Fathers of the Church
Festal Letter VI
by Athanasius in 334 | translated by Payne-Smith
Easter-day, xii Pharmuthi, vii [Id. April: xvii Moon; Aera Dioclet. 50; Coss. Optatus Patricius, Anicius Paulinus; Praefect, Philagrius, the Cappadocian; vii Indict.
Now again, my beloved, has God brought us to the season of the feast, and through His loving-kindness we have reached the period of assembly for it. For that God who brought Israel out of Egypt, even He at this time calls us to the feast, saying by Moses, 'Observe the month of new fruits, and keep the Passover to the Lord thy God:' and by the prophet, Keep thy feasts, O Judah; pay to the Lord thy vows.' If then God Himself loves the feast, and calls us to it, it is not right, my brethren, that it should be delayed, or observed carelessly; but with alacrity and zeal we should come to it, so that having begun joyfully here, we may also receive an earnest of that heavenly feast. For if we diligently celebrate the feast here, we shall doubtless receive the perfect joy which is in heaven, as the Lord says; 'With desire I have desired to eat this Passover with you before I suffer. For I say unto you, that I will not eat it until it is fulfilled with you in the kingdom of God.' Now we eat it if, understanding the reason of the feast, and acknowledging the Deliverer, we conduct ourselves in accordance with His grace, as Paul saith; 'So that we may keep the Feast, not with old leaven neither with the leaven of wickedness; but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.' For the Lord died in those days, that we should no longer do the deeds of death. He gave His life, that we might preserve our own from the snares of the devil. And, what is most wonderful, the Word became flesh, that we should no longer live in the flesh, but in spirit should worship God, who is Spirit. He who is not so disposed, abuses the days, and does not keep the feast, but like an unthankful person finds fault with the grace, and honours the days overmuch, while he does not supplicate the Lord who in those days redeemed him. Let him by all means hear, though fancying that he keeps the feast, the Apostolic voice reproving him; 'Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years: I fear test I have laboured among you in vain.'
2. For the feast is not on account of the days; but for the Lord's sake, who then suffered for us, we celebrate it, for 'our Passover Christ, is sacrificed.' Even as Moses, when teaching Israel not to consider the feast as pertaining to the days, but to the Lord, said, 'It is the Lord's Passover.' To the Jews when they thought they were keeping the Passover, because they persecuted the Lord, the feast was useless; since it no longer bore the name of the Lord, even according to their own testimony. It was not the Passover of the Lord, but that of the Jews. The Passover was named after the Jews, my brethren, because they denied the Lord of the Passover. On this account, the Lord, turning away His face from such a doctrine of theirs, saith, 'Your new moons and your sabbaths My soul hateth',
3. So now, those who keep the Passover in like manner, the Lord again reproves, as He did those lepers who were cleansed, when He loved the one as thankful, but was angry with the others as ungrateful, because they did not acknowledge their Deliverer, but thought more of the cure of the leprosy than of Him who healed them. 'But one of them when he saw that he was healed, turned back, and with a loud voice glorified God, and fell on his If ace at the feet of Jesus giving Him thanks; and he was a Samaritan. And Jesus answering said, Were there not ten cleansed? but those nine — whence are there none found who returned to give glory to God, but this stranger? ' And there was more given to him than to the rest; for being cleansed from his leprosy, he heard from the Lord, 'Arise, go thy way, thy faith hath saved thee.' For he who gives thanks, and he who glorifies, have kindred feelings, in that they bless their Helper for the benefits they have received. So the Apostle exhorts all men to this, saying, 'Glorify God with your body;' and the prophet commands, saying, 'Give glory to God.' Although testimony was borne by Caiaphas against our Redeemer, and He was set at nought by the Jews, and was condemned by Pilate in those days, yet exalted exceedingly and most mighty was the voice of the Father which came to Him; 'I have glorified, and will glorify again.' For those things which He suffered for our sake have passed away; but those which belong to Him as the Saviour remain for ever.
4. But in our commemoration of these things, my brethren, let us not be occupied with meats, but let us glorify the Lord, let us become fools for Him who died for us, even as Paul said; 'For if we are foolish, it is to God; or if we are sober-minded, it is to you; since because one died for all men, therefore all were dead to Him; and He died for all, that we who live should not henceforth live to ourselves, but to Him who died for us, and rose again.' No longer then ought we to live to ourselves, but, as servants to the Lord. And not in vain should we receive the grace, as the time is especially an acceptable one, and the day of salvation hath dawned, even the death of our Redeemer. For even for our sakes the Word came down, and being incorruptible, put on a corruptible body for the salvation of all of us. Of which Paul was confident, saying, 'This corruptible must put on incorruption.' The Lord too was sacrificed, that by His blood He might abolish death. Full well did He once, in a certain place, blame those who participated vainly in the shedding of His blood, while they did not delight themselves in the flesh of the Word, saying, 'What profit is there in my blood, that I go down to corruption?' This does not mean that the descent of the Lord was without profit, for it gained the whole world; but rather that after He had thus suffered, sinners would prefer to suffer loss than to profit by it. For He regarded our salvation as a delight and a peculiar gain; while on the contrary He looked upon our destruction as loss.
5. Also in the Gospel, He praises those who increased the grace twofold, both him who made ten talents of five, and him who made four talents of two, as those who had profited, and turned them to good account; but him who hid the talent He cast out as wanting, saying to him, 'Thou wicked servant! Oughtest thou not to have put My money to the exchangers? then at My coming I should have received Mine own with interest. Take, therefore, from him the talent, and give it to him that hath ten talents. For to every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have more abundantly; but from him that hath not, shall be taken away even that which he hath. And cast ye the unprofitable servant into outer darkness; there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For it is not His will that the grace we have received should be unprofitable; but He requires us to take pains to render Him His own fruits, as the blessed Paul saith; 'The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, and, peace.' Having therefore this right resolution, and owing no man anything, but rather giving everything to every man, he was a teacher of the like rightness of principle, saying, 'Render to all their dues.' He was like those sent by the householder to receive the fruits of the vineyard from the husbandmen; for he exhorted all men to render a return. But Israel despised and would not render, for their will was not right, nay moreover they killed those that were sent, and not even before the Lord of the vineyard were they ashamed, but even He was slain by them. Verily, when He came and found no fruit in them, He cursed them through the fig-tree, saying, 'Let there be henceforth no fruit from thee;' and the fig- tree was dead and fruitless so that even the disciples wondered when it withered away.
6. Then was fulfilled that which was spoken by the prophet; 'I will take away from them the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the scent of myrrh, and the light of a lamp, and the whole land shall be destroyed.' For the whole service of the law has been abolished from them, and henceforth and for ever they remain without a feast. And they observe not the Passover; for how can they? They have no abiding place, but they wander everywhere. And they eat unleavened bread contrary to the law, since they are unable first to sacrifice the lamb, as they were commanded to do when eating unleavened bread. But in every place they transgress the law, and as the judgments of God require, they keep days of grief instead of gladness. Now the cause of this to them was the slaying of the Lord, and that they did not reverence the Only-Begotten. At this time the altogether wicked heretics and ignorant schismatics are in the same case; the one in that they slay the Word, the other in that they rend the coat. They too remain expelled from the feast, because they live without godliness and knowledge, and emulate the conduct shewn in the matter of Bar-Abbas the robber, whom the Jews desired instead of the Saviour. Therefore the Lord cursed them under the figure of the fig- tree. Yet even thus He spared them in His loving-kindness, not destroying them root and all. For He did not curse the root, but [said], that no man should eat fruit of it thenceforth. When He did this, He abolished the shadow, causing it to wither; but preserved the root, so that we might [not] be grafted upon it; 'they too, if they abide not in unbelief, may attain to be grafted into their own olive tree.' Now when the Lord had cursed them because of their negligence, He removed from them the new moons, the true lamb, and that which is truly the Passover.
7. But to us it came: there came too the solemn day, in which we ought to call to the feast with a trumpet, and separate ourselves to the Lord with thanksgiving, considering it as our own festival. For we are bound to celebrate it, not to ourselves but to the Lord; and to rejoice, not in ourselves but in the Lord, who bore our griefs and said, 'My soul is sorrowful unto death.' For the heathen, and all those who are strangers to our faith, keep feasts according to their own wills, and have no peace, since they commit evil against God. But the saints, as they live to the Lord also keep the feast to Him, saying, 'I will rejoice in Thy salvation,' and, 'my soul shall be joyful in the Lord.' The commandment is common to them, 'Rejoice, ye righteous, in the Lord'— so that they also may be gathered together, to sing that common and festal Psalm, 'Come, let us rejoice,' not in ourselves, but, 'in the Lord.'
8. For thus the patriarch Abraham rejoiced not to see his own day, but that of the Lord; and thus looking forward 'he saw it, and was glad.' And when he was tried, by faith he offered up Isaac, and sacrificed his only-be-gotten son—he who had received the promises. And, in offering his son, he worshipped the Son of God. And, being restrained from sacrificing Isaac, he saw the Messiah in the ram, which was offered up instead as a sacrifice to God. The patriarch was tried, through Isaac, not however that he was sacrificed, but He who was pointed out in Isaiah; 'He shall be led as a lamb to the slaughter, and as a sheep before her shearers he shall be speechless;' but He took away the sin of the world. And on this account [Abraham] was restrained from laying his hand on the lad, lest the Jews, taking occasion from the sacrifice of Isaac, should reject the prophetic declarations concerning our Saviour, even all of them, but more especially those uttered by the Psalmist; 'Sacrifice and offering Thou wouldest not; a body Thou hast prepared Me;' and should refer all such things as these to the son of Abraham.
9. For the sacrifice was not properly the setting to rights of Isaac, but of Abraham who also offered, and by that was tried. Thus God accepted the will of the offerer, but prevented that which was offered from being sacrificed. For the death of Isaac did not procure freedom to the world, but that of our Saviour alone, by whose stripes we all are healed. For He raised up the falling, healed the sick, satisfied those who were hungry, and filled the poor, and, what is more wonderful raised us all from the dead; having abolished death, He has brought us from affliction and sighing to the rest and gladness of this feast, a joy which reacheth even to heaven. For not we alone are affected by this, but because of it, even the heavens rejoice with us, and the whole church of the firstborn, written in heaven, is made glad together, as the prophet proclaims, saying, 'Rejoice, ye heavens, for the Lord hath had mercy upon Israel. Shout, ye foundations of the earth. Cry out with joy, ye mountains, ye high places, and all the trees which are in them, for the Lord hath redeemed Jacob, and Israel hath been glorified.' And again; Rejoice, and be glad, ye heavens; let the hills melt into gladness, for the Lord hath had mercy on His people, and comforted the oppressed of the people.'
10. The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that hath breath praises the Lord, as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repenteth, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! how must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those Who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; 'Where is thy victory, O Death? where is thy sting, O Grave?' Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory.
11. Who then will lead us to such a company of angels as this? Who, coming with a desire for the heavenly feast, and the angelic holiday, will say like the prophet, 'I will pass to the place of the wondrous tabernacle, unto the house of God; with the voice of joy and praise, with the shouting of those who keep festival?' To this course the saints also encourage us, saying, 'Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, and to the house of the God of Jacob.' But not for the impure is this feast, nor is the ascent thereto for sinners; but it is for the virtuous and diligent; and for those who live according to the aim of the saints; for, 'Who shall ascend to the hill of the Lord? or who shall stand in His holy place, but he that hath clean hands, and a pure heart; who hath not devoted his soul to vanity, nor sworn deceitfully to his neighbour. For he,' as the Psalmist adds, when he goes up, 'shall receive a blessing from the Lord.' Now this clearly also refers to what the Lord gives to them at the right hand, saying, 'Come, ye blessed, inherit the kingdom prepared for you.' But the deceitful, and he that is not pure of heart, and possesses nothing that is pure (as the Proverb saith, 'To a deceitful man there is nothing good'), shall assuredly, being a stranger, and of a different race from the saints, be accounted unworthy to eat the Passover, for 'a foreigner shall not eat of it.' Thus Judas, when he thought he kept the Passover, because he plotted deceit against the Saviour, was estranged from the city which is above, and from the apostolic company. For the law commanded the Passover to be eaten with due observance; but he, while eating it, was sifted of the devil, who had entered his soul.
12. Wherefore let us not celebrate the feast after an earthly manner, but as keeping festival in heaven with the angels. Let us glorify the Lord, by chastity, by righteousness, and other virtues. And let us rejoice, not in ourselves, but in the Lord, that we may be inheritors with the saints. Let us keep the feast then, as Moses. Let us watch like David who rose seven times, and in the middle of the night gave thanks for the righteous judgments of God. Let us be early, as be said, 'In the morning I will stand before Thee, and Thou wilt look upon me: in the morning Thou wilt hear my voice.' Let us fast like Daniel; let us pray without ceasing, as Paul commanded; all of us recognising the season of prayer, but especially those who are honourably married; so that having borne witness to these things, and thus having kept the feast, we may be able to enter into the joy of Christ in the kingdom of heaven. But as Israel, when going up to Jerusalem, was first purified in the wilderness, being trained to forget the customs of Egypt, the Word by this typifying to us the holy fast of forty days, let us first be purified and freed from defilement, so that when we depart hence, having been careful of fasting, we may be able to ascend to the upper chamber with the Lord, to sup with Him; and may be partakers of the joy which is in heaven. In no other manner is it possible to go up to Jerusalem, and to eat the Passover, except by observing the fast of forty days.
13. We begin the fast of forty days on the first day of the month Phamenoth (Feb. 25); and having prolonged it till the fifth of Pharmuthi (Mar. 31), suspending it upon the Sundays and the Saturdays preceding them, we then begin again on the holy days of Easter, on the sixth of Pharmuthi (Apr, 1), and cease on the eleventh of the same month (Apr. 6), late in the evening of the Saturday, whence dawns on us the holy Sunday, on the twelfth of Pharmuthi (Apr. 7), which extends its beams, with unobscured grace, to all the seven weeks of the holy Pentecost. Resting on that day, let us ever keep Easter joy in Christ Jesus our Lord, through Whom, to the Father, be glory and dominion for ever and ever. Amen. All the brethren who are with me salute you. Salute one another with a holy kiss.
Here endeth the sixth Festal Letter of the holy and God-clad 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.