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3. General View of the Sacred Seasons, and of the Period of the three Great Festivals

Antiquities of the Christian Church
XXI. Sacred Seasons, Festivals and Fasts

3. General View of the Sacred Seasons, and of the Period of the three Great Festivals

The most ancient of all the festivals of the church is that of Easter, in memory of our Lord's resurrection. The high antiquity and importance of this festival is sufficiently evident from the fact that the ecclesiastical year began with it, and that originally it was commemorative both of the death and resurrection of our Lord. It is known in the oldest writings extant as *, feast of the resurrection.

After this, the most ancient feast is that of Whitsunday, commemorative of the descent of the Holy Spirit on the day of Pentecost. It is really a continuation and conclusion of the festival above mentioned. The entire period of seven weeks between Easter and Whitsunday was one continued festival, styled the Pentecost, during which time it was not allowed either to kneel in prayer or to fast. The present Whitsunday is probably of no higher antiquity than the Ascension feast, which some writers, confounding the feast with the fact which it commemorates, assert to be of apostolic origin. It was coeval with the martyr feasts, in honor of saints, of which we have no knowledge earlier than the second, third, and fourth centuries.

The earliest of these festivals of which we have any record is that in memory of Polycarp, as related by Eusebius, who copies the epistle, sent by the church over which Polycarp presided, to the sister churches. In this epistle it is said, "The Lord grant that we may, with joy and gladness, celebrate the birth-day of his martyrdom, both in memory of those who have heretofore undergone and been victorious in this glorious conflict, and also for the instruction and preparation of such as shall hereafter be exercised therein." The Greek church, as early as the fourth century, celebrated the feast of All Saints.

The institution of Christmas as a festival was at a period subsequent to that above mentioned, and dates no farther back than the fourth century. After the introduction of this feast, which became the occasion of many others, the festivals of the church began to be reduced to system and method, not in the order of antiquity, but according to their design and end; so that towards the end of the fourth century the sacred seasons were arranged in three great cycles, setting forth in chronological order the leading incidents of our Saviour's life. The three high feasts were thus intended specifically to comprehend and to honor the most momentous events of the same.

These festivals were also preceded by preparatory fasts. Before Christmas and Easter, both the Latin and Greek churches agreed in keeping the advent and quadragesimal fasts, though they differed in regard to the time during which these ought to continue. The entire period between Easter and Whitsunday was a continued festival, in which it was unlawful to fast, but even this did not prevent the Greek church from observing a short fast before this day. The following extract from Chrysostom will illustrate the views of the fathers on this subject. "In six days God executed all his work, and rested on the seventh. So in these last days the divine Logos who, to save that which was lost, in mercy became flesh, appointed festivals corresponding to the days of the creation. The first is the nativity in the flesh; the second, epiphany; the third, the day of his passion; the fourth, the day of his glorious resurrection; the fifth, his reception into heaven; the sixth, the descent of the Holy Ghost; the seventh, the great day of general resurrection, which has no succession nor end. For that is an eternal festival, or perpetual sabbath, and rest for the people of God, to be celebrated with great joy and gladness, by those that shall be heirs of such things as eye hath not seen nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, – which God has prepared for them that love him." The last mentioned is, evidently, not a feast of the church, but the same as the eternal sabbath, and the heavenly hallelujah, of which the writers of that day so frequently speak.

The Greek church, according to the annalist Michael Glycas, observed six principal feasts; first, the birth; second, the baptism; third, the death; fourth, the resurrection; fifth, the ascension of Christ, and sixth, the descent of the Holy Ghost. These had a mystical relation to the six days of creation, and were emblematical of the new creation by Christ. Two of these were uniformly celebrated in connection, constituting a threefold division.

Lib. vi.e. 15: Vgl. Constant. M. Orat. ad Coetura. Sancton c. 13.

Chrysost. in Ge.; Hamartoli CRronic. vit. Justin: Bingham, Vol. ix. p. 185.

(* denotes Greek text in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.)


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