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1. Preliminary Remarks

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

1. Preliminary Remarks. 

The primitive church were not careful to prescribe a specific time or place for the celebration of their religious festivals. The apostles and their immediate successors proceeded on the principle that these should be observed at stated times, which might still be varied as circumstances should direct. These seasons were regarded as sacred, not for any peculiar sanctity belonging to the day, or hour, in which they were solemnized, in itself considered, but merely as being set apart from a common to a religious use. Some however have maintained, that these festive days should be observed as holy time. 

The reckoning of chronology by the christian era was introduced in the sixth century by Dionysius, a Roman abbot, and in the seventh and eighth centuries, was denominated the Dionysian era. Previous to the introduction of this system of chronology, time was reckoned, by the Jews from the creation of the world, by the Romans from the founding of Rome, or by consulships, or by the reign of their emperors. The calendar was revised by Julius Caesar fortyfive years before Christ, and the year made to begin on the first of January instead of the first of March. The Dionysian era began A. D. 531, but it has since been subject to certain modifications, of which the most important are the correction of the epact, and the reduction from the 25th of March to the 25th of December.

It is not distinctly known when the reckoning of time by an ecclesiastical year began in the church. The Jews had a civil year which dated from the creation of the world, and began on the first day of the month Tisri, corresponding to the first half of September and styled **. Their ecclesiastical or religious year having the same name began on the first of the month Nisan, corresponding with the latter part of March. The passover followed immediately, and all their festivals were reckoned from this date. From the authorities quoted in the above reference, it is probable that the ecclesiastical year in the christian church was adopted from the Jewish, and corresponded with it. In the fifth century the feast of the annunciation, March 25th, which also has an intimate relation to the 25th of December, was accounted the beginning of the ecclesiastical year, corresponding very nearly with the religious reckoning of the Jews. This became a fixed point for the church from which to date all their festivals, or as Chrysostom expresses it, it was *. This feast, according to the council of Toletum, X. c. 1, was to be held on the 18th of December, on the last sabbath of Christmas, as in Milan; or on the t5th or 6th of January, as in the Ethiopian and Armenian churches respectively. In France it was observed on the 25th of March as late as the sixteenth century, and in England even down to the eighteenth century.

The Western church generally may very naturally be supposed to date their ecclesiastical year from the advent of Christ, in imitation of the church at Rome. Between the seventh and ninth centuries this festival was extended to include six sabbath days. This number was afterwards reduced.

The Eastern church, like the Western, celebrated the Advent for a series of days, but differed entirely from that church in the reckoning of their religious year. This they began from the feast on the erection of the cross, crouch-mas-day, Sept. 14th. 

This mode of reckoning time, by ecclesiastical and civil years must have caused much confusion and inconvenience. And some important reasons must have led to the adoption of a system of chronology so complicated and inconvenient. The primitive church were probably influenced in their adherence to this arrangement by their desire to embrace in their sacred seasons all the leading incidents of our Saviour's life. The Julian reckoning of time from the first of January they rejected because of its relation to pagan chronology. For many centuries this day was stigmatized by them as a day for fasting and penance, or as a day fit only to be observed by fools and hypochondriacs, the. observance of which was forbidden by various ecclesiastical councils in the sixth and seventh centuries. 

The names of months and weeks, and the consequent division of time by them, the church in general derived from the Roman calendar. But they rejected the names of January and February as being associated with paganism. For the same reason they rejected the reckoning by Calends, Nones, and Ides. They divided the year into fifty-two weeks, and gave to each a specific name as hehdomas magna, hehdomas authentica, muta, poenosa, luctuoso, crucis, indulgentiae, paschalis, pentecostalis, trinitatis, etc. They uniformly began the week on Sunday, which they styled the Lord's day, *, and the weeks which followed were denominated, Advent, Epiphany, etc. They manifested the same zealous opposition to paganism by rejecting the Roman names of the days of the week, Monday, Tuesday, dies Lunae, Mortis, etc. each being named after some pagan god. Some ascetics retained Sunday, dies Solis, but only in a mystical sense relating to the sun of righteousness. But the names of the others they uniformly refused, and substituted in their place the appellations Feria prima, secunda, etc. for Monday, Tuesday, etc. 

The festivals of the church are divided into the following classes: weekly and annual; moveable and immoveable, i.e. fixed to a certain day of the month on which they always occur; higher, middle and lower; universal and particular; ancient and modern; civil and ecclesiastical; secular and religious. Even as early as the second century the birth day of the emperor was celebrated in the church as a day of thanksgiving and prayer. Under Constantine the Great, these secular festivals became very numerous. It is worthy of remark that by the nativity, *, the church generally denoted not the natural birth but the death of the person commemorated by the festival, the deceased being supposed at death to he horn to a new and nobler state of being. The nativity however of our Lord, of John the Baptist, and of the Virgin Mary, is to be understood in its appropriate and obvious signification.

All their religious festivals were observed by the primitive church as a voluntary act, and never as an imperative duty. Their sentiments on this subject are fully expressed by Socrates, and recapitulated by Nicephorus. "Neither Paul nor the evangelists imposed any yoke of bondage upon those who received instruction from them; but they submitted the observance of the passover and of other festivals to the option of all. – So that neither the Lord Jesus, nor his apostles gave any law respecting these observances to enforce them by penalties and threatenings, as were the laws of Moses upon the Jews." For similar sentiments of the fathers see references. There were, however, some who very early maintained a different opinion; and in the fourth century various decrees of ecclesiastical councils were passed enjoining the observance of feastdays as a duty. even then, these duties were required rather as a rule of christian practice than as a doctrinal precept.

The number of religious festivals was at first small. The most ancient rubrics mention only those of the Passion of Easter, and of Whitsunday, commemorative of the death and resurrection of Christ, and the descent of the Holy Spirit. Christmas was not observed as a sacred religious festival until the fourth century, when it became customary to observe saints' days; among which, this was the most sacred. The earliest authorities on this point, are Clemens of Alexandria, Origen, and Jerome, as quoted above. From the council of Trent we learn that, for the first four hundred years, the festivals of the church were,

  1. The Lord's day;
  2. that of the Passion;
  3. of the Resurrection;
  4. the Ascension;
  5. Pentecost;
  6. the Nativity and Baptism of Christ. 

For later acts of councils, see references. 

The object and end proposed in observing those sacred seasons, was to call to mind the benefits of the christian dispensation, – to excite Christians to holy living, – to offer thanks for providential mercies; and to aid in the cultivation of the christian graces. These graces the primitive Christians sought particularly to cultivate on such occasions. Freed from worldly cares, that they might devote themselves to the duties of religion, they joyfully celebrated their religious festivals. So carefully were they conscientiously to guard against all improper indulgences, and idolatrous customs on those days, that they sought the interposition of the civil authority to protect them in the quiet observance of them, and to prohibit the vain amusements and recreations which were inconsistent with the solemnities of the occasion.

It is an interesting characteristic of the discourses which were delivered on these occasions, that they related to the most important topics of religion; all the benefits of Christianity, and the whole sacred history were set forth; the incarnation, the life and death of our Lord, and all the mysteries of the sacred Trinity, were particularly the topics of discourse. Even the Sabbath day, according to Eusebius, had a three-fold origin, *, emblematical of the sacred Trinity. So the three great feasts were supposed to embrace the three great principles of the christian religion, and were organized in accordance with the belief in a triune God. For the same reason, it became customary at a later period to celebrate each festival for three days only. Epiphanius, in one of his discourses on such an occasion, dwells upon the incarnation of Christ, God manifest in the flesh; on his death, and baptism by water and the Holy Ghost; the fall of Adam, and his restoration to eternal life; the heavenly state, etc. In the references, the reader is directed to this and other discourses of the fathers on these festivals. 

It is particularly striking to observe how differently christian and pagan festivals were celebrated. Philo the Jew mentions the following, as common scandals which occur at such idolatrous festivals, – negligence, indolence, carousing, surfeiting, noisy mirth, sensuality, convivial meetings at unseasonable hours, the gratification of particular lusts, inordinate excess, intemperance, self-inflicted ignominy; sleeping on the day which invites peculiar watchfulness, in a word, every unnatural excess. Every virtue is derided, everything praiseworthy is condemned, and every unworthy deed commended. Gregory Nazianzen, on the contrary, earnestly remonstrates against the celebration of Epiphany by ornamental decorations, music, or sweet odors, or any voluptuous enjoyment. Extravagant expenditures in dress, feasting and carousing, and wanton excesses of every kind he condemns. "Let us leave all such," he adds, "to the Gentiles and their gods, who, themselves devoted to every sensual pleasure, are fitly worshipped in the same way. But we who worship the incarnate Word, if we find pleasure in anything, let it be in meditating upon the divine law, and especially, in the recital of those things which harmonize with the present occasion." 

Constantine the Great enacted particular laws for the due observance of those days, which were again revised both by the elder and younger Theodosius. By those laws all theatrical exhibitions were forbidden, except on secular festivals commemorative of the birth or coronation of the emperor. Neither were they allowed in the interval between Easter and Whitsunday. Courts of justice were also suspended on most of those days, and civil persecutions prohibited. Among the positive duties required on such occasions were deeds of mercy and charity, attendance on public worship, not only of the house of worship, but of private dwellings, and the wearing of suitable apparel. The rich were to send presents of food to the poor, and prayers were to be offered by the congregation not kneeling, but standing. If any master proposed to manumit his slaves, this was also required to be done on those days. 

Since the fourth century, it has been customary to celebrate joyful festivals by decorations with evergreens, by strewing of flowers, illuminations, and the burning of incense.

It is uncertain whether the love feasts of the primitive church were a part of the sacrament or not. That they were celebrated in connection, is sufficiently evident. At first they preceded the sacramental season, and were an ordinance introductory to this. It was afterwards made to follow that season. In the fourth century these feasts became the occasion of such excesses that the intervention of ecclesiastical councils was required to correct them. They were subsequently prohibited altogether, and discontinued in the sixth or seventh century. See chap. XVI. § 13.

The sacrament of the Lord's supper was celebrated on all religious festivals, as the most important of the festivities of the occasion.

Rud. Hospiniani festa Christianorum h. e. de origione, progressu, ceremoniis et ritibus lestorum dierum christ. liber. Tigur. 1593. f. ed. Genev. 1669. J675. f.: G. B. Eisenschmid's Geschichte der Sonn-und Festtage der Christen u. s. w. 1793. 8: Ueber den ersten Ursprung und die erste BeschafFenheit der Feste, Fasten und Bittgange u. s. w. Miinchen 1804. 8: J. G. Bohme's Unterricht über den Ursprung uud die Benennung aller Sonn-, Fest-und anderer Tage durchs gauze Jahr. Zwickau 1817. 8: Die Festes des Herrn: bearbeitet von D. Rass und D. Weis Th. I. II. Mainz 1827. 8. 2. Ausg. 1834. 8.

Clemens. Alex. Strom. 7. c. 7. 427: Origen. Contra. Cels. 8. c. 21–23: Hieron. Comment, in Gal. 4: Augustin. Ep. 118, ad Jan. Contra. Adim. c. 16.

Gretseri de festis Chr. lib i. c. 1 seq.: Chr. Wildvogel Chronascopia legalis de jure festorum, 1699.

G. Hamberger, De Epochae Christianae ortu et auctore: J. Guil Jani historia Aerae Dionysiae.

Jo. Chr. Fischer de anno. Hebr. Gust. Sommelii de anno. Hebr. ecclesiastico atque civili: Josephus Antiq. i. c. 3. iii. c. 10. § 5: Anastasius in Meursii var. div.

Leonis AUatii de hebdomad. Gr. p. 1464.

Baumann De Calendis Januarii: Concil. Antisidor, c. 1: Turon. xi. c. 17, 23: Tolet. iv. c. 10: TruUan. c.62.

Fiske's Manual, p. 630.

Euseb. Vit. Constant, lib. i. c. 48. iii. c. 15. lib. iv. c. 40: vgl. Cod. Theodos. lib. ii. tit. viii. 1. 2. lib. vi. tit. xxvi. lib. xxvi. lib. xv. tit. Bingham, vol. ix. p. 11–13.

Hist. eccl. lib. v. c. 22. p. 283.

Hist. eccl. lib. xii. c. 32.

Clemens Alex, stromat. vii. c. 7. torn. iii. p. 427: Orig. c. Cels. viii. c. 21–23. p. 433: Chrysost. Horn. 1. De S. Pentec. torn. ii. p. 458: Hieron. Comment, in Gal. 4 torn. iv. p. 270: Augustin. ep. 118, ad Jaiiuar. contra Adimant. c. 16: Hospinian de orlgine fesior. c. 11.

Concil. Illiber. c. 21: Sardic. c. 11: Gangrense. c. 5, 6: Laodic. c. 29.

Chemnitii exam. Concil. Trident, torn. iv. p. 263.

Can. A post. c. 70, 72: Concil. Laodic. c. 37, 39: Concil. Trullan. c. 81: Illiber. c. 49, 50; Cod. Theodos. 16. tit. v. vi. ix.: tit. vi. 1.6.

Orat. De Domini nostri Jesu Christi Assumptione. Opp. ed. Patar. torn. ii. p. 286: Gregor. Naz. Orat.l9: Ephraem Syrus. De Cruce Domini in Paschate: Synesius Sermo. in Ps. 75.

Philo. Tractat. De Cherubim. Opp. vol. ii. p. 48.

Orat. 38, in Thoph. p. 614, 615.

Euseb. De Vit. Const. lib. iv. c. 18–23.

Cod. Theodos. xv. tit. v. I. 5. tit. v. I. 2.

Cod. Justin, lib. iii. tit. xii. 1. 11.

Cod. Justin, lib. iii. til. xii. 1. 7.

Cod. Justin, lib. ii. tit. viii. I. 1.

Epist. Ignatii ad Smyrn. c. 8.

Concil. Carthag. iii. c. 29: Tertullian apologet. c. 39: Ad Mart. p. 156. De Baptismo, c. 9: De Jejun. adv. Pycheios, c. 17: Clemens Alex. Paedag. lib. ii. c. 1: Chrysost. Horn. 27 in 1 Ep. ad Corinth.: August, ep. 116, ep. 233: Socrat. h. e. 11. 43: Beveridge Pandect, canon, torn. i. p. 415: Concil. Carthag. iii. 391. c. 30: Concil. Aurel. ii. c. 12: Concil. Trull. 1

It is a little singular that our names of the days of the week had an origin similar to that which was so obnoxious to the primitive church, as may be seen by observing their Saxon derivation. Sunnadaeg, Sun's day; Monandaeg. Moon's day; Tuesdaeg, day of Tuscio, i.e. Mars; Wodensdaeg, day of Woden, or Odin, a northern deity; Torsdaeg, day of Thor, a deity answering to Jupiter; Frydaeg, day of Frigga, the Venus of the North; Sat terdaeg, day of Sacter, i.e. Saturn. – TR. 54

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

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


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