The Origins of Feasts, Fasts and Seasons in Early Christianity

Bradshaw, Paul F. & Johnson, Maxwell E.
SPCK (2011)
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Having read Paul Bradshaw's Eucharistic Origins which painstakingly dismantled the Eucharistic scholarship which was the foundation of Gregory Dix's liturgical reform proposals - many of which have been implemented both in the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches - I should have known better; but I came to this book with totally the wrong attitude. I was looking forward to learning how all our great feasts came about but, clearly, Maxwell Johnson is of a mind with Bradshaw, so the outcome, from my perspective at least, was disappointing.

Almost every chapter begins with a phrase such as "it is commonly supposed" and it then demolishes theories about the origins of feasts held as recently as Dix and as early as Saint Augustine. The meat of the book covers the period from the mid Second to the end of the Fourth Century, with the bulk devoted to Easter and its related feasts. The treatment of January 6th is fulsome but the coverage of December 25 is disappointing. There is also a chapter on saints in general and on Mary in particular. Much of the dismantling is of primarily academic interest and will not affect liturgical practice but the most startling discussion in the book demonstrates that the supposedly traditional and near universal practice of baptising almost all adults at Easter, one of Dix's central theses which had a profound impact on liturgical practice in the second half of the 20th century, was at best an experiment that last less than half a Century after the Council of Nicaea (AD325) which is usually remembered for its doctrinal pronouncements but which also consolidated much liturgical practice which followed from the stabilisation of the celebration of Easter, such as the development of the Triduum and Lent. At this crucial point, following the conversion of Constantine (312), the church radically altered its outlook from the eschatological to the commemorative which involved a much closer attention to the way in which the church's life sequentially mirrored that of Jesus. But, of course, the outcome could never be entirely logical. Even today some lectionaries make a mess of chronology, notably in the treatment of the period from the Annunciation to the Presentation.

This is not an easy read nor, as I have said, is it rewarding if you want your history clear cut. Ordinary mortals as a rule don't much like books that spend 200 pages telling them how complicated things are and how it is impossible to come to any positive conclusions but the question which surely arises from this painstaking work is why we have become so wedded to our fixed cycles of Feasts when they are based on such flimsy foundations. Surely it is time to think again about what we celebrate and when.

Kevin Carey

June 2012