« PreviousContinue »
sort of resting-place for the thoughts; they help to bring before the mind more distinctly the great facts on which the truth of Christianity rests; they aid our conceptions, and call up pictures to the imagination; they touch the sensibility and awaken trains of thought we may be the better for pursuing. There is such a thing as making religion too exclusively a matter of the intellect, stripping it of its more affecting qualities and attributes, rendering it too abstract and metaphysical, too bare and unadorned. We are benefitted by going back to the personal history of Jesus and to the several touching incidents connected with it, to Bethlehem and Calvary, Gethsemane and the Mount of ascension. These, in the minds of Christians, are hallowed spots, and must ever continue such while the earth remains.
The circumstances connected with the Saviour's abode on earth, which we gather from our Bibles, furnish surely fit themes of meditation, and why should we not, occasionally, as the appropriate season comes round, avail ourselves of their help to deepen our penitential feelings, or rekindle our gratitude and love? Why should we refuse those aids to devout culture, in which millions of the good and holy, now rejoicing in heaven, once found a quickening power? There is one community of the faithful, there is an essential unity of Christians, and is it not desirable that this unity should be strengthened? And may it not be strengthened, at the same time that our consciences are stirred, by recalling the great facts which belong alike to all Christians, and on which past ages have meditated with so much profit and delight? Christians have been too much in the habit of fixing the eye on their differences. Would it not be well that they should oftener direct their attention to that in which they are agreed ? All the great facts of the Gospel are common to all, and the personal history of Jesus appeals alike to the hearts of all his followers.
The earliest and most signal festival of Christians was the weekly festival of Sunday. Whether or not any traces of the regular observance of this day are to be found in the New Testament, critics are not agreed. The passages generally adduced to support the affirmative are not wholly free from ambiguity, yet their most natural and obvious construction, we think, favors the supposition that the dis
ciples were from the first, or during the Apostolic times, accustomed to meet for religious worship on the first day of the week. Certainly the oldest records in existence, after those of the New Testament, refer to this as a well known and established custom. The first day of the week was universally distinguished from other days, and it was observed as a day of joy, a festival day, on account of the Lord's resurrection on that day, hence called the Lord's day. That it was uniformly observed as a day of rejoicing there is no dispute; on this point all the old writers — the Fathers — bear consenting testimony. We do not mean that it was a day devoted to sensuous pleasures. not; and King James's “Book of Sports” would have been as offensive to the early Christians as it was to the Puritans. It was not a day to be given to levity and amusement. But it was to the original followers of Jesus truly a day of gladness, a day which brought with it not only holy and exalting, but in the strictest sense, joyous recollections, since it restored him to their sight after his death had prostrated their hopes and filled their hearts with sorrow, and they believed that they should see him no more. And this feature the day retained. It was always, by the ancient Christians, associated with the resurrection - the pledge of man's immortality.
On this day every thing which had the appearance of sorrow or gloom was banished as unfit. “On Sunday," says Tertullian, “we indulge joy."* So far did the ancient Christians carry their views, or their scruples, on this point, that they regarded it as a sin to fast, or to kneel in prayer on the Lord's day, or during any part of the interval of fifty days between the resurrection and the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost. For this we have the express assertion of Tertullian.t Though the Jewish Sabbath was originally a festival, yet it came, in after times, to be associated with many superstitious observances, which gave to it a somewhat grim aspect, and these the early Christians carefully avoided transferring to the first day of the week. Thus
+ De Corona Mil. c. 3. † Originally labor did not cease on the first day of the week, but it seems to have been gradually discontinued, as circumstances permitted. At what time cessation from it became general, if it became so before the time of Constantine, when it was enjoined by law, except in agricultural
they would not call it the “ Sabbath." They never so call it, but either, as we have said, the Lord's day, or else, in conformity with Heathen usage, the day of the Sun, (Sunday,) generally the latter when addressing the Gentiles; and by one or the other of these designations was the day known, and not as the Sabbath, till so recently as the end of the sixteenth century. The old Christian writers, whenever they use the term Sabbath, uniformly mean Saturday. This, as well as Sunday, was in Tertullian's time,* that is, down to A. D. 200, and still later, kept by Christians as a day of rejoicing, that only being excepted on which the Saviour lay in the tomb. Even the Montanists, rigorous as they were, did not at this time fast on these days. The custom of fasting on Saturdays first prevailed in the Western Church, though as late as the time of Augustine, the end of the fourth century, this custom was not uniform, some observing the day as a fast and others as a festival. But in regard to Sunday there was, as we said, no difference of opinion or of usage. The day was uniformly observed with cheerfulness, yet always in a religious way, as Clement expresses it, by “banishing all evil thoughts and entertaining all good ones,” and by meetings for thanks and worship. It was called the “chief,” — as it were, the queen of days, a day to be ever distinguished and honored, and the return of which was hailed with a liveliness of gratitude which the faith of those ages rendered easy.
Christians now have not the same associations connected with the day, at least not uniformly, or in the same degree. It is not regarded so exclusively as a day of joy on account of the Saviour's resurrection, as in primitive times. It has lost in part its characteristic distinction ; the feelings in regard to it have changed with time, and to the ears of the descendants of the Puritans it sounds somewhat strange, no doubt, to hear it spoken of as a festival — the weekly
districts, where sowing and reaping and tending the vine were allowed, it is impossible to ascertain. The exception was agreeable to the old Roman notions of what it was right and lawful to do on festal days, and what, says Virgil, “no religion forbade.” Certain agricultural labors were permitted (by them.)
Quippe etiam festis quædam exercere diebus
Relligio vetuit, etc. - Georg. i. 268. * De Jejuniis. c. 15.
festival of the resurrection, or to be told that it was a day on which those who lived nearest the times of the Apostles regarded it as unbecoming and unlawful to indulge gloom, or to fast, or even to fall on the knees in devotion. Let us, however, guard against mistake. We should form a very erroneous conception of the ancient Sunday, if we associated with it the ideas which the term, festival, now probably suggests to many minds.
The joy of the day was a pure, elevated, religious joy, utterly removed from all grossness and sensuality; it was a day of worship, though of cheerful worship, a day devoted, as it ever should be, to the highest spiritual uses. No day has done so much for man, and this day and all its influences the Christian world owes to Jesus. This day, which suspends so many tasks, the “poor man's day," as it has been called, a day, of which it may be said that there is no condition of humanity so low that its benefits do not penetrate it,— the influence of which reaches the humblest mind, which gives a truce to so many worldly thoughts, and compels man, as it were, to respect himself, and meditate on what concerns him as an accountable and an immortal being, - well did the ancient Christians call it the “Lord's day," and well did they, and well may we, rejoice in it, and ever thank God for it.
We come now to the yearly festivals, and first the festival of the Resurrection, (Easter,) originally called also the festival of the Passover; the Passover, as the term was used by the primitive Christians, including the whole interval between the Saviour's crucifixion and his resurrection. This was celebrated from the first among the Jewish Christians, Christian ideas being engrafted on the old Jewish ideas respecting it. No older festival appears among the Gentile Christians. The time when they began to observe it cannot be defined; but it was very early. The obligation of its observance, as that of the other annual festivals, was not, however, regarded by Christians of the early ages as resting on any precept or law of Christ or of his Apostles, but simply on propriety and usage. The “feast of Easter and the other festivals,” says the historian Socrates,* were left to be “honored by the gratitude and benevolence” of Christians. As men naturally love festivals,
* Hist. Eccles. L. v. c. 22.
which bring a release from toil, they would each, he observes, according to his own pleasure and in his own way, celebrate the memory of the Saviour's Passion, no precept having been left on the subject. And so, he says, he found it; Christians differed as to the time of celebrating Easter, and still more as to the ceremonies connected with it, all which shows, he adds, that the observance of it was matter of usage simply, not of positive precept.
The festival of the Resurrection, or Passover, was introduced by preparatory fasting. Occasional fasts in times of distress or danger, it seems, were not uncommon.* Besides these there were, as early as the time of Tertullian, the halffasts, (stationes, from a military word, originally signifying a place of watch,) observed by many on Wednesdays and Fridays, the former day being that on which the Jews took counsel to destroy Jesus, and the latter, that of his crucifixion. These half or stationary fasts were entirely voluntary, being observed, or not, as each one chose, and they terminated at three o'clock in the afternoon,t though the Montanists protracted them till evening, and sometimes longer. For this, however, they were censured by the common or catholic Christians. The only fixed fast which appears to have been considered as at all obligatory by antiquity and general usage, was on Friday of Passion week, as it has since been called, or the anniversary of the crucifixion, (Good Friday.) This was undoubtedly observed by the generality of Christians at a very early period, f and came at length to extend beyond the limits of a day, its duration varying among different Christians. Irenæus, one of the most ancient authorities on the subject, says
* Tertullian Apol. c. 40.—De Jejuniis, c. 13.
| Tertullian, De Jejuniis, c. 2, 10, 13, 14. — De Oratione, c. 14. The reason assigned for terminating them at three o'clock was, that at that hour Peter and John (Acts iii. 1.) went up into the temple. Tert. Jejun.
# It was founded (Tert. De Jejun. c. 2.) on a misinterpretation of Matt. ix. 15 : “ The days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast in those days. This the ancient Christians supposed referred to the time during which Jesus lay in the tomb, and not to the time when he should be personally with them no more, that is, after his ascension, - the true construction. They would then be exposed to danger and suffering which would often enough cause them sadness of heart.