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5. Easter, or the Festival which Commemorates the Death and Resurrection of our Lord

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

5. Easter, or the Festival which Commemorates the Death and Resurrection of our Lord

This great event is a cardinal point in the christian system on which depend our faith and hope. So important was the doctrine of Christ's resurrection in the view of the primitive church that, not only was an annual festival set apart to commemorate it; but the Lord's day was made a weekly memorial of the same event. This festival was therefore celebrated with great solemnity. It was styled by Gregory Nazianzen, the king of days, the festival of festivals; excelling all others as far as the sun outshines the stars.

Unlike the Christmas festival, this was a moveable feast. However the ancients might differ respecting the time for celebrating Christmas whether in December, April, May, August, or September, all agreed that it should be held uniformly on some given day. But this festival was restricted to no prescribed day; a circumstance which gave rise to great contentions, by which the church was sorely agitated and divided for several centuries.

This festival, like that of Christmas, was preceded by a season of fasting. This fast at first continued forty hours, corresponding to Friday and Saturday before Easter, and comprising the period during which our Saviour lay in the grave. It was moreover in the beginning a voluntary fast. But it became in process of time a prescribed and necessary duty, not only for penitents and catechumens, but for all believers to observe this fast for their own spiritual improvement. In the fifth and sixth centuries, the fast was extended to thirty-six days. The four additional days which complete the season of Lent were added either in the sixth century by Gregory the Great, or in the eighth by Gregory II. This fast, styled the carnival, from caro vale, began with Ash Wednesday and ended with the Saturday before Easter. That day was observed with great solemnity, and was denominated the Great Sabbath.

The entire week before Easter, beginning with Palm Sunday, was kept as holy time; but the fifth, sixth, and seventh, were regarded as peculiarly sacred above the other days of this week. The week was denominated the great week and passion week.

The fifth day, called Maundy Thursday, dies mandati, was a communion day, dies mysteriorum, eucharistiae, panis, indulgentiae, etc. And, for a long time after the ancient love-feasts were discontinued, this day was observed as a feast of love. With these ceremonies was also joined that of washing the feel by catechumens and candidates for baptism. The creed was also publicly rehearsed by them on this day, and pardon was extended to the penitent, hence called dies indulgentiae.

The sixth day of passion week is Good Friday, from the good derived from the death of Christ. The day was observed as a strict fast. The customary acclamations and doxologies were omitted, and nothing but the most plaintive strains of music, such as *, etc. was allowed. No bell was rung on this occasion. None bowed the knee in prayer, because thus the Jews reviled Jesus, Matt. 27:29. Neither did any present the kiss of charity, for Judas betrayed his Lord with a kiss. The sacramental elements were not consecrated, the altars were divested of their ornaments and the gospel of John was read, because he was a faithful and true witness of our Lord's passion.

The seventh day of this week, the Great Sabbath, as it was called, was observed with rigorous precision as a day of fasting. Religious worship was celebrated by nighty and the vigils of the night were continued until cock-crowing, the hour when the Lord was supposed to have arisen. At this instant the stillness of these midnight vigils was suddenly interrupted by the joyful acclamation, The Lord is risen, the Lord is risen! the Lord is risen indeed!

This day was particularly set apart for administering the ordinance of baptism, with a reference to the baptism wherewith Christ was at this time baptized, and for the consecration of the holy water. The Scripture lessons for this day were various selections from the prophets.

The day of Easter was celebrated with every demonstration of joy as a second jubilee. In connection with appropriate devotional exercises, it was customary to celebrate the day by deeds of charity and mercy – by granting liberty to the captive, freedom to the slave, and pardon to the criminals. Charities were dispensed to the needy. Courts of justice were suspended. Each participated in the general joy and felt his bosom swell with the "wide wish of benevolence."

The week following Easter was observed as a continuation of the festival. The time was spent in reading the Scriptures, celebrating the mysteries and other appropriate exercises. During this time they who had been baptized at Easter appeared arrayed in white, in token of that purity of life to which they were bound by their baptismal vows. On the sabbath following, they laid aside their garments of white, and after this became integral members of the church. The day was called While Sunday from their appearing in white for the last time. It was also denominated the Octave of Easter, New Lord's day, etc.

*: Also printed in Greek in Rev. Lyman Coleman's translation.

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