Toward Lent: Historical Observations

After a lifetime of being typically Restorationist about the liturgical calendar, this year I am observing Lent and following the readings of the Revised Common Lectionary (you can subscribe to a useful calendar here). If you come from a background like mine, in which such practices are foreign, you may wonder what this is all about.

The earliest indications we have of practices akin to Lent and the annual celebration of Easter are found in the second-century disputes known commonly as the Paschal Controversy. Essentially, a debate ensued regarding the proper date of the annual celebration of Jesus’s passion and resurrection, as many churches celebrated on the Sunday (“Lord’s Day”) following the first full moon of spring, but some churches celebrated according to the date of the Jewish Passover, which may not fall on a Sunday.

Eusebius of Caesarea, in his Church History (Hist. eccl.) written in the early fourth century, tells the story:

1. A question of no small importance arose at that time [after the tenth year of Commodus, ca. AD 190]. For the parishes of all Asia, as from an older tradition, held that the fourteenth day of the moon, on which day the Jews were commanded to sacrifice the lamb, should be observed as the feast of the Saviour’s passover. It was therefore necessary to end their fast on that day, whatever day of the week it should happen to be. But it was not the custom of the churches in the rest of the world to end it at this time, as they observed the practice which, from apostolic tradition, has prevailed to the present time, of terminating the fast on no other day than on that of the resurrection of our Saviour. (Hist. eccl. 5.23.1)

Councils and conferences ensued. Letters were exchanged. The conflict grew heated. Eusebius (Hist. eccl. 5.24.9–18) continues:

9. Thereupon Victor, who presided over the church at Rome, immediately attempted to cut off from the common unity the parishes of all Asia, with the churches that agreed with them, as heterodox; and he wrote letters and declared all the brethren there wholly excommunicate.

10. But this did not please all the bishops. And they besought him to consider the things of peace, and of neighborly unity and love. Words of theirs are extant, sharply rebuking Victor.

11. Among them was Irenaeus, who, sending letters in the name of the brethren in Gaul over whom he presided, maintained that the mystery of the resurrection of the Lord should be observed only on the Lord’s day. He fittingly admonishes Victor that he should not cut off whole churches of God which observed the tradition of an ancient custom and after many other words he proceeds as follows:

12. For the controversy is not only concerning the day, but also concerning the very manner of the fast. For some think that they should fast one day, others two, yet others more; some, moreover, count their day as consisting of forty hours day and night.

13. And this variety in its observance has not originated in our time; but long before in that of our ancestors. It is likely that they did not hold to strict accuracy, and thus formed a custom for their posterity according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode. Yet all of these lived none the less in peace, and we also live in peace with one another; and the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.

14. He adds to this the following account, which I may properly insert:

Among these were the presbyters before Soter, who presided over the church which you now rule. We mean Anicetus, and Pius, and Hyginus, and Telesphorus, and Xystus. They neither observed it themselves, nor did they permit those after them to do so. And yet though not observing it, they were none the less at peace with those who came to them from the parishes in which it was observed; although this observance was more opposed to those who did not observe it.

15. But none were ever cast out on account of this form; but the presbyters before you who did not observe it, sent the eucharist to those of other parishes who observed it.

16. And when the blessed Polycarp was at Rome in the time of Anicetus, and they disagreed a little about certain other things, they immediately made peace with one another, not caring to quarrel over this matter. For neither could Anicetus persuade Polycarp not to observe what he had always observed with John the disciple of our Lord, and the other apostles with whom he had associated; neither could Polycarp persuade Anicetus to observe it as he said that he ought to follow the customs of the presbyters that had preceded him.

17. But though matters were in this shape, they communed together, and Anicetus conceded the administration of the eucharist in the church to Polycarp, manifestly as a mark of respect. And they parted from each other in peace, both those who observed, and those who did not, maintaining the peace of the whole church.

18. Thus Irenaeus, who truly was well named, became a peacemaker in this matter, exhorting and negotiating in this way in behalf of the peace of the churches. And he conferred by letter about this mooted question, not only with Victor, but also with most of the other rulers of the churches.

A historical textbook is useful for parsing what Eusebius condenses here. For example, Everett Ferguson’s discussion of the Paschal controversies in Church History, vol. 1, lists dates for the leadership of the bishops mentioned, clarifying the fact that the controversy had been ongoing for a number of decades at the time of Irenaeus’s intervention: “The earliest documentation for different customs is Irenaeus’s reference to bishop Sixtus (115–25) of Rome not making a test of fellowship over the different customs. . . . He further records a visit of Polycarp to Anicetus (155–66) in Rome in which they disagreed on the Paschal observance yet maintained peace with each other.”1

A uniform practice did not emerge until the Council of Nicaea addressed the matter definitively in AD 325 (two hundred years after Sixtus!). In the mean time, the practice of writing “festal letters” developed, in which a bishop would annually announce the proper time of the festival. The earliest mention of such letters is found in Eusebius, Hist. eccl. 7.20, in his discussion of Dionysius, bishop of Alexandria (d. AD 264). Apparently, the practice was especially typical of Alexandrian bishops, and some have claimed that this was due to the Alexandrians’ renowned facility with astronomical calculations.

In any case, a few interesting points arise from Eusebius’s history (I have bolded the phrases I find noteworthy in the text above).

1. Irenaeus is clear that even the Apostles observed a yearly celebration of the passion and resurrection. He, and his direct source Polycarp, are close enough in time to the Apostles that the practice is living memory.

2. There was a fast associated with the observance, broken on the day of the celebration of the resurrection. The dispute was about the length of the fast, not the practice itself. In other words, Irenaeus says that, according to Polycarp, the Apostle John and the other Apostles fasted before their annual Paschal celebration. This is a significant basis for the later development of Lent.

3. Whatever one makes of such practices or their later developments, the example of Polycarp and Anicetus communing together despite their differences is a stunning demonstration of Irenaeus’s claim that “the disagreement in regard to the fast confirms the agreement in the faith.” The diversity of practices “according to their own simplicity and peculiar mode” was not only acceptable but was unable to break their spiritual communion. The same should hold today!

In subsequent posts I will share selections from the festal letters of Athanasius, bishop of Alexandria from AD 328 to 373.

  1. Everett Ferguson, Church History, vol. 1, From Christ to the Pre-Reformation: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2013), 140.

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