Origines Ecclesiasticæ

(Bk. 20, ch. 4.)

Sect. 1The Nativity of Christ, anciently by some, said to be in May.

Hitherto we have considered the weekly festivals of the ancient Church, and now we are to speak of those that were annual, or only celebrated once a year, such as the festivals of our Saviour's Nativity and Epiphany, and Easter, and Pentecost, and Ascension, and the anniversary commemorations of the Apostles and Martyrs. The nativity of our Saviour was not anciently fixed to the same day by all Churches, though Baronius and other writers commonly assert, that both in the Greek and Latin Churches it was always observed on the twenty-fifth of December. Which is a very great mistake in learned men. For not to mention what Clemens Alexandrinus says of the Basilidian heretics, that they asserted, that Christ was born on the twenty-fourth or twenty-fifth of the month, which the Egyptians call Pharmuthi, that is April: he says a more remarkable thing of some others, who were more curious about the year and the day of Christ's nativity, which they said was in the twenty-eighth year of Augustus Caesar, and the twenty-fifth day of the month Pachon; which though Pamelius artfully calls December, to serve the common hypothesis, and impose upon his reader, yet nothing is more certain than it signifies the month of May, as Mr. Basnage has at large demonstrated out of Epiphanius and Theophilus Alexandrinus, who usually follow the Egyptian calendar, where Pachon answers to our May, as every one knows, who has any understanding in the several styles, by which the ancient writers made their chronological computations.

Sect. 2.—By others fixed to the Day of Epiphany or Sixth of January.

But what is more considerable in this matter, is, that the greatest part of the Eastern Church for three or four of the first ages kept the feast of Christ's nativity on the same day, which is now called Epiphany, or the sixth of January, which denotes Christ's manifestation to the world in four several respects, which at first were all commemorated upon this day: viz. 1. By his nativity or incarnation, which was the appearance of God manifested in the flesh. 2. By the appearance of the star, which guided the wise men unto Christ at his birth, and was the Epiphany or manifestation of Him to the Gentiles. 3. By the glorious appearance that was made at his baptism, when the Heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove and lighted upon Him, and a voice came from Heaven saying, "This is my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased." 4. By the appearance or manifestation of his divinity, when by his first miracle He turned the water into wine at the marriage in Cana of Galilee. That this day was kept as our Saviour's birthday for several ages by the Churches of Egypt, Jerusalem, Antioch, Cyprus, and other Churches of the East, is so evident from good authorities, that among learned men it is now a thing beyond all dispute. Cassian says expressly, that in his time all the Egyptian provinces, under the general name of Epiphany, understood as well the nativity of Christ as his baptism: and therefore they did not commemorate those two mysteries upon two distinct days, as was usual in the western Provinces, but celebrated both of them together upon that one day's festival. And Gennadius mentions one Timothy a bishop, who composed a book concerning the nativity of the Lord, which he supposed to be on the day of Epiphany. Cotelerius not improbably conjectures, that this was no other than Timothy bishop of Alexandria, though Dr. Cave speaks of him as a later writer. But before the time of the Council of Ephesus, An. 431. the Egyptians had altered the day of Christ's nativity, and fixed it to the twenty-ninth day of their month Chaeac, which is the twenty-fifth of December: as appears from the homily of Paulus Emisenus, spoken before Cyril of Alexandria, and related in the acts of that Council. It was not long before this, that the Churches of Antioch and Syria came into the western observation. For Chrysostom, in one of his homilies to the people of Antioch, tells them that ten years were not yet past, since they came to the true knowledge of the day of Christ's birth, which they kept before on Epiphany, till the western Church gave them hotter information. And from that time the Nativity and Epiphany were distinct festivals, as appears from other Homilies of this writer, where he speaks distinctly of them, as two days, which had been thought one and the same before. Epiphanius, who was bishop of Salamis or Constantia, the metropolis of Cyprus, often speaks of Christ's nativity, and always follows the eastern calculation, fixing it to the same day with Epiphany in the month of January. In one place he says, it is not lawful to fast on the day of Epiphany, on which day the Lord was born in the flesh. In another he takes a great deal of pains to make his reader understand that Christ was born in January, that is, says he, on the eighth of the Ides of January, which is the fifth of January, according to the Romans, and the eleventh of Tybi according to the Egyptians, and the sixth of Audinaeus according to the Syro-Macedonians, and the fifth of the fifth month according to the Cypriots or Salaminians, and the fourteenth of Julus according to the Paphians, and the twenty-first of Aleon according to the Arabians, and the thirteenth of Atarta according to the Cappadocians, and the thirteenth of Tibeth according to the Hebrews, and the sixth of Memacterion according to the Athenians. Nothing could be more particular in fixing the day of Christ's nativity to that of Epiphany, or Epiphany to the fifth or sixth of January, than this so minute account of Epiphanius. Which is confirmed by St. Jerom, who though he differed from Epiphanius as to the day of Christ's nativity, yet he intimates, that there were some, who still believed that Christ's nativity was upon the Epiphany, which was the fifth of January, which the prophet Ezekiel called the fifth day of the fourth month, reckoning the first month from October, when the tithes were carried to the temple after the harvest and vintage were gathered in, according to the custom of the oriental nations. The author of the Homily upon the Epiphany among the works of Origen says the same, that there were different opinions and traditions in the world about it: some said he was born upon that day others said it was only the day of his baptism. Pagi adds Clemens Alexandrinus and Eusebius to the number of those, who believed the nativity of Christ to be on the Epiphany or sixth of January: and considering where and when they lived, it is very probable they did so, though he cites no authority out of them: for not only the Alexandrians, but the Churches of Jerusalem and Palestine, where Eusebius lived, observed the nativity of Christ on the same day with Epiphany for several ages, and pretended the authority of an epistle of St. James for their practice, till Juvenal, bishop of Jerusalem, upon better information reduced it to the twenty-fifth of December, as Cotelerius shews at large out of Basilius Cilix, Joannes Nicaenus, and an Homily under the name of St. Chrysostom, and other writers.

Sect. 3.In the Latin Church always observed on the twenty-fifth of December.

Thus stood the case in the eastern Church for several ages; in those of the West it was generally observed, as now it is, u distinct festival from Epiphany, on the twenty-fifth of December. For so, St. Austin says, the current tradition was, "that Christ was born on the eighth of the Kalends of January," that is, on the twenty-fifth of December. And both Cassian and St. Jerom say, the nativity and Epiphany were kept on different days in all the Western Churches. And both these were indifferently called Theophania, et Epiphania, et prima et secunda nativitas, the Epiphany, or manifestation of God, and his first and second nativity: that being the first, whereon he was born in the flesh; and that his second nativity or Epiphany, whereon he was baptised, and manifested by a star to the Gentiles, as the reader may find largely demonstrated by Cotelerius and Suicerus, out of Gregory Nazianzen, Ambrose, Basil, Theodorus Studita, and several other writers.

Sect. 4.—The Original of this Festival derived from the Apostolical Age by some Ancient Writers.

Now the original of this festival is by many learned men carried as high as the age of the Apostles. Dr. Cave says, the first footsteps he can find of it, are in the second century, though he doubts not but that it might be celebrated before. His authority is Theophilus, bishop of Cacsarea, who lived about the reign of the Emperor Commodus, anno 192. But he quotes no book of Theophilus, therefore we are left to conjecture that he meant his paschal epistle, mentioned by Eusebius and St. Jerom, out of which Hospinian before had alleged these words, importing, that the French observed the nativity of Christ on the twenty-fifth of December: for they, says Hospinian, argued thus for the observation of the paschal festival: sic ut Domini natalem quocunque die octavo Kalendarum Januarii venerit, ita et octavo Kalendarum Aprilis, quando resurrectio accidit, Christi debem uspaschacelebrare: as we celebrate the nativity of Christ on the eighth of the Kalends of January, that is, the twenty-fifth of December, whatever day oft he week that happens to fall upon: so we ought to keep the paschal feast on the eighth of the Kalends of April, that is, the twenty-fifth of March, because the resurrection of Christ happened upon this day. But still I am at a loss to find these words in Theophilus. For Bede, who relates the letter, has no more than these words in his synodical epistle: Galli qudcunque die octave Kalendarum Aprilium fuisset, quando Christi resurrectio tradebatur, semper pascha celebrabant. But there is no mention made at all of the nativity of Christ throughout the whole Epistle, which seems to be spurious also, and of no credit: certain enough it is not that, which is mentioned by Eusebius and St Jerom: so that I lay no stress upon this authority, as being neither full to the point, nor authentic. Hospinian and Dr. Cave allege further for its antiquity that sad story, which is related by Nicephorus and Baronius out of the ancient martyrologies, where it is said, that when the persecution raged under Diocletian, at Nicomedia, among other acts of his barbarous cruelty, he finding multitudes of Christians, young and old, met together in the church upon the day of Christ's nativity, to celebrate that festival, commanded the church doors to be shut up, and fire to be put to it, which in a short time reduced them and the Church to ashes. This is probable enough, because we have the like instances of barbarity committed upon them in other places on the Lord's day, as has been related before out of Laetantius and Eusebius. That it is more material, that Chrysostom says, this day was of great antiquity and of long continuance, being famous and renowned in the Church from the beginning far and wide from Thrace, as as far as Gades, in Spain. It is certain it was observed religiously in the time of Gregory Nazianen and St. Basil: for they have both sermons upon the occasion; and Anunianus Marcellinus says, Julian in the time of Constantius pretending to be a Christian, when in his heart he was an heathen, and had secretly revolted, to conceal his apostacy, which was known only to a few of his confidents, went with the Christians to church, and performed the solemn worship of God with them, on the festival which they call Epiphany, and celebrate in the month of January. Zonaras in telling the same story, says, it was on the nativity of Christ: which makes some conclude, that the Nativity and Epiphany were still in France the same festival: but considering that France was one of the Western provinces, where these festivals were always kept apart, it is more probable that Zonaras was mistaken in the day: how ever we may safely conclude, that at this time both the Nativity and the Epiphany were kept as festivals in France: and that is enough, so far as we are concerned, to ascertain the antiquity of their observation.

Sect. 5.—This Festival observed with the same religious Veneration as the Lord's day.

As to the manner of keeping this festival, we may observe, they did it with the greatest veneration. For they always speak of it in the highest terms, as the principal festival of Christians, from which all others took their original. Chrysostom styles it the most venerable and tremendous of all festivals, and the metropolis or mother of all festivals: adding, that from this both the Theophania, so he styles Epiphany, and the holy Paschal feast, and the assumption or ascension, and Pentecost, took their original. For if Christ had not been born according to the flesh, He had not been baptised, which is the Theophania or Epiphany: neither had He been crucified, which is the Paschal festival: neither had He sent the Holy Ghost, which is our Pentecost. But we do not give this festival the preference merely upon this account, but because the thing, that was done upon this day, was more tremendous than all others. For that Christ should die, when He was a man, was a thing of natural consequence; but that when He was God, He should be willing to be made man, and condescend to humble Himself beyond all imagination and conception, this is indeed wonderful and astonishing in the highest degree. In admiration of this, St. Paul as it were in a rapture says, "without controversy great is the mystery of Godliness: God was manifested in the flesh." For this reason chiefly I love and embrace this day, and propound it to you, that I may make you partakers of the same inducement of love. I therefore pray and beseech you, come with all diligence and alacrity, every man first purging his own house, to see our Lord wrapt in swadling-clothes and lying in a manger. A tremendous and wonderful sight indeed! Thus the Holy Father invites his auditory, five days beforehand, to celebrate the nativity of Christ. And we may observe, that the day was kept with the same veneration and religious solemnity as the Lord's day. For they had always sermons on this day, of which there are many instances in Chrysostom, Nazianzen, Basil, Ambrose, Austin, Leo, Chrysologus, and many others. Neither did they let this day ever pass without a solemn communion. For Chrysostom in this very place invites his people to the holy table, telling them, that if they came with faith, they might see Christ lying in the manger: for the holy table supplied the place of the manger; the body of the Lord was laid upon the holy table, not us before wrapt in swadling-clothes, but invested on every side with the Holy Spirit. And that the solemnity might be more universally observed, liberty was granted on this day to servants, to rest from their ordinary labours, as on the sabbath and the Lord's day. This is particularly mentioned by the Author of the Apostolical Constitutions: let servants rest from their labour on the day of Christ's nativity, because on this day an unexpected blessing was given unto men, in that the Word of God, Jesus Christ, was born of the Virgin Mary for the salvation of the world. And all fasting was as strictly prohibited on this festival as on the Lord's day: and no one without suspicion of some impious heresy could go against this rule, as appears from what Pope Leo says, of the Priscillianists, that they dishonoured the day of Christ's nativity and the Lord's day by fasting, which they pretended they did only for the exercise of devotion in an Ascetic life, but in reality it was to affront the days of his nativity and resurrection, because with Cerdonand Marcion, and the Manichees, they neither believed the truth of our Saviour's incarnation, nor his resurrection. Therefore in opposition to these and such like heresies, the Church was always very jealous of any, who pretended to make a fast of the nativity of Christ.

Finally to shew all possible honour to this day, the Church obliged all persons to frequent religious assemblies in the city-churches, and not go to any of the lesser churches in the country, except some necessity of sickness or infirmity compelled them so to do. And the laws of the state prohibited all public games and shews on this day, as on the Lord's day. For though at first the prohibition only extended to the Lord's Day, yet Theodosius junior, by a new law restrained them on the Lord's day, and Epiphany, and the Paschal festival, and the fifty days of Pentecost, because at these times the minds of Christians ought to be wholly employed in the worship and service of God. Some also think, the very design of appointing the feast of Christ's Nativity and Epiphany at this season of the year was chiefly to oppose the vanities and excesses which the Heathen indulged themselves in upon their Saturnalia and Kalends of January at this very time of the year. Nazianzerf's exhortation to his people on the nativity of Christ seems directly-intended against them, when he thus endeavours to guard his auditory from running into the same abuses: let us celebrate this festival, not after the way of the world, but in a divine and celestial manner; not minding our own things, but the things of the Lord; not the things that tend to makers sick and infirm, but those things, which will heal and cure us. Let us not crown our doors with garlands, nor exercise ourselves in dances; let us not adorn our streets, nor feed our eyes, nor gratify our ears with music, nor any of our senses, touching, tasting, smelling, with any of those things that lead the way to vice; and are the inlets of sin. Let us not effeminately adorn ourselves with soft clothing, nor jewels, nor gold, nor artificial colours invented to destroy the divine image in us: let us not indulge rioting and drunkenness, which are frequently attended with chambering and wantonness: let us not set up our lofty canopies or tables, providing delicacies for the belly; nor be enamoured with the fragrancy of wines, or niceties of cookery, and precious ointments: let not sea and land present us with their precious dung; (for that is the best name I can give their delights,) nor let any of us strive to out-do one another in luxury and intemperance. But Let us leave these things to the heathen, and in their heathenish pomps and festivals, who give the name of gods to those, who delight in the smell of sacrifices and agreeably worship their deities with the belly, being wicked makers of wicked devils, and as wicked priests and worshippers of them. But let us, who worship the Word of God, place our delights in the divine law, and such discourses as are proper and agreeable to the present festival.

Sect. 6.— Of Epiphany as a distinct Festival.

As to Epiphany, they who observed it as a distinct festival from the nativity, did it chiefly upon the account of our Saviour's baptism, and the appearing of the star, which conducted the wise men of the East to come and worship our Saviour. To which some added two other reasons, that of our Saviour's first miracle wrought at Cana in Galilee, when he turned the water into wine; and that other miracle of his feeding-five thousand men with five loaves. All which are put together in one of the sermons, which go under the name of St. Austin, upon this day. "On this day," says he, "we celebrate the mystery of God's manifesting Himself by his miracles in human nature; either because on this day the star in Heaven gave notice of his birth; or because He turned water into wine at the marriage-feast at Cana in Galilee; or because He consecrated water for the reparation of mankind by his baptism in the river Jordan; or because with the five loaves He fed five thousand men. For each of these contains the mysteries and joys of our salvation." Petrus Chrysologus and Eucherius Lugdunensis mention the three first reasons, but not the last. Pope Leo has eight sermons upon this festival, in which he insists upon no other reason but the manifestation of Christ's birth to the wise men, by the appearance of the star. St. Jerom on the other hand makes it to be celebrated chiefly in commemoration of our Saviour's baptism, and the manifestation of him to the world by the voice that came from heaven, saying, "Thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased." And the Greek writers commonly insist upon this reason. Why, says Chrysostom, is not the day, on which Christ was born, called Epiphany, but the day on which He was baptised'? Because He was not manifested to all when He was born, but when He was baptised. For to the day of his baptism He was generally unknown. As appears from those words of John the Baptist, "There standeth one among you, whom ye know not." And what wonder that others should not know Him, when the Baptist himself knew Him not before that day. "For I knew Him not," says He, "but He that sent me to baptise with water, the Same said unto me, upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending and remaining on Him, the same is He that baptiseth with the Holy Ghost." Gregory Nazianzen assigns the same reason for the observation of this festival: this holy day of lights, to which we are come, and which we this day celebrate as a festival, had its original from the baptism of Christ, the true Light that lighteth every man that cometh into the world." In like manner Gregory Nyssen intitles his sermon on the baptism of Christ, [Greek] a discourse on the day of lights, on which our Lord was baptised. And Asterius Amasenus, speaking of the chief Christian festivals, says, we celebrate the nativity, because at this time God manifested his divinity to us in the flesh. We celebrate the feast of light [Greek] because by the remission of our sins (in baptism) we are brought, as it were out of the dark prison of our former life, to a life of light and virtue.

Sect. 7.—Why this Day is called by some the second Epiphany, and Dies Luminum, the Day of Lights.

For baptism being generally called [Greek] and [Greek], light and illumination, from the great and admirable effects consequent to it: this day, being the supposed day of our Saviour's baptism, was thereupon styled [Greek], or [Greek] the day of lights, or illumination, or baptism. As appears not only from the forementioned passages of Gregory Nazianzen and Nyssen, but several other Greek writers noted by Suicerus, who justly reproves Xylander and Pamelius for interpreting this day of lights, Candlemas-day, because now it is usual in the Church of Rome to consecrate their wax candles on this day, which is otherwise called the purification of the Virgin Mary; whereas there was no such festival in use in the Church in the time of Gregory Nazianzen and Nyssen, nor many years after them, until the reign of Justinian, when it was first instituted by the Greek Church, under the name of Hypapante. And therefore when Nazianzen, in another place, brings in some giving this reason why they deferred their baptism; one saying, [Greek], I stay till the feast of lights come; another, he had a greater respect for Easter; and a third, that he waited till the time of Pentecost: it is plain, the feast of lights cannot signify the purification of the Virgin Mary, (which was no solemn time of baptism) but Epiphany, on which the Greek Church allowed persons to be baptized, as one of the three solemn times of baptism, and that in regard to our Saviour's baptism (which they called his second nativity, or second Epiphany) when his divinity was more clearly manifested by the voice, which came from heaven, saying, "thou art my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased."

Sect. 8.Celebrated as all other great Festivals, and in one respect more noted,
as being in the Greek Church one of the three solemn Times of Baptism

So that we may observe, that in the Greek Church in one respect it was more taken notice of than even the nativity itself; being allowed as one of the three solemn times of baptism, which the nativity was not. In the Latin Church indeed it wanted this privilege. For as I have shewn elsewhere, the Roman, French, and Spanish Churches for many ages would allow of no other solemn times of baptism but only Easter and Pentecost, except in case of sickness and extremity. But the Greek and African Churches made Epiphany also a day of baptism, as appears not only out of the forementioned place of Nazianzen, but Victor Uticensis and Joannes Moschus and the ancient ritual, called Typicum Sabae. To which we may add what Chrysostom says, that in this solemnity, in memory of our Saviour's baptism, by which he sanctified the nature of water, they were used at midnight to carry home water from the Church, and lay it up, where it would remain as fresh and uncorrupt for one, two or three years, as if it were immediately drawn out of any fountain. And Fronto Ducaeus observes the like custom in the Syriac kalendar, published by Genebrard, upon this very day. Which argues it to be a peculiar rite of the Eastern Church. As to other things, the observation of this day was after the same manner as that of the nativity and other great festivals. For they had sermons and the communion in on this day, and servants had liberty to rest from their bodily labour to attend the religious service of the day. In regard to which usage the author of the Constitutions gives this direction: let servants rest from their labour on Epiphany, because on that day the divinity of Christ was declared, when the Father gave testimony to him at his baptism, and the Holy Ghost in the shape of a dove shewed him to those that stood by, and heard the testimony that was given him. And though at first this day was not exempt from juridical acts and prosecutions at law; nor were the public games and shows forbidden for some time to be exhibited thereon: yet at length Theodosius Junior gave it an honourable place among those days, on which the public games should not be allowed; forasmuch as men ought to put a distinction between days of supplication and days of pleasure. And Justinian, reciting one of the laws of Theodosius the Great, makes both the nativity and Epiphany days of vacation from all pleadings at law, as well as from popular pleasures. And so it is in the laws of the Visigoths, published out of the body of the Roman laws by Reciswindus and other Gothic kings, and the old Gothic Interpreter of the laws in the Theodosian Code. From whence we may conclude, that this was become the standing rule and custom throughout both the Roman and the Visigoth dominions, to keep this festival of Epiphany with great veneration; neither allowing the courts to be open on this day for law, nor the theatre for pleasure.

Sect. 9.—Notice usually given on Epiphany concerning the Time of Easter in the ensuing Year.

I have but one thing more to note, as it were by the way, concerning this day: that they, to whom the care of the Paschal Cycle, or rule for finding out Easter, was committed, were obliged on or about the time of Epiphany to give notice what time Easter and Lent and all the moveable solemnities were to be kept the ensuing year. The letters sent from the metropolitan to the provincial bishops upon this occasion, are commonly called Epistolae Paschales and Heortasticae, Paschal and Festival Epistles, which are usually a short discourse upon some useful and important subject, closed with an intimation or notice of the day when Lent should begin, and of Easter-day, and Whit-sunday. As those three Paschal epistles of Theophilus, bishop of Alexandria, which were translated by St. Jerom, and are now among St. Jerom's Works, and in the Bibliotheca Patrum. Concerning which and the rest of the same kind, Cassian says, "it was an ancient custom in Egypt for the Bishop of Alexandria, as soon as Epiphany was past, to send his circular letters to all the churches and monasteries of Egypt, to signify to them the beginning of Lent and Easter-day." And there are some such of Dionysius, Athanasius and Cyril and Pope Innocent and Leo; and some orders of Council, that the primates of Provinces should send their circular letters to give timely notice of these things to the several churches under their jurisdiction. Particularly the fourth Council of Orleance, speaking of the time of keeping Easter uniformly by the Paschal Laterculus, or table, made by Victorius, (Victor they call him) say, "the bishops of France shall every year on the day of Epiphany-give notice of the time when the festival is to be kept in their churches. And if any doubt arise about the time, they shall have recourse to their metropolitan, and he to the apostolical see for resolution." And this leads us to the consideration of the next great, festival, which was that of Easter.