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May we learn, too, that all the devotion of a true soul tends to practice, as the line to its centre. Our wisdom, says St. Cyprian, is a prudence of works not of words,—“Philosophi factis, non verbis sumus: nec magna loquimur, sed vivimus.”
8. BARNABAS' COLLEGE, Sexagesima, 1852
The Christian Church has been accustomed, from the beginning, to keep the Lent fast. But those who assert for it a Divine institution, as coming either directly from our Lord Himself, or mediately from the Apostles by His command, claim that which is incapable of proof.
No man who lived in the age of the Apostles has affirmed this, nor can any say to which of them (if to any) it owes its origin ; nor in what manner, nor with what instructions, they either ordained or observed it. That an Apostle must have instituted it, therefore, because no other author can be found, is a conjecture which cannot be maintained.
That the Apostles were frequent in fastings, is a part of God's revealed word ; and that they should have especially fasted, when the anniversary of their blessed Master's sufferings, and the celebration of His resurrection, came round, is highly probable. Yet out of this could hardly be gathered, for a certainty, that the Apostles instituted a Lent fast of forty days, such as the whole Church of Christ observes at this day. Had it been so, the early differ
ence of usage which prevailed in Christendom, first, as to number of weeks, then as to number of fastingdays, (just such differences as fall naturally to the lot of widely-distant people, who have one main end in view, but no one prescribed rule,) could with difficulty be explained.
The argument of S. Augustine against the Apostolical institution of the Saturday fast, is good also against the like claim for Lent. “Having revolved in my mind,” he
says, “the whole body of the New Testament, gospels and epistles, I do find that fasting is commended. But, on what days men ought not to fast, and on what they ought, I nowhere find deterniined by any commandment of Christ or of His Apostles. And, for this cause, I think that a law of liberty is better fitted than a law of constraint, for possessing and typifying that eternal rest, unto which faith and justice (which is the inner beauty of the King's daughter) do attain."*
And yet, it is certain that the observance of the Paschal fast (called Lent, because of the spring-time in which it occurs) is so ancient, that there never was a time (so far as can be shown,) in which it was not, for a longer or a shorter term, solemnly imposed. In one sense, therefore, it may be called Apostolical, having a traditional authority, reaching as nearly
* S. Augustine, Ep. ad. Casulanum. Ep. xxxvi. cap. 40. Bened. Edit. vol. ii. p. 78.
to the Apostolic age, as any monuments or records of the Church attain. And in this sense, it is so binding upon the conscience of all earnest Christians, that they must esteem it a fearful loss and risk to disregard it. The testimony of the whole Church, in every age, in all lands, and at the lips of all her people, is an authority practically divine; and it comes with that impress of the spirit of truth and love, for the benefit of men's souls, which only they, who care little for their souls, will venture to resist.
The question of positive divine command is immaterial. The Church is the witness of God to His people; and she has authority, in His name, to give expression to the spirit of His almighty will. The foundation which the Lent fast claims in the Gospel, is the same which it possesses in the Law ; a foundation of example, rather than of precept,—the example of Moses and Elias in the one, and of our Blessed Lord, and His chosen disciples, in the other. The power of ordering details of spiritual guidance for the souls of those, who would walk in their Master's steps, is that express gift, with which He has blessed His Church, and for which He will call her to account. Whether the Lent fast was originally forty hours of forty days, three weeks or six, cannot affect the real consideration, which Christian people are bound to entertain; need not therefore be discussed.
The Church has authority to make her seasons of
discipline longer or shorter, as she shall see fit. “ As long as the perfection of the primitive Church remained in violable,” says Cassian,* “ there was no observation of Lent; but when men began to decline from the Apostolical fervour of devotion, and gave themselves, overmuch, to worldly affairs, then the priests, in general, agreed to recall them from secular cares, by a canonical indiction of fasting, and setting aside a tenth of their time for God.”
And “why do we fast these forty days ?" asks S. Chrysostom.t Many heretofore were used to come to the Communion indevoutly and inconsiderately, especially at this time, when Christ first gave it to his disciples; therefore, our forefathers, considering the mischief arising from such careless approaches, meeting together, appointed forty days for fasting and prayer, and hearing of sermons, and holy assemblies, that all men, in these days, being carefully purified by prayer, and alms-deeds, and fasting, and watching, and tears, and confession of sins, and other the like exercises, might come, according to their capacity, with a pure conscience to the holy table.”
Whatever reasons conspired, at the first, through the providence of God, to bind upon all portions of the Church alike, the period of forty days, remain in equal force now. Certainly, there have arisen, in
* Cassian. Collat. xxi. cap. 30. (Lips. 1733, p. 573.) ap. BINGHAM.
+ Hom. 52, vol. v. p. 709. B. 10. ap. BINGHAM.