Selections from Athanasius, Festal Letter 7

For Thursday of Lent Week 1

3 But the saints, and they who truly practise virtue, “mortify their members which are upon the earth, fornication, uncleanness passions, evil concupiscence;” and, as the result of this, are pure and without spot, confiding in the promise of our Saviour, who said, “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they shall see God.” These, having become dead to the world, and renounced the merchandise of the world, gain an honourable death; for, “precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of His saints.” They are also able, preserving the Apostolic likeness, to say, “I am crucified with Christ, nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ lives in me.” For that is the true life, which a man lives in Christ; for although they are dead to the world, yet they dwell as it were in heaven, minding those things which are above, as he who was a lover of such a habitation said, “While we walk on earth, our dwelling is in heaven.” Now those who thus live, and are partakers in such virtue, are alone able to give glory to God, and this it is which essentially constitutes a feast and a holiday. For the feast does not consist in pleasant intercourse at meals, nor splendour of clothing, nor days of leisure, but in the acknowledgment of God, and the offering of thanksgiving and of praise to Him. Now this belongs to the saints alone, who live in Christ; for it is written, “The dead shall not praise You, O Lord, neither all those who go down into silence; but we who live will bless the Lord, from henceforth even forever.” . . .

4 . . . But the righteous man, although he appears dying to the world, uses boldness of speech, saying, ‘I shall not die, but live, and narrate all Your marvelous deeds.’ For even God is not ashamed to be called the God of those who truly mortify their members which are upon the earth, but live in Christ; for He is the God of the living, not of the dead. And He by His living Word quickens all men, and gives Him to be food and life to the saints; as the Lord declares, “I am the bread of life.” . . .

5 For sin has her own special bread, of her death, and calling to those who are lovers of pleasure and lack understanding, she says, “Touch with delight secret bread, and sweet waters which are stolen;” for he who merely touches them knows not that that which is born from the earth perishes with her. For even when the sinner thinks to find pleasure, the end of that food is not pleasant, as the Wisdom of God says again, “Bread of deceit is pleasant to a man; but afterwards his mouth shall be filled with gravel.” . . . And the Wisdom of God which loves mankind forbids these things, crying, ‘But depart quickly, tarry not in the place, neither fix your eye upon it; for thus you shall pass over strange waters, and depart quickly from the strange river.’ She also calls them to herself, “For wisdom has built her house, and supported it on seven pillars; she has killed her sacrifices, and mingled her wine in the goblets, and prepared her table; she has sent forth her servants, inviting to the goblet with a loud proclamation, and saying, Whoever is foolish, let him turn in to me; and to them that lack understanding she says, Come, eat of my bread, and drink of the wine I have mingled for you.” And what hope is there instead of these things? “Forsake folly that you may live, and seek understanding that you may abide.” For the bread of Wisdom is living fruit, as the Lord said; “I am the living bread which came down from heaven: if any man eat of this bread, he shall live for ever.” For when Israel ate of the manna, which was indeed pleasant and wonderful, yet he died, and he who ate it did not in consequence live for ever, but all that multitude died in the wilderness. The Lord teaches, saying, “I am the bread of life: your fathers did eat manna in the wilderness, and are dead. This is the bread which came down from heaven, that a man should eat thereof, and not die.”

6 . . . For he who partakes of divine bread always hungers with desire; and he who thus hungers has a never-failing gift, as Wisdom promises, saying, “The Lord will not slay the righteous soul with famine.” He promises too in the Psalms, “I will abundantly bless her provision; I will satisfy her poor with bread.” We may also hear our Saviour saying, “Blessed are they who hunger and thirst after righteousness, for they shall be filled.” Well then do the saints and those who love the life which is in Christ raise themselves to a longing after this food. And one earnestly implores, saying, “As the hart pants after the fountains of waters, so pants my soul after You, O God! My soul thirsts for the living God, when shall I come and see the face of God.” And another; “My God, my God, I seek You early; my soul thirsts for You; often does my flesh, in a dry and pathless land, and without water. So did I appear before You in holiness to see Your power and Your glory.”

7 Since these things are so, my brethren, let us mortify our members which are on the earth, and be nourished with living bread, by faith and love to God, knowing that without faith it is impossible to be partakers of such bread as this. For our Saviour, when He called all men to him, and said, “If any man thirst, let him [come] to Me and drink,” immediately spoke of the faith without which a man cannot receive such food; “He that believes in Me, as the Scripture says, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living water.” . . .

8 . . . And not only here, my brethren, is this bread the food of the righteous, neither are the saints on earth alone nourished by such bread and such blood; but we also eat them in heaven, for the Lord is the food even of the exalted spirits, and the angels, and He is the joy of all the heavenly host. And to all He is everything, and He has pity upon all according to His loving-kindness. Already has the Lord given us angels’ food, and He promises to those who continue with Him in His trials, saying, “And I promise to you a kingdom, as My Father has promised to Me; that you shall eat and drink at My table in My kingdom, and sit on twelve thrones, judging the twelve tribes of Israel.” O what a banquet is this, my brethren, and how great is the harmony and gladness of those who eat at this heavenly table! For they delight themselves not with that food which is cast out, but with that which produces life everlasting. Who then shall be deemed worthy of that assembly? Who is so blessed as to be called, and accounted worthy of that divine feast? Truly, “blessed is he who shall eat bread in Your kingdom.”

9 Now he who has been counted worthy of the heavenly calling, and by this calling has been sanctified, if he grow negligent in it, although washed becomes defiled: “counting the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified a profane thing, and despising the Spirit of grace,” he hears the words, “Friend, how did you come in hither, not having wedding garments?” . . . But the disciples who continued with the Redeemer shared in the happiness of the feast. And that young man who went into a far country, and there wasted his substance, living in dissipation, if he receive a desire for this divine feast, and, coming to himself, shall say, “How many hired servants of my father have bread to spare, while I perish here with hunger!” and shall next arise and come to his father, and confess to him, saying, “I have sinned against heaven and before you, and am not worthy to be called your son; make me as one of your hired servants Luke;”— when he shall thus confess, then he shall be counted worthy of more than he prayed for. For the father does not receive him as a hired servant, neither does he look upon him as a stranger, but he kisses him as a son, he brings him back to life as from the dead, and counts him worthy of the divine feast, and gives him his former and precious robe. So that, on this account, there is singing and gladness in the paternal home.

10 For this is the work of the Father’s loving-kindness and goodness, that not only should He make him alive from the dead, but that He should render His grace illustrious through the Spirit. Therefore, instead of corruption, He clothes him with an incorruptible garment; instead of hunger, He kills the fatted calf; instead of far journeys, [the Father] watched for his return, providing shoes for his feet; and, what is most wonderful, placed a divine signet-ring upon his hand; while by all these things He begot him afresh in the image of the glory of Christ. These are the gracious gifts of the Father, by which the Lord honours and nourishes those who abide with Him, and also those who return to Him and repent. For He promises, saying, “I am the bread of life; he that comes unto Me shall not hunger, and he that believes in Me shall never thirst.” We too shall be counted worthy of these things, if at all times we cleave to our Saviour, and if we are pure, not only in these six days of Easter, but consider the whole course of our life as a feast, and continue near and do not go far off, saying to Him, “You have the words of eternal life, and whither shall we go?” Let those of us who are far off return, confessing our iniquities, and having nothing against any man, but by the spirit mortifying the deeds of the body. For thus, having first nourished the soul here, we shall partake with angels at that heavenly and spiritual table; not knocking and being repulsed like those five foolish virgins, but entering with the Lord, like those who were wise and loved the bridegroom; and showing the dying of Jesus in our bodies, we shall receive life and the kingdom from Him. . . .

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