrupt, and become abominable in their doings.' Of such as are fools in their thoughts, the actions are wicked, as He saith, 'can ye, being evil, speak good things;' for they were evil, because they thought wickedness. Or how can those do just acts, whose minds are set upon fraud? Or how shall he love, who is prepared beforehand to hate? How shall he be merciful, who is bent upon the love of money? How shall he be chaste, who looks upon a woman to lust after her? 'For from the heart proceed evil thoughts, fornications, adulteries, murders.' By them the fool is wrecked, as by the waves of the sea, being led away and enticed by his fleshly pleasures; for this stands written, 'All flesh of fools is greatly tempest-tossed.' While he associates with folly, he is tossed by a tempest, and perishes, as Solomon says in the Proverbs, 'The fool and he who lacketh understanding shall perish together, and shall leave their wealth to strangers.' Now they suffer such things, because there is not among them one sound of mind to guide them. For where there is sagacity, there the Word, who is the Pilot of souls, is with the vessel; 'for he that hath understanding shall possess guidance;' but they who are without guidance fall like the leaves. Who has so completely fallen away as Hymenaeus and Philetus, who held evil opinions respecting the resurrection, and concerning faith in it suffered shipwreck? And Judas being a traitor, fell away from the Pilot, and perished with the Jews. But the disciples since they were wise, and therefore remained with the Lord, although the sea was agitated, and the ship covered with the waves, for there was a storm, and the wind was contrary, yet fell not away. For they awoke the Word, Who was sailing with them, and immediately the sea became smooth at the command of its Lord, and they were saved. They became preachers and teachers at the same time; relating the miracles of our Saviour, and teaching us also to imitate their example. These things were written on our account and for our profit, so that through these signs we may acknowledge the Lord Who wrought them.
7. Let us, therefore, in the faith of the disciples, hold frequent converse with our Master. For the world is like the sea to us, my brethren, of which it is written, 'This is the great and wide sea, there go the ships; the Leviathan, which Thou hast created to play therein.' We float on this sea, as with the wind, through our own free-will, for every one directs his course according to his will, and either, under the pilotage of the Word, he enters into rest, or, laid hold on by pleasure, he suffers shipwreck, and is in peril by storm. For as in the ocean there are storms and waves, so in the world there are many afflictions and trials. The unbelieving therefore 'when affliction or persecution ariseth is offended,' as the Lord said. For not being confirmed in the faith, and having his regard towards temporal things, he cannot resist the difficulties which arise from afflictions. But like that house, built on the sand by the foolish man, so he, being without understanding, fails before the assault of temptations, as it were by the winds. But the saints, having their senses exercised in self-possession, and being strong in faith, and understanding the word, do not faint under trials; but although, from time to time, circumstances of greater trial are set against them, yet they continue faithful, and awaking the Lord Who is with them, they are delivered. So, passing through water and fire, they find relief and duly keep the feast, offering up prayers with thanksgiving to God Who has redeemed them. For either being tempted they are known, like Abraham, or suffering they are approved, like Job, or being oppressed and deceitfully treated, like Joseph, they patiently endure it, or being persecuted, they are not overtaken; but as it is written, through God they 'leap over the wall' of wickedness, which divides and separates between brethren, and turns them from the truth. In this manner the blessed Paul, when he took pleasure in infirmities, in reproach, in necessities, in persecutions, and in distresses for Christ, rejoiced, and wished all of us to rejoice saying, 'Rejoice always; in everything give thanks.'
8. For what is so fitting for the feast, a turning from wickedness, and a pure conversation, and prayer offered without ceasing to God, with thanksgiving? Therefore let us, my brethren, looking forward to celebrate the eternal joy in heaven, keep the feast here also, rejoicing at all times, praying incessantly, and in everything giving thanks to the Lord. I give thanks to God, for those other wonders He has done, and for the various helps that have now been granted us, in that though He hath chastened us sore, He did not deliver us over to death, but brought us from a distance even as from the ends of the earth, and hath united us again with you. I have been mindful while I keep the feast, to give you also notice of the great feast of Easter, that so we may go up together, as it were, to Jerusalem, and eat the Passover, not separately but as in one house; let us not as sodden in water, water down the word of God; neither let us, as having broken its bones, destroy the commands of the Gospel. But as roasted with fire, with bitterness, being fervent in spirit, in fastings and watchings, with lying on the ground, let us keep it with penitence and thanksgiving.
9. We begin the fast of forty days on the sixth day of Phamenoth(Mar. 2); and having passed through that properly, with fasting and prayers, we may be able to attain to the holy day. For he who neglects to observe the fast of forty days, as one who rashly and impurely treads on holy things, cannot celebrate the Easter festival. Further, let us put one another in remembrance, and stimulate one another not to be negligent, and especially that we should fast those days, so that fasts may receive us in succession, and we may rightly bring the feast to a close.
10. The fast of forty days begins then, as was already said, on the sixth of Phamenoth (Mar. 2), and the great week of the Passion on the eleventh of Pharmuthi (Apr. 6). And let us rest from the fast on the sixteenth of it (Apr. 11), on the seventh day, late in the evening. Let us keep the feast when the first of the week dawns upon us, on the seventeenth of the same month Pharmuthi (Apr. 12). Let us then add, one after the other, the seven holy weeks of Pentecost, rejoicing and praising God, that He hath by these things made known to us beforehand, joy and rest everlasting, prepared in heaven for us and for those who truly believe in Christ Jesus our Lord; through Whom, and with Whom, be glory and dominion to the Father, with the Holy Ghost, for ever and ever. Amen.
Salute one another with a holy kiss. The brethren who are with me salute you.
13 I have also thought it necessary to inform you of the appointment of Bishops, which has taken place in the stead of our blessed fellow- ministers, that ye may know to whom to write, and from whom ye should receive letters. In Syene, therefore, Nilammon, instead of Nilammon of the same name. In Latopolis, Masis, instead of Ammonius. In Coptos, Psenosiris, instead of Theodorus. In Panopolis, because Artemidorus desired it, on account of his old age, and weakness of body, Arius is appointed coadjutor. In Hypsele, Arsenius, having become reconciled to the Church. In Lycopolis, Eudaemon in the stead of Plusianus. In Anti-noopolis, Arion, instead of Ammonius and Tyrannus. In Oxyrynchus, Theodorus, instead of Pelagius. In Nilopolis, instead of Theon, Amatus, and Isaac, who are reconciled to each other. In Arsenoitis, Andreas, instead of Silvanus. In Prosopitis, Triadelphus, instead of Serapammon. In Diosphacus, on the river side, Theodorus, instead of Serapammon. In Sais, Paphnutius, instead of Nemesion. In Xois, Theodorus, instead of Anubion; and there is also with him Isidorus, who is reconciled to the Church. In Sethroitis, Orion, instead of Potammon. In Clysma, Tithonas, instead of Jacob; and there is with him Paulus, who has been reconciled to the Church.
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.