The Object of the Primitive Church in Instituting the Holy Season of Lent.
At length the changing months have brought us to another division of our ecclesiastical year. We have again entered on that solemn season, in which the Church commands her children to "turn unto the Lord with all their hearts, and with fasting, and with weeping, and with mourning,"--"worthily lamenting their sins, and acknowledging their wretchedness, that they may obtain of Him who is the God of all mercy, perfect remission and forgiveness, through Jesus Christ, their Lord." [Passage appointed for the Epistle for Ash-Wednesday, Collect for Ash-Wednesday.] Her services now give utterance to the language of sorrow and abasement, as we prepare for the solemn commemoration of our Lord's agony and death. It is interesting therefore to look back to the records of he early Church in her holiest day, that as we see the origin of this season, and the object for which it was appointed, we may be enabled to decide, whether we are so observing it, that it shall answer for us its high and important purposes.
The fast of Lent (a Saxon word, signifying the Spring) is of forty days continuance, during the six weeks which precede Easter. As however the Sundays are Festivals, and must therefore be excepted, only thirty-six days are left. To make up this deficiency, four days are added at the beginning, commencing with Ash-Wednesday, which derives its name from the ashes which in the ancient Church were at this time thrown upon the penitents, whose sins had debarred them from a participation in her services. [It is uncertain by whom this addition was made. Most writers, however, ascribe it to Gregory the Great. (See BINGHAM'S Orig. Eccles., lib. xxi., ch. 1, section 5).] "On the first day of Lent," says Gratian, in describing this ceremony, "the penitents were to present themselves before the Bishop, clothed with sackcloth, with naked feet, and eyes turned to the ground; and this was to be done in the presence of the principal of the Clergy of the Diocese, who were to judge of the sincerity of their repentance. These introduced them into the Church, where the Bishop, all in tears, and the rest of the Clergy, repeated the seven penitential psalms. Then, rising from prayers, they threw ashes upon them, and covered their heads with sackcloth; and then with mournful sighs declared to them, that as Adam was thrown out of Paradise, so they must be thrown out of the Church. Then the Bishop commanded the officers to turn them from the Church doors." [WHEATLY on Common Prayer, p. 233.] Severe indeed this discipline may seem; yet in an age when the minds of men were reached only by striking appeals to the outward senses, we can not tell how much these ceremonies may have availed to keep alive the purity of the Church, and to impress upon the careless multitude, the value of admission to her services.
An allusion to this ancient form is still preserved in the "COMMINATION, or denouncing of GOD'S anger and judgment against sinners," which in the service of the Church of England is commanded "to be used on the first day of Lent." After Litany the Priest is directed to say:
"Brethren, in the Primitive Church there was a godly discipline, that, at the beginning of Lent, such persons as stood convicted of notorious sin were put to open penance, and punished in this world, that their souls might be saved in the day of the LORD; and that others admonished by their example, might be the more afraid to offend.
"Instead whereof (until the said discipline may be restored again, which is much, to be wished), it is thought good, that at this time (in the presence of you all) should be read the general sentences of GOD'S cursing against impenitent sinners, gathered out of the seven and twentieth chapter of Deuteronomy and other places of Scripture; and that ye shall answer to every sentence, Amen; To the intent that, being ad monished of the great indignation of GOD against sinners, ye may the rather be moved to earnest and true repentance; and may walk more warily in these dangerous days; fleeing from such vices, for which ye affirm with your own mouths, the curse of God to "be due."
Then follow the anathemas, to which the people respond. This form has been omitted in the Liturgy of the Church in America, with the exception of the three concluding prayers, which on Ash-Wednesday are directed "to be said immediately before the General Thanksgiving."
All record of the precise time in which this season first originated, is lost in the dim obscurity of the early ages of the Church. We may therefore speak of its services, in the words with which the ancient tragic poet represents Antigone as defending those sacred precepts of her faith, which had come down upon the traditions of a remote antiquity:
[Not now, nor yesterday, but always thus
These have endured, their ancient source unknown.
SOPH. Antigone, 462.]
The Lenten fast is however frequently referred to by writers of primitive days as an established and well known custom, which had been sanctioned by Apostolical authority. The probability is, that even from the first--from the time in which "the Bridegroom was taken away"--His followers thus in sorrow kept the anniversary of His Passion, although the duration of this season, and the rules by which its observance was regulated, may not have been definitely settled until the age immediately succeeding that of the Apostles. Philo, who was cotemporary with the early disciples, and is even said "to have had familiar conversation with Peter at Home, whilst he was proclaiming the Gospel to the inhabitants of that city," refers to this season in his description of the Christians at Alexandria, who were converted by St. Mark. [Eusebius' Eccles. Hist., liber ii., chap. 17, p. 66.] "This author"--says Eusebius, in his history composed about A.D. 324--"has accurately described and stated in his writings, the exercises performed by them," (i. e. the Christians of Alexandria in the days of St. Mark), "which are still in vogue among us at the present day, and especially at the festival of our Saviour's passion, which we are accustomed to pass in fasting and watching, and in the study of the divine word. These are the same customs that are observed by us alone at the present day, particularly the vigils of the Great Festival," meaning by this the Passion Week, called by the Greek Fathers the Great Week.
It is also mentioned incidentally by Irenaeus, who lived but ninety years after the death of St. John, and was trained up under the martyr Polycarp, who had himself been a disciple of that last surviving Apostle. "When alluding to a difference of opinion with regard to the time in which it should be kept, he shows that the custom itself was ancient, even in his day. His words are: "This diversity existing among those that observe it, is not a matter that has just sprung up in our time, but long ago, among those before us." [Ibid, lib. v., chap. 24, p. 210.]
Tertullian too, who lived within one hundred years of the Apostle St. John's departure, has unwittingly as it were, recorded his testimony to the general belief of the Church in the Apostolical Authority of this season. Having erred from the faith, and embraced the heresy of the Montanists, he found the voice of the Church against him, when he endeavored to introduce the new fasts which Montanus had commanded. Thus therefore he argues against her authority, in defence of his party. "They" (i. e. the Catholic Christians) "accuse us that we observe fasts of our own, peculiar to ourselves. They object therefore unto us novelty, and prescribe against the unlawfulness of that, saying, it is either to be judged Heresy, if presuming as men, we so dogmatize, or we are to be pronounced false prophets, if we inculcate these fasts, as from the Spirit; whilst on either hand we hear them denounce an anathema against us. For as to what pertains to fast, they argue, that there are certain days constituted by God. They surely think, that in the Gospel those days are determined for fasts, in which the Bridegroom was taken away, and that those days only are now the legitimate days of Christian fasts, all legal and prophetical old observances being antiquated or abolished. Therefore as to other fasting, it is to be indifferent, according to every man's occasions and causes, at his own judgment, not of command." (That is, as Montanus inculcated the necessity of the fast, "by pretended command from God.) "And that thus the Apostles observed the rule of fasting, imposing no other yoke of certain or set fasts to "be kept of all in common. And ye prescribe against us, that the solemn times for this matter, are to be believed already constituted in the Scriptures, or in the tradition of our Elders, and that no further observance is to be superadded, for the unlawfulness of innovation." [TERTULLIAN De Jejuniis, chap. 1, 2, 13.]
The first Christian Emperor, Constantine, immediately after the meeting of the earliest general council of the Church--that held at Nice, A. D. 325--and which was composed, to use his own words, "of all the Bishops, or the greater part of them at least, assembled together," wrote a letter to all the Churches, on the necessity of observing Easter upon the same day. His argument is, that unless this uniformity exists, some will be rejoicing in that Festival, while others are still mourning in the fasts which precede it. "It is fit therefore"--he says--"that we should perpetuate to all future ages the celebration of this rite, which we have kept from the first day of our Lords passion even to the present times.
.....For the Saviour has bequeathed to us one festal day of our liberation, that is, the day of His most holy passion; and it was His pleasure that His Church should be one; the members of which, although dispersed in many and various places, are yet nourished by the same Spirit, that is, by the will of God. Let the sagacity of your holiness only consider how painful and indecorous it must be, for some to be experiencing the rigors of abstinence, and others to be unbending their minds in convivial enjoyments on the same day; and after Easter, for some to be indulging in feasting and relaxation while others are occupied in the observance of the prescribed fasts.
To give a single reference more--and they might be multiplied to a great extent--this season is mentioned in the Apostolic Canons, a code of laws which certainly dates its authority from a very early age. "If"--says the 61st Canon--"any Bishop, Priest, Deacon, Reader, or Singer, do not keep the holy fast of Lent, forty days before Easter, or the Wednesdays and Fridays, let him be deposed, if he be not hindered by some bodily infirmity; but if he be a layman, let him be suspended from communion."
Thus, we perceive, that this custom took not its rise amidst the corruptions of the Dark Ages, but began in times of light and holiness. We received it not from the Romish Church, when it had fallen from ancient purity, but it comes down to us from Primitive days. It was sanctioned "by Apostolical authority, or certainly at least by those who lived before the example and instruction of Apostles had been in any respect forgotten. The early Christians, as we have already seen stated by Tertullian, considered our Divine Master as referring to the observance of some such season, when he said: "Can the children of the bride-chamber mourn, as long as the bridegroom is with them? but the days will come, when the bridegroom shall be taken from them, and then shall they fast." At first, the time of its observance varied in different Churches and among different individuals, although all agreed in the necessity of thus commemorating, in some way, their Lord's sufferings and death. At length, however, its duration was fixed at forty days, which has since, through all the intervening centuries, continued to be the uniform custom of the Church. The number forty seems very anciently to have "been appropriated to seasons of repentance and fasting. "This quadragesimal number"--says St. Ambrose, in his 36th sermon--"is not constituted of men, but consecrated from God." For this term of years were the children of Israel disciplined in the wilderness, to prepare them for the promised land. For forty days did Moses fast on the Mount--Elijah in the Wilderness--and the Ninevites, when they would avert the judgments prophesied "by Jonah. It was this length of time that our Lord himself was pleased to fast, during His temptation in the desert, and from his example was this period probably fixed, "that,"--as St. Augustine says--"we might, as far as we are able, conform to Christ's practice, and suffer with Him here, that we may reign with Him hereafter."
And we may learn too from a single passage in St. Basil's Second Homily on Fasting, how universal throughout the world was the attention of the early Christians to this solemn portion of the Ecclesiastical year. "In this time of Lent, there is no island nor continent of the earth, no city, nor nation, no extreme corner of the world, where the Edict of this Fast of Lent was not heard. Yea, whatsoever armies, merchants, travelers, or mariners are abroad, this fast comes unto them all, and with joy they all receive it. This composes every house, every city, and every people, in sobriety and quiet and concord. This stills the late clamors, contentions, and noises of the town. Let no one, therefore, exempt himself from the number of the fasters, in which every degree, nation and age almost of men, and all of all dignities whatsoever are engaged."
How safe then are we, in yielding our ready obedience to this regulation of the Church! How much better, to tread in the footsteps of martyrs and confessors of former times, than to set at naught all the customs which they found conducive to their spiritual benefit, and to determine--despising the wisdom of the past, and the recorded experience of eighteen centuries--to "walk every one in the ways of his own heart!" It becomes therefore an inquiry of interest to us, gleaning from those ancient writers whose works have survived the ravages of barbarism and the waste of time, to investigate the reasons which induced the Church in Primitive days to institute this Holy Season, and then through all succeeding ages, to insist so strongly upon its observance.
The first reason was--THAT HAVING THE SUBJECT OF THEIR LORD'S SUFFERINGS THUS BROUGHT MORE VIVIDLY BEFORE THEM, THEY MIGHT BE INDUCED TO MOURN HIS LOSS WITH GREATER EARNESTNESS.
There is a tendency in the human mind to disregard a duty, to the performance of which no specific time is allotted. Thus, if the whole year were given us, during which we were commanded at some period to meditate seriously on our Lord's death, we should probably either neglect the obligation entirely, or, at least, fulfill it but imperfectly. It is for this reason that the early Church set apart definite times, for considering in order each of the grand doctrines of the Christian faith, as the Ecclesiastical year rolls round. And in this practice we now continue.
"Yes, if the intensities of hope and fear
Attract us still, and passionate exercise
Of lofty thoughts, the way before us lies
Distinct with signs--through which in fixed career,
As through a zodiac, moves the ritual year
Of England's Church--stupendous mysteries!
Which, whoso travels in her bosom, eyes
As he approaches them, with solemn cheer."
Beautiful indeed is that arrangement of her services, which, as the months go by, brings in succession before her Children, each scene in their Lord's eventful life, and each cardinal truth which he taught! We celebrate with joy and gratitude the Festival of His Nativity, and afterwards follow Him on, step by step, through all the glories and the trials of His earthly pilgrimage, until amid the solemnities of Passion Week we mourn His agonies and death. Then come in meet succession, the other Festivals--that of Easter, when He triumphed over the grave--of the Ascension, when He returned to "the glory which He had with the Father before the world was"--and of Whitsunday, when His promise was fulfilled, that the Comforter should be given, and His Apostles, by the visible descent of the Holy Ghost, were prepared to be "lights to lighten the world." Thus it is, that in a far higher and nobler sense than the Poet ever dreamed in his loftiest imaginings--
"The rolling year is full of Him."
Acting then on this principle, and endeavoring to render the views of her members clear and distinct, how naturally did it happen, that one of the first seasons of solemn remembrance instituted by the Primitive Church, was that which commemorated her Lord's sufferings and death, while her children were summoned in an especial manner to lament those sins which brought Him to the Cross!" ["It seemed good to the Church to fix a stated time, in winch men might enter on the great work of their repentance. And what time could have been selected with greater propriety than this 'Lenten' or Spring Season, when universal Nature, awakening from her wintry sleep, and coming out of a state of deformity, and a course of penance, imposed for the transgression of man, her Lord and Master, is about to rise from the dead; and, putting on her garments of glory and beauty, to give us a kind of prelude to the renovation of all things? So that the whole creation most harmoniously accompanieth the voice of the Church, as that sweetly accordeth to the call of the Apostle, Awake, thou that sleepest, and arise from the dead, and Christ shall give thee light.'"--Bishop HORNE.] "The days had come, when the Bridegroom was taken from them, and therefore did they fast." The memory of His love and kindness was still freshly imprinted on their hearts. The history of all that He endured, came not to them, as it too often does to us, like "a thrice-told tale," to which we have listened so often that it has lost its interest. The glad news of the Gospel bursting upon them in an age of moral degradation and darkness, had not yet ceased to thrill their hearts with joy. They had either "known Christ after the flesh," when in person he mingled with his fellow men, or at least those Apostles who sat at his sacred feet, forming His little household as He wandered through Judea; and with eager ears they listened to the recital from their lips, of all that they had heard and witnessed. Probably too, the tradition of many a deed which is now lost forever, came down to them, and contributed to heighten their estimation of that Perfect Character, from whom they were separated by but a short interval of time. [It is strange that the only one of these traditionary sayings of our Lord, which was afterwards recorded by an inspired writer, is intended to inculcate a truth, the most difficult for human nature to learn. St. Paul says--"Remember the words of the Lord Jesus, how he said: It is more blessed to give than to receive."--Acts xx. 33.] How well then could they meditate upon His bitter agonies endured for them! How forcibly did they feel themselves called, once at least in each year, in an especial manner to chasten their souls by prayer and fasting, that they might thus be compelled to realize the nature of His earthly existence, who was truly "a man of sorrows and acquainted with grief!"
But if this was necessary for them, how much more so is it for us! Educated from the earliest dawn of reason, to hear the story of redeeming love, and the fearful manner in which our salvation was wrought out, these themes become to us, as we before remarked, subjects too well known to excite attention. It is indispensable, therefore, that the mind should be directed and fixed upon them. And how admirably is this done by the appointed service of the Church! "Week after week, we are led in her prayers and lessons to contemplate these solemn mysteries, until when Passion Week arrives, the recital is each day repeated. We witness the bitter agony of the Son of God, in the garden of Gethse-mane. We stand by the patient sufferer's side, when arraigned in the hall of Pilate. We follow Him to Calvary, as he painfully toils along amidst the scoffs and jeers of an infuriated mob. We gather around the Cross, and hear that last expiring cry, which shrouded the heavens in darkness, and startled even the sleeping dead in their tombs. Hard, indeed, must be that heart--yes, utterly "past feeling"--which, amid scenes like these, is not awakened to gratitude and devotion. He can be no true follower of the Lord, whose spirit does not "burn within him" as he thus contemplates the mighty price at which his redemption was purchased, or whose resolution is not strengthened, to live for that Master who died a death of shame for him.
Another reason with the Primitive Church for the institution of this season was, TO AID HER MEMBERS IN PRESERVING THE HIGH STANDARD OF CHRISTIAN CHARACTER IN ITS EARLY PURITY.
For a time, the followers of our Lord were subjected to the most painful persecutions. The lonely valleys of Judea furnished no place of security to the Hebrew Christians, for even thither penetrated their bigoted enemies, ready, "if they found any of that way, whether they were men or women, to bring them bound to Jerusalem." And when the faith left its earliest dwelling-place in "Holy Asia," and went forth to other lands, it found a world arrayed in hostility against it. [AESCHYLUS' Prom. Vinct. 415. This is the happy epithet used by the first, and may we not say, the loftiest of the Greek tragic poets? On this single point there is agreement between the Christian of every age, and the believer in that antique and poetical mythology which furnishes its inspiration to the muse of Homer, and both called into being, and imparted its dark coloring to the solemn and intellectual drama of the Athenian stage. Both alike look back with reverence to that region which was the birth-place of our race, the scene of its first revelations, and where "the Lord talked with man face to face." Even to this day, there is a tradition among the Arabs, that to the earliest places of human worship, there clings a guardian sanctity--that there the wild bird alights not and the wild beast may not wander--but the eye of God rests on them as hallowed spots.] The ancient, sensual Paganism, and the proud systems of a scoffing philosophy, united at once to crush that holy creed, which disclaimed all fellowship with them. The endurance of its adherents was tried by every expedient of cruelty their enemies could devise. Some died in agony at the stake. Some ascended to their reward from the burning flames, while "their ashes flew, no marble tells us whither." Some "butchered to make a Roman holiday," poured out their blood on the sands of the amphitheatre, welcoming even the wild beasts, whose fury released them from their sufferings. And the survivors felt, that they also were each hour in jeopardy of life, and might at any time be called in like manner to seal their profession. Yet these things only added a depth and fervor to their devotion. Like their Divine Master, they "were made perfect by sufferings." The timid and wavering, either refrained from uniting with them, or else soon apostatized from their profession. The true-hearted were therefore left alone, reduced indeed in numbers, yet "steadfast, unmovable," and holding themselves ready, if needs be, to win their crown "by suffering the pains of martyrdom.
They stood prepared to die, a people doomed
To death; old men, and youth, and simple maids."
The world looked coldly on them, even when it did not openly persecute, and had therefore nothing in it to enlist their affections. Life with them was one long Lenten period of abstinence and prayer, while they were continually chastening their spirits, to make ready for that parting hour, which might suddenly overtake them.
But when security came, and the world began to smile upon them, then was the time of peril. The faith which had been strengthening in the storm of persecution, drooped and withered in the sunshine of Imperial favor. The multitude insensibly declined from their Apostolic devotion, and thought too much of the cares and riches of a world they had vowed to renounce. Their affections began to cling to it, forgetting that here they were only strangers and pilgrims "having no continuing city." It was at this time probably that this fast, commenced in an earlier age, was more accurately defined and inculcated by the regulations of the Church, that her members might be recalled from their secular cares to holy works, and thus by the necessity of a law, compelled to dedicate one tenth of the year, in a peculiar manner to their God. Therefore It is, that an ancient writer declares--"Whilst men are distracted about the cares of this life, their religious hearts must needs be defiled with the dust of this world; and therefore it is provided by the great benefit of this Divine institution, that the purity of our minds might be repaired by the exercise of these forty days, in which we may redeem the failings of other times, and do good works, and exercise ourselves in religious fasting."
But has this necessity in our day ceased? Is there now so great a deadness in the world, that we need not such a season, to recall us to our duty? Is not the very reverse true, and the danger now tenfold greater than it was in that early day? Since all around us have made a nominal profession of Christianity, the Church has been too much mingled with the world. The harrier between them has been somewhat broken down, and there is comparatively but little of the outward Cross to be borne. But the effect of this is, to authenticate low views of Christian duty--to render religion earthly--to withdraw all attention from self-denial--to cause us to forget our Master's lesson, that though in the world we are not of the world--and to induce those about us to suppose that the "strait gate" has been widened, and the "narrow way" become broad. They look in vain for those exhibitions of a living faith which distinguished the early Christians, and are therefore tempted to believe, that the days of self-discipline are over, and an easier entrance found into God's holy kingdom.
The very proofs too of Christian character--the marks by which we should ascertain our spiritual state--are in this age of novelties so perverted and mystified, that it is often difficult for an inquirer to decide, whether or not he has a right to those promises of the Gospel which are made to the contrite and believing. With some, every thing rests upon abstract notions of faith, as if the last Great Judgment would only be a trial of their orthodoxy. With others, all religion is resolved into a matter of mere feeling. Forgetting that the degree of excitement depends upon the power of the imagination, or the peculiar constitution of the mind, they are continually striving to elevate themselves to a greater intensity of emotion, and thus make this, intangible as it is, their test of religious character. The latter form of delusion indeed we may characterize as being in an especial degree, the popular one of the day. This awakening of the sensibilities and of the imagination, is substituted in the place of that calm, settled, decided resolution to obey the will of our Master, which alone can be an efficient rule of conduct in this evil world. These unearthly paroxysms of devotion, which soon pass away and leave behind them no abiding holiness, are trusted to, instead of that "patient continuance in well doing," which alone can lead us on to "eternal life."
How necessary is it then, that there should be times of reflection, when we may realize what are the true evidences of having passed from spiritual death, to the light and liberty of GOD'S own children! And it is to the standard of pure religion, that the Church at this time endeavors to recall us. A perpetual witness for the faith, her voice is heard "through the ages all along," publishing truths of which an evil world would willingly lose sight, and pointing her members to the bright examples of those who, in earlier, purer days, "fought the good fight," and "inherited the promises." From her we learn, that religion consists, not in talking much and eloquently on the subject--not alone in striving to feel spiritually--not even in being warm and earnest in aiding the progress of the Church. An individual may do all these things, and yet be only like "sounding brass or a tinkling cymbal." That faith of the heart by which we "believe unto righteousness," is no wavering impulse. It is a fixed, steadfast habit of the mind, shown by our renouncing the spirit of the world--subduing our own evil tempers--living "soberly, righteously, and godly"--"crucifying the flesh, with the affections and lusts"--and acting in truth as the self-denying followers of that Master of whom it is recorded, that He "pleased not Himself." And while the Church thus defines the evidences of spiritual life, and declares the Christian conflict to be "an earnest, endless strife,"20 she at the same time most sternly rebukes the compromising spirit of the day. She summons her children to come out from a sinful and apostate world. She bids them not live as other men do, in ease and idleness, when so much is to be accomplished for their Lord. She inquires how they can be "delicate on the earth," when they are called by their Master to "drink of the cup of which He drank," and to be conformed to Him alike in His sufferings and His life. And it is by the abstinence and self-mortification of this solemn season, that she strives to impress these lessons. If therefore they listen to her teaching, and tread this scene of mists and shadows beneath their feet, each returning year will endow them with added strength, while they travel onward to that world of light, to which she points them as their eternal home. They will learn to despise the fleeting and the perishable, and even while still imprisoned in this tabernacle of clay their spirits will yearn for communion with the Enduring and the Infinite.
Another reason for the institution of this season in Primitive times was--WITH REFERENCE TO TWO CLASSES OF INDIVIDUALS WHO WERE THEN TO BE RECEIVED INTO THE CHURCH.
One class was that of the Catechumens, who had been preparing for Baptism. As Easter was the fixed and solemn time for their admission to this rite, the Church fasted with them as a preparatory step to their commencing a religious life. [The most celebrated time for Baptism in the early Church, was Easter; next to that, Pentecost, or Whitsuntide, and then Epiphany. The Church however still allowed her members the liberty to anticipate these times, if either Catechumens were great proficients, or in danger of death by disease or any sudden accident.--BINGHAM'S Orig. Eccles., lib. xi., ch. 6, sec. 1. 3] Thus Justin Martyr in the second century declares--"As many as are persuaded, and do believe that the things taught and said by us are true, and promise to live accordingly, they are instructed to pray, and with fasting to beg of God remission of sins, we praying and fasting together with them. Then they are brought to the place where water is, and are regenerated after the same manner of regeneration as we were regenerated before them." [BINGHAM, lib. xxi., ch. 1, sec. 12.] In the same manner, Cyril of Jerusalem thus addresses the Catechumens: "The present season is a season of confession; all worldly cares are to be laid aside, for you strive for your souls. You that have been busy about the things of the world, and troubled in vain for many years, will ye not bestow forty days in prayer for the salvation of your souls?" And again, he says--"there is a large time given you. You have the Penance before you of forty days, sufficient space and opportunity to put off the old garments and put on the new." [BINGHAM, lib. xxi., ch. 1, sec. 12.] Upon this account all candidates for baptism were obliged to give in their names, forty days before the administration of the rite.
Such was the interest the early Christians took in those who were to be united with them in the fellowship of the Church. They were jealous for the honor of their Master, and the purity of the faith. They were earnest that those about to avow His name should not walk unworthy of their calling, and therefore through all this season, they prayed and fasted with them. They felt a zeal for the whole body of the faithful, and an ardent desire that no stain should rest upon the religion they professed. They realized, that they were a little band, surrounded by a world which loved them not. Beyond their own little circle they could expect no sympathy, but lived isolated and apart from those among whom they dwelt. When therefore, as was always done by the Apostles, they were addressed as "brethren," a chord was struck, which vibrated through every heart. They knew that they were "heirs together of the grace of life."
May we not therefore take "shame and confusion of face" to ourselves, because we are so deficient in this feeling! In this age of cold and selfish worldliness, we have almost ceased to regard the "communion of Saints" as a reality. And yet, though we think not of it, the tie is a most holy one, which unites those who are disciples of the same faith. They are looking upward to a common Master, invisible indeed to the eye of sense, yet whose presence they everywhere recognize in the occurrences of daily life. Combatants in the same warfare, they are exposed to equal dangers--are contending against common enemies--share in the same hopes and fears--and when the hour of victory comes, expect to join in one triumph, and rejoice in the same bright reward. It is no imaginary bond, therefore, which unites in fellowship the faithful in Christ Jesus. It is a community of interest in all that men should count most valuable. They are members of one great fraternity, which gathers out its chosen ones from every generation, and includes the just who have already passed into the promised Canaan, and those who are still toiling onward in the wilderness. In the beautiful words of one of our own hymns---
"Angels, and living saints, and dead,
But one communion make;
All join in Christ, their vital Head,
And of His love partake."
And the reason why this great truth is now so little appreciated, is obvious. It is because heresy and schism have entered "the consecrated host of God's elect," rending it asunder, tearing in pieces "the body of Christ, which is His Church," and arraying the followers of the same Lord against each other in hostile bands. Every strange form of error which the intellect of fallen man could engraft upon the Gospel, is rife around us, until the pure Faith stands like Milton's personification of Chastity, amidst "the rout of monsters" who composed the crew of Comus. The Church herself is as a beleaguered city, and the countless parties by which she is encircled, "have pitched their tents all about the holy camp, like the mixed multitude that followed the true Israel of God from out the land of Egypt." And the result is, that men become accustomed to the sight of discord and the cry of disunion. They even forget the "fellowship" which should subsist between those who "continue steadfastly in the Apostles' doctrine, and in breaking of bread, and in prayers." Party names fill the earth, and individuals withdraw themselves into their own little circles, and send forth no sympathy and love to the millions who are without, though their faith may be the same. But how different is this from the feeling which prevailed in ancient times! Then, when the fold of Christ was one and her prayers in every place the same, her members, wherever they were in the earth, felt that they were among "brethren, and recognized in every lineament the same Church which had existed "in their father's days, and in the old time before them." Then, in the remote East, and in Northern Africa, as well as in Western Europe, they were all united in "one Lord, one faith, one baptism."
Touching indeed is the illustration given, of this truth, by the feelings awakened in the mind of a celebrated Venetian traveler of those days, when a wanderer from his home, in one of the cities of distant England, he met a funeral train! There was nothing new, or strange, or singular, about the burial procession, particularly calculated to excite the attention of Marco Polo. The De Profundis of the stoled priest spake the universal language, adopted by the most sublime of human compositions, the Liturgy of Western Christendom. Yet, though no objects appeared which could awaken any lively curiosity in the traveler, there was much in their familiarity to excite the sympathy of the wanderer in a foreign land. With an altered tone he said to the friar, 'Saddened is the spirit of the pilgrim, by the dying twilight and the plaining Vesper bell. But he who braves every danger for himself, may feel his heart sink within him when the pageant of triumphant death brings to his mind the thought, that those from whom as he weened, he parted for a little time only, may have been already borne to the sepulchre. Yet there is also a great and enduring comfort to the traveler in Christendom. However uncouth may be the speech of the races amongst whom the pilgrim sojourns, however diversified may be the customs of the regions which he visits, let him enter the portal of the Church, or hear, as I do now, the voice of the minister of the Gospel, and he is present with his own, though Alps and oceans may sever them asunder. There is one spot where the pilgrim always finds his home. We are all one people when we come before the Altar of the Lord.'"
How beautiful is this picture! and how sad does it make the change which now we witness! What a dejection of spirit often comes over the Christian, as he is reminded of this subject in repeating the Confession--"I believe in one Catholic and Apostolic Church!" Is there not reason, then, at this Holy season, when the Universal Church is every where at the same time, prostrating herself before the Lord, that we should pray for a return of those golden days when the faithful were one in heart and name? Yes--though oceans may roll between, and we never meet face to face on earth, we have still an interest in each one who is united with the Church, wherever he may be, for we are all "members of one another." Let us then petition our Common Father, that he will grant us more of that spirit which distinguished the Christian host in earlier and better days, until we realize, that He "has knit together his elect in one communion and fellowship, in the mystical body of His Son Christ our Lord." [Collect for All Saints' Day.]
The other class of persons, who were preparing at this time to be received into the Church, were the Penitents, who had once been cut off for their sins, but after having completed their Canonical time of probation, during which they were excluded from her services, were generally absolved and readmitted at the time of the Easter Festival. Some of them for flagrant sins had been kept under this penitential discipline for years, until by evident humility and earnestness, they had given the fullest proof of their contrition and amendment. [The discipline was far from being nominal. It was often such as nothing but the deepest feelings of contrition could have induced them to bear. In some cases, they were obliged to appear in sackcloth, with ashes on their heads--the men to cut off their hair, and the women to go veiled, as a token of sorrow and mourning--to abstain from feasting, and even the innocent diversions of life--to practice abstinence, mortification and fasting, in private, as well as to observe the public fasts of the Church--to show their liberality to the poor in an eminent degree--and in some Churches to exercise their humility by taking upon themselves the office and care of burying the dead. See BINGHAM:, lib. xviii., ch. 2, sec. 4.] It is to this that an ancient Bishop refers, when he says--"The Anniversary solemnity of Easter, was not only the time of regenerating Catechumens, but of begetting those again to a lively hope, who had forfeited it by their sin, but were desirous to regain it by repentance and conversion from dead works, to walk again in the paths of life." [Gregory Nyssen. (BINGHAM, lib. xxi., ch. 1, sec. 13.)] Cyprian also in his Epistles, speaks of Easter as the great and solemn time of readmitting Penitents.
These indeed were the days of rigid discipline in the Church, when the offender was obliged to make his confession and his repentance as open as his sin, that no stain might rest upon the purity of the faith. And in enforcing these rules, no immunity was granted to rank or power. Look, for example, at the case of the Emperor' Theodosius. Having ordered a massacre "by his troops at Thessalonica, in which several thousand lives were sacrificed, St. Ambrose, the Bishop of Milan, at once charged him with his guilt, and refused to hold intercourse with one thus stained with innocent blood. The doors of the Church were closed against the Master of the world, and he was commanded to bow to that authority which is above all earthly rule. The subordination of the civil to the ecclesiastical power was clearly proclaimed in that emphatic sentence--"The Emperor is of the Church, and in the Church, but not above the Church." Having desired, even on the Festival of the Nativity, to attend its services, he was met at the entrance of the sanctuary by the intrepid prelate, who boldly rebuked him for his want of humility, and ordered him not to pollute the temple with his presence until he had been absolved from his iniquity.
Thus, for eight months, he was ignominiously excluded from those holy offices of the Church which were freely afforded to the meanest of his subjects--even to the "beggar and the slave. Theodosius pleaded in his defence the example of David. "Since then you have imitated his offence"--replied the Bishop--"imitate also his penitence." At length, on his public humiliation, St. Ambrose consented to admit the Emperor, not into the Church itself, but into the outer porch, the place for the public penitents. There, prostrate on the pavement, stripped of his imperial ornaments, beating his breast, and watering the ground with his tears, the master of the Roman Empire, and the legislator of the world, received his hard wrung absolution. Thus it was that the Church then stood forth as the champion of the oppressed, and extended her penalties over the mightiest of the earth. [MILMAN'S History of Christianity, vol. ii., p. 230.]
But how imposing must have been this penitential discipline, so rigorously enforced! "The Church was not then divided into separate independent bodies, holding no communication with each other, which might enable an offender when expelled from one to attach himself to another, and thus maintain, in defiance of his condemners, an outward union with Christ. He might as well have endeavored to escape the penalties of rebellion against the head of the Roman Empire by removing from one province to another. So spotless too was her innocence, so bright her holiness, that none dared question for a moment the justice of her decisions; and her sentence, however rigorous it might be, was deemed to be ratified in Heaven; to be cut off from her, was effectually to be cut off from Christ. Thus, both her blessings and her censures were an outward expression, an earthly type, by which men were warned of what judgment was proceeding in Heaven upon their conduct of life, and her slowness of forgiveness, and the fiery probation to which she submitted the penitent, were well calculated to dispel those hurtful notions which men now so generally entertain of the ease and the speed of the process of forgiveness of sins." [Rectory of Valehead, p. 164.] The multitude, often but partially reclaimed from barbarism, who could be restrained by no worldly motives, and over whom the civil authority of the land exerted but little power when it came into conflict with their passions, were obliged to tremble as the awful denunciations of the Church fell upon their ears. To them there was a fearful yet salutary lesson taught, by the public shame of the penitent--his deep humiliation--the bitterness and intensity of his remorse. It was with these individuals, then, whose probation had been so severe, but who were now again to be received into the body of the faithful, that the Church at this season prayed and fasted, that their sins might be washed away, and the comfortable hope which once they had forfeited be again restored.
And if the evil days on which we have fallen, prevent the Church in this age from enforcing with a wholesome severity, her primitive discipline, is there not double reason why her members should bewail their sins, and pray God not to visit upon them the recompense of their offences? Should not their petition be--"Spare thy people, good Lord, and let not thine heritage be brought to confusion?" And in harmony with such convictions, we find that all the services of Lent breathe an evident feeling of contrition--that we every where present ourselves n the attitude of humility, and pray our merciful Father to grant us "perfect remission and forgiveness." Let us strive then to partake of the spirit of these petitions: and when we look around us and remember how far, as a Church, we have wandered from the path of primitive holiness, how lukewarm is our devotion, and how feeble our faith compared with what it should be, we shall realize that there is reason for that deep and searching penitence which our Master seeks to kindle up within us, and the expression of which is heard so often in our Liturgy.
These, then, are the reasons which induced the early Church to institute this Holy Season, thus exercising the power entrusted to her, "to decree rites and ceremonies." [Article xx. Of the Authority of the Church--"The Church hath power to decree rites or ceremonies."] It is with her sanction that we are summoned to its observance. It is impressed upon us by the solemn voice which comes down from the years of a distant and dim antiquity. In these services many generations have already joined, and thus gathered strength for the journey which lay before them. They have long since passed away, leaving to us not only their "bright examples, but also the record of their experience. We stand in their places. We are the honored guardians of all those rites and institutions which they in their day found useful in the Church, and then bequeathed to such as should come after them. Solemn indeed is the trust--may we never betray it! May we always remember that we are "baptized for the dead"--inheriting their responsibilities--enjoying the fruits of their labors--and that we must commit this sacred heritage undiminished to our successors. Let us never then be willing to give up these ancient services, which were used by the holy dead, whose memory we love, or to substitute in their place the novelties of an age "emulous of change." Let us be content to tread the path which still gleams brightly with the steps of those who for Christ's sake and the gospel's "counted not their lives dear unto themselves." Let us strive, as they did, against an unholy world--loving with a true devotion, the Church for which they died--and seeking to imbibe the spirit which reigns in her courts. And then, when "life's fitful fever" is over, we shall be admitted with the just whom we have followed on earth, to the Paradise of God--to "the general assembly and Church of the first-born, which are written in Heaven."