Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 11

For Monday of Lent Week 2

7 And whereas, not only in action, but also in the thoughts of the mind, men are moved to deeds of virtue, he afterwards adds, saying, “My eyes prevent the dawn, that I might meditate on Your words.” [Ps 119:148] For it is meet that the spiritual meditations of those who are whole should precede their bodily actions. And does not our Saviour, when intending to teach this very thing begin with the thoughts of the mind? Saying, ‘Whosoever looks on a woman to lust after her, has already committed adultery:’ and, ‘Whosoever shall be angry with his brother, is guilty of murder.’ For where there is no wrath, murder is prevented; and where lust is first removed, there can be no accusation of adultery. Hence meditation on the law is necessary, my beloved, and uninterrupted converse with virtue, “that the saint may lack nothing, but be perfect to every good work.” [2 Tim 3:17] For by these things is the promise of eternal life, as Paul wrote to Timothy, calling constant meditation exercise, and saying, “Exercise yourself unto godliness; for bodily exercise profits little; but godliness is profitable for all things, since it has the promise of the present life, and of that which is eternal.” [1 Tim 4:7–8] . . .

9 For faith and godliness are allied to each other, and sisters; and he who believes in Him is godly, and he also who is godly, believes the more. He therefore who is in a state of wickedness, undoubtedly also wanders from the faith; and he who falls from godliness, falls from the true faith. . . . And as when brother is helped by brother, they become as a wall to each other; so faith and godliness, being of like growth, hang together, and he who is practised in the one, of necessity is strengthened by the other. Therefore, wishing the disciple to be exercised in godliness unto the end, and to contend for the faith, he counsels them, saying, “Fight the good fight of faith, and lay hold on eternal life.” [1 Tim 4:7] For if a man first put away the wickedness of idols, and rightly confesses Him Who is truly God, he next fights by faith with those who war against Him.

10 For of these two things we speak of — faith and godliness — the hope is the same, even everlasting life; for he says, “Fight the good fight of faith; lay hold on eternal life.” And, “exercise yourself unto godliness, for it has the promise of the life that now is, and of that which is to come” [1 Tim 4:7–8] . . . But as then against the adherents of Philetus and Hymenæus, so now the Apostle forewarns all men against ungodliness like theirs, saying, ‘The foundation of God stands sure, having this seal, The Lord knows them that are His; and, Let every one that names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” [2 Tim 2:19] For it is well that a man should depart from wickedness and deeds of iniquity, that he may be able properly to celebrate the feast; for he who is defiled with the pollutions of the wicked is not able to sacrifice the Passover to the Lord our God. Hence, the people who were then in Egypt said, “We cannot sacrifice the Passover in Egypt to the Lord our God.” [Exodus 8:26] For God, Who is over all, willed that they should go far away from the servants of Pharaoh, and from the furnace of iron; so that being set free from wickedness, and having carefully put away from them all strange notions, they might receive the knowledge of God and of virtuous actions. For He says, “Go far from them: depart from the midst of them, and touch not the unclean things.” [2 Cor 6:17] For a man will not otherwise depart from sin, and lay hold on virtuous deeds, than by meditation on his acts; and when he has been practised by exercise in godliness, he will lay hold on the confession of faith , which also Paul, after he had fought the fight, possessed, namely, the crown of righteousness which was laid up; which the righteous Judge will give, not to him alone, but to all who are like him.

11 For such meditation and exercise in godliness, being at all times the habit of the saints, is urgent on us at the present time, when the divine word desires us to keep the feast with them if we are in this disposition. For what else is the feast, but the constant worship of God, and the recognition of godliness, and unceasing prayers from the whole heart with agreement? So Paul wishing us to be ever in this disposition, commands, saying, “Rejoice evermore; pray without ceasing; in everything give thanks.” Not therefore separately, but unitedly and collectively, let us all keep the feast together, as the prophet exhorts, saying, “O come, let us rejoice in the Lord; let us make a joyful noise unto God our Saviour.” Who then is so negligent, or who so disobedient to the divine voice, as not to leave everything, and run to the general and common assembly of the feast? Which is not in one place only, for not one place alone keeps the feast; but “into all the earth their song has gone forth, and to the ends of the world their words.” And the sacrifice is not offered in one place, but “in every nation, incense and a pure sacrifice is offered unto God.” So when in like manner from all in every place, praise and prayer shall ascend to the gracious and good Father, when the whole Catholic Church which is in every place, with gladness and rejoicing, celebrates together the same worship to God, when all men in common send up a song of praise and say, Amen; how blessed will it not be, my brethren! Who will not, at that time, be engaged, praying rightly? For the walls of every adverse power, yea even of Jericho especially, falling down, and the gift of the Holy Spirit being then richly poured upon all men, every man perceiving the coming of the Spirit shall say, “We are all filled in the morning with Your favour, and we rejoice and are made glad in our days.” . . .

13 Let us therefore keep the feast, my brethren, celebrating it not at all as an occasion of distress and mourning, neither let us mingle with heretics through temporal trials brought upon us by godliness. But if anything that would promote joy and gladness should offer, let us attend to it; so that our heart may not be sad, like that of Cain; but that, like faithful and good servants of the Lord, we may hear the words, “Enter into the joy of your Lord” [Matt 25:21] For we do not institute days of mourning and sorrow, as some may consider these of Easter to be, but we keep the feast, being filled with joy and gladness. . . .

14 For the Lord of death would abolish death, and being Lord, what He would was accomplished; for we have all passed from death unto life. . . . Hence, when our Saviour was led to death, He restrained the women who followed Him weeping, saying, “Weep not for Me” [Luke 23:28]; meaning to show that the Lord’s death is an event, not of sorrow but of joy, and that He Who dies for us is alive. For He does not derive His being from those things which are not, but from the Father. It is truly a subject of joy, that we can see the signs of victory against death, even our own incorruptibility, through the body of the Lord. For since He rose gloriously, it is clear that the resurrection of all of us will take place; and since His body remained without corruption, there can be no doubt regarding our incorruption. For as by one man, as says Paul (and it is the truth), sin passed upon all men, so by the resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ, we shall all rise. “For,” he says, “this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality.” [1 Cor 15:53] Now this came to pass in the time of the Passion, in which our Lord died for us, for “our Passover, Christ, is sacrificed.” Therefore, because He was sacrificed, let each of us feed upon Him, and with alacrity and diligence partake of His sustenance; since He is given to all without grudging, and is in every one “a well of water flowing to everlasting life.” [John 4:14]

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