Page images
PDF
EPUB

ARTICLE II.

THE FESTIVALS OF THE CHRISTIAN CHURCH COMPARED WITH

THOSE OF OTHER ANCIENT FORMS OF RELIGION.

By Lyman Coleman, D. D., Professor in the College of New Jersey, Princeton 1

Justly to exhibit this comparison it will be necessary first to take a cursory view of those festivals which were instituted in the ancient church and have continued, with greater or less variations, until the present time. These resolve themselves into three grand divisions, in each of which there is one great festival bearing a peculiar relation to the other of the same class, as their common centre. These great festivals are Christmas, Easter and Whitsunday. Of these the first two relate to the scenes of Christ's humiliation on earth; the last to his glorious exaltation and pow. er as displayed in the shedding forth of the Holy Spirit. Each of these feasts is preceded by preparatory rites, and followed by corresponding festivities. So that from the first of December to the Sunday of whitsuntide these successive solemnities form a connected representation of the leading events in the life of our Lord from his incarnation to his triumphant ascension. He became flesh and dwelt among us, subject to all the infirmities of our nature; he suffered and died; and arose in glorious power whereby he is able to provide for all his followers to the end of the world. These are the great truths in our Lord's history which this series of festivals commemorates. They remind us, both of the deepest humiliation and the highest exaltation of the Son of God, and represent the highest display of divine grace to man. The cycle of Christian festivals throughout illustrates historical truths of the deepest interest, and exhibits the relations of the Christian world to the great Head of the church. In both these respects they are well suited to exert a happy moral influence upon those who observe them.

Christmas commemorates the birth of Christ; God himself be. coming man. This great event indeed is represented by two so

| Translated from the treatise of Dr. Karl Ullmann of Heidelberg entitled, " Vergleichende Zusammenstellung des christlichen Festcyclus mit den Vorchristlichen Festen.” Re-printed from the third edition of Creuzer's Symbolik, 1843.

1847.)
Festival of Christmas.

651 lemnities; the birth of Jesus on the twenty-fifth of December, when this Divine Being entered on his earthly existence, and became subject to all the infirmities of human nature; and the day of his baptism on the sixth of January, when he first manifested himself as Christ, the promised Messiah. On this occasion his divine power and glory were publicly revealed; and, for this reason, the day is styled Epiphany, the manifestation.

For this day some preparation is necessary. The advent is accordingly celebrated four successive sabbaths previous by sing. ing, prayer, and religious instruction.

Just as the whole economy of grace, as manifested in the history of the Jews and taught by all the prophets, from Enoch to John the Baptist that stern preacher of repentance, was only preparatory to the coming of our Lord, so these festive days preceding Christmas are preparatory to a suitable celebration of his advent. They are designed to call to mind the promises to the fathers, and to excite an earnest expectation and longing for the fulfilment of the same.

The observance of the birth of Christ as a religious festival be. gan in the fourth century in the church of Rome, and subsequent. ly in the eastern church, on the twenty-fifth of December. By this solemnity it was proclaimed how the eternal Word became flesh; and how, by becoming man, he made it possible for man himself to become like God himself. But in addition to this union between God and man, Jesus, by being born of a woman, exhibited also the tenderest of all human relations, that of parent and child. Christmas therefore is a festive celebration expressive of the happiness of the human family, and of the purest relations of domestic life. All this the ancient church recognized in its instructions on this occasion, and ancient usage has established this significant import of the day.

The infancy of Jesus is also peculiarly honored by the festivals which are observed in immediate connection with this day. Since the fourth century it has been customary to celebrate, on the twenty-sixth of December, the death of Stephen the first martyr, as standing nearest the manger of the infant Saviour. The death of the martyr was, according to the phraseology of the ancient church, his birth-day. This connects itself immediately with the birth of Christ who gave him strength and grace for that scene of suffering in which he yielded up his spirit and fell asleep. But the soul of the holy martyr was not lost in death; it was only born to a new and nobler state. Hence the familiar saying of the

fathers : Heri natus est Christus in terris, ut hodie Stephanus nasceretur in coelis.

Next followed the memorial of John, the beloved disciple, which naturally connected itself with that of the birth of Christ. He especially taught us that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.

He was also a martyr; not indeed like Stephen, but in a spiritual sense. For it was the custom of the church to reckon all martyrs who fearlessly stood up as witnesses for the truth, not counting their own lives dear unto them, though they may at length have died a natural death.

As these days commemorate those who testified their love for Christ, the one, by a long life of undeviating fidelity, and the other, by a heroic death, so another commemorates those who, in tender, unconscious childhood, yielded up their lives for the pres. ervation of the infant Saviour. The twenty-eighth of December, Innocents' day, was set apart in memory of the innocent children who suffered death by the jealous cruelty of Herod. Thus these martyr-feasts are connected with that of the birth of Christ. This connection illustrates the deep earnestness with which the an. cient church regarded the death of Christ.

But the solemnities of this occasion may also be viewed in a more cheerful light. They present a delightful emblem of a holy family, of which the holy child Jesus is the principal object of interest. In this family John the beloved disciple was also included, having been recognized, after the death of Jesus, as the son of Mary. At the manger appeared also wise men from the east, with costly gifts, doing homage to him. Angels too, in songs from heaven, announced his advent. Thus all that is endearing in female worth, and maternal tenderness, in friendship, truth and childish innocence, combined with the profound reverence of the wise men, does but exalt the more the memory of that great day, on which was born our Saviour and our heavenly king who is Christ the Lord.

Between the day of the birth of Christ and of his manifestation, there is another which commemorates an important event of his life, his circumcision. Festum circumcisionis et nominis Jesu. The later fathers of the church connected with the observance of this day the festivities of the new year's day, by which means it was dishonored by many wanton and extravagant rites adopted from heathen nations. Jesus not only let himself down to all the infirmities of our nature, but was made under the Law, and sub

[ocr errors][merged small][merged small][merged small]
[ocr errors][ocr errors]

mitted to all its conditions, that by fulfilling all righteousness he might magnify that law and make it honorable.

The feast of epiphany concluded the solemnities connected with that of the birth of Christ. This is an ancient oriental festival; and may have been established, through the influence of the Gnostics, as early as the second century. It was originally observed in memory of the baptism of Jesus by John the Baptist; at which time he first appeared as the Messiah, the promised deliverer of his people, and was solemnly announced, as the Son of God, by a voice from heaven and the descent of the Holy Spirit upon him in the form of a dove. But the import of this feast was modified considerably in the western church. At first it was consecrated to the memory of his public manifestation. Then, not attaching so much importance to his baptism, this church observed epiphany as commemorative of his public recognition as king of nations and Saviour of the world. This point of time they recognized in the worship of the wise men, whom they regarded as the representatives of the whole gentile world. These easter sages were regarded, in the middle ages, as kings bearing the names of Caspur, Melchior and Balthasar. Thus, by means of many fictions and works of art, the festival became known as the day of the three kings. But in the eastern church it has uniformly been observed as a memorial of the baptism of Jesus.

In the sixth century the feast of purification or of the presentation of Christ in the temple was added to these which are connected with Christmas. The time of holding this feast, styled Candlemas, from the number of lights which were borne in procession on the occasion, was necessarily determined by that of Christmas on the twenty-fifth of December.

The solemnities of Easter stand in close connection with those of Christmas. Of the historical origin of this feast there can be no doubt. With essential variations, it sprang from the passover, the great festival of the Jews, to which it retains many striking analogies. It is the most ancient and the most significant of all the festivals of the Christian church. It commemorates the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. This momentous event, so important in the scheme of grace, is signalized, both by this great annual festival, and by the weekly observance of the Lord's day.

Easter week comprises the most importan' svents connected with the mission of Christ on earth, and the most striking eviVOL. IV. No. 16.

56

dence of God's amazing grace to man.

It is based entirely on those historical facts in the life of Christ which characterize him as the Saviour of mankind, his sufferings, death, and resurrection. The deepest sorrows here blend themselves with the most glorious triumphs.

This great festive season is preceded by a preparatory fast of forty days, the carnival, caro vale !

The solemnities immediately connected with Easter begin with Palm-sunday; commemorative of our Lord's triumphant entry into Jerusalem, when the enthusiastic multitude strewed palms in the way before him. The tragedy begins with a triumphal procession ; unnatural, indeed, and inconsistent, because merely an earthly triumph; and oh! how unlike that of the eternal king on his entry into the city of the New Jerusalem above. The shouts of the tumultuous assembly and their loud hosannas are soon to be exchanged, by the malice of the priests, for their maledictions and phrenzied exclamations of rage. And yet the blessed Saviour, meekly submissive to his Father's will, calmly proceeds in full consciousness of all this to meet his certain death.

First of all he institutes the Lord's supper, expressive of the grace of God, and the fellowship of saints. The memory of this transaction is perpetuated by Maunday Thursday, dies mysteriorum, dies natalis--calicis, dies viridium, etc. In many churches this is connected with the washing of feet, in imitation of a similar act of our Lord. It is intended to represent the mutual love and reciprocal offices of kindness which Christians ought to exhibit one towards another.

Then follows that day of awful suffering, and of amazing grace, when Jesus died upon the cross for the sins of the world, Good Friday. It is expressive of the surpassing love of Christ in dying for the salvation of man. But the benevolent ends of this sacrifice were accomplished by mysterious sufferings. All was dark

. ness and gloom. The sun itself was shrouded in darkness. All nature, in sympathy with the sufferings of the great Deliverer, gave signs of woe. How much deeper then the sorrow with which the heart of man should be touched on this occasion. Hence the expressive silence and sadness with which the day is solemnized.

Saturday following was named the Great, or Holy Sabbath. On this day the Lord lay in his grave, and rested from the great work of redemption, as also on the night following. This night was also observed with peculiar solemnity, that sacred night of all nights. The church assembled in silent sadness, and passed

« PreviousContinue »