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To Basilides, Bishop of the Churches in the Pentapolis (Cyrenaica)

[This canonical Letter was accepted at the third Council of Constantinople in Trullo (A.D. 680)]

Dionysius to Basilides my beloved son and brother and godly fellow-worker, greeting in the Lord.

(1) You sent to me, my most faithful and learned son, to inquire at what hour one ought to end the fast before Easter.162162I have adopted our modern mode of expression, but in the early Church Pascha was often used for the fast which receded Easter as well as for the feast itself, and that is how Dionysius uses it here. For you say that some of the brethren maintain one should do so at cockcrow:163163i. e. at 3 a.m. on Easter Day, the traditional hour of our Lord’s Resurrection, especially in the West. and some at evening.164164i. e. at 6 p.m. on Easter Eve. For the brethren in Rome, so they say, await the cockcrow: but concerning those in the Pentapolis you said they broke the fast sooner. And you ask me to set an exact limit and a definite hour, which is both difficult and risky. For it will be acknowledged by all alike that one ought to start the feast and the gladness after the time of our Lord’s resurrection, up till then humbling our souls with 77 fastings. But by what you have written to me, you have quite soundly and with a good insight into the Divine Gospels established the fact that nothing definite appears in them about the hour at which He rose. For the Evangelists described those that came to the tomb diversely—that is, at different times, and all165165“All,” i. e. “who came,” or perhaps “all the four evangelists.” The “difference” is not really confined to the time, but to the parties which came, the other devout women coming later than the two Marys. said that they have found the Lord already risen: it was “late on the Sabbath day,” as S. Matthew puts it:166166The four references are to Matt. xxviii. 1, John xx. 1, Luke xxiv. 1, and Mark xvi. 2. and “early while it was yet dark,” as S. John writes; and “at early dawn,” as S. Luke; and “very early ... when the sun was risen,” as S. Mark. And when He rose, no one has clearly stated; but that “late on the Sabbath day, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week,” about sunrise on that day those who arrived at the tomb found Him no longer lying in it, that is agreed to. And we must not imagine that the evangelists are at variance and contradict one another: but even if there seem to be some small dispute upon the matter of your inquiry—that is, if though all agree that the Light of the world167167Cf. John ix. 5, etc. our Lord arose on that night, they differ about the hour, yet let us be anxious fairly and faithfully to harmonize what is said.

What is said, then, by Matthew runs thus: “Late on the Sabbath day, as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week, came Mary Magdalene and the other Mary to see the sepulchre. And, behold, there was a great earthquake: for an angel of the Lord descended from heaven and came and rolled away the 78 stone and sat upon it. And his appearance was as lightning, and his raiment white as snow: and for fear of him the watchers did quake and became as dead men. And the angel answered and said unto the women, Fear not ye; for I know that ye seek Jesus which hath been crucified. He is not here; for he is risen, even as he said.” As to this word which he uses for “late,” some will think, in accordance with its common acceptation, that the evening of the Sabbath is signified; but others, understanding it more scientifically, will say it is not that, but “the dead of night,” the word used signifying an advanced stage of lateness.168168The Council in Trullo (A.D. 680) accepted this second meaning and consented to Dionysius’s ruling on the point raised without reserve. And because he means night and not evening, he adds “as it began to dawn towards the first day of the week” and (the women) had not yet come, as the rest say, “bringing spices” but “to see the sepulchre.”169169Dionysius thinks that S. Matthew’s account, with which S. John’s tallies, speaks of the two Marys coming to look at the tomb about midnight on Easter eve or morning, while S. Luke and S. Mark mentioned certain women who arrived at the tomb somewhat later, when the sun had just risen, but one at least of the Marys mentioned by S. Matthew is identical with one of those mentioned by S. Mark and apparently by S. Luke. Possibly, however, Dionysius means that the two Marys took part in both visits to the tomb. Dr. Swete on S. Mark and Dr. Westcott on S. John should be consulted by any one who wishes to pursue the question further. And they found the earthquake had occurred and the angel seated on the stone, and heard from him the words: “He is not here: he is risen.” Similarly, John says: “On the first day of the week came Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark, unto the tomb, and seeth the stone taken away from the tomb.” However, by this account, “when it was still dark” although towards dawn, He 79 had gone forth from the tomb. But Luke says: “On the Sabbath they rested according to the commandment. But on the first day of the week at early dawn (the women) came unto the tomb bringing the spices which they had prepared. And they found the stone rolled away from the tomb.” “Early dawn” indicates, perchance, the morning light appearing before (the sun itself) on “the first day of the week.” In consequence, it was when the Sabbath had now completely passed, with the night that followed, and when a new day was beginning that they came bringing the spices and ointments, by which time it is clear that He had risen long before. To this, also, corresponds what Mark says: “(The women) brought spices that they might come and anoint him. And very early on the first day of the week they come to the tomb, when the sun was risen.” For he, too, says “very early,” which is the same thing as “at early dawn”: and he has added, “when the sun was risen.” For their start and their journey began, it is clear, “at early dawn” and “very early”: but they had gone on spending time both on the road and around the tomb until sunrise. And on this occasion also170170i. e. as on the former occasion mentioned by S. Matthew and S. Mark. the white robed young man says to these women: “He is risen: he is not here.”

As things stand thus, we pronounce this decision for those who inquire to a nicety at what hour or what half-hour, or quarter of an hour, they should begin their rejoicing at the Resurrection of our Lord from the dead: those who are premature and relax before midnight, though near it, we censure as remiss and wanting in self-restraint; for they drop out of the race just before the end, as the wise man says: “that 80 which is within a little in life is not little.”171171The author of this saying (which is equivalent to our proverb, “A miss is as good as a mile”) is not known. Basil (de Baptism. ii. i) quotes something like it, but with a different turn, and he, too, attributes it to “one of our wise men,” but perhaps he is only referring to Dionysius in this passage. And those who put off and endure to the furthest and persevere till the fourth watch, when our Saviour appeared to those who were sailing also, walking on the sea,172172Cf. Matt. xiv. 26. we shall approve as generous and painstaking. And those midway who stop as they were moved or as they were able, let us not treat altogether severely. For all do not continue during the six days of the fast either equally or similarly:173173He means the six days of what we call Holy Week, but he gives no indication whether the Lenten fast was then confined to those days in Alexandria and the Pentapolis or lasted longer. By “equally” he proceeds to explain is meant the length of the fasting (six days or two, and so on), and by “similarly” the manner or degree of it (till cockcrow or till evening). but some remain without food till cockcrow174174The verb used (ὑπερτιθέναι, Lat. superponere, to exceed) is the technical one for this prolonged fast: the ordinary fast ended at 6 p.m. and that of the station days (Wednesday and Friday) at 3 p.m. on all the days, some on two, or three, or four, and some on none of them. And for those who strictly persist in these prolonged fasts and then are distressed and almost faint, there is pardon if they take something sooner. But if some, so far from prolonging their fast do not fast at all, but feed luxuriously during the earlier days of the week, and then, when they come to the last two and prolong their fast on them alone, viz. on Friday and Saturday, think they are performing some great feat by continuing till dawn, I do not hold that they have exercised an equal discipline with those who have practised it for longer periods. I give you this counsel 81 in accordance with my judgment in writing on these points.

[Three rulings follow on points which it is not necessary to set out here]

(2) These answers I give you from respect for you, beloved, not because you were ignorant of the subjects of your inquiry but to render us of one mind and soul175175Cf. 1 Pet. iii. 8 and Phil. ii. 20. with yourself, as indeed we are. And I have set forth my opinion for you to share not as a teacher but as it becomes us to discuss one with another in all simplicity: and when you have considered it again, my most sagacious son, you should write again and tell me whatever seems to you better or what you judge to be as I have said.

I pray that you may prosper, my beloved son, as you minister to the Lord176176The expression comes from Acts xiii. 2, where, however, it describes a special act of worship rather than “ministering” in general. in peace.

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