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Keeping the Feast: The Passover Transformed in Athanasius’ Festal Letters

While containing invaluable insights into the life of the patriarch and his dedication to his pastoral duties insights that his more formal treatises cannot express the Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria remain a lesser-known work. Though many only survive until our day in fragments, these Letters, irrespective of their present completeness or condition, reveal personal reflections of the patriarch throughout the stages of his leadership of the Church in Egypt, as evidenced by his comments in them about his life in exile or other difficulties he encountered. Although the Letters occasionally document Athanasius’ personal responses to his situation, his primary responsibility was to inform the Church, through the Letters, regarding the dates for the celebration of Great Lent, Pascha, and the subsequent Feast of Pentecost. These announcements, from the See of Alexandria to the Christian world more generally, were part of a longstanding tradition begun by the third century and continuing under the formalization of the process at the Council of Nicaea.[1] Besides announcing the Feast dates, these annual letters to the faithful provided the bishops of Alexandria a platform from which to encourage their flock to a life of purity and holiness. In this paper, particular attention will be given to the recurring themes surrounding the Passover and its transformation into a Heavenly Banquet, as well as Athanasius’ exhortation to “keep the feast,” as he describes in his Festal Letters. 

In the style characteristic of Alexandrian theology, Athanasius repeats this powerful phrase “keep the Feast” throughout his Festal Letters, bringing to the fore the shadow of the Old Testament types brought to light and fulfilled in the life-giving suffering of the Lord Jesus Christ. Athanasius writes of the symbolic heavenly feast of the Christians: “For otherwise it is impossible to go up to Jerusalem and eat the Passover, unless we observe the fast of forty days.”[2] From this direct instruction, the seriousness of paying heed to the liturgical season is evident, and Athanasius uses his entire range of biblical understanding to communicate to the Church this urgent spiritual need. For Athanasius, the fasting period was an indispensable preparation without which the Feast could not be attained. In short, fasting is keeping the Feast, and true feasting is rejoicing in the presence of the Lord.

Historical Background

One of the issues discussed at the Council of Nicaea was the standardization of the dates for the Paschal Feast. The reasons given for the necessity of standardizing the calendar across the Christian world were twofold. First, the desire to separate the Christian celebration from the Jewish Passover; second, to promote unity across geographic regions by keeping the Feast on the same day. Constantine writes in a letter to those who were not present at the Council: “We ought not, therefore, to have anything in common with the Jews, for the Savior has shown us another way,”[3] and “[f]or what could be more beautiful and more desirable, than to see this festival, through which we receive the hope of immortality, celebrated by all with one accord, and in the same manner?”[4] While tensions persisted between the Churches of Rome and Alexandria on this point of calculating the date of the Paschal Feast this Canon of Nicaea was an attempt at unification.[5]

By the first few centuries after the ascension of Christ, Alexandria had already long enjoyed a distinguished reputation as a renowned center of learning and scholarly pursuit; it was this Alexandrian erudition, particularly in mathematics and astronomy, that enabled the Egyptian Church to carry out this service of calculating and communicating, through annual Festal letters, the accurate date of the Paschal Feast each year for the benefit of the greater Christian community.[6] The earliest evidence of this annual announcement is a fragment attributed to Pope Dionysius[7] (enthroned 247-264 CE), though the hagiography of Pope Demetrius (enthroned 189-232 CE) suggests that the custom of announcing the Festal dates began as early as the late second century.[8] The three largest collections of Festal letters are from Athanasius, Theophilus, and Cyril, respectively.[9] The Athanasian letters are preserved in Coptic and Syriac, with other fragments extant in Greek and Armenian. Manuscripts of the epistles from Theophilus and Cyril exist in the aforementioned languages as well as Latin and Arabic,[10] demonstrating the wide circulation of these correspondences. Since the last of the known Festal letter manuscripts dates to the fourteenth century, it may have been that the Alexandrian Church continued to honor the Nicene directive to calculate and announce the dates for Lent and the Feast at least until the Middle Ages.[11] The practice of issuing Festal Letters was revived in the Coptic Church in the twentieth century, but with a changed scope given that the annual Feast dates had by then become easily calculable and the transmission of messages had become fairly instantaneous. Thus, in modern times, the Festal Letters of the Popes of the Coptic Orthodox Church represent greetings and exhortations on the Feasts of the Nativity and the Resurrection, and are publicly read in Coptic Orthodox Churches all over the world during the Divine Liturgies of the Feasts of the Nativity and Resurrection.

As it has been with the use of Festal Letters in modern times, there was also much ongoing change in the way that the Christians of Alexandria kept the Feast during the time of Athanasius himself.[12] As the liturgical calendar developed over time, the Paschal Fast had gradually expanded from a period of three days’ abstinence to a six-day fasting period, while the Quartodeciman practice of celebrating the three-day Paschal Feast between the 14th of Nisan and 16th of Nisan, at the same time as the Jewish Passover, was abolished at Nicaea in favor of upholding the more prevalent tradition of celebrating the Feast on a Sunday.[13] The Forty-Day Fast, Great Lent, was also at some point appended to the Pascha Week, being counted as part of the Great Fast. As far as modern scholars can determine, this was the structure of Great Lent at Athanasius’ time. For David Brakke, the impetus for attaching the Paschal Fast to the forty-day period of Lent lay squarely with the Alexandrian patriarch.[14] However, as with many other questions regarding early Church practices, we may never be able to localize the precise time that Great Lent and Pascha became conjoined, recognizing in any case that the adoption of liturgical customs generally tended to arise gradually and originate in local practice. Nonetheless, by the time Athanasius penned his Festal Letters, the Churches at Rome and Jerusalem also celebrated a multi-week Lenten season preceding the Pascha, and it appears that the Church in Egypt also upheld the same standard.[15]

Keeping the Feast 

Of all the feasts included within the Church Calendar, the Resurrection Feast is the definitive celebration of Christianity, when the initiated the baptized believers participate in God’s victory over death through the life-giving passion of His only-begotten Son. Paul the Apostle writes to the Corinthians of the effectiveness of the Resurrection for the salvation of mankind: “If in this life only we have hope in Christ, we are of all men the most pitiable. But now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the first fruits of those who have fallen asleep” (1Cor 15:19-20). He continues that those “belonging to Christ” shall likewise be raised, and this salvation for humanity is God’s victory over death. We will repeatedly return to 1 Corinthians in our exploration of the Festal Letters as a focal point for Athanasius’ theological understanding and appreciation of the Feast of the Resurrection, particularly through Paul’s proclamation that “indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Cor 5:7-8). While Athanasius is not the only early Church Father to connect this passage from the Pauline letters to the typology surrounding the Exodus narrative of the Passover,[16] he undoubtedly provides one of the most thorough treatments of these concepts, with over a quarter of his Festal Letters making reference to the transformation of the Jewish Passover into the redemptive Passion of Jesus Christ.   

As we read in the passage above from 1 Corinthians that preparing for Passover requires purging the old leaven from our lives[17]  the Lenten Fast was this time of preparation and transformation. During this period, the Christian faithful strive to transform their earthly situation to reflect their eager anticipation of the heavenly Jerusalem; the Feast of the Resurrection, being the “Christian Passover,” is therefore a time for Christians to draw near to God and to partake of the spiritual food and drink of that Feast. For Athanasius, God is the giver of the Feast (Letter X), Christ is our guide to the Feast (Letter XIV), and He is the one who summons us to attend the Feast (Letter VI). Further, as Athanasius discusses in these three epistles, the Feast itself is continual worship of God, and our diligent participation in it gives way to the manifestation of virtue. Finally, for Athanasius, the Lenten period, though full of fasting and vigils, is also a time of thanksgiving and praise. In Letter XIV, he therefore explains that the Feast requires temperance: 

“Therefore, let us too, when we come to the feast, no longer (hasten) to the old shadows for they have been accomplished nor as if to ordinary feasts, but let us hasten as if to the Lord, for the feast is ready, not thinking of it as pleasure and enjoyment for the belly, but as a manifestation of virtue. For the pagans’ feasts are filled with gluttony and complete indolence because that is when they think they are celebrating a feast when they are lazy and that is when they perform works of perdition when they feast.”[18]

Passover Typology

 A typological interpretation of Passover in Exodus 12 first comes to us from Paul’s message in 1 Corinthians 5:7 and is found throughout Athanasius’ Festal Letters. At the heart of this typological interpretation of Passover is Christ as sacrifice. He takes the place of the lamb that protected the Hebrews from certain death, but not only this Athanasius also describes, in Letter XLI, that God’s presence was with the Hebrews just as His presence is with the Christians in the Church: 

“But the Passover is proclaimed to us, so that we might remember the salvation that came during it, and it is completed through a lamb, without which there could be no Passover ... For it is not the blood of the lamb alone that hinders the destroyer and liberates the people from Egypt; rather it is the Word who was in the blood who accomplished these things.”[19]

Thus, just as the Word was present in the lamb of the first Passover, the Word incarnate continues to be present as a source of thanksgiving in the bloodless Christian sacrifice.    

This offering of thanksgiving is not only giving additional attention to prayer, but it is a call to virtuosity of life and a promise from the people to fulfill the Law indeed, keeping the command necessitates pious activity: “For [Moses] said, ‘[l]et the children of Israel celebrate the Passover,’ intending that, just as from a commandment, the action should be near to the word, while the word facilitates the action.”[20] By discussing the presence of God with His people in both the Old Testament and the new age, Athanasius turns the discussion to the posture of the people towards God: If God is in the Feast, how do we approach the Lamb? He writes: “Let us not proceed merely to the performance of the act of the feast, but as persons who are about to approach the divine Lamb and to touch the heavenly foods. Let us cleanse the hands and purify the body.”[21] However, it is not an outward cleansing, but an inward one that the devotional activity of the forty days seeks to achieve.  

For Athanasius, there is eternal import in this Feast along with its historical and typological aspects. The protection of the Israelites and the redemption of the Christians both point to the completion of salvation in the Parousia  the second coming of Christ when the feast of God’s presence will be unending. In his Letters, Athanasius therefore discusses the Passover in four contexts: the deliverance of the Hebrews, the Last Supper of Christ with His disciples, the Christian Passover which the Church celebrates now, and the Heavenly Banquet prepared for the faithful. The symbolic meaning given to the actions of the Jews relates to the Christian attitude towards worship now, as well as the ultimate fulfillment of the union in heaven. For this reason, he writes, in his Letter XLV: “Just as all the old things were a type of the new things, present festival is a type of the joy above.”[22]

In all four contexts, preparation precedes this heavenly union. There are numerous references to purging the old leaven and taking sustenance from the new, hearkening back to the passage from 1 Corinthians 5, signaling to the Christians that the Lenten Fast is the opportunity to prepare for the presence of the true Lamb. Athanasius therefore warns: “But the deceitful person and the one who is not pure of heart obtain nothing good ... Thus, Judas, although he thought that he observed the Passover, was alienated from ‘the upward call’ and the company of the apostles because he devised deceit against the Saviour. For the Law commanded that the Passover be eaten with care, but when he ate, he was caught by the devil.”[23]

Without preparation and sincerity of purpose, the Feast becomes what Athanasius refers to in several letters as observation of the days without devotion. This can be contrasted with what awaits those who diligently prepare. For instance, in Letter XXVI Athanasius encourages the believers: “Let us walk in [these days] by preparing ourselves for the Lord and making straight his ways, as John said, by cleansing ourselves from all defilement and all sin, so that the Lord who commanded these things might come to us and dwell among us ... and walk among us and eat with us the Passover, while also promising us the true Passover and the joy in heaven with the saints.”[24] The Old Testament feast is thereby accomplished and transformed in the Christian Passover. Those who participate in the Christian Feast are therefore also awaiting the second transformation of feasting in heaven with all the holy people of God.   

Preparing for the Feast with Spiritual Food and Drink

With all this emphasis on eating the Passover as part of the Hebrews’ preparation for leaving Egypt and its tyranny, Athanasius does not neglect to turn his attention to the other types of eating that give physical reality to the Christian spiritual truth that Christ is the bread of life and living water. His Festal Letter X was composed in the year 338 CE,[25] the year after Athanasius returned to Alexandria from his first exile; as such, the patriarch connects his trials with the Hebrews’ advancement through the wilderness, adding that by patience and the imitation of Christ there is victory for the faithful and virtuous. Athanasius discusses perseverance through adversity, writing: “In this same way those who suffer affliction temporarily in this place, after they have endured, pass over to the place of repose.”[26] He continues, in reference to the parable of Lazarus and the rich man: “Lazarus, on the other hand, after he had hungered for bread ground from wheat, in that place could find satisfaction with what is better than manna, the Lord who came down and said, ‘I am the bread that came down from heaven and gives life to human beings.’”[27]

In crossing the Red Sea, the Hebrews were nourished by the lamb; on their journey through the wilderness, they were sustained by the manna from heaven. Again, there is a transference of this grace to Christians, who first receive redemption through the sacrifice of Christ and then abide in Him through continually receiving the blessed Eucharist. However, just as in Leviticus, where Moses warns that God will not accept all fasts and that the consequence for breaking His command is death, Athanasius distinguishes between the vices and virtues while likewise cautioning that we can eat in an unworthy manner. 

In Letter I, explaining that the virtuous soul will desire the food of the saints, he writes: 

“See, my brethren, how much a fast can do and how the law commands us to fast; for it is required that we fast not with the body alone, but also with the soul ... The two portions, the virtues and vices, are the soul’s foods, and it can eat the two foods and incline to either of the two, as it wills. For if it inclines toward the good, it will feed on the virtues: righteousness, temperance, continence, fortitude. As Paul says, ‘nourished on the word of truth,’ so too our Lord Jesus Christ being (so) nourished by these, said, ‘My food is to do the will of my Father who is in heaven’ ... And just as our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, because he is heavenly bread, was food for the saints, according to this (passage), ‘Unless you eat my flesh and drink my blood, you have no life in you.’”[28]

Though lengthy, this passage is worth considering and meditating on for several reasons. It provides a concise example of Athanasius’ incarnational theology.[29] The human condition is that souls can choose to grow in either vice or virtue. The Lord Jesus Christ, being fully human, is also capable of making that choice, and always chooses the good. He always exercises Himself towards the good, which is fulfilling the will of God the Father. By our sanctification, through participating in His life, we also are empowered to feed on virtue. And so, we clearly see that for Athanasius, spiritual food is not about eating at all, but rather is about our imitation of Christ through godly action. Suffering trials with patience is indeed one path towards this goal, but even more than this is fasting particularly, in the context of Athanasius’ Festal Letters generally, and the particular passage quoted above more specifically Great Lent with purity, prayer, and charity will open the road to holiness even in the absence of external persecutions such as those Athanasius faced.    

Included within Athanasius’ imagery of several types of food, one can find many references to the living water or spiritual drink. In the same way that food for the soul can be either sinful or virtuous pursuits, Athanasius reinforces the role of choice with a quotation from Proverbs, connecting the call of Wisdom to the people with discipleship to the Lord Jesus Christ: “For sin too has its own peculiar bread of its death, to which it summons lovers of pleasure and senseless people, saying, ‘Take secret bread gladly, and sweet water of theft’ ... The Wisdom of God, that lover of human beings, prohibited these things.”[30] With this passage we see the link between sinful actions carried out in secret, and the exhortation to flee from what is secret, strange, and foreign to God.   

On the other hand, the saints will always thirst for the presence of God. Athanasius continues in Letter VII to link the Beatitudes “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled” (Matt 5:6) with the Lord Jesus’ address to the multitudes at the Feast of Tabernacles, when He said: “If anyone thirsts, let him come to Me and drink. He who believes in Me, as the Scripture has said, out of his heart will flow rivers of living water” (John 7:37). Athanasius continues this passage: “For this reason, his disciples, who believed, he continually fed with his words and made them live by the nearness of his divinity.”[31]

Finally, from Athanasius’ Letter VII, the sanctification of the people is completed in the reception of the Faith and of Christ Himself in the Eucharist: 

“Not only here, my brethren, is the bread the food of the righteous ones, nor are only the saints on earth nourished by such bread and blood, but we eat it in heaven as well, for the Lord is the food even of all the exalted spirits and angels, and he is the joy of the entire heavenly host ... he promises those who persevere with him in his trials, saying, ‘I promise to you, as my Father promised to me, a kingdom, so that you may eat and drink at my table in my kingdom.’”[32]

Like in Letter I, the patriarch subtly leads the people to the concept of deification,[33] equipping the faithful with knowledge of the redemptive action of abiding in Christ, who alone is capable of providing nourishment for all.   

It does not belong to a man to say that he can satisfy the needs of mankind, so Athanasius hearkens back to creation in Letter XLIV: “And in the way that a river from a spring once gave water to drink in paradise, now it is he who gives the same gift of the Spirit to all people ... To say this does not belong to a human being, but to a living God who truly bestows life and gives the Holy Spirit.”[34] The readers of Athanasius’ Letters were thus reminded that the Lord who created the world provides nourishment for all, and by giving His own body and blood became the heavenly feast for all: “But the Lord is with us, He who is the basis for the holy feast. Let us gather and cry out to the Lord like the saints, not with our lips but in the depths of our hearts.”[35] For Athanasius, keeping the feast consists of devotion to prayer and discipline, and being nourished by the Word of God. As the faithful move toward Him through their inclination towards virtue, He Himself can “walk among us and eat with us the Passover while also promising us the true Passover and the joy in heaven with the saints.”[36]

Heavenly Banquet

We have thus far considered the sacrifice of Jesus Christ as the Paschal lamb whose body and blood are the spiritual food and drink of the Eucharistic offering. Further, the Lenten period of fasting and ascetic practice is established as preparation for reconciliation and the unification with God. Without this period of preparation typified by the Old Testament command to keep the Passover and New Testament invitation to be ready for the wedding feast the believers will not be equipped for the heavenly banquet. 

In perfect adherence to Athanasius’ theology of sanctification, Orthodoxy of Christian understanding recognizes a dual movement between the believer and God. Through His Incarnation, God comes to humanity, and all humans are therefore called to respond by demonstrating, with purity of heart and a life of righteousness, that they are striving to move towards God, which gives Him the opportunity to fulfill His promise of inviting the faithful to His table in the kingdom of heaven. 

Athanasius teaches that the desired wedding garment is purity of mind and heart, just as he describes that the food and drink of the feast are the accumulation and manifestation of the virtues. He writes:

“What follows, my beloved, is clear: Even we should accordingly come to such a feast, having clothed our minds not in filthy garments, but in pure ones. Indeed, we need for this purpose to clothe ourselves with our Lord Jesus, so that we might be able to celebrate the feast with him. And we are so clothed when we love virtue and are enemies to vice, when we practice continence and do away with licentiousness, when we embrace righteousness before injustice, when we honor sufficiency and are strong in mind, when we do not neglect the poor but open our doors to everyone, when we favor humility of mind and hate arrogance. For by these things in former times even Israel, after it had contended as if in a shadow, came to the feast.”[37]

For Athanasius, adorning ourselves with holy deeds is like putting on the white wedding garment in preparation for the feast with the angels, as Athanasius repeatedly calls it, and moderation, soberness, charity, mercy, and humility are the garments of the saints. The children of Israel similarly prepared themselves to draw near to God, although now the shadows and types are brought to light and fulfillment. In Letter XXVIII, Athanasius repeats these themes, writing: “Having become victors over sin, let us similarly prepare ourselves with actions, so that we too might meet the one who comes and, having entered with him, partake of the immortal food and live eternally in the heavens.”[38]

Within this context, it is apparent that Athanasius considers the Lenten Fast to be a feast of God’s presence. Although the Fast is a time of repentance and correction, it is also a time of increased thanksgiving. While we wait for the life of the coming age, Athanasius instructs his flock, we must celebrate in this life in anticipation of the next. “Therefore, my brethren, as we look forward to celebrating the feast of eternal joy in heaven, let us celebrate the feast now as well by rejoicing at all times, praying without ceasing, and giving thanks to the Lord in all circumstances,” the patriarch writes in a joyful epistle that followed his return to Alexandria after an absence of seven years.[39] The joy of the Lord and the feast of the heavenly banquet do not come before the trial, but rather these things are the reward for endurance and faithfulness. Athanasius elaborates in Letter XLI: “You are the ones who have endured with me in my trials ... Therefore, because we have now been summoned through the Gospel to this great and heavenly banquet, into that swept upper room, ‘let us cleanse ourselves.’”[40] In this way, Athanasius is clear that preparation is required for entering into the great feast of the Lord and that the consequences for negligence are dire.    

A Call to Diligence

In Letter XXV, we receive both encouragement and a warning from the Church Father, who writes: “We will recline with the Lord, like his disciples, and take from the spiritual nourishment that he will provide for us, only if we eat and drink with him with perseverance and do not betray the truth through Jewish thoughts and myths, like the wretched Judas. For he became such because he did not eat the Passover reverently as is fitting.”[41] Though Athanasius spends a more significant portion of his Festal Letters in praise of good behavior, he also cautions in them specifically against observing the days merely for the sake of the days themselves and without a pious disposition, like the Jews, and assuming immoderate practices associated with pagan worship such as gluttony or drunkenness. In Letter VI, for instance, Athanasius describes how the Jewish people did not bear the fruits required by the master of the vineyard, writing: “Therefore, when the Lord cursed them because of their negligence, he removed from them the new moons.”[42]

Earlier in this same epistle, Athanasius is clear that carelessness about the feast is not a problem only of the Jewish people, but rather Christians must also be thoughtful in their preparation to receive the feast. He therefore explicitly exhorts:

“Whosoever is not disposed, treats the days as ordinary, and does not celebrate the feast, but ... finds fault with the grace and prefers to honor the days without supplicating the Lord who during these days saved [him] let him by all means listen ... to the apostolic voice that rebukes him: ‘You are observing days, and months, and seasons, and years. I am afraid that my work for you may have been wasted.’ For the feast does not exist on account of the days; rather, we celebrate the feast on account of the Lord, who suffered during them on our behalf.”[43]

In Letter VI, Athanasius relies on three references from the Gospels to reinforce his point that God’s grace requires diligent action on the part of man the parable of the vineyard, the healing of the ten lepers, and the parable of the talents. In each case, the patriarch is asking his flock to ready itself for the feasts of the angels and saints by fulfilling their duty, with thankfulness and to the best of their ability.   

Even in the case of negligence, however, there is repentance available for the sinner who comes to himself and returns to his father’s house. Athanasius posits the question of who is worthy of being invited to the Lord’s table in Letter VII, reflecting on the parable of the Prodigal Son. Following his examination of the confession of the son to his father, he writes: “then [the son] will be deemed worthy of more than what he requested, for the father does not receive him as a hired hand ... but kisses him as a son, gives him life as if from the dead, deems him worthy of the divine banquet, and gives him his former precious robe, so that on this account there is singing and joy in the paternal home.”[44] Through repentance, the son reckons with his internal conflict and his desperate external circumstances, and has victory through returning to his father’s care.    

While facing extraordinary hardship in his varied exiles, Athanasius simultaneously writes to the Christians of Alexandria to persevere. One example of the personal touch afforded to him by the format of the festal announcements is Letter XIII, wherein he writes:

“Even now, my beloved brethren, I will not be slow to announce to you the saving feast ... For although those opponents of Christ have oppressed you, along with us, with afflictions and sorrows ... because God is comforting us through our mutual faith, behold I write to you even from Rome. Even as I am celebrating the feast with the brethren here, I am celebrating in will and spirit with you as well, for we send up prayers in common to God, who has granted us not only to believe in him, but also now to suffer for him.”[45]

Athanasius uses the announcement for this year 341 CE to encourage and strengthen his people, reminding them that the trial is temporary and the joy that awaits is eternal: “When we are tested by these things, therefore, let us not be separated from the love of God, but let us celebrate the feast even now, my beloved, not as if we are bringing in a day of suffering, but one of joy for Christ, by whom we are nourished every day.”[46] The patriarch asks the faithful not only to patiently endure, but also to be joyful and thrive in the feast, knowing that Christ our true Passover suffered for the sake of all mankind.   

Likewise in Letter III, for the Lent of year 342 CE, also during a time of extended exile and absence from Alexandria: “For the one who serves the Lord ought to be diligent and not careless or, rather, (ought to be) inflamed, so that, after he has destroyed all material sin with an ardent spirit, he may be able to approach God.”[47] He continues by pointing to Moses as an example of an ardent spirit purified by the devouring fire of God. Athanasius quotes the Apostle, writing: “Therefore the blessed Paul, because he does not let the grace of the Spirit that has been given to us to grow cold, exhorts, writing, ‘Do not quench the Spirit.’ For this is how we will remain partakers of Christ if we hold fast until the end the Spirit (that was given) at the beginning.”[48] Once again, we discover Athanasius’ teaching about sanctification and man’s participation in his own salvation in an indirect way; the struggle towards purity requires conscientious action with fiery, unrelenting perseverance, as described in this Letter. 

Indeed, by the Christians’ observation of the feast with gladness and thanksgiving, the world will see that Christians are imitators of Christ and be amazed, according to Athanasius. In the following passage, Athanasius reveals that a consequence of the personal sanctification of putting on Christ is that the Christian feast will be a transformative light an example of holy, sober joy:

“The Lord’s wise servants, however, who have truly clothed themselves with the human being who has been created in God, have become recipients of the evangelical words ... ‘Set the believers an example in speech and conduct, in love, in faith, in purity.’ They celebrate the feast in such a proper manner that even the unbelievers, when they ‘see their good order,’ will say, ‘God is really among them.’”[49]

Athanasius layers the transformation of the Passover from a shadow only available to the Hebrews to the light of Christ’s redemptive sacrifice available to all and visible by all. Although this feast is marked by the forty days of Lenten fasting and is a time of temperance and self-regulation, it ultimately will be further elevated to the heavenly banquet of the kingdom of God and the redemption of all creation. Regarding this reconciliation of the heavenly and earthly, Athanasius writes: “The entire creation keeps the feast, my brethren ... on account of the enemies’ destruction, and of our salvation. And rightly so: For if there is joy in heaven over one sinner who repents, what would there not be over the abolition of sin and the resurrection of the dead? What a feast! And how great heaven’s joy!”[50]

[1] Athanasius, The Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria, with the Festal Index and the Historia Acephala. Translated by David Brakke and David M. Gwynn. (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press), 18.

[2] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 89.

[3] Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. 14 Second Series. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983), 56.

[4] Schaff, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers. Vol. 14, 55.

[5] Ibid, 55.

[6] Allen, Pauline.  “The Festal Letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: Evidence for Social History in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” In Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos.  (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015), 174.

[7] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 19.

[8] Mikhail, Maged S.A. “The Evolution of Lent in Alexandria and the Alleged Reforms of Patriarch Demetrius” In Copts in Context: Negotiating Identity, Tradition and Modernity, ed. Nelly van Doorn-Harder (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 169-180, 252-258.

[9] Allen, 174.

[10] Ibid, 175. Certainly the Arabic Letters represent later translations and could not have arisen contemporaneously to the Letters’ authorship.

[11] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 21.

[12] Bradshaw, Paul F, and Maxwell E Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity. Alcuin Club Collections, 86. London: SPCK, 2011.

[13] See The Synodal Letter of Nicaea.

[14] Brakke, David. Athanasius and the Politics of Asceticism. Oxford Early Christian Studies. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995.

[15] Bradshaw, Paul and Maxwell Johnson, 92. Whether the Christians in Egypt fell short of the standard practice as it was carried out in the other Churches in Athanasius’ time, and whether such shortcoming, if extant, was a matter of official practice of spiritual laxity, remains an open question, with the question arising in part from St. Athanasius’ comment, in Letter XII, that “[t]he Egyptians were made a laughing-stock because they, of all the world, did not fast during the forty days before Pascha.” In this Letter, Athanasius writes to Serapion, bishop of Thmuis, from Rome, in 340 A.D., imploring the Egyptian Christians to fast all forty days of Lent, as the Christians did in Rome. Athanasius’ Festal Letters generally paint the picture of a Great Lent composed of six weeks before the Feast of the Resurrection, with Saturdays and Sundays not being considered fast days​, although the dietary practice of the Fast was upheld on those days, in light of abstinence being forbidden on all Saturdays and Sundays of the year, with the exception of Paschal Saturday.

[16] Other patristic writers that make the connection between the Exodus narrative and the Resurrection Feast include Melito of Sardis in On Pascha and Origen in Homilies on Leviticus.

[17] Of note is that one of the two Pauline Epistle passages read during Paschal Saturday, or Apocalypse Saturday, in the Coptic Orthodox Church is excerpted from 1 Corinthians 5:7-13, beginning: “Therefore purge out the old leaven, that you may be a new lump, since you truly are unleavened. For indeed Christ, our Passover, was sacrificed for us. Therefore let us keep the feast, not with old leaven, nor with the leaven of malice and wickedness, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth” (1 Corinthians 5:7-8).

[18] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 67.

[19] Ibid, 211.

[20] Ibid, 64.

[21] Ibid, 78.

[22] Ibid, 230. 

[23] Ibid, 88.

[24] Ibid, 185.

[25] Ibid, 107.

[26] Ibid, 113.

[27] Ibid, 113.

[28] Ibid, 51.

[29] For further discussion see Wahba, Matthias F.  The Doctrine of Sanctification in St. Athanasius’ Paschal Letters. Cranston, Rhode Island: St. Mary & St. Mena Coptic Orthodox Church, 1988.  Also to examine how this theological stance continued to be delivered through the Festal Letters, see Morgan, Jonathan. “The Role of Asceticism in Deification in Cyril of Alexandria’s Festal Letters.” The Downside Review 135, no. 3 (2017): 144–53.

[30] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 95.

[31] Ibid, 97.

[32] Ibid, 98.

[33] Deification in the Athanasian and, more generally, the Alexandrian tradition, is in reference to the natural receipt of the perfected believers of the attributes of immortality and incorruptibility, which attributes are God’s alone by nature, but which He grants to those who have a share in the resurrection to life at the last day. The notion in the early patristic Fathers is far removed from the later developments of the concept that arose in the West.

[34] Athanasius, The Festal Letters, 229.

[35] Ibid, 185.

[36] Ibid, 185.

[37] Ibid, 71.

[38] Ibid, 192.

[39] Ibid, 167.

[40] Ibid, 213.

[41] Ibid, 182.

[42] Ibid, 85.

[43] Ibid, 81.

[44] Ibid, 99.

[45] Ibid, 137.

[46] Ibid, 143.

[47] Ibid, 147.

[48] Ibid, 147.

[49] Ibid, 177.

[50] Ibid, 87.


Primary Sources

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  • Athanasius. Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. Vol. IV. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1998)

  • Eusebius of Caesarea. The History of the Church: A New Translation. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2019.

  • Schaff, Philip, and Henry Wace. A Select Library of Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers of the Christian Church. Vol. 14 Second Series.  (Grand Rapids.: Eerdmans, 1983)

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  • Allen, Pauline.  “The Festal Letters of the Patriarchs of Alexandria: Evidence for Social History in the Fourth and Fifth Centuries.” In Alexandrian Legacy: A Critical Appraisal, ed. Doru Costache, Philip Kariatlis, and Mario Baghos.  (Newcastle upon Tyne: Cambridge Scholars Publishing, 2015) 174-189.

  • Bradshaw, Paul F, and Maxwell E Johnson. The Origins of Feasts, Fasts, and Seasons in Early Christianity. Alcuin Club Collections, 86. London: SPCK, 2011.

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  • Brakke, David. “A New Fragment of Athanasius’s Thirty-Ninth Festal Letter. Heresy, Apocrypha, and the Canon.” The Harvard Theological Review 103, no. 1 (2010): 47–66.

  • Daise, Michael A. “‘Christ Our Passover’ (1 Corinthians 5:6–8): The Death of Jesus and the Quartodeciman Pascha.” Neotestamentica 50, no. 2 (2016): 507–26.

  • Demacopoulos, George E. Five Models of Spiritual Direction in the Early Church. University of Notre Dame Press, 2007.

  • Gywnn, David. “Patronage Networks in the Festal Letters of Athanasius of Alexandria” In Episcopal Networks in Late Antiquity: Connection and Communication Across Boundaries, ed. Cvetković, Carmen Angela and Gemeinhardt, Peter. (Berlin, Boston: De Gruyter, 2019) 101-115.

  • Mikhail, Maged S.A. “The Evolution of Lent in Alexandria and the Alleged Reforms of Patriarch Demetrius” In Copts in Context:Negotiating Identity, Tradition and Modernity, ed. Nelly van Doorn-Harder (South Carolina: University of South Carolina Press, 2017), 169-180, 252-258. 

  • Morgan, Jonathan. “The Role of Asceticism in Deification in Cyril of Alexandria’s Festal Letters.” The Downside Review 135, no. 3 (2017): 144–53. 

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  • Wilken, Robert Louis. “The Inevitability of Allegory.” Gregorianum 86, no. 4 (2005): 742–53.

Jessica Ryder-Khalil serves at St. Mary Magdalene Coptic Orthodox Church in Gainesville, FL. Before becoming a homemaker for her beloved husband and four children, her professional background was in teaching English as a Second Language. She is currently pursuing a Master of Theological Studies (MTS) degree at St. Athanasius & St. Cyril Theological School (ACTS). is a place for Christian men and women to collaborate for the sake of our common edification by sharing their written works. As we strive to uphold a standard of doctrinal and spiritual soundness in the articles shared, we note nonetheless that the thoughts expressed in each article remain the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect those of Doss Press.


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