This excerpt from an festal letter by Saint Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria in the 4th century, emphasizes the proper spiritual preparation for the Paschal feast of Easter. We must purify ourselves for the worthy celebration of the Passover festival, which is better commemorated by deeds than by words, but should keep a perpetual feast of rejoicing & gladness in the Lord, as did the saints.
The Word who became all things for us is close to us, our Lord Jesus Christ who promises to remain with us always. He cries out, saying: “See, I am with you all the days of this age.” He is himself the shepherd, the high priest, the way and the door, and has become all things at once for us. In the same way, he has come among us as our feast and holy day as well. The blessed Apostle says of him who was awaited: “Christ has been sacrificed as our Passover.” It was Christ who shed his light on the psalmist as he prayed: “You are my joy, deliver me from those surrounding me”. True joy, genuine festival, means the casting out of wickedness. To achieve this one must live a life of perfect goodness and, in the serenity of the fear of God, practice contemplation in one’s heart.
This was the way of the saints, who in their lifetime and at every stage of life rejoiced as at a feast. Blessed David, for example, not once but seven times rose at night to win God’s favor through prayer. The great Moses was full of joy as he sang God’s praises in hymns of victory for the defeat of Pharaoh and the oppressors of the Hebrew people. Others had hearts filled always with gladness as they performed their sacred duty of worship, like the great Samuel and the blessed Elijah. Because of their holy lives they gained freedom, and now keep festival in heaven. They rejoice after their pilgrimage in shadows, and now distinguish the reality from the promise.
When we celebrate the feast in our own day, what path are we to take? As we draw near to this feast, who is to be our guide? Beloved, it must be none other than the one whom you will address with me as our Lord Jesus Christ. He says: “I am the way.” As blessed John tells us: it is Christ “who takes away the sin of the world.” It is he who purifies our souls, as the prophet Jeremiah says: “Stand upon the ways; look and see which is the good path, and you will find in it the way of amendment for your souls.”
In former times the blood of goats and the ashes of a calf were sprinkled on those who were unclean, but they were able to purify only the body. Now through the grace of God’s Word, everyone is made abundantly clean. If we follow Christ closely we shall be allowed, even on this earth, to stand as it were on the threshold of the heavenly Jerusalem, and enjoy the contemplation of that everlasting feast, like the blessed apostles, who in following the Savior as their leader, showed, and still show, the way to obtain the same gift from God. They said: “See, we have left all things and followed you.” We too follow the Lord, and we keep his feast by deeds rather than by words.
This excerpt from a festal letter by Saint Athanasius on the proper spiritual preparation for the Passover feast of Easter encourages us to keep a continual feast of joy and gladness in the Lord following the example of the saints. It is used in the Roman Office of Readings for the 5th Sunday in Lent with the accompanying biblical reading of Hebrews 1:1-24.