At the time of the Reformation most of the Catholic Church’s Holy Days were dropped by the newly forming Protestant Churches. Most members of Protestant Churches now aren’t even aware of the Catholic Church’s Holy Days, such as “Epiphany, Feast of the Ascension, Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Feast of the Immaculate Conception.” A few were kept by most churches – Good Friday, Easter, and Christmas. A few were only kept by some churches. Lent is one of those.
Where did these Holy Days come from? Is there a Biblical basis for them? Why were only some of them kept? These are the questions this lesson will try to answer.
The First Churches
The churches started by the Apostles after Jesus’ time all observed the Spring Feasts of the Jews. There are plenty of historical references to support this and no one who knows the history disputes this.
One trail of this evidence comes when the Roman, by that time Catholic, church began to expand outside of the Roman world. As they did they encountered other Christians but found that all these groups could name the Apostle who started their church and they all observed the feasts of the Jews. By that time the Catholic Church had stopped observing those feasts and “Christianized” these peoples by persecuting them and killing them until they converted to Catholicism.
In this lesson we won’t follow that trail of evidence. Instead we’ll follow the much earlier trail of how the Church of Rome, which became the Catholic Church, changed from observing the Spring Feasts to persecuting those who did.
It begins with a man called Polycarp. There is an earlier lesson about him that provides more detail1. Around 155 A.D. Polycarp was the only man living who had known, worked with, and studied under the Apostles. This gave him an immense amount of credibility among believers.
Polycarp lived in the area of the Seven Churches of Asia Minor mentioned in Revelation and pastored one of them, the Church of Smyrna. He was appointed to that position of Bishop by the Apostles. Because his name is Greek it is believed that he was not a Jew.
Word reached Polycarp that the Church of Rome was having a lot of trouble keeping out false teachings. Rome had become a hub for world religions. The church there was growing and taking in new believers who came from these other religions but it was also taking on beliefs and practices from those religions and also factionalizing along its own theological lines.
Polycarp was an old man at the time but he decided to make the long trip to Rome to fight against these problems. Despite his credibility he was not completely successful.
One of the issues Polycarp addressed while in Rome was a practice of the church there. He told Anicetus, who was then the Bishop of Rome, that John the Apostle and the other apostles that Polycarp had met had always observed Passover when the Jews did, on the 14th of the Hebrew month of Nissan. It appears that Anicetus agreed with Polycarp but replied that the church of Rome had celebrated it on Sunday for some time and he could not change that. The two bishops celebrated communion together and went their own ways. This began what would become a large rupture between the Church of the East and the Western Church (which still included Greece).
Notice Polycarp’s point – the date matters. What had the Church of Rome done that Polycarp felt he needed to correct them? They had moved Passover observance from the 14th of Nissan, which could fall on any day of the week, to the following Sunday, so it would always be on Sunday.
This was to be an ongoing pattern for the Church of Rome / Catholic Church moving things to Sunday. The same thing happens a little later with the movement of Pentecost and the Sabbath to Sunday. It is never said why this was done. We can only consider some of the factors that may have influenced them.
- Most Romans disliked Jews and mistreated them. Acts 18:2 describes people coming from Rome, having been kicked out. Other historians also record that all the Jews were ordered to leave Rome. This mistreatment existed even in the early church. Many of the Christian writers of that time expressed anti-Semitic beliefs. Therefore, they didn’t want to look like they were Jews by practicing like Jews.
- For centuries the god Saturnus (Saturn to us) had been the god that most Romans worshiped. The planet Saturn is named after him as is the day Saturday. At that time a shift was occurring though and the new cool god was Sol Invictus, the Sun god. Sunday is named after him. Moving observances to Sunday would have made Christianity much more acceptable to Romans and a Roman world
- Romans saw themselves as building a new church, not continuing on from Judaism. This is likely why Paul dedicates the 11th chapter of the letter to the Romans to the idea that we are grafted in as wild olives to a tree that is not of our nature. Romans wanted a new church centered in Rome, which was the center for almost everything else.
- Romans believed that Jesus was resurrected on Sunday and considered that a special day
The Church of Rome had no power to enforce its views at that time. The people of that church, though, began to mock those Christians who held to the Nissan 14 date. They gave them the name “Quartodecimans”. In English that would be fourteen-ers. The Church of Rome considered them too rigid, inflexible, and legalistic.
After the death of Polycarp the next person to run into this issue is a man called Polycrates. He was the Bishop of the Church of Ephesus, the same church to which Paul’s letter to the Ephesians was written, though at an earlier time.
The Church of Rome now has more power and control than it had but still not enough to enforce its will on everyone. It saw itself as the primary church of all the churches though most other churches did not agree. The problem arises about 40 years later, around 195 A.D., because the Bishop of Rome, called Victor, has sent a letter to the Churches of the East demanding they observe the Passover as Rome did, and as most other churches were doing. This is what Eusebius, a church historian, records that Polycrates wrote as a response.
We observe the exact day; neither adding, nor taking away. For in Asia also great lights have fallen asleep, which shall rise again on the day of the Lord’s coming, when he shall come with glory from heaven, and shall seek out all the saints. Among these are Philip, one of the twelve apostles, who fell asleep in Hierapolis; and his two aged virgin daughters, and another daughter, who lived in the Holy Spirit and now rests at Ephesus; and, moreover, John, who was both a witness and a teacher, who reclined upon the bosom of the Lord, and, being a priest, wore the sacerdotal plate. He fell asleep at Ephesus. And Polycarp in Smyrna, who was a bishop and martyr; and Thraseas, bishop and martyr from Eumeneia, who fell asleep in Smyrna. Why need I mention the bishop and martyr Sagaris who fell asleep in Laodicea, or the blessed Papirius, or Melito the Eunuch who lived altogether in the Holy Spirit, and who lies in Sardis, awaiting the episcopate [kingdom] from heaven, when he shall rise from the dead?
All these observed the fourteenth day of the passover according to the Gospel, deviating in no respect, but following the rule of faith. And I also, Polycrates, the least of you all, do according to the tradition of my relatives, some of whom I have closely followed. For seven of my relatives were bishops; and I am the eighth. And my relatives always observed the day when the people put away the leaven. I, therefore, brethren, who have lived sixty-five years in the Lord, and have met with the brethren throughout the world, and have gone through every Holy Scripture, am not affrighted by terrifying words. For those greater than I have said ‘We ought to obey God rather than man’…I could mention the bishops who were present, whom I summoned at your desire; whose names, should I write them, would constitute a great multitude. And they, beholding my littleness, gave their consent to the letter, knowing that I did not bear my gray hairs in vain, but had always governed my life by the Lord Jesus.2
Much could be learned from a thorough analysis of Polycrates’ words but the most relevant insights are:
- his statement “neither adding, nor taking away.” This is a reference to the various admonitions in the Bible not to add to what the Bible says nor to take away from what it says. This was covered in a Sunday School lesson3. Polycrates isn’t just referring to these admonitions; this is a veiled declaration that the Church of Rome has added or taken away. To this he adds a quote from the Apostles, “We ought to obey God rather than man”
- his history of the observance of Passover going back to the Apostles. His point is that all these great men never deviated from the Bible.
By this time the Church of Rome had changed the date for Passover again. Its new date was no longer related to Nissan 14. Another interesting change occurred. Passover became a Friday, Good Friday, and it was the day of resurrection that became the main observance, called Resurrection Sunday, later known as Easter Sunday.
The name Easter comes from the goddess of fertility who had various names in many languages, Eostre, Astarte, etc. These all appear to have originated from the Babylonian goddess Ishtar. Some people say the name goes back even further. It isn’t clear how the name of a pagan goddess became attached to what had been Passover. The symbols of Ishtar were spring (renewal), rabbits and eggs (fertility). Likely the main worship day for Ishtar was in the spring at about the same time as the Passover celebration and the two became connected.
All along. the Church had been adding new days to the Christian calendar. For example, All Saints Day was added to commemorate the Christian martyrs. We now call this day Halloween. In the same way they also added to Good Friday and Resurrection Sunday.
A period of fasting was added prior to Good Friday. The exact details of when and how it started are lost in time. At first it was for different lengths of time and different kinds of fasts. Over time it became more uniformly observed as 40 days without eating meat and was called Lent.
Some Protestants believe that the church has always observed Lent. That does not appear to be true. Certainly Passover, from which Easter derived, had no such fast associated with it. The closest thing in Passover is that no leavened bread could be eaten for the 7 days of the Feast of Unleavened Bread, but that begins after Passover.
Some of the Fathers as early as the fifth century supported the view that this forty days’ fast was of Apostolic institution … But the best modern scholars are almost unanimous in rejecting this view…Formerly some difference of opinion existed as to the proper reading, but modern criticism (e.g., in the edition of Schwartz commissioned by the Berlin Academy) pronounces strongly in favor of the text translated above. We may then fairly conclude that Irenaeus about the year 190 knew nothing of any Easter fast of forty days … And there is the same silence observable in all the pre-Nicene Fathers, though many had occasion to mention such an Apostolic institution if it had existed. We may note for example that there is no mention of Lent in St. Dionysius of Alexandria (ed. Feltoe, 94 sqq.) or in the “Didascalia”, which Funk attributes to about the year 250 (Lent. The Catholic Encyclopedia).
The point in the above quote is that Lent was unknown in the early church. It entered the church sometime after 190 A.D. but before 400 A.D.
An even later addition to the Easter celebration was Ash Wednesday where a priest wipes ashes, in the shape of a cross, onto the foreheads of the congregants. This mark is worn for the rest of the day. This practice is done on the first day of Lent.
The name dies cinerum (day of ashes) which it bears in the Roman Missal is found in the earliest existing copies of the Gregorian Sacramentary and probably dates from at least the eighth century. On this day all the faithful according to ancient custom are exhorted to approach the altar before the beginning of Mass, and there the priest, dipping his thumb into ashes previously blessed, marks the forehead (Ash Wednesday. The Catholic Encyclopedia)
What began as Passover became something else. Passover, with the Feast of Unleavened Bread, and the Feast of First Fruits were prophetic and full of deeper meaning. They showed the necessity of removing of leaven (sin) from our lives, the sacrifice of an unblemished lamb for salvation, that no bone of that lamb would be broken, and that he would rise again 3 days later.
Easter, with its Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Good Friday has none of that prophecy or depth. Instead it is a confused set of contradictions to Passover as seen in a previous lesson4. It also carries the name of a false fertility goddess and offers us rabbits and eggs.
Some of the dates for the events above are unclear as are the motivations of the people involved. We do know some things:
- The churches setup by the apostles all observed Passover on the 14th of Nissan
- Both Jews and Gentiles in these churches observed Passover
- The earliest church fathers (Polycarp, Polycrates) felt it was important to keep the Biblical date
- The change to Ash Wednesday, Lent, and Easter came over many years