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History of the Christian Church, Volume III: Nicene and Post-Nicene Christianity. A.D. 311-600.
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§ 76. The Church Year.


R. Hospinian: Festa Christian. (Tiguri, 1593) Genev. 1675. M. A. Nickel (R.C.): Die heil. Zeiten u. Feste nach ihrer Entstehung u. Feier in der Kath. Kirche, Mainz, 1825 sqq. 6 vols. Pillwitz: Geschichte der heil. Zeiten. Dresden, 1842. E. Ranke: Das kirchliche Pericopensystem aus den aeltesten Urkunden dargelegt. Berlin, 1847. Fr. Strauss (late court preacher and professor in Berlin): Das evangelische Kirchenjahr. Berl. 1850. Lisco: Das christliche Kirchenjahr. Berl. (1840) 4th ed. 1850. Bobertag: Das evangelische Kirchenjahr, &c. Breslau, 1857. Comp. also Augusti: Handbuch der Christlichen Archaeologie, vol. i. (1836), pp. 457–595.


After the, fourth century, the Christian year, with a cycle of regularly recurring annual religious festivals, comes forth in all its main outlines, though with many fluctuations and variations in particulars, and forms thenceforth, so to speak, the skeleton of the Catholic cultus.

The idea of a religious year, in distinction from the natural and from the civil year, appears also in Judaism, and to some extent in the heathen world. It has its origin in the natural necessity of keeping alive and bringing to bear upon the people by public festivals the memory of great and good men and of prominent events. The Jewish ecclesiastical year was, like the whole Mosaic cultus, symbolical and typical. The Sabbath commemorated the creation and the typical redemption, and pointed forward to the resurrection and the true redemption, and thus to the Christian Sunday. The passover pointed to Easter, and the feast of harvest to the Christian Pentecost. The Jewish observance of these festivals originally bore an earnest, dignified, and significant character, but in the hands of Pharisaism it degenerated very largely into slavish Sabbatism and heartless ceremony, and provoked the denunciation of Christ and the apostles. The heathen festivals of the gods ran to the opposite extreme of excessive sensual indulgence and public vice.708708   Philo, in his Tract de Cherubim (in Augusti, l.c. p. 481 sq.), paints this difference between the Jewish and heathen festivals in strong colors; and the picture was often used by the church fathers against the degenerate pagan character of the Christian festivals.

The peculiarity of the Christian year is, that it centres in the person and work of Jesus Christ, and is intended to minister to His glory. In its original idea it is a yearly representation of the leading events of the gospel history; a celebration of the birth, passion, and resurrection of Christ, and of the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, to revive gratitude and devotion. This is the festival part, the semestre Domini. The other half, not festal, the semestre ecclesiae, is devoted to the exhibition of the life of the Christian church, its founding, its growth, and its consummation, both is a whole, and in its individual members, from the regeneration to the resurrection of the dead. The church year is, so to speak, a chronological confession of faith; a moving panorama of the great events of salvation; a dramatic exhibition of the gospel for the Christian people. It secures to every important article of faith its place in the cultus of the church, and conduces to wholeness and soundness of Christian doctrine, as against all unbalanced and erratic ideas.709709   This last thought is well drawn out by W. Archer Butler in one of his sermons: “It is the chief advantage of that religious course of festivals by which the church fosters the piety of her children, that they tend to preserve a due proportion and equilibrium in our religious views. We have all a tendency to adopt particular views of the Christian truths, to insulate certain doctrines from their natural accompaniments, and to call our favorite fragment the gospel. We hold a few texts so near our eyes that they hide all the rest of the Bible. The church festival system spreads the gospel history in all its fulness across the whole surface of the sacred year. It is a sort of chronological creed, and forces us, whether we will or no, by the very revolution of times and seasons, to give its proper place and dignity to every separate article. ’Day unto day uttereth speech,’ and the tone of each holy anniversary is distinct and decisive. Thus the festival year is a bulwark of orthodoxy as real as our confession of faith.” History shows, however (especially that of Germany and France), that neither the church year nor creeds can prevent a fearful apostasy to rationalism and infidelity. It serves to interweave religion with the, life of the people by continually recalling to the popular mind the most important events upon which our salvation rests, and by connecting them with the vicissitudes of the natural and the civil year. Yet, on the other hand, the gradual overloading of the church year, and the multiplication of saints’ days, greatly encouraged superstition and idleness, crowded the Sabbath and the leading festivals into the background, and subordinated the merits of Christ to the patronage of saints. The purification and simplification aimed at by the Reformation became an absolute necessity.

The order of the church year is founded in part upon the history of Jesus and of the apostolic church; in part, especially in respect to Easter and Pentecost, upon the Jewish sacred year; and in part upon the natural succession of seasons; for the life of nature in general forms the groundwork of the higher life of the spirit, and there is an evident symbolical correspondence between Easter and spring, Pentecost and the beginning of harvest, Christmas and the winter solstice, the nativity of John the Baptist and the summer solstice.

The Christian church year, however, developed itself spontaneously from the demands of the Christian worship and public life, after the precedent of the Old Testament cultus, with no positive direction from Christ or the apostles. The New Testament contains no certain traces of annual festivals; but so early as the second century we meet with the general observance of Easter and Pentecost, founded on the Jewish passover and feast of harvest, and answering to Friday and Sunday in the weekly cycle. Easter was a season of sorrow, in remembrance of the passion; Pentecost was a time of joy, in memory of the resurrection of the Redeemer and the outpouring of the Holy Ghost.710710   Comp. vol. i. § 99 These two festivals form the heart of the church year. Less important was the feast of the Epiphany, or manifestation of Christ as Messiah. In the fourth century the Christmas festival was added to the two former leading feasts, and partially took the place of the earlier feast of Epiphany, which now came to be devoted particularly to the manifestation of Christ among the Gentiles. And further, in Easter the πάσχα σταυρώσιμονand ἀναστάσιμονcame to be more strictly distinguished, the latter being reckoned a season of joy.

From this time, therefore, we have three great festival cycles, each including a season of preparation before the feast and an after-season appropriate: Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost. The lesser feasts of Epiphany and Ascension arranged themselves under these.711711   . There was no unanimity, however, in this period, in the number of the feasts. Chrysostom, for example, counts seven principal feasts, corresponding to the seven days of the week: Christmas, Epiphany, Passion, Easter, Ascension, Pentecost, and the Feast of the Resurrection of the Dead. The last, however, is not a strictly ecclesiastical feast, and the later Greeks reckon only six principal festivals, answering to the six days of creation, followed by the eternal Sabbath of the church triumphant in heaven. Comp. Augusti, i. p. 530, All bear originally a christological character, representing the three stages of the redeeming work of Christ: the beginning, the prosecution, and the consummation. All are for the glorification of God in Christ.

The trinitarian conception and arrangement of the festal half of the church year is of much later origin, cotemporary with the introduction of the festival of the Trinity (on the Sunday after Pentecost). The feast of Trinity dates from the ninth or tenth century, and was first authoritatively established in the Latin church by Pope John XXII., in 1334, as a comprehensive closing celebration of the revelation of God the Father, who sent His Son (Christmas), of the Son, who died for us and rose again (Easter), and of the Holy Ghost, who renews and sanctifies us (Pentecost).712712   The assertion that the festum Trinitatis descends from the time of Gregory the Great, has poor foundation in his words: “Ut de Trinitate specialia cantaremus; for these refer to the praise of the holy Trinity in the general public worship of God. The first clear traces of this festival appear in the time of Charlemagne and in the tenth century, when Bishop Stephen of Liege vindicated it. Yet so late as 1150 it was counted by the abbot Potho at Treves among the novae celebritates. Many considered it improper to celebrate a special feast of the Trinity, while there was no distinct celebration of the unity of God. The Roman church year reached its culmination and mysterious close in the feast of Corpus Christi (the body of Christ), which was introduced under Pope Clement the Fifth, in 1311, and was celebrated on Thursday of Trinity week (feria quinta proxima post octavam Pentecostes) in honor of the mystery of transubstantiation. The Greek church knows nothing of this festival to this day, though she herself, in the Nicene age, was devoted with special earnestness and zeal to the development of the doctrine of the Trinity. The reason of this probably is, that there was no particular historical fact to give occasion for such celebration, and that the mystery of the holy Trinity, revealed in Christ, is properly the object of adoration in all the church festivals and in the whole Christian cultus.

But with these three great feast-cycles the ancient church was not satisfied. So early as the Nicene age it surrounded them with feasts of Mary, of the apostles, of martyrs, and of saints, which were at first only local commemorations, but gradually assumed the character of universal feasts of triumph. By degrees every day of the church year became sacred to the memory of a particular martyr or saint, and in every case was either really or by supposition the day of the death of the saint, which was significantly called his heavenly birth-day.713713   Hence called Natales, natalitia, nativitas, γενέθλια, of the martyrs. The Greek church also has its saint for every day of the year, but varies in many particulars from the Roman calendar. This multiplication of festivals has at bottom the true thought, that the whole life of the Christian should be one unbroken spiritual festivity. But the Romish calendar of saints anticipates an ideal condition, and corrupts the truth by exaggeration, as the Pharisees made the word of God “of none effect” by their additions. It obliterates the necessary distinction between Sunday and the six days of labor, to the prejudice of the former, and plays into the hands of idleness. And finally, it rests in great part upon uncertain legends and fantastic myths, which in some cases even eclipse the miracles of the gospel history, and nourish the grossest superstition.

The Greek oriental church year differs from the Roman in this general characteristic: that it adheres more closely to the Jewish ceremonies and customs, while the Roman attaches itself to the natural year and common life. The former begins in the middle of September (Tisri), with the first Sunday after the feast of the Holy Cross; the latter, with the beginning of Advent, four weeks before Christmas. Originally Easter was the beginning of the church year, both in the East and in the West; and the Apostolic Constitutions and Eusebius call the month of Easter the “first month” (corresponding to the month Nisan, which opened the sacred year of the Jews, while the first of Tisri, about the middle of our September, opened their civil year). In the Greek church also the lectiones continuae of the Holy Scriptures, after the example of the Jewish Parashioth and Haphthoroth, became prominent and the church year came to be divided according to the four Evangelists; while in the Latin church, since the sixth century, only select sections from the Gospels, and Epistles, called pericopes, have been read. Another peculiarity of the Western church year, descending from the fourth century, is the division into four portions, of three months each, called Quatember,714714   Quatuor tempora. separated from each other by a three days’ fast. Pope Leo I. delivered several sermons on the quarterly Quatember fast,715715   Sermones de jejunio quatuor temporum. and urges especially on that occasion charity to the poor. Instead of this the Greek church has a division according to the four Gospels, which are read entire in course; Matthew next after Pentecost, Luke beginning on the fourteenth of September, Mark at the Easter fast, and John on the first Sunday after Easter.

So early as the fourth century the observance of the festivals was enjoined under ecclesiastical penalties, and was regarded as an established divine ordinance. But the most eminent church teachers, a Chrysostom, a Jerome, and an Augustine, expressly insist, that the observance of the Christian festivals must never be a work of legal constraint, but always an act of evangelical freedom; and Socrates, the historian, says, that Christ and the apostles have given no laws and prescribed no penalties concerning it.716716   Comp. the passages in Augusti, l.c. i. p. 474 sqq.

The abuse of the festivals soon fastened itself on the just use of them and the sensual excesses of the pagan feasts, in spite of the earnest warnings of several fathers, swept in like a wild flood upon the church. Gregory Nazianzen feels called upon, with reference particularly to the feast of Epiphany, to caution his people against public parade, splendor of dress, banquetings, and drinking revels, and says: “Such things we will leave to the Greeks, who worship their gods with the belly; but we, who adore the eternal Word, will find our only satisfaction in the word and the divine law, and in the contemplation of the holy object of our feast.”717717   Orat. 38 in Theoph., cited at large by Augusti, p. 483 sq. Comp. Augustine, Ep. 22, 3; 29, 9, according to which “comessationes et ebrietates in honorem etiam beatissimorum martyrum” were of almost daily occurrence in the African church, and were leniently judged, lest the transition of the heathen should be discouraged. On the other hand, however, the Catholic church, especially after Pope Gregory I. (the “pater caerimoniarum”), with a good, but mistaken intention, favored the christianizing of heathen forms of cultus and popular festivals, and thereby contributed unconsciously to the paganizing of Christianity in the Middle Age. The calendar saints took the place of the ancient deities, and Rome became a second time a pantheon. Against this new heathenism, with its sweeping abuses, pure Christianity was obliged with all earnestness and emphasis to protest.


Note. – The Reformation of the sixteenth century sought to restore the entire cultus, and with it the Catholic church year, to its primitive Biblical simplicity; but with different degrees of consistency. The Lutheran, the Anglican, and the German Reformed churches—the latter with the greater freedom—retained the chief festivals, Christmas, Easter, and Pentecost, together with the system of pericopes, and in some cases also the days of Mary and the apostles (though these are passing more and more out of use); while the strictly Calvinistic churches, particularly the Presbyterians and Congregationalists, rejected all the yearly festivals as human institutions, but, on the other hand, introduced a proportionally stricter observance of the weekly day of rest instituted by God Himself. The Scotch General Assembly of August 6th, 1575, resolved: “That all days which heretofore have been kept holy, besides the Sabbath-days, such as Yule day [Christmas], saints’ days, and such others, may be abolished, and a civil penalty be appointed against the keepers thereof by ceremonies, banqueting, fasting, and such other vanities.” At first, the most of the Reformers, even Luther and Bucer, were for the abolition of all feast days, except Sunday; but the genius and long habits of the people were against such a radical reform. After the end of the sixteenth and beginning of the seventeenth century the strict observance of Sunday developed itself in Great Britain and North America; while the Protestantism of the continent of Europe is much looser in this respect, and not essentially different from Catholicism. It is remarkable, that the strictest observance of Sunday is found just in those countries where the yearly feasts have entirely lost place in the popular mind: Scotland and New England. In the United States, however, for some years past, the Christmas and Easter festivals have regained ground without interfering at all with the strict observance of the Lord’s day, and promise to become regular American institutions. Good Friday and Pentecost will follow. On Good Friday of the year 1864 the leading ministers of the different evangelical churches in New York (the Episcopalian, Presbyterian, Dutch and German Reformed, Lutheran, Congregational, Methodist, and Baptist) freely united in the celebration of the atoning death of their common Saviour and in humiliation and prayer to the great edification of the people. It is acknowledged more and more that the observance of the great facts of the evangelical history to the honor of Christ is a common inheritance of primitive Christianity and inseparable from Christian worship.” These festivals” (says Prof. Dr. Henry B. Smith in his admirable opening sermon of the Presbyterian General Assembly, N. S., of 1864, on Christian Union and Ecclesiastical Re-union), “antedate, not only our (Protestant) divisions, but also the corruptions of the Papacy; they exalt the Lord and not man; they involve a public and solemn recognition of essential Christian facts, and are thus a standing protest against infidelity; they bring out the historic side of the Christian faith, and connect us with its whole history; and all in the different denominations could unite in their observance without sacrificing any article of their creed or discipline.” There is no danger that American Protestantism will transgress the limits of primitive evangelical simplicity in this respect, and ever return to the papal Mariolatry and Hagiolatry. The Protestant churches have established also many new annual festivals, such as the feasts of the Reformation, of Harvest-home, and of the Dead in Germany; and in America, the frequent days of fasting and prayer, besides the annual Thanksgiving-day, which originated in Puritan New England, and has been gradually adopted in almost all the states of the Union, and quite recently by the general government itself, as a national institution. With the pericopes, or Scripture lessons, the Reformed church everywhere deals much more freely than the Lutheran, and properly reserves the right to expound the whole word of Scripture in any convenient order according to its choice. The Gospels and Epistles may be read as a regular part of the Sabbath service; but the minister should be free to select his text from any portion of the Canonical Scriptures; only it is always advisable to follow a system and to go, if possible, every year through the whole plan and order of salvation in judicious adaptation to the church year and the wants of the people.



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