The beginning of the 4th century was momentous for Christianity. In 311, the Roman emperor Galerius issued a decree of toleration; in 315 his successor Constantine converted to Christianity on what he thought was his deathbed.
The task of Christians was no longer just to go out and tell the world, certainly all the Roman world had heard and its authorities had listened. Missions to the Barbarians would come later.
Meanwhile, with the apostles long dead and almost three centuries since Jesus had been taken up into the heavens with the promise that he would return, attention turned to the notion of “sanctifying time,” or making human life holy throughout the long wait until Christ returned.
Already by the end of the 3rd century and the beginning of the 4th, there had arisen men who pulled away from life in society. These early monks, or hermits, came to be known as the Desert Fathers. The first was Paul of Thebes (227-332) but the most famous, regarded as the founder of the desert monasticism movement, was Anthony the Great (251-356).
The Desert Fathers recognized that, even with the leaven of Christians, Greco-Roman society was very far from living under God’s rule, as the Lord prayed. Moreover, they felt society’s manners to be a source of unending temptation and distraction from the task of being a Christian, This is the running theme of Christian monasticism ever since: not that it is better to pull away, but that some weaker people who wish to remain steadfast simply must.
Through the persecutions there were only two religious feasts, fairly close to one another.
Easter was a nocturnal festival, like the Jewish Pesach (Passover). From very early days it was the feast for conferring baptism, confirmation, and initiation into the Eucharist on the catechumens.
On Easter eve, Saturday night, the new Christians would “arise” from what was often a partial or total immersion baptism cleansed of their sin. Then they would be confirmed by the bishop with oils and— since at least the 3rd century—a traditional slap in the face for fortitude. Finally, after midnight they would be welcome to commune in the Body of Christ in the Supper of the Lord, as they celebrated the feast of the Resurrection, or Easter.
The only other religious feast before toleration of Christianity was Pentecost, also borrowed from Judaism, but infused with Christian meaning: the coming of the Holy Spirit described in Acts 2.
Another way of sanctifying time was the practice of Lent, which arose in the 4th century. Catechumens, or people seeking conversion into the faith, had been usually required to fast for a fortnight or so in preparation of their baptism on Easter morn.
As preparations for initiation became public, a number of the Christians who had already been initiated chose to accompany the catechumens in their fasts and prayers for 40 days before Easter, in
remembrance of the 40 days of fast and prayer spent by Jesus in the desert, according to the gospels (some scholars speculate that this may refer to the time Jesus supposedly spent with a Jewish monastic community called the Essenes).
Similarly, time was sanctified by remembering the date in which local martyrs where executed, recalled as the date of their “birth” into eternal life, which became a saint’s day.
Local churches kept the remains of martyrs—one of the uses of the catacombs, with pieces often shared with other communities as relics—and recited their names during the Eucharistic Prayer, asking for their intercession to God on behalf of the community. On a saint’s day, the martyr would be especially recalled.
The observance of Christmas started in the West around the end of the 3rd century. In the East it was observed a century later, but on January 6, the Epiphany, rather than on December 25.
In Rome the December feast coincided with a particularly riotous pagan feast, the Saturnalia. The argument has been advanced that the Roman date was chosen despite existing traditions that Jesus was born in summertime, which modern scholars generally accept, precisely to “baptize” the Saturnalia. (This approach was later used in missions beyond the Roman world, as we shall see.)
Finally, there is the sanctifying of the week through the celebration of a Eucharist on a Sunday. This had been traditional as a remembrance of the resurrection, but it was a religious observance only.
There was no attempt in the first three centuries to link it to the Sabbath. Indeed, there was some polemic even among Christians about “idling” on that day. Then Constantine decreed that Sunday would be a legal day of rest and Christian sabbatarianism was launched.
The conversion of the emperor was the crowning event of a process by
which Christians made such inroads into all levels of Roman society that the outcome
was almost inevitable. The change established the Christian faith as a public religion. For centuries it was, indeed, the dominant religion of Europe, transforming Western society perhaps forever.
This changed some outward practices of the faith, as I have recounted.
What happened to the teachings of the faith, its priestly rituals and the sturcture of its religious organization, however, is better told in the story of the First Council of Nicea, which took place in the year 325. To this we shall turn next.