Festal Letters, 13-30

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780813221847
  • Publisher: Catholic University of America Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2013
  • Pages: 336
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

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The Catholic University of America Press

All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8132-2184-7



A.D. 425

IT IS GOOD, or rather opportune, now for us to come forward with our greeting couched in holy words, and to announce in advance our holy and all-praiseworthy feast, saying, "Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from the present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory forever and ever. Amen."

For sin mocked those prostrate from of old, and the innate motion of the flesh warred [against them] tyrannically, since pleasure, wild and uncontrollable, poured unceasingly into the souls of all like a river current, always pushing them down to where they had to choose an earthly way of thinking. And death perhaps smiled at everyone's weakness, and, infected with the contempt befitting the devil and dear to him, cried out with him, "I will seize the whole world in my hand like a nest, and I will take it like eggs abandoned; and there is none that shall escape me or gainsay me." But since our situation had sunk and been shaken to such a degree of wretchedness, the merciful God, all but distressed by everyone's misfortune, said through Isaiah's voice, "Therefore my people have been taken captive, and there has been a multitude of corpses, because they do not know the Lord; and hell has enlarged its soul, and opened its mouth, so as not to cease."

But even if "death has swallowed up when it prevailed, still God has wiped away every tear from every face; the reproach of the people he has removed from all the earth." For when we were delivered to transgression and disobedience, and failed to live lawfully from love of the flesh, we had Satan and the wicked gang of demons laughing loudly and reproaching us in their love of fault-finding. For he is, he truly is, an enemy and avenger, as is written. And indeed we wretches spent our life upon earth embarrassed at these things and at the accusations of our conscience, deprived of freedom of speech with God for this reason, and ill with every sort of wickedness. But when the Creator of all took pity on those prostrate, who had involved themselves in evil without stint, he consoled them, speaking through the holy prophets: "Fear not because you have been put to shame, nor be confounded because you were reproached." "I, even I, am he who blots out your transgressions, and I will not remember them." He sent to us from heaven the only-begotten God the Word, "born of a woman," and of Abraham's seed, in order that, being made like his brothers in everything, he might put to death sin in the flesh, and, having filled nature with spiritual strength through himself and in himself, might refashion it to what it was of old, might render it impregnable to sin, and might ready it to become superior to destruction and corruption. Paul in his wisdom knew this when he wrote us, "For God has done what the law, weakened by the flesh, could not do: sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh and for sin, he condemned sin in the flesh, in order that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit."

2. And in fact the Word from God the Father, in indicating to us the long-desired time of the Incarnation, or rather in speaking as though already arrived in our state, has already cried aloud, "I who speak am here, as a season of beauty upon the mountains, as the feet of one preaching glad tidings of peace, as one preaching good news." "For in many and varied ways God spoke of old to our fathers by the prophets; but in these last days he has spoken to us by a Son," through whom we have all sprouted afresh unto incorruptibility and life. For he has come to us like "a season of beauty upon the mountains." Now what does that mean?

The plants on the mountains and in parks, when winter induces condensation in them and prevents the sap from the roots from coursing upwards abundantly, all but wither and do not bear fruit, suffering as they do from lack of foliage. But when the season of beauty shows itself, when, that is, springtime laughs and warms everything with the sun's hot rays, then what was shut opens up, and, with the sap that had been lying deep now having its course free to run everywhere, the twigs, quite drunk on it, throw out the fresh verdure of their leaves and so are crowned at once with their own fruit. Our Lord Jesus Christ has become for us, then, "as a season of beauty upon the mountains." This too may become clear to us through other passages of sacred Scripture. In the Song of Songs, for instance, the person of the bridegroom is introduced crying out to the Church as to a bride, "Rise up, come, my companion, my fair one, my dove! For behold, the winter is past, the rain is gone, it has departed. The flowers are seen in the land; the time of pruning has arrived."

In addition, he has been "as the feet of one preaching glad tidings of peace, as one preaching good news." For it happens sometimes that enormous armies of the most savage barbarians, yearning to devastate a city or a countryside, use their insatiability as a pretext for war. But when their plans come to naught, then beautiful indeed are the feet of the one who brings the news of peace to those who were in danger. It is in something of this fashion that one may view our own situation as remedied through Christ. Rather, it is quite easy to understand, without any trouble, that the Father has sent the Son to us from heaven as Savior and Redeemer.

A boastful tyrant waged war not on a single people or upon one city or countryside, but, seeking wickedly to subject to himself the whole earth, he placed man beneath his own yoke. Alienating him from the love of God, and dissociating him from true knowledge of God, he soiled him instead with many kinds of sin and rendered him a thrall of the horde of demons, according the name of God to the creature rather than to the Creator. In giving their veneration, some to the sun and others to the moon, they deprived the nature that is sovereign over all of the prerogatives that are most fitting to it, and to it alone. Still others, who offered their worship to earth, water, air, and fire, descended quickly to such a degree of stupidity that they arrived at the final measure of evil and presented the honor and glory of divinity even to insensate pieces of wood.

The murderous dragon, luxuriating in such deceptions that we suffered, never ceased to boast, and thought that his contentment would be unshakeable. It was of him that the blessed prophet Jeremiah said, "Woe to him who multiplies to himself the possessions which are not his! How long? And who heavily loads his yoke." For he wanted to gather to himself man, who belongs to God, thus always making more grievous the punishment prepared for him. But God the Word, seated with God the Father, announced to us in advance the time of salvation when we were behaving godlessly and dangerously, saying, "The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me; to preach good news to the poor he has sent me, to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to proclaim an acceptable year of the Lord." Now since the time of the promised aid had arrived, he set his own self on our behalf to oppose the devil's misdeeds; he subdued that murderous tyrant and laid him beneath the feet of the faithful, saying clearly, "Behold, I have let you walk upon snakes and scorpions, and on all the power of the enemy, and no one will harm you."

All of us, then, who have come to love piety toward God, and yearn to share the splendor of the saints, let us thirst to arrive at the city above, and let us take this matter to heart. The kings on earth who constantly punish the barbarians for their attacks, and keep safe the cities in each region, are richly honored with the names of "saviors" and "redeemers" and every other sort of title. And while boasting of their own brave deeds, they subject to themselves those they have saved, and, placing upon them, as it were, the yoke of statutes and laws, they lay them under tribute, making this a sort of acknowledgment of the duty of submission. Let us, therefore, who have been redeemed through Christ, removed from the error of polytheism, enriched through him by kinship with God, and gone over to the hope of the saints, devote our own life to him. For as the blessed Paul writes, "One has died for all, that those who live might live no longer for themselves but for him who for their sake died and was raised."

This has been recorded for us as well in the older Scriptures, as it were in shadows and figures still. For the law is a shadow, and is pregnant with the shape of truth.

3. God, then, spoke of old to Moses, the teacher of sacred truths:

If you take the computation of the children of Israel in the surveying of them, and they shall give everyone a ransom for his soul to the Lord, then there shall not be a destruction in the visiting of them. And this is what they shall give you, as many as pass the survey, half a didrachma which is according to the holy didrachma—twenty obols the didrachma—but the half of the didrachma is the offering to the Lord. Everyone that passes the survey from twenty years old and upwards shall give the offering to the Lord. The rich shall not give more, and the poor shall not give less than the half didrachma in giving the offering to the Lord, to make atonement for your souls.

For the stater or didrachma is a genuine coin, stamped with the imperial imprint. It was brought to the Lord by those accustomed to pay the tribute, not for one person only, but for two. And tribute-collectors were appointed, according to the law, who traveled up and down the territory of the Jews, and ordered the ransom to be delivered in equal measure by rich and poor alike, God thus ordaining that the figure should be preserved as an accurate manifestation of the truth.

And in fact once when Christ our Savior had gone to Capernaum, the collectors of the didrachma went to Peter and said, "Your teacher does not pay the didrachma." But he said, "Yes, he does." He did not thereby subject the freeman to the law, nor rank the Son with the slaves, but he knew that the Legislator had come under the law in order to rescue us from the curse of the law, and, transforming the form of slavery into something better, had rendered us conformed to himself and made us sons of God, enveloping us in the spirit of freedom as in some splendid dignity. "For we did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear," as the divinely inspired Paul writes, "but we have received the spirit of filial adoption, in which we cry, 'Abba, Father!'" When Peter then came bursting into the house, the Savior asked him, "From whom do the kings of the earth take tribute or toll? From their sons or from foreigners?" When he answered that it had to be collected of course from foreigners, Christ said further, "Then the sons are free. In order, however, not to give offense to them, go to the sea and cast a hook, and take the first fish that comes up, and when you open its mouth, you will find a stater; take that and give it to them for me and for yourself." You see, then, that the didrachma was paid for two persons.

Now in what does the mystery consist? Or where will we find the beauty of the truth hidden in the shadow that is in the law? Well, the true stater, the image of the great king, the Son that is, the imprint and reflection of the Father's substance, gave himself for us. And he gave his own soul in exchange for the life of all, not that he might save Israel alone, even though Israel seemed to be rich in the knowledge of the law, but that he might rescue as well from the devil's greed the innumerable flock of the nations, "who had no hope," as Paul says, and who suffered from the lack of every good. The divine, heavenly stater was therefore given for two peoples. "For we have been ransomed not with perishable things such as silver and gold, but with the precious blood of Christ, like that of a lamb without blemish or stain." "We are debtors, therefore, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh," but to Christ, who ransomed and redeemed us.

When indeed the merciful God finally took pity on the children of Israel, who could not endure the misery of Egyptian domination and who were unreasonably burdened by the yoke of slavery, he called them to freedom. He dealt heavy blows to their adversaries. But when he saw how very unfeeling they [the adversaries] were, he inflicted upon them the death of their firstborn. And they, distraught at these overwhelming evils, and yielding to the enormity of the unexpected calamity, reluctantly bade the oppressed to leave their land. Once this had been done and achieved, God sought from those ransomed a fair compensation, as it were. He spoke thusly to Moses, the teacher of sacred truths: "Consecrate to me every firstborn, the first-produced opening every womb among the children of Israel, both of man and beast: it is mine." Then the blessed Moses clarified the reason for the law to those from Israel: "And it shall come to pass when the Lord your God shall bring you into the land of the Canaanites, as he swore to your fathers—and he shall give it to you—that you will separate everything opening the womb, the males to the Lord." And later he adds, "If your son should ask you afterwards, 'What is this?' you shall say to him, 'With a strong hand the Lord brought us out of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. And when Pharaoh hardened his heart, sending us away, he slew every firstborn in the land of Egypt, both the firstborn of man and the firstborn of beast. For this reason I sacrifice to God everything opening the womb, the males, and every firstborn of my sons I will redeem.'"

It is to God that we owe ourselves, beloved, God who strikes down our enemies and rescues us so marvelously from the devil's tyranny, washing away our past failures in good and gentlest waters; we must honor our benefactor in return with gifts of equal value. Come then, let us honor our Savior with the brave deeds of our works, our right and blameless faith shining forth as we make this thing a distinguished offering and a truly spiritual sacrifice. For it is written, "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, acceptable to God, your spiritual worship."

4. While we are at present practicing abstinence from food, therefore, and applying fasting as a bridle, let us join to this a manner of behavior that is moderate and sober. For fasting, alone and by itself, will never suffice for the attainment of virtue; but when the fragrance of good deeds is, as it were, joined and united to it, it will be acceptable to God, and replete with all praise. But someone who is frightened by the accusations of his conscience may perhaps say: What do you mean? I am already suffering compunction for my sins, and the filth of my sins is indelible. What words can I use in the presence of the universal Judge? Or what manner of behavior will free us from the curse that clings to these things? The sentence is hardly to be avoided; for the Judge knows all and cannot be deceived. Such a person will hear in reply: the curse that hangs over those who love sin, the curse that your sharp eyes have already perceived, you rightly fear, dear sir. But let Paul release you from the fears connected to these things when he writes, "And he brought us to life when we were dead through the transgressions and sins in which we once walked, following the course of this world, following the prince of the power of the air, the spirit that is even now at work among those who are disobedient. Among these we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of the flesh and our thoughts, and so we were by nature children of wrath, just like the rest. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead through our transgressions, brought us to life together with Christ." It is just as the Savior himself said, "For God the Father loved the world so much, that he gave his only-begotten Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish, but might have eternal life."

For the Word, being God and from God by nature and by reason of his ineffable generation from the Father, equal in strength and operation to the One who engendered him, image and reflection, and "imprint of his hypostasis," emptied himself, descending to human level and not disdaining the nature that had been so trampled upon, that he might rescue us from sin and, once he had freed us from that ancient curse as God, might render us superior to death and corruption. It was for that reason that the Only-Begotten became a human being, and the one who as God is above the law was born under the law. He was called a slave, he who rides upon the highest powers themselves and who is hymned as Lord Sabaoth by the voice of the holy Seraphim.

But because he became a human being, will we fail to recognize the Master? Will we not recognize the Word engendered from God the Father? Will we not worship Immanuel? Away with such nonsense! For those who have dared to think such things, and who deny the Master who purchased them, will hear the prophet saying, "Walk by the light of your fire, and by the flame that you have kindled." Wisdom, too, will lament over them, saying, "Woe to those who forsake straight ways to walk in ways of darkness." But we will pass by the twisting path to walk in the one that is straight, following the divinely inspired Scriptures.

Even though we worship him who became a human being because of us and for us, we do not worship him as having come to be in a human being, but as having himself become a human being by nature. For as blessed John says, and as the very nature of the reality bears witness, "The Word became flesh and dwelt among us."


Excerpted from FESTAL LETTERS 13–30 by PHILIP R. AMIDON, JOHN J. O'KEEFE. Copyright © 2013 THE CATHOLIC UNIVERSITY OF AMERICA PRESS. Excerpted by permission of The Catholic University of America Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents


Abbreviations and Notes to Reader, vii,
Select Bibliography, ix,
Festal Letter Thirteen, 3,
Festal Letter Fourteen, 15,
Festal Letter Fifteen, 29,
Festal Letter Sixteen, 43,
Festal Letter Seventeen, 58,
Festal Letter Eighteen, 74,
Festal Letter Nineteen, 88,
Festal Letter Twenty, 100,
Festal Letter Twenty-One, 109,
Festal Letter Twenty-Two, 115,
Festal Letter Twenty-Three, 126,
Festal Letter Twenty-Four, 135,
Festal Letter Twenty-Five, 146,
Festal Letter Twenty-Six, 154,
Festal Letter Twenty-Seven, 166,
Festal Letter Twenty-Eight, 176,
Festal Letter Twenty-Nine, 187,
Festal Letter Thirty, 196,
Appendix: Dates of Easter, 209,
General Index, 211,
Index of Holy Scripture, 215,

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