Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 6

For Wednesday of Lent Week 1

1 Now again, my beloved, has God brought us to the season of the feast, and through His loving-kindness we have reached the period of assembly for it. For that God who brought Israel out of Egypt, even He at this time calls us to the feast, saying by Moses, ‘Observe the month of new fruits, and keep the Passover to the Lord your God Deuteronomy 16:1:’ and by the prophet, ‘Keep your feasts, O Judah; pay to the Lord your vows Nahum 1:15.’ If then God Himself loves the feast, and calls us to it, it is not right, my brethren, that it should be delayed, or observed carelessly; but with alacrity and zeal we should come to it, so that having begun joyfully here, we may also receive an earnest of that heavenly feast. . . . Now we eat it if, understanding the reason of the feast, and acknowledging the Deliverer, we conduct ourselves in accordance with His grace. . . . He who is not so disposed, abuses the days, and does not keep the feast, but like an unthankful person finds fault with the grace, and honours the days overmuch, while he does not supplicate the Lord who in those days redeemed him. Let him by all means hear, though fancying that he keeps the feast, the Apostolic voice reproving him; “You observe days, and months, and times, and years: I fear lest I have laboured among you in vain.” . . .

4 But in our commemoration of these things, my brethren, . . . let us become fools for Him who died for us, even as Paul said; ‘For if we are foolish, it is to God; or if we are sober-minded, it is to you; since because one died for all men, therefore all were dead to Him; and He died for all, that we who live should not henceforth live to ourselves, but to Him who died for us, and rose again.’ No longer then ought we to live to ourselves, but, as servants to the Lord. And not in vain should we receive the grace, as the time is especially an acceptable one, and the day of salvation has dawned, even the death of our Redeemer. For even for our sakes the Word came down, and being incorruptible, put on a corruptible body for the salvation of all of us. Of which Paul was confident, saying, “This corruptible must put on incorruption.” The Lord too was sacrificed, that by His blood He might abolish death. . . . .

7 But to us it came: there came too the solemn day, in which we ought to call to the feast with a trumpet , and separate ourselves to the Lord with thanksgiving, considering it as our own festival. For we are bound to celebrate it, not to ourselves but to the Lord; and to rejoice, not in ourselves but in the Lord, who bore our griefs and said, “My soul is sorrowful unto death.” For the heathen, and all those who are strangers to our faith, keep feasts according to their own wills, and have no peace, since they commit evil against God. But the saints, as they live to the Lord also keep the feast to Him, saying, “I will rejoice in Your salvation,” and, “my soul shall be joyful in the Lord.” The commandment is common to them, “Rejoice, you righteous, in the Lord”— so that they also may be gathered together, to sing that common and festal Psalm, “Come, let us rejoice,” not in ourselves, but, “in the Lord.” . . .

9 . . . For He raised up the falling, healed the sick, satisfied those who were hungry, and filled the poor, and, what is more wonderful, raised us all from the dead; having abolished death, He has brought us from affliction and sighing to the rest and gladness of this feast, a joy which reaches even to heaven. For not we alone are affected by this, but because of it, even the heavens rejoice with us, and the whole church of the firstborn, written in heaven, is made glad together, as the prophet proclaims, saying, “Rejoice, you heavens, for the Lord has had mercy upon Israel. Shout, you foundations of the earth. Cry out with joy, you mountains, you high places, and all the trees which are in them, for the Lord has redeemed Jacob, and Israel has been glorified.” And again; “Rejoice, and be glad, you heavens; let the hills melt into gladness, for the Lord has had mercy on His people, and comforted the oppressed of the people.”

10 The whole creation keeps a feast, my brethren, and everything that has breath praises the Lord , as the Psalmist [says], on account of the destruction of the enemies, and our salvation. And justly indeed; for if there is joy in heaven over one sinner that repents, what should there not be over the abolition of sin, and the resurrection of the dead? Oh what a feast and how great the gladness in heaven! How must all its hosts joy and exult, as they rejoice and watch in our assemblies, those that are held continually, and especially those at Easter? For they look on sinners while they repent; on those who have turned away their faces, when they become converted; on those who formerly persisted in lusts and excess, but who now humble themselves by fastings and temperance; and, finally, on the enemy who lies weakened, lifeless, bound hand and foot, so that we may mock at him; “Where is your victory, O Death? Where is your sting, O Grave ?” Let us then sing unto the Lord a song of victory. . . .

12 Wherefore let us not celebrate the feast after an earthly manner, but as keeping festival in heaven with the angels. Let us glorify the Lord, by chastity, by righteousness, and other virtues. And let us rejoice, not in ourselves, but in the Lord, that we may be inheritors with the saints. Let us keep the feast then, as Moses. Let us watch like David who rose seven times, and in the middle of the night gave thanks for the righteous judgments of God. Let us be early, as he said, ‘In the morning I will stand before You, and You will look upon me: in the morning You will hear my voice.’ Let us fast like Daniel; let us pray without ceasing, as Paul commanded; all of us recognising the season of prayer, but especially those who are honourably married; so that having borne witness to these things, and thus having kept the feast, we may be able to enter into the joy of Christ in the kingdom of heaven. But as Israel, when going up to Jerusalem, was first purified in the wilderness, being trained to forget the customs of Egypt, the Word by this typifying to us the holy fast of forty days, let us first be purified and freed from defilement , so that when we depart hence, having been careful of fasting, we may be able to ascend to the upper chamber with the Lord, to sup with Him; and may be partakers of the joy which is in heaven. In no other manner is it possible to go up to Jerusalem, and to eat the Passover, except by observing the fast of forty days. . . .

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