The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity | Paul F. Bradshaw


Until the late sixteenth century, the idea of a liturgical year did not exist, in terms of each of the celebrated feasts and festivals as a unified whole; therefore, tracing the history of the origin of the various celebratory events in the church year proves quite complex (xiii). In The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity, Paul F. Bradshaw and Maxwell E. Johnson present the history of the celebrations of the church as they emerged in history: from the Lord’s Day to the commemoration of saints. This book was intended to be a successor to that of Thomas Talley’s 1986 The Origins of the Liturgical Year; however, the authors do not agree with all of Talley’s arguments. First of all, from the table of contents the reader notes that the structure of the book does not follow the liturgical year, which automatically points to the authors’ aim to present the feasts and seasons in a historically chronological method, beginning with the Lord’s Day as it was the earliest to be celebrated. Bradshaw and Johnson follow by dividing the book into parts, because,

Christians in antiquity did not view the various festivals, fasts and seasons that they experienced through each year as forming a unity, a single entity, and indeed those events themselves did not emerge in any planned or co-ordinated fashion but instead as a number of entirely unrelated cycles, with the result that they tended to overlap or conflict with one another. (xiii)

The cycles covered by the authors include Sabbath and Sunday, Easter and Pentecost, Lent and Holy Week, Christmas and Epiphany, and finally martyrs and saint commemorations. The cycles that seem to hold the most overlap are Easter, Lent, and Epiphany, and Bradshaw and Johnson present their clarifying arguments on the cycle of Lent that so often causes confusion between the two outlying seasons of celebration.

Related:  Intergenerational Christian Formation: Bringing the Whole Church Together in Ministry, Community and Worship

Whereas the commonly held understanding of the origin of Lent once was a gradual backwards expansion from the Paschal baptism, Bradshaw and Johnson argue that “we can no longer speak of a single origin for Lent but, rather, of multiple origins for this period, which in the fourth-century post-Nicene context become universally standardized and fixed as the ‘40 days’ that have characterized pre-paschal preparation ever since” (90). The authors argue that Lent should not be confused with the Holy Week fast, which they establish as occurring historically earlier than Lent as “an independent preparation of the faithful for the imminent celebration of Pascha itself” (91). The elucidation between the overlap of the two fasting seasons and their origins occurs when the Paschal celebrations are identified as originating prior to the practice of Lent fasting—a task that Bradshaw and Johnson present clearly with evidential support in this text.

A few of the other notable contributions Bradshaw and Johnson make in this text include their section regarding the origin of worshipping on the Lord’s Day as well as the section on the shift of focus in the paschal triduum from the death of Christ to his resurrection. On the topic of the Lord’s Day, Bradshaw and Johnson argue that the “adoption of the Lord’s day by early Christians was not as a replacement for the Jewish Sabbath understood as a divinely mandated day of rest,” but that it was the day of the week when God’s people assembled for worship (13). They state instead that the Lord’s Day was an eschatological day of worship, commemorating the parousia “which was intended to permeate the whole of a Christian’s daily prayer and life” (13). The authors also discuss the shift of focus from Christ’s death to his resurrection, celebrated on the Lord’s Day, Sunday, of the paschal triduum, which also began the shift of “the interpretation and meaning of Pascha, from ‘passion’ to ‘passage’—the passage from death to life” (60). Small shifts in the development of these cycles impacted the ones following it historically and those that overlap each other in the liturgical year—these shifts are what Bradshaw and Johnson bring to light and clarify for those longing for more understanding of the roots underlying the seasons celebrated in the church today.

Related:  Liturgy as a Way of Life by Bruce Ellis Benson

While this book is quite concise and possibly digestible by those curious about this topic, I would suggest that it is more accessible for those within the academic/theological realm, including students, ministers, and theologians. Bradshaw and Johnson have compiled a worthy addition to the bookshelf of any liturgical scholar seeking answers to questionable and long-held tenets regarding the origin of the liturgical year.


Lyndsey Huckaby