Friday, October 13, 2017

Précis: Harl, Marguerite 1981 “La dénonciation des festivités profanes dans le discours épiscopal et monastique, en Orient chrétien, à la fin du IVe siècle”

A Précis of:
Harl, Marguerite
1981 “La dénonciation des festivités profanes dans le discours épiscopal et monastique, en Orient chrétien, à la fin du IVe siècle” D'Alexandrie hellénistique à la mission de Besançon Annales littéraires de l'Université de Besançon  Année 1981  Volume 262  Numéro 1  pp. 123-147

Marguerite Harl was professor of post-classical Greek language and literature at the Sorbonne (Paris-IV) from 1960 to 1986. She established a course on Christian writers (the "Greek Fathers") of Late antiquity. She founded the Editions du Cerf  collection La Bible d’Alexandrie, a commentary translation of the books of the Septuagint, of which she published the first volume, Genèse, in 1986. She has also published research on Philo of Alexandria, and early patristic writers Clement of Alexandria and Origen.

Précis by Joseph Abrahamson.
I took up this article because I saw it cited in works related to my research on Christian holy days and in my research in New Testament Textual Criticism.  The author generally gives quotation of the Patristic sources in endnotes, but there are several points which seem to me to be overly general and somewhat coerced into her thesis.

“The Denunciation of Profane Festivals in the Episcopal and Monastic Discourse of Eastern Christianity at the End of the 4th Century.”

Harl explains that her study is not on the theological significance or spiritual interpretation of the feasts. Rather, she is interested in the motive for the prodigious denunciations of secular festivities which seem deliberately confused with pagan religious feasts. The denouncements of the Christians focus on corporate expressions of joy, so then what is left to the Christian for expressions of joy in Christian feasts or for Christians celebration of secular festivals? The Christian writers use negative examples from these feasts to teach concerning proper Christian celebration of feasts. Their writings provide evidence of how they defined a unique Christian identity separate from the world in which they lived.

The data Harl selected comes from what she describes as “festival speeches” found in the Eastern Church dating from the last thirty years of the 4th century. The speeches are selected from those which focus on the annual liturgical feasts of the Christian Church: Christmas, Easter, Pentecost; or else on the commemorations of particular notable saints. The authors are notable leaders: Basil of Caesarea, Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, John Chrysostom; preaching in the cities of Cappadocia, Constantinople, or Antioch; who were experienced with monastic life. These writers show evidence of a topos (a literary structure consistent in rhetorical form) beginning with highlighting the Christian festival, the reason for observing the feast, and developing a point of doctrine to teach. Then the authors would move into the use of negative examples from pagan and secular feasts.

Part I: “The Praise of the Christian Festival”
After the brief introduction Harl presents a short discussion to highlight how these Fathers taught the appropriate use of the Christian feast to occupy the time and space of the church year as a model for the Christian occupying the time and space of the world. The Christian feast day as a “day” looks back to the work of Christ as the Savior-God-- particularly focusing on the “day” of Resurrection, teaches and enables the Christian to live in the world “today”, and builds the Christian to look forward to “the day to come” of Christ’s return.

The Christian feast is described as being for the faithful. The preachers emphasize diversity of the nations and social stations out of which the faithful have been called to be one unified body in Christ. The preeminent focus is the joy of the believer as a gift from God which celebrates the victory won by Christ’s resurrection, given to the believer in this world, and which will be fully realized at the Second Coming. The seasons of fasting and repentance stand in contrast to the feast day and enable the believer to appreciate the contrast of life in this world v. life in Christ. Regular occupations are to be put aside, but the day is not for “doing nothing.” The Christian is to be occupied the entire festival day with the liturgy, hymns, praise, thanksgiving and especially being taught God’s Word. [Harl does not particularly note this, but the liturgy would be a celebration of the Sacrament of the Altar]. The spaces for the festival are the interiors of churches or tombs of the saints, adorned with lights (lamps or candles), and other decorations. Christians are to dress festively in their finery. All of these aspects contribute to the brilliance of the festival. Christians are directed not only to joy but acts of joy, the exchanging of greetings, letters, gifts, acts of charity all as demonstrations of fraternal love, including the emancipation of slaves. The preacher emphasizes that the feast celebrated on this day is a foretaste of the marriage feast of the Lamb on “the day to come.”

Part II: “The Blame of Other Festivals”
After this survey of positive exhortations Harl turns to her focus on the denunciations. Previous discussions have concluded that the denunciation of other festivals was a rhetorical device used to highlight by contrast to enhance the praise of the brighter Christian festival. Harl believes the rhetorical approach neglects a proper understanding of the ideological function of the text. “I take these passages seriously, considering that they have an ideological and not just a rhetorical function in the text. From them I try to measure the efforts made by the episcopal discourse, in agreement with other official documents of the Church, in order to fight among the Christians the temptation of excessive profane festivities. My hypothesis is that the literary topos also has the value of argumentation and that it aims at a reality.”(p. 126, italics original)

The list of negatives is strongly patterned and build revulsion by each element.

The shortest form couples refusal to celebrate the “Jewish” with refusal to celebrate the “Greek” festivals. This double refusal parallels the Council of Nicea’s formula against Sabellianism and Arianism. “But the double refusal of the Jewish festivals and the Greek feasts also corresponds to a reality: Christians are tempted to participate in real festivals that take place in their cities: Jewish feasts, feasts of the Greeks. This is forbidden to them, since they must celebrate their own festivals, according to their own calendar, without confusion.” (p. 127) [Note: I would suggest that these formulae echo Leviticus 18:3 “After the doings of the land of Egypt, wherein ye dwelt, shall ye not do: and after the doings of the land of Canaan, whither I bring you, shall ye not do: neither shall ye walk in their ordinances.”]

The second form of denunciation, also brief but four-fold, is based on Romans 11:13-14, placing the festival day in an eschatological context looking to the “day of days.” The Pauline list is "orgy and drinking, lying and debauchery." None of these are appropriate for a Christian feast. “By excluding Christian behavior from what they attribute to the licentious processions of Greek festivals, preachers actually aim for a reality that they know in their own community: Christians were drunk on the eve of Lent and at the end of Lent, for Easter. Several Easter sermons bear the double title: ‘for Easter and against drunkenness’.“ (p. 128)

“The longest form of denunciation can be read in the Discourses of Gregory of Nazianzen. The earliest text appears in the second Discourse against the Emperor Julian, which dates from 364.” (p. 128) This contains a list of eight features non-Church festivals with prohibitions but balanced by positive substitutions. “The rhetoric of negation and substitution gives a picture of what Christians must refuse: festivities in order of the body (embellishment, food, perfumes, music ...) must be replaced by corresponding acts in the order of the mind, or regulated by temperance. ‘You dance too, because you love festivals and festivities, do it; but do not imitate the indecent dance of Herodias' daughter. . . , imitates that of David after the deposit of the ark ... ‘" (p. 128)

The other long form is a big text from Gregory of Nazianzen is from his  Christmas Sermon of 380 at Constantinople. It parallels the Discourse against Julian but includes twenty-two negations. The preacher addresses concern that the Greek ways appeal to the senses, to the belly, to social acceptance, to personal vanity; while some involve direct violations of God’s command: drunkenness, orgies, etc. The ultimate danger is falling into idolatry by setting aside Christian cultural distinctives in the celebration of Christian festivals.

Harl considers this literary topos successful. This literary form of denunciation is found in three other festival addresses. These are  Paschal homilies of insecure attribution: the most complete is from Astrius the Sophist and combines the Pauline formula with the double refusal; another is attributed to John Chrysostom, the third, later, is from Leonce of Constantinople.

Harl turns to making some general observations apart from the local features of the festivals and the rhetorical form.

First: Secular festivals must be purified. She observes four consistent points across the denunciations.
  1. The Christian festival must be that of the mind and the heart, rather than that of the bodies;
  2. it must observe the measure by eliminating all excesses;
  3. it must preserve the diurnal character by expelling all the vices of the night-life;
  4. it must take place in an interior space (family and church) without deploying in the streets and public squares.

Second: The manner in which the festivities of the body, the excesses, etc., are denounced, is notable because the preachers hardly ever give a religious motivation to these condemnations. Their denunciations parallel the pagan Greek Moralists. There are some brief religious arguments, but the main point of condemning secular festivities is “as gross revels in the areas of drinking, eating, laughing, dancing, sexuality, etc. It is the sensual and licentious atmosphere of pagan ceremonies which is denounced.”(p. 130) Harl sees the preacher as desiring to bring out a contrast “to show the moral progress that Christianity brings to humanity.” (p. 131)

Third: “The will of the preachers is not to suppress the secular festivities but to limit them and above all to purify them.” Harl’s idea is that “to limit” means to discourage Christians from the excesses of a secular festival that are contrary to a proper celebration of a Christian festival. “The preachers know that the faithful need, especially after the periods of fasting and penance, these moments of ‘relaxation’, of collective joy. They do not want to suppress the manifestations of joy, but they recommend mastery, limitation, transformation as well.” (p. 131)

And Fourth: “The most important information that these warnings give us is that the preachers consider it useful to do so: they attest to the real competition that the pagan festivals still held at Christian festivals, as also the official documents of the Church.” (p. 132) Harl then turns to a brief examination of these Church documents.

The Synod of Ancrya (A.D. 314) and the Council of Laodicea (A.D. 364-5) prohibit Christians from (e.g.):
  1. Using the feasting places proper to the pagans,
  2. Celebrating pagan festivals with them the pagans,
  3. Banking with pagans.
  4. Observing the Jewish Sabbath laws.
  5. Celebrating Jewish feasts.
  6. Accepting gifts given by Jews which come from Jewish feasts.

Similar prohibitions are found in the Apostolic Constitutions (A.D. 370-85) and the Theodosian Code (A.D. 438). These were enacted with the force of law suppressing pagan festivities and setting Christian feasts apart with special protections.

Harl notes that these denunciations of pagan practices were for the renunciation of sin, but she asserts that these denunciations are better explained by the preachers’ higher social status as monastics. Concerning this assertion she makes three points.

One: The Church in the baptismal formula sets out a “principle of exclusion” renouncing Satan and his works and ways. Harl generalizes on the actual baptismal ritual asserting it was symbolical of protecting the five senses of the baptized. These five senses are paralleled in the denunciations of pagan festivals. The monastic ideal emphasizes this baptismal “principle of exclusion.” The main writers Harl surveyed are monastics. Generalizing a bit again she writes “Monastic literature makes known anecdotes and apophthegms which similarly condemn festivals.”(p. 135)

“These monastic texts invite us to distinguish two opposite attitudes towards festivals: that of the Christian people of the cities and that of the anchorites [those who withdrew from society]. The preaching of the bishops tends to bring into the urban Christian crowd an echo of the ascetic virtues of the monks. But there is an important discrepancy between these two environments, between the extreme rigorism of some and the taste for pleasure of others.”(p. 135)

Two: The rigor of the preachers is also explained by their duty in office. Harl asserts that this duty is complemented by the social status these men held. These bishops were aristocrats who would naturally disdain public excess of the masses. “They were chosen as bishops because they came from noble, rich families, that they were cultivated and trained in the technique of speech.” “Their concern to define the Christian festival in contrast with the pagan festivals, or at least with the immorality of the profane rejoicings, is the concern to ensure the Christian community in its moral identity and to carry on with it a work of education: they concede détente, provided that the excesses are restrained. Measure, self-control, temperance remain the rules.”(p. 135)

Three: The image of the Christian festival they seek to impose is a purified prefigurement of the Celestial Feast at the consummation of the age. “The long Greek ascetic tradition advocating the mastered body is evidently taken up in Christian preaching: it also evokes the body denied by monastic asceticism and the sublimated body: the angelic body promised to the hope of eschatology, of incorporeal, purely "spiritual" festivals.” (p. 136)