“Natura abhorret a vacuo”
Nature abhors a vacuum, and so every people constituted as a political body is going to have a schedule of sacred observances, of holy days–days marked out as special in some way, whether because of their perceived relation to a polity’s foundation or to its preservation. This calendar never has been, and never will be, weekly only. One might like this or not like it, but that is beside the point, just as is whether one likes or does not like the natural differences between male and female. Nature does not care what you like. The civic calendars of all peoples at all times testify to the (at least) monthly and annual marking of time in addition to the regular rhythms of the week (which themselves form its foundation), and to its association–even when somewhat vague–with what we might call a people’s religious self-understanding. In that respect, civil religion is unavoidable.
This was recognized in the fourth century by Theodosius I, often called “the Great,” who, with Constantine, ranks as one of the two most important Christian emperors of the later (in old days called the “lower”) empire. Theodosius’ record is mixed, in my view: some of his policies were borderline totalitarian, while others were totalitarian simpliciter. Some, however, manifested good common sense. His revisions to the civic calendar fall into this last group. For Theodosius saw–correctly–that the eradication of pagan worship (marked preeminently by bloody sacrifice, as well as divination and other practices of enchantment) could not be accomplished without the revision of the pagan calendar. To finally extirpate pagan civil religion1 and put an end to the deified state, there had to be a new way of marking time. The policies of the Christian emperors to that end are preserved in the eighth titulus of the second book of the Codex Theodosianus (Theodosian Code), De feriis (“On Holidays”).2
The Evidence of the Code
The collection of the Code includes laws not just from the reign of Theodosius (it actually dates from the reign of his grandson, Theodosius II, and was published in 438), but also from predecessors. Thus before we come to the revisions of Theodosius and his successors, we find something else, from the reign of Constantine, about weekly observances.3 In July 321, Constantine made the following decree:
Emperor Constantine Augustus to Helpidius.
Just as it appears to Us most unseemly that the Day of the Sun (Sunday), which is celebrated on account of its own veneration, should be occupied with legal altercations and with noxious controversies of the litigation of contending parties, so it is pleasant and fitting that those acts which are especially desired shall be accomplished on that day. Therefore all men shall have the right to emancipate and to manumit on this festive day, and the legal formalities thereof are not forbidden. (2.8.1)
A couple of things stand out: (1) the “blue laws” that were in force even until relatively recently in the U.S. are a heritage of Constantinian policy; (2) this weekly observance is not connected in the law to the sabbath, which was a Jewish observance,4 but was “celebrated on account of its own veneration,” that is, as the day of the Lord’s resurrection, which gave it the title of the “Lord’s Day” (cf. below); (3) “sabbatarianism,” should one wish to use the term, is not, in reality, a private or individual matter, a “lifestyle choice,” but rather one whose observance is a civic or political matter: “business as usual,” here marked by rancorous legal disputes, is prohibited so that the entire community may enjoy festive celebration; (4) not all “mundane” tasks are forbidden, even legal ones, for works of mercy–namely, the emancipation of slaves–are allowed and, one might even say, encouraged.
This policy is reinforced in a constitution of Theodosius dating from 386. It reads:
Emperors Gratian, Valentinian, and Theodosius Augustuses to Principius, Praetorian Prefect.
On the Day of the Sun, which our ancestors rightly called the Lord’s Day, the prosecution of all litigation, court business, and suits, shall be entirely suspended. No person shall demand the payment of a public or a private debt, nor shall there be any cognizance of controversies before arbitrators, whether they have been requested in court or chosen voluntarily. That person shall be adjudged not only infamous but also sacrilegious who turns aside from the inspiration and ritual of holy religion. (2.8.18)
The rationale is made clear in constitutions prohibited sports (sorry football fans!) and theater on the Lord’s Day: the day is set apart in order for people to be able to attend worship, which means that the observance of worship on this day is not simply a matter of individual choice, but one that has necessary ramifications for employers and entertainers. So, in a law of 392:
The same Augustuses5 to Proculus, Prefect of the City.
Contests in the circuses shall be prohibited on the festal Days of the Sun (Sundays), except on the birthdays of Our Clemency, in order that no concourse of people to the spectacles may divert men from the reverend mysteries of the Christian law. (2.8.20)
The emperors Arcadius and Honorius reiterated the point in 399:
The same Augustuses to Aurelianus, Praetorian Prefect.
On the Lord’s Day, to which the name was given out of the very reverence for it, neither theatrical plays nor contests of horses nor any spectacles which were devised to effeminate the spirit shall be celebrated in any municipality. But indeed the birthdays of the Emperors shall be celebrated, even if they should fall on the Lord’s Day. (2.8.23)
The carve-out for the emperors’ birthdays may seem odd (on which see below); it appears (?) to have been eliminated in a law of 409:
Emperors Honorius and Theodosius Augustuses to Jovius, Praetorian Prefect.
On the Lord’s Day, which is commonly called the Day of the Sun, We permit absolutely no amusements to be produced, even if by chance as the ends of the years return upon themselves this day should be the anniversary of the day when the beginning of Our reign shone forth, or if it should be the day to which are assigned the solemn rites that are due to the birthday.6 (2.8.25)
Three years after the constitution of 386 on the Lord’s Day (2.8.18), the public calendar was further revised. Thus in 389 we find:
Emperors Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius Augustuses to Albinus, Prefect of the City.
We order all days to be court days. It shall be lawful for only those days to remain as holidays which throughout two months a very indulgent year has recognized as a respite from toil for the mitigation of the summer heat and for the harvesting of the autumn crops. We also set aside the kalends of January (January 1) as a customary rest day. To the aforementioned days We add the natal days of the greatest cities, Rome and Constantinople, to which the law ought to defer, since it also was born of them. We count in the same category the holy Paschal days, of which seven precede and seven follow Easter; likewise the Days of the Sun (Sundays) which revolve upon themselves at regular intervals. It is necessary for Our anniversaries also to be held in equal reverence, that is, both the day which brought forth the auspicious beginning of Our life and the day which produced the beginning of Our imperial power. (2.8.19)
There is an important combination of observances in this constitution: holidays in keeping with nature (summer heat, harvest) and the New Year; holidays in keeping with civic foundations (Rome and Constantinople; the birthdays of the emperors); Easter, which is now added as a two-week season; and, again, Sundays. One might quibble with the self-regard of some of this (few have matched the self-regard of Roman emperors)–we only give holidays to our presidents once they’re dead, after all. But might a calendar that recognizes civic celebrations as having place only in a larger context in which the supremacy of Christ is recognized do something to restrain the orgy of patriotic self-display on an occasion such as our Independence Day and to set that day in its proper light? Perhaps. It is in any case clear that the absence of such a calendar does not so restrain it.
Arcadius and Honorius made one further modification to the calendar in 400 or 405, adding Christmas (“the birthday”)7 and Epiphany to its list of civic observances.
The same Augustuses to Aurelianus, Praetorian Prefect.
Out of respect for religion We provide and decree that on seven days of Quadragesima and on seven Paschal days, when through religious observances and fasts men’s sins are purged, and also on the birthday and on Epiphany, spectacles shall not be produced. (2.8.24)
A recognition of the principle under review obviously does not commit one to, say, Lenten observance or its specifics as gestured toward in the law above. That principle is just this: time is going to marked somehow, not just weekly but also annually, because the rhythms of work, rest, and festivity are natural; so, what should be remembered and celebrated? Time is a contested site (to use a spatial metaphor)–Arcadius and Honorius had to issue a reminder in 395 that the “ceremonial days of pagan superstition should not be considered among the holidays” (2.8.22), which shows that for many people they still were–but something will fill it up.
“Natura nihil frustra facit”
For that reason, we began by observing that nature abhors a vacuum. But we can close with another well-worn maxim at which we have glanced in the previous paragraph: nature does nothing in vain. At the close of a lecture delivered on various occasions in 1971,8 W.H. Auden writes: “Prayer, Work, Laughter, we need them all.” This can serve as a summary of all of the above. By nature, men need to rest and worship; by nature, men need to labor; by nature, men need to laugh. If any of these needs are suppressed, things will go awry. Auden sees the last especially as lacking in “industrialised and Protestant cultures” and recommends pagan/medieval Carnival (he equates them) as a solution, or at least as a model. (He also declares himself a Patripassionist in the lecture; but that is a topic for another time.) Indeed, he sees the hippie movement of the 1960s and early 1970s as a one-sided attempt to reclaim the carnivalesque:
If I understand rightly what it is the hippies are really after, I would say that they are attempting to recover a sense of Carnival, and in so far as they are, they should command our respect and be encouraged. Unfortunately, however, they seem to reject the world of Work, and would like life to be an unending carnival. The consequence of this can only be, firstly, boredom, because one cannot play-act for very long and, secondly, to overcome the boredom, stimulants like drugs and the turning of mock-actions into real ones, i.e. the fun will turn ugly, the mock-obscenity into real grubbiness, the mock aggression into real violence.
Again, one need not agree with all of Auden’s particulars; I certainly don’t. One need not think, for instance, that an echo of ancient fertility rites is the only, or even a permissible, route to the laughter we so desperately need. The point is one of principle. Auden thinks that the paganism of Carnival is a reflection of something natural. And indeed it is, even if in distorted form. And precisely for that reason, it is much more difficult to disentangle from worship than Auden lets on. But the principle is the natural need for festivity, which will be met one way or another. That, together with its close connection to worship and rest, seems to me as good an argument as any for sanctified celebration.
And this is not, it further seems to me, a matter that can be left to individual whim. As Augustine remarks early in the Confessions, it is difficult to laugh alone. We need the group for that. Even if it will not be the whole of a polity engaged together in celebration (but, again, if it is not, something–in the absence of other competitors, likely something pagan–will fill that void), it needs to be a group of significant size of which one is a part–say, a church.9 That, on its own, is not an ideal solution for the twin natural needs examined above (that is, the need to mark time and the need to celebrate), for it leaves the Christian in a somewhat schizophrenic relationship to his society; it does not deal fully with the problem confronted by Theodosius. Still, in some times and places that will be inevitable. That does nothing to change the fact that man in his totality–in his need for both public memorial and public merrymaking–stands before God, and so his reflections on the problems adumbrated in the foregoing must take place in light of that truth, regardless of both circumstances and prudential calculations for how best to deal with them.
- Of course, it is true that pagan practices continued long after their official elimination.
- I quote from Clyde Pharr’s English translation of the Code.
- Recall what was said above, viz. that the week is the foundation of the marking of time, even if it is not exhaustive of it.
- Interestingly, this was recognized in Roman law, in which, according to a law of 409 or 412, the Jewish sabbath was given a legal privilege similar to that of the Lord’s Day (this is surprising given widespread anti-Judaism in late ancient Christianity):
The same Augustuses [Honorius and Theodosius] to Johannes, Praetorian Prefect.
On the Sabbath Day and on all other days at the time when the Jews observe the reverence of their own cult, We command that no one of them shall be compelled to do anything or be sued in any way, since it appears that the other days can suffice for fiscal advantages and for private litigation.
- The reference here is to Valentinian, Theodosius, and Arcadius.
- Admittedly, “the birthday” is ambiguous: it may be a reference to Christmas, a usage we shall see momentarily.
- At least in this instance, that identification seems secure, given its association with Epiphany.
- “Work, Carnival and Prayer,” in The Complete Works of W.H. Auden: Prose, Vol. VI: 1969-1973, 688-703.
- I’ve discussed this previously here.