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A History Of The Church In Seven Books by Socrates

I MAY perhaps be permitted here to make a few reflections on Easter. It appears to me that neither the ancients nor moderns who have affected to follow the Jews, have had any rational foundation for contending so obstinately about it. For they have altogether lost sight of the fact that when our religion superseded the Jewish economy, the obligation to observe the Mosaic law and the ceremonial types ceased. That it is incompatible with Christian faith to practise Jewish rites, is manifest from the Apostle’s expressly forbidding it; and not only rejecting circumcision, but also deprecating contention about festival days. In his Epistle to the Galatians he writes, “Tell me, ye that desire to be under the law, do ye not hear the law?” And continuing his train of argument, he demonstrates that the Jews were in bondage as servants, but that Christians are called into the liberty of sons. Moreover he exhorts them to disregard days, and months, and years. Again in his Epistle to the Colossians he distinctly declares, that such observances are merely shadows: wherefore he says, “Let no man judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of any holy-day, or of the new moon, or of the sabbath-days; which are a shadow of things to come.” The same truths are also confirmed by him in the epistle to the Hebrews in these words: “For the priesthood being changed, there is made of necessity a change also of the law.” Neither the apostle therefore, nor the evangelists, have any where imposed the yoke of servitude on those who have embraced the gospel; but have left Easter and every other feast to be honoured by the gratitude of the recipients of grace. Men love festivals, because they afford them cessation from labour: and therefore it is that each individual in every place, according to his own pleasure, has by a prevalent custom celebrated the memory of the saving passion. The Saviour and his apostles have enjoined us by no law to keep this feast: nor in the New Testament are we threatened with any penalty, punishment, or curse for the neglect of it, as the Mosaic law does the Jews. It is merely for the sake of historical accuracy, and for the reproach of the Jews, because they polluted themselves with blood on their very feasts, that it is recorded in the gospels that our Saviour suffered “in the days of unleavened bread.” The apostles had no thought of appointing festival days, but of promoting a life of blamelessness and piety. And it seems to me that the feast of Easter has been introduced into the church from some old usage, just as many other customs have been established. In Asia Minor most people kept the fourteenth day of the moon, disregarding the sabbath: yet they never separated from those who did otherwise, until Victor bishop of Rome, influenced by too ardent a zeal, fulminated a sentence of excommunication against the Quartodecimani in Asia. But Irenæus bishop of Lyons in France, severely censured Victor by letter for his immoderate heat; telling him that although the ancients differed in their celebration of Easter, they did not depart from intercommunion. Also that Polycarp bishop of Smyrna, who afterwards suffered martyrdom under Gordian, continued to communicate with Anicetus bishop of Rome, although he himself, according to the usage of his country, kept Easter on the fourteenth day of the moon, as Eusebius attests in the fifth book of his “Ecclesiastical History.” While therefore some in Asia Minor observed the day above-mentioned, others in the East kept that feast on the sabbath indeed, but not in the same month. The former thought the Jews should be followed, though they were not exact: the latter kept Easter after the equinox, refusing to be guided by the Jews; “for,” said they, “it ought to be celebrated when the sun is in Aries, in the month which the Antiochians term Xanthicus, and the Romans April.” In this practice, they averred, they conformed not to the modern Jews, who are mistaken in almost everything, but to the ancients of that nation, and what Josephus has written in the third book of his “Jewish Antiquities.” Thus these people were at issue. But all other Christians in the Western parts, as far as the ocean itself, are found to have celebrated Easter after the equinox, from a very ancient tradition, and have never disagreed on this subject. It is not true, as some have pretended, that the Synod under Constantine altered this festival: for that emperor himself, writing to those who differed respecting it, recommended them, as few in number, to agree with the majority of their brethren. His letter is given at length by Eusebius in his third book of the life of that sovereign; but the part relative to Easter runs thus:—“It is a becoming order which all the churches in the Western, Southern, and Northern parts of the world observe, and some places in the East also. Wherefore all on the present occasion have judged it right, and I have pledged myself that it will have the acquiescence of your prudence, that what is unanimously observed in the city of Rome, throughout Italy, Africa, and Egypt, in Spain, France, Britain, Libya, and all Greece, the Asian and Pontic diocese, and Cilicia, your wisdom also will readily embrace; considering not only that the number of churches in the aforesaid places is greater, but also that while there should be a universal concurrence in what is most reasonable, it becomes us to have nothing in common with the perfidious Jews.” Such is the tenor of the emperor’s letter. Moreover the Quartodecimani affirm that the observance they maintain was delivered to them by the apostle John: while the Romans and those in the Western parts assure us that their usage originated with the apostles Peter and Paul. Neither of these parties however can produce any written testimony in confirmation of what they assert. But that the time of keeping Easter in various places is dependant on usage, I infer from this, that those who agree in faith, differ among themselves on this question. And it will not perhaps be unseasonable to notice here the diversity of customs in the churches. The fasts before Easter are differently observed. Those at Rome fast three successive weeks before Easter, excepting Saturdays and Sundays. The Illyrians, Achaians and Alexandrians observe a fast of six weeks, which they term “the forty days’ fast.” Others commencing their fast from the seventh week before Easter, and fasting three five days only, and that at intervals, yet call that time “the forty days’ fast.” It is indeed surprising that thus differing in the number of days, they should both give it one common appellation; but some assign one reason for it, and others another, according to their several fancies. There is also a disagreement about abstinence from food, as well as the number of days. Some wholly abstain from things that have life: others feed on fish only of all living creatures: many together with fish, eat fowl also, saying that according to Moses, these were likewise made out of the waters. Some abstain from eggs, and all kinds of fruits: others feed on dry bread only; and others eat not even this: while others having fasted till the ninth hour, afterwards feed on any sort of food without distinction. And among various nations there are other usages, for which innumerable reasons are assigned. Since however no one can produce a written command as an authority, it is evident that the apostles left each one to his own free will in the matter, to the end that the performance of what is good might not be the result of constraint and necessity. Nor is there less variation in the services performed in their religious assemblies, than there is about fastings. For although almost all churches throughout the world celebrate the sacred mysteries on the sabbath of every week, yet the Christians of Alexandria and at Rome, on account of some ancient tradition, refuse to do this. The Egyptians in the neighbourhood of Alexandria, and the inhabitants of Thebaïs, hold their religious meetings on the sabbath, but do not participate of the mysteries in the manner usual among Christians in general: for after having eaten and satisfied themselves with food of all kinds, in the evening making their oblations, they partake of the mysteries. At Alexandria again, on the 4th Feria, (i. e. the Wednesday in Passion week) and on that termed the Preparation day, (Good Friday) the scriptures are read, and the doctors expound them; and all the usual services are performed in their assemblies, except the celebration of the mysteries. This practice in the city is of great antiquity, for it is well known that Origen most commonly taught in the church on these days. He being very learned in the Sacred Books, and perceiving that the secret of the Mosaic Law could not be explained literally, gave it a spiritual interpretation; declaring that there has never been but one true Passover, which our Saviour celebrated when he hung upon the cross: for that he then vanquished the adverse powers, and erected this trophy against the devil. In the same city of Alexandria, readers and chanters are chosen indifferently from the catechumens and the faithful; whereas in all other churches the faithful only are promoted to these offices. I myself also, when in Thessaly, knew another custom. If a clergyman in that country, after taking orders, should sleep with his wife, whom he had legally married before his ordination, he would be degraded. In the East indeed all clergymen, and even the bishops themselves, abstain from their wives: but this they do of their own accord, there being no law in force to make it necessary; for there have been among them many bishops, who have had children by their lawful wives, during their episcopate. It is said that the author of the usage which obtains in Thessaly, was Heliodorus bishop of Trica in that country; under whose name there are love books extant, entitled “Ethiopici,” which he composed in his youth. The same custom prevails at Thessalonica, and in Macedonia, and Achaia. I have also remarked another peculiarity in Thessaly, which is, that they baptize there on the days of Easter only; in consequence of which a very great number of them die without having received this rite. At Antioch in Syria the site of the church is inverted; so that the altar instead of looking toward the East, faces the West. In Achaia and Thessaly, and also at Jerusalem, they go to prayers as soon as the candles are lighted, in the same manner as the Novatians do at Constantinople. At Cæsarea likewise, and in Cappadocia, and the Isle of Cyprus, the bishops and presbyters expound the scriptures in the evening, after the candles are lighted. The Novatians of the Hellespont do not perform their prayers altogether in the same manner as those of Constantinople; in most things however their usage is similar to that of the catholic church. In short you will scarcely find anywhere, among all the sects, two churches which agree exactly in their ritual respecting prayers. At Alexandria no presbyter is allowed to preach: a regulation which was made after Arius had raised a disturbance in that church. At Rome they fast every Saturday. At Cæsarea they exclude from communion those who have sinned after baptism, as the Novatians do. The same discipline was practised by the Macedonians in the Hellespont, and by the Quartodecimani in Asia. The Novatians in Phrygia do not admit such as have twice married; but those of Constantinople neither admit nor reject them openly, while in the Western parts they are openly received. This diversity was occasioned, as I imagine, by the bishops who in their respective eras governed the churches; and those who received these several rites and usages, transmitted them as laws to posterity. It would be difficult, if not impossible, to give a complete catalogue of all the various customs and ceremonial observances servances in use throughout every city and country: but the instances we have adduced are sufficient to show, that the Easter Festival was from some remote precedent differently celebrated in every particular province. They talk at random therefore who assert that the time of keeping Easter was altered in the Nicene Synod; for the bishops there convened earnestly laboured to reduce the first dissident minority to uniformity of practice with the rest of the people. Now that differences of this kind existed in the first ages of the church, was not unknown even to the apostles themselves, as the Book of The Acts testifies. For when they understood that the peace of the believers was disturbed by a dissension of the Gentiles, having all met together, they promulged a divine law, giving it the form of a letter. By this sanction they liberated Christians from the bondage of formal observances, and all vain contention about these things; teaching them the path of true piety, and only prescribing such things as were conducive to its attainment. The epistle itself, which I shall here transcribe, is recorded in The Acts of the Apostles. “The apostles and elders and brethren send greeting unto the brethren which are of the Gentiles in Antioch and Syria and Cilicia. Forasmuch as we have heard, that certain which went out from us have troubled you with words, subverting your souls, saying, Ye must be circumcised, and keep the law; to whom we gave no such commandment: it seemed good unto us, being assembled with one accord, to send chosen men unto you, with our beloved Barnabas and Paul, men that have hazarded their lives for the name of our Lord Jesus Christ. We have therefore sent Judas and Silas, who shall also tell you the same thing by mouth. For it seemed good to the Holy Ghost and to us, to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things: that ye abstain from meats offered to idols, and from blood, and from things strangled, and from fornication; from which if ye keep yourselves, ye shall do well. Fare ye well.” These things indeed pleased God: for the letter expressly says, “It seemed good to the Holy Ghost to lay upon you no greater burden than these necessary things.” There are nevertheless some who disregarding these precepts, suppose all fornication to be an indifferent matter; but contend about holy-days as if their lives were at stake. Such persons contravene the commands of God, and legislate for themselves, not respecting the decree of the apostles: neither do they perceive that they are themselves practising the contrary to those things which God approved. We might easily have extended our discourse respecting Easter, and have demonstrated that the Jews observe no exact rule either in the time or manner of celebrating the paschal solemnity: and that the Samaritans, who are a schism of the Jews, always celebrate this festival after the equinox. But this subject would require a distinct and copious treatise: I shall therefore merely add, that those who affect so much to imitate the Jews, and are so very anxious about an accurate observance of types, ought to depart from them in no particular. For if they have resolved on being so correct, they must not only observe days and months, but all other things also, which Christ (who was “made under the law”) did in the manner of the Jews; or which he unjustly suffered from them; or wrought typically for the good of all men. Thus when he entered into a ship and taught: when he ordered the Passover to be made ready in an upper room: when he commanded an ass that was tied to be loosed: when he proposed a man bearing a pitcher of water as a sign to them for hastening their preparations for the Passover. To be consistent they must observe all these things, with an infinite number of others of this nature which are recorded in the gospels. And yet those who suppose themselves to be justified by keeping this feast, would think it absurd to observe any of these things in a bodily manner. No doctor, for instance, ever dreams of going to preach from a ship—no person imagines it necessary to go up into an upper room, and celebrate the Passover there—they never tie, and then loose an ass again—and finally no one enjoins another to carry a pitcher of water, in order that the symbols might be fulfilled. They have justly regarded such things as savouring rather of Judaism than Christianity: for the Jews are more solicitous about outward solemnities, than the obedience of the heart; and therefore are they under the curse, not discerning the spiritual bearing of the Mosaic law, but resting in its types and shadows. Those who favour the Jews admit the allegorical meaning of these things; and yet they pertinaciously contend about days and months, without applying to them a similar sense: thus do they necessarily involve themselves in a common condemnation with the Jews. But enough has been said concerning these things. Let us now return to the subject we were previously treating of, the subdivisions that arose on the most trivial grounds among the schismatics, after their separation from the church. The Novatians, as I have stated, were divided among themselves on account of the feast of Easter, the controversy not being restricted to one point only. For in the different provinces some took one view of the question, and some another, disagreeing not only about the month, but the days of the week also, and other unimportant matters; in some places holding separate assemblies because of it, in others uniting in mutual communion.

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