Polycarp, Anicetus, Popes, Tradition, the Passover, and Easter

Odd title, I know. This is a very story I wrote, based on a true 2nd-century story, to start a chapter in the book I’m writing on the Council of Nicea.

I include it here in hopes that it’s interesting and gives you a little picture into life in the 2nd-century church, complete with a couple known early Christian traditions thrown in.

Note, a couple days ago I sent an entire chapter, the short version of the overview of the council, to my mailing list from Christian History for Everyman. If you’re not on that mailing list and would like to be, you can sign up here.

 

Polycarp, the aged and respected bishop of Smyrna, was in Rome. It was spring, and the Italian weather was beautiful.

Polycarp was over 70, and attendants helped him across the threshold into the home of Anicetus, bishop of Rome.

Rome was the most prestigious church in the world. It was not only founded by Paul, but Peter had lived there as an elder for many years before Nero had him crucified, upside down at Peter’s request. He felt unworthy to die in the same manner as his Lord.

Now, though, Anicetus had an issue with Polycarp. It was Saturday, the day before Pascha, the Christian version of Passover, the celebration of the resurrection of Christ. In preparation, the Roman church was fasting, but the Smyrneans, and Polycarp himself, were not.

It was a time of great unity and joy in the churches. They did everything together. Having vanquished the gnostic heretics, the apostolic churches proclaimed their Gospel together as if they had "but one soul and one and the same heart." They proclaimed the teaching of the apostles and handed them down "with perfect harmony, as if they possessed but one mouth" (Irenaeus, Against Heresies I:10:2).

Anicetus, then, was shocked at the distinction he was now witnessing. Why did the Smyrneans not fast with the Romans in preparation for the greatest of all first days, the great feast of Pascha?

"John, and other apostles, as well," Polycarp explained to Anicetus, "taught us this tradition. The Lord Jesus Christ suffered on the Passover day, Nisan 14 by Jewish reckoning, and so we celebrate that day as we have been taught by the apostles."

Anicetus was not sure what to do. The tradition of celebrating Pascha on the Lord’s day, the first day of the week when Jesus rose from the dead, had come to them from Peter and Paul. How could they do otherwise? Yet here was Polycarp, possibly the last bishop alive who actually knew the apostles. As Peter and Paul were the greatest of apostles in their day, so Polycarp was greatest of the bishop’s in this day.

But Anicetus’ flock knew that there was disparity in practice between the Smyrneans and the Romans. Something must be done.

The Christian spirit and affection was strong in those days. From great to small, Christians were known for their bravery. Not just men, but women and children scorned the punishment of Roman persecutors, passing judgment on their judges by their joy in facing death, and knowing that every drop of blood they shed was seed. "The more often you mow us down, the more of us there are," they would boast (Tertullian, Apology 50).

The Christians were not just brave but even poetic in their sufferings.

"It’s a beautiful thing to God when a Christian does battle with pain: when he faces threats, punishments, and tortures by mocking death and treading underfoot the horror of the executioner; when he raises up his freedom in Christ as a standard before kings and princes; when he yields to God alone and, triumphant and victorious, he tramples upon the very man who has pronounced sentence upon him. God finds all these things beautiful." (Minucius Felix, The Octavius 37, c. 200).

Warmed by that Christian spirit, Anicetus asked his venerable fellow bishop to appear in the gathering the following morning.

Each first day, the Christians in Rome—and indeed all over the world—would gather early, before the day’s work commenced, and break bread and drink wine in remembrance of the Lord’s death, as he had commanded. They did not kneel, for the first day was the Lord’s day, the day of resurrection, and thus it was to be celebrated with joy. When they prayed, they raised their hands, making their whole bodies a sign of the cross and expecting acceptance at the throne of God because of the precious blood of Christ, who had died on their behalf.

This first day, the presiding one, the bishop of Rome, handed the bread to Polycarp to break.

Polycarp offered prayer to God in heaven, thanking him that as the wheat was gathered from every hillside to be ground together into one loaf, so the people of God had been gathered from every place to become one body for the Son of God to dwell in. He then broke the loaf, gave it to the servants of the congregation, and they ate the food that they called "the medicine of immortality."

Polycarp repeated the prayer with the cup, filled with wine that had been crushed from grapes from many clusters.

And as they finished, the two bishops looked at one another, knowing that without breaking the tradition of their forefathers in the faith, they had preserved that one loaf and that one cup that is the church of Jesus Christ.

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