Review of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity

Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson, The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity, Alcuin Club Collections 86 (Collegeville: Liturgical Press, 2011).

The past is always changing, which is rather confusing for us since we think of it as fixed and finished. But it does change, in the sense that what we know about it and how we interpret it changes. In particular, it is separating out our interpretations based on our contemporary notions from “the way it really happened” that makes a regular reassessment of evidence about the past an extremely necessary task. This is what Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson (the latter an ELCA pastor and professor at Notre Dame) set out to do.

The very first paragraph of the book, which is intended as a successor to and replacement of Thomas Talley’s hitherto standard The Origins of the Liturgical Year, explains that “it was not until relatively modern times that the concept of a ‘liturgical year’ began to be recognized, and the term itself only came into use from the late sixteenth century onwards. Christians in antiquity did not view the various festivals, fasts and seasons that they experienced through each year as forming a unity, a single entity, and indeed those events themselves did not emerge in any planned or co-ordinated fashion but instead as a number of entirely unrelated cycles, with the result that they tended to overlap or conflict with one another” (xiii). Only after quite a few centuries did some kind of unity and uniformity evolve—but even then, current scholarship recognizes, there was diversity. If anything, that is the moral of this story: there was not one single, correct, universally recognized way of doing things in the first several centuries of Christianity.

For instance, while Sunday seems to have been the standard day of observance at least by the second century, it wasn’t necessarily so right from the beginning, and even more surprisingly, the choice of Sunday doesn’t seem to be primarily on account of the resurrection, since writers of the period tend to mention it as the day “on which also Jesus rose from the dead” (8). It also seems that the Sabbath was observed in some fashion—whether for rest or as a day of religious study and worship—quite a bit longer than used to be thought, and the break with the Sabbath was mostly motivated out of a desire to distinguish more sharply between Jews and Christians. Wednesday and Friday were also deeply religiously marked with fasting. In fact, many of the new conclusions about festival dates have been teased out from contemporary witnesses’ comments about fasting, when it was allowed and when it was forbidden. If anything struck me about this study, it’s how central to their faith the discipline of fasting was to early Christians, and how very much that is not the case anymore. But that is clearly just one of many things that have changed profoundly.

Another surprise is the recent shift to thinking that the Quartodecimans—those who celebrated Easter on the day of Passover, no matter what day of the week it fell on—are the older of the rivals in the dating of Easter, which in turns leads to the new hypothesis that the original festival commemorated Jesus’ crucifixion primarily rather than his resurrection. If the festival originally fell on the Passover, that would make perfect sense, since it is connected theologically and exegetically to the sacrifice of the lambs. But the new Sunday calculation wasn’t necessarily easy or universally computed (largely because of astronomic limitations), so in various places different actual days were considered to be Easter Sunday. Interestingly, even after the move to the Sunday celebration, that day retained the passion events as well as the resurrection for quite some time, and only gradually did it extend backward to a triduum, and on to Holy Week and Lent. Comically enough, it seems that the earliest multi-day observance of the passion events was a response to the demands of the pilgrims flocking to Jerusalem in the late fourth century. It takes a little of the grandeur out of Holy Week to think of it as first being driven by tourism.

In contrast to the inclusion of the passion on Easter, the whole following season up to Pentecost was a time of rejoicing in the resurrection, the ascension, and the gifts of the Spirit—which in practice meant, for example, that no kneeling was allowed during prayer (another big deal at that time)—but with this case, as in every other, it was by no means universal in the ancient church. The same goes for baptism: though we often get the impression that Easter was the day for baptism, that may have only been the official preference but not necessarily even the practice in Rome and North Africa. Further, there seem to have been other recognized baptismal “seasons” (such as Epiphany and Pentecost), and more than one church father emphasized that any day and any hour is suitable for baptism. One of the most interesting shifts here is the movement away from Jesus’ own baptism as the theological fundament for Christian baptism toward Paul’s theology of baptism as death and resurrection with Christ.

Bradshaw and Maxwell also devote quite a bit of space to the ongoing dispute over the date of Christmas—while admitting that neither argument is yet conclusive. The two theories are 1) the History of Religions hypothesis, namely that Christmas on December 25 was a deliberate competitor to pagan observance, and 2) the Calculation hypothesis, that December 25 is exactly nine months after March 25, which was calculated by the early church to be the date of Jesus’ crucifixion, thus somehow forming a numerological whole. But more surprising to me was that Christmas itself was slow to take off—quite the contrast to popular Christianity today!—compared to Epiphany, which originally placed quite a bit more emphasis on the baptism of Jesus than our contemporary focus on the visit of the Magi. The change, it is now thought, came about as a result of the Arian and Adoptionist controversies: too much interest in the baptism of Jesus could make you come under christological suspicion (probably accounting for the new preference for Romans 6 in explaining Christian baptism, as noted above); this is maybe even why the Nicene Creed omits mention of Jesus’ baptism, which was an important feature of other early creeds. The wedding at Cana and the Magi counterbalanced the baptism focus of Epiphany, and the birth of Jesus at Christmas stressed the incarnation long before his baptism took place. In the West particularly, the Magi at Epiphany celebrated the first recognition by Gentiles of the Jewish Messiah.

The last two chapters of the book deal with the observance of saints’ days and marian festivals. It is now the scholarly consensus that popular Christian passion early on really was directed to the martyrs and then eventually confessors of the church; this was the cycle the “average” Christian lived on, not the “liturgical year” as we now recognize it. Not surprisingly, it’s a mixed bag. On the one hand, it was a missionary boon, allowing people in diverse spots across the Mediterranean world to see and experience God’s gracious work in their particular locale, far from Jerusalem, and gave them a way of conducting Christian life together apart from the management of the clergy. On the other hand, such veneration quite regularly threatened to displace Christ altogether, so even then the clergy had to strive to keep the main focus on the right Person. Mary, of course, was the most beloved of the saints, and it turns out that the title Theotokos long predated Ephesus and was invoked by all the competing christological parties at first (Nestorius was uniquely ignorant of the term); it really was originally more meant to glorify Mary than to testify to a particular christological conviction. It is still unknown why August 15 became the date of her dormition/assumption.

As with any study of church history—or really any kind of history at all—the lingering question at the end of it is: what does this mean for us? Bradshaw and Maxwell are fairly reticent about offering any conclusions here. One theme that comes through subtly is the tendency of a previous generation of liturgical scholars to seek and assume uniformity and to project far more consistency than could ever have been the case. Indeed, much of the story of the early liturgy is told by recounting the various theories and how these have been affirmed, revised, or discarded. The most revised and discarded theories are the ones that argued for uniformity and universality.

That still doesn’t answer the question for us now, though it would probably take volumes even to begin to give an answer to questions of liturgy and worship in our day and age and place. At least this much is clear, though: Christianity does not thrive on the assumption that there is “a right way” to do things, liturgically speaking. The correct enactment of an established ritual is not the goal of the gospel. But how to reach the goal of the gospel through, among other things, liturgy and ritual? The past can certainly help us to think better and more wisely about that question. But it remains an open question—and needs to remain open.


Early Christian Worship Styles

Posted by Terry Mitchell at February 14, 2012 01:06 Did the book give any indication of the variety of worship styles in the early church? This was a very interesting article and I do intend to purchase this book. Thanks for the review.

Reply to Terry

Posted by Sarah Wilson at February 23, 2012 09:32 Not so much different “styles,” but different “practices,” at any rate. Glad you liked the review. If you click through to Amazon through the icon on this page, it helps support LF!

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