Celebrating Easter the Paschal Feast

This excerpt from a festal letter by St. Athanasius was written around 340 AD to prepare the people of Alexandria, Egypt for the celebration of the Paschal Feast of Easter. It clearly demonstrates the sacramental and liturgical nature of worship in the early church.

Brethren, how fine a thing it is to move from festival to festival, from prayer to prayer, from holy day to holy day. The time is now at hand when we enter on a new beginning: the proclamation of the blessed Passover, in which the Lord was sacrificed. We feed as on the food of life, we constantly refresh our souls with his precious blood, as from a fountain. Yet we are always thirsting, burning to be satisfied. But he himself is present for those who thirst and in his goodness invites them to the feast day. Our Savior repeats his words: If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink.

athanasius - celebrating the paschal feast

 

He quenched the thirst not only of those who came to him then. Whenever anyone seeks him he is freely admitted to the presence of the Saviour. The grace of the feast is not restricted to one occasion. Its rays of glory never set. It is always at hand to enlighten the mind of those who desire it. Its power is always there for those whose minds have been enlightened and who meditate day and night on the holy Scriptures, like the one who is called blessed in the holy psalm: Blessed is the man who has not followed the counsel of the wicked, or stood where sinners stand, or sat in the seat of the scornful, but whose delight is in the law of the Lord, and who meditates on his law day and night.

Moreover, my friends, the God who first established this feast for us allows us to celebrate it each year. He who gave up his Son to death for our salvation, from the same motive gives us this feast, which is commemorated every year. This feast guides us through the trials that meet us in this world. God now gives us the joy of salvation that shines out from this feast, as he brings us together to form one assembly, uniting us all in spirit in every place, allowing us to pray together and to offer common thanksgiving, as is our duty on the feast. Such is the wonder of his love: he gathers to this feast those who are far apart, and brings together in unity of faith those who may be physically separated from each other.

This excerpt from a festal letter by Saint Athanasius on Easter as the Paschal festival (Ep. 5:1-2: PG 26, 1379-1380)  is used in the Roman Catholic Office of readings on Friday of the 4th week of Lent.

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Athanasius , St.

St. Athanasius was born in Alexandria, Egypt, around the year 296 AD. Most probably, he was educated in the famous catechetical school of that city, which decades earlier was led by St. Clement of Alexandria and then Origen. Athanasius became a deacon and secretary to the Alexandria’s bishop, Alexander, and in that capacity accompanied his bishop to the first great Ecumenical Council, the Council of Nicaea in 325 AD. Shortly after returning from the Council (328), St. Athanasius was named the successor to Bishop Alexander and became patriarch archbishop of Alexandria, the greatest episcopal see in the Church after Rome.

St. Athanasius is one of the most important of the Early Church Fathers, best known for his tireless proclamation of the Council of Nicaea’s profession of faith in the full divinity of Christ during the troubled period of the Arian heresy, which denied Jesus’ equality with the Father. For decades after the Council, powerful forces in the government of the Eastern Roman empire lobbied for an Arian form of Christian faith. Athanasius bravely stood against them and was exiled numerous times by the government and actually had to flee to Rome in 339 where he stayed for 7 years in exile, establishing close relationships with the Roman Church which supported him throughout the rest of his life as he continued to stand for orthodoxy.

While still a deacon in his twenties, Athanasius wrote his famous treatise, On the Incarnation (full text available below), which remains one of two best known works. The other is his Life of Antony, the spiritual classic which tells the story of St. Anthony of the Desert who initiated the monastic movement in Egypt and indeed throughout the entire Christian world. St. Antony and his monks were stalwart supporters of Athanasius throughout his struggle with Arianism. From 339 to 359 Athanasius also wrote a number of other works defending the orthodox faith of the Council of Nicaea.  St. Athanasius died in Alexandria on May 2, 373, and to this day he is honored on May 2 in the Roman liturgy.