Epistle of St. Columba to Pope Gregory (CXXVII)

Justifying the Celtic Christian time of Easter
(A Select library of Nicene and post-Nicene fathers of the Christian church 2nd series Vol 13, Schaff, Philip (1904) Letter of Columba

At issue is the different calculation of Easter: both the Roman Church and the Celtic Church accepted that Easter would be the first Sunday falling in the seven-day period from Nissan 14 – Nissan 20 or Nissan 15 – Nissan 21. To avoid the possibility of Easter falling on the day of the Jewish Passover, the latter was favored by Rome. The Celtic Church were called followers of St. John because of the confusion in the Gospels as to whether Jesus was crucified on Nissan 14 or 15 with John's Gospel indicating Nissan 14 and the synoptic gospels Nissan 15. (Nissan is the Jewish month that starts at the New Moon so Nissan 15 would be Full Moon.)

This epistle of the Irish saint Columba to Gregory was added to the Registum Epistolarum by the Benedictine editors, having been first published, with other writings of S. Columba, by Patrick Fleming in Collectanea sacra; Lovan. a.d. 1667. (See Galland. Bibliotlieca veterum patrum. Saec. VI. circ. a.d. 589.) It is assigned by the Benedictines to A.D. 598-9, and hence placed at the end of Book IX. of Gregory's Epistles.

At this time St. Columba was at the monastery founded by him at Luxovium (Luxueil) among the Vosges mountains in Burgundy, over which country Theoderic II. was now king. He had already given offence in Gaul, not only by his protest in life and teaching against prevalent laxity, but also by his continuing to observe and uphold the custom of his own Celtic Church with regard to the time for keeping Easter, which differed from what had now been adopted by Rome and prevailed in the West generally. The main purpose of this epistle is to plead with Pope Gregory for approval of the Celtic tradition. Subsequently, a synod being held in Gaul for considering the question, he addressed the bishops there assembled in a letter which is also extant, defending, as in this epistle, the Celtic usage, and pleading for being allowed at any rate to follow it himself in peace. (S. Columbai, Ep. II. in Collectan. sacr.)

It may be observed in the epistle before us, as also in a subsequent one to pope Boniface IV. with reference to the same subject (S. Columbai, Ep. V.; Collectan. sacr.), that, though addressing the bishop of Rome in language of the utmost deference, and recognizing his high position, he shows no disposition to submit to his authority; telling him on the contrary that, should he declare himself so as to contradict the supposed teaching of St. Jerome, he would be rejected as heretical by all the Celtic churches. And throughout the letter there runs a vein of sarcasm. There is no extant reply from Gregory to the letter. Probably none was sent. Possibly the letter never reached its destination: for in the subsequent letter, above referred to, to Boniface IV. Columba says, "Once and again Satan hindered the bearers of our letters written formerly to pope Gregory of good memory, which are subjoined below."

The point at issue, and Columba's argument, as it appears in this letter, may be briefly stated thus. Apart from any differences in the cycles for calculating the true day of the Paschal full moon in successive years, there was this difference between the Celtic and Roman usages. While all agreed in keeping Easter on a Sunday, the Celtic use was to keep it on the day of the Paschal full moon itself (i.e. the calculated 14th day of the moon falling on, or next after, the Vernal Equinox), in case of such day falling on a Sunday; whereas the Roman was, in such a case, to defer their Easter celebration till the following Sunday, so as to avoid coincidence with the actual day of the Jewish Passover. Hence, in Bede's account of the controversy on the subject between the British and Scottish (i.e. Irish) Churches on the one hand and the Roman on the other, he speaks of the former keeping their Easter between the 14th and the 20th days of the moon inclusive, but the latter between the 15th and the 21st (Bede, H.E.. II. 2; III. 25). In Gaul, however, as appears from the letter before us, it was the rule to defer Easter for a week in case of the day of the Paschal full moon (i.e. the 14th) falling on a Saturday, so as to avoid coincidence even with the 15th day of the moon. Hence, agreeing with Bede as to the Celtic usage being to keep Easter between the 14th and 20th days, he speaks not of the 15th and 21st. but of the 16th and the 22nd being the extreme limits according to the Gallic usage. The reason of this difference was, that it had once been the Latin use, as against the Alexandrian, to keep Easter from the 16th to the 22nd days, thus avoiding the 15th; and this rule had been retained in the cycle of Victorius, which was still received in Gaul.

The arguments of St. Columba in defence of the Celtic usage may be thus summarized:

  • 1. It had been sanctioned by Anatolius, whose view had been approved by St. Jerome.
  • 2. To defer Easter to the 22nd, or even the 21st day was incongruous, seeing that the moon then entered her last quarter, rising so late as to give darkness preponderance over light; and the solemnity of light should not be celebrated under the domination of darkness. He quotes Anatolius as having insisted on this principle, of which (we may here observe) we find an intimation in Philo with reference to the Jewish Passover : "That not only by day but also by night the world may be full of all-beauteous light, inasmuch as sun and moon on that day succeed each other with no interval of darkness between."(De Sept. et Fest. 1191.)
  • 3. The alleged objection to keeping Easter on the day of the Jewish Passover was unfounded and futile.
  • 4. The Mosaic Law enjoined seven days, beginning with the 14th, as the duration of the Passover festival; and within the same limits should be kept the Easter festival. [This argument, it may be observed, whatever its worth in other respects, appears to be founded on an error. For the Passover, having been killed before sunset on the 14th of Nissan, is believed to have been eaten after sunset, i.e. after the 15th day, reckoned from evening to evening, had begun; and from the latter day inclusive the seven days of unleavened bread were reckoned, thus ending with the 21st, which was a special day of "holy convocation. - The original here, being probably an incorrect citation, is obscure. It is, '' Pascha, ed est solemnitas dominicae Resurrectionis, ante transgressum vernalis aequinoctii 16 initiam non potest celebrari, ut scilicet aequinoctium non antecedat."

To the holy lord, and father in Christ, the Roman Pope, most fair ornament of the Church, a certain most august flower, as it were, of the whole of withering Europe, distinguished speculator, as enjoying a divine contemplation of purity, I, Barjona poor dove in Christ, send greeting.

Theoria utpote divina castulitatis potito. The word castulitas may possibly have been in use among the Irish monks as an endearing diminutive of castitas (i.e. chastity or purity), regarded as the object of their affections in the contemplative life. Their writers appear to have been given to the use of such diminutives, not only of the names of people, but of other words also. "In the following pages (sc. in Adamnan's Lile of St. Columba) the reader will observe the liberal employment of diminutives, so characteristic of Irish composition; and he will find them, in many cases, used without any grammatical force, and commutable, in the same chapters, with their primitives." (Reeve's Adamnan. Appendix to Preface, Ed., 1857, p. lxi.).

Grace to thee and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ. I am pleased to think, O holy pope, that it will seem to thee nothing extravagant to be interrogated about Easter, according to that canticle, "Ask thy father, and he will shew thee; thine elders and they will tell thee." (Deut. xxxii. 7) ... I who am vile write to thee that art illustrious; yet, relying on my confidence in thy evangelical humility, I presume to write to thee, and impose on thee the matter of my grief. For writing is not in vain, when necessity compels one to write, though it be to one's betters.

What, then, dost thou say concerning Easter on the 21st or 22nd day of the moon, which (with thy peace be it said) is proved by many calculators not to be Easter, but in truth a time of darkness? For it is not unknown, as I believe, to thy Efficiency, how Anatolius

Anatolius, an Alexandrian by birth, and bishop of Laodicea, A.D. 269, is referred to by Eusebius [H.E. VII. 32), as distinguished for learning, and the writer of a work on the Paschal question, which he quotes. A " Canon Paschalis," purporting to be this work, was published by Bucherius in a Latin version (Doct. Temp, Antv. 1634); but its genuineness is doubted. Anatolius was adduced by Colman at the synod of Whitby (Bede, HE. III. 25) as an authority for the 14th and 20th days of the moon being the limits for Easter. But Wiltrid replied that Anatolius had been misunderstood; for that, having in view the Egyptian mode of reckoning days from sunset to sunset, he had meant the day which began after sunset on the 14th day, i.e. really the 15th. And so also with regard to the 20th day. His language, as quoted by Eusebius, supports this explanation of his meaning: " Given that the day of the Passover is on the fourteenth of the moon after evening."

(a man of wonderful learning, as says Saint Hieronymus, extracts from whose writings Eusebius, bishop of Caesarea, inserted in his Ecclesiastical History, and Saint Hieronymus praised this same work about Easter in his catalogue) disputes with strong disapprobation about this age of the moon. For against the Gallican Rimarii, who erred, as he says, about Easter, he introduced an awful sentence, saying, "Certainly, if the rising of the moon be delayed till the end of two watches, which indicates midnight, light does not overcome darkness, but darkness light; which thing is certainly not allowable in the Easter Festival, namely, that any part of the darkness should dominate over the light, since the solemnily of the Lord's Resurrection is light, and there is no communion of light with darkness. And, if the moon has not shone forth till the third watch, there is no doubt that the moon has risen on its 21st or 22nd day, in which it is not possible for a true Paschal offering to be made. For those who lay down that it is possible for a true Easter to be celebrated at this age of the moon, not only are unable to affirm this by authority of divine Scripture, but also incur the guilt of sacrilege and contumacy and peril of their souls, while affirming that the true Light, which dominates over all darkness, can be offered while there is any domination of darkness". Also in the book of holy dogma we read, "Easter, that is, the solemnity of the Lord's Resurrection, cannot be celebrated before the beginning of the vernal equinox is past, to wit, that it may not come before the vernal equinox": which rule assuredly Victorius has gone beyond in his cycle, and hereby has already introduced error into Gaul, or to speak less boldly, has confirmed one of old standing. For indeed how can either of these things stand with reason; either that the Lord's Resurrection should be celebrated before His Passion (the thought of which is absurd), or that the seven days sanctioned by the Lord's command in the Law, during which only it is enjoined that the Lord's Passover could lawfully be eaten (which are to be numbered from the 14th day of the moon to the 20th), should against law and right be exceeded? For a moon in its 21st or 22nd day is out of the dominion of light, as having risen at that time after midnight; and, when darkness overcomes light, it is said to be impious to keep the solemnity of light. Why then dost thou, who art so wise, the brilliant lights indeed of whose sacred genius are diffused, as in ancient times, through the world, - why dost thou keep a dark Easter? I wonder, I confess, that this error of Gaul, "ac si Schynteneum", has not long ago been swept away by thee; unless I should perchance suppose, what I can hardly believe, that, as it is evident that thou hast not corrected it, it has thy approval.

This interpretation appears probable from the fact that the Irish writers of the period were given to air their Greek learning by the use of such words. - "He (Adamnan) occasionally employs Greek or Graeco-Latin words"{Reeves's Adamnan. p. lxi.). The meaning in the text would thus be, "I wonder that this error should be tolerated by thee as though it were right and legitimate."

In another way, however, may thy Expertness be more honorably excused, if, fearing to subject thyself to the mark of Hermagoric novelty, thou art content with the authority of thy predecessors, and especially of pope Leo.

Pope Leo I. referred the question between the Roman and Alexandrian Churches as to the computation of Easter to his archdeacon (afterwards pope) Hilarius for investigation; and he referred it to Victorius of Aquilaine, who consequently (AD 457) drew up a cycle, which was accepted first in the Galilean Churches (Concil. Aurel. IV., an. 541), and continued to be observed there after it had been superseded in Italy by that of Dionysius Exiguus (AD 527).

Hermagoricae novitatis; the epithet being apparently formed from the name of Herinagoras of Temnos, a distinguished Greek rhetorician of the time of Pompey and Cicero. He devoted peculiar attention to what is called the invention. Quintilian refers to him and approves his system : Cicero (De Invent. i. 6) was opposed to it. The use of a word like this is again characteristic of the Irish writers.

Do not, I pray thee, in such a question trust to humility only or to gravity, which are often deceived. Better by far is a living dog in this problem than a dead lion (Eccles. ix. 4). For a living saint may correct what had not been corrected by another who came before him. For know thou that by our masters and the Irish ancients, who were philosophers and most wise computists in constructing calculations, Victorius was not received, but held rather worthy of ridicule or of excuse than as carrying authority. Wherefore to me, as a timid stranger rather than as a sciolist, afford the support of thy judgment, and disdain not to send us speedily the suffrage of thy Placability for assuaging this tempest which surrounds us; since, after so many authors whom I have read, I am not satisfied with that one sentence of those bishops who say only, We ought not to keep the Passover with the Jews. For this is what the bishop Victor formerly said; but none of the Easterns accepted his figment.

i.e. Pope Victor, in his opposition, towards the end of the second century, to the Asiatic Quarto-decinians, who kept their Pasch on the day of the Paschal full moon, whatever the day of the week might be. Colman at the synod of Whitby had alleged St. John, to whom the Asiatics had traced their tradition, as an authority for the Scottish usage. But Wilfrid truly alleged in reply that the question at issue between the Scots and Romans at that time was a different one, since both parties agreed in keeping Easter on a Sunday only. Still, Columba's argument here is to the point as showing that the Easterns had not objected to keeping Easter on the actual day of the Jewish Passover. It may be noted here how the authority of Victor, as well as of other popes, is set at naught by S. Columba.

But this the benumbing backbone of Dagon; this the dotage of error drinks in.

On these obscure expressions it may be observed that spina Dagonis evidently means what was left to the fish-god after his head and hands had been severed. Gregory, in his comment on 1 Sam. V., interprets it as denoting heathenism prostrate, and at length deprived of even the semblance of rationality, in the presence of the Gospel, which was represented by the ark. Columba may possibly have got the idea from Gregory's own interpretation of the incident, and been pleased to use it against him. Bubum, according to Du Cange. is a late Latin word denoting senium, or languor, the noun bubula also being used in the sense oi fabula. The idea seems to be that Pope Victor's view was a figment, worthy only to be received (or, as we might now say, swallowed) by senseless heathenism, or wandering dotage.

Of what worth, I ask, is this sentence, so frivolous and so rude, and resting, as it does, on no testimonies of sacred Scripture; We ought not to keep the Passover with the Jews? What has it to do with the question? Are the reprobate Jews to be supposed to keep the Passover now, seeing that they are without a temple, outside Jerusalem, and Christ, who was formerly prefigured, having been crucified by them? Or, can it be rightly supposed that the 14th day of the moon for the Passover was of their own appointment, and is it not rather to be acknowledged to be of God's, who alone knew clearly with what mysterious meaning the 14th day of the moon was chosen for the passage [out of Egypt]. Perhaps to wise men and the like of thee this may be in some degree clearer than to others. As to those who make this objection, although without authority, let them upbraid God for that He did not then beforehand guard against the contumacy of the Jews by enjoining on them in the Law nine days of unleavened bread, if He would not have us keep the Passover with them, so that the beginning of our solemnity should not exceed the end of theirs. For, if Easter is to be celebrated on the 21st or 22nd day, from the 14th to the 22nd nine days will be reckoned, that is, seven ordered by God, and two added by men. But, if it is allowed for men to add anything of their own accord to divine decree, I ask whether this may not seem opposed to that sentence of Deuteronomy, "Lo (he saith), the word which I give unto thee, thou shalt not add unto it nor take from it (Deut. iv. 2).

But in writing all this more forwardly than humbly, I know that I have involved myself in an Euripus of presumption attended with great difficulty, being perchance unskilled to steer out of it. Nor does it befit our place or rank that anything should be suggested in the way of discussion to thy great authority, and that my Western letters should ridiculously solicit thee, who sittest legitimately on the seat of the apostle and key-bearer Peter, on the subject of Easter. But thou oughtest to consider not so much worthless me in this matter as many masters, both departed and now living, who confirm what I have pointed out, and suppose thyself to be holding a colloquy with them: for know that I open my thick-lipped mouth dutifully, though it may be incoherently and extravagantly. It is for thee, therefore, either to excuse or to condemn Victorius, knowing that, if thou approvest him, it will be a question of faith between thee and the aforesaid Hieronymus, seeing that he approved Anatolius, who is opposed to Victorius; so that whoso follows the one cannot receive the other. Let, then, thy Vigilance take thought that, in approving the faith of one of the two authors aforesaid who are mutually opposed to each other, there be no dissonance, when thou pronouncest thy opinion, between thee and Hieronymus, lest we should be on all sides in a strait, as to whether we should agree with thee or with him. Spare the weak in this matter, lest thou exhibit the scandal of diversity. For I frankly acknowledge to thee that any one who goes against the authority of Saint Hieronymus will be one to be repudiated as a heretic among the churches of the West : for they accommodate their faith in all respects unhesitatingly to him with regard to the Divine Scriptures. But let this suffice with respect to Easter.

But I ask what thy judgment is about those bishops whom thou hast written of as simoniacal, and whom the writer Giltas (Gildas) calls pests. Should communion be had with them? For there are known to be many such in this province, whereby the matter is made more serious. Or as to others, who having been polluted in their diaconate, are afterwards elected to the rank of bishops? For there are some whom we know to have conscientious scruples on these grounds; and in conferring with our littleness about them, they wished to know for certain whether they may minister without peril after such transgressions; that is, either after having bought their rank for money, or after adultery in their diaconate. I mean, however, concealed adultery with their dependents which with our teachers is accounted as no less criminal. (Cum clientelis : meaning perhaps living with females of their own households as concubines, in distinction from open transgression. The word can hardly denote, as suggested by the Benedictine Editors, wives lawfully married before ordinal ion.

As to a third head of enquiry, say in reply, I pray thee, if it is not troublesome, what should be done in the case of those monks who for a closer sight of God, or inflamed by a longing for a more perfect life, going against their vows, leave the places of their first conversion, and, against the will of their abbots, the fervor of monks compelling them, either go free or fly to deserts. The author Vennianus enquired about these of Giltas (Gildas), who replied to him most elegantly: yet still to one who is anxious to learn there is ever an increase of greater fear. These things, and much more which epistolary brevity does not admit of, might well have been enquired about more humbly and more clearly in a personal interview, but that weakness of body and the care of my fellow-pilgrims keeps me bound at home, though desirous of going to thee, so as to draw from that spiritual vein of a living well and from the living water of knowledge flowing from heaven and springing up unto eternal life. And, if my body were to follow my mind, Rome would once more be in danger of being itself despised; seeing that — even as we read in the narration of the learned Hieronymus how certain persons once came to Rome from the utmost boundaries of the Heuline coast; and then (wonderful to be told) sought something else outside of Rome - so I too, saving reverence for the ashes of the saints, should seek out longingly, not Rome, but thee : for, though I confess myself not to be wise, but athirst, I should do this same thing if I had time and opportunity.

I have read thy book containing the Pastoral Rule, short in style, lengthy in teaching, full of mysteries; and acknowledge it to be a work sweeter than honey to one that is in need. Wherefore bestow, I pray thee, on me who am athirst for what is thine, the works on Ezekiel, which, as I have heard, thou hast elaborated with wonderful genius. I have read the six books of Hieronymus on that prophet; but he has not expounded the middle part. But, if thou wilt do me the favour, send for me to the city some of thy remaining writings; to wit, the concluding expositions of one book, and namely the Song of Songs from that place where it is said, "I will go to the mountain of myrrh and the hill of frankincense", to the end, treated with short comments, either of others, or thine own: and I beg that thou wouldest expound the whole obscurity of Zachariah, and make manifest its hidden meaning, that Western blindness may give thee thanks for this, I make unreasonable demands, and ask to have great things told me: who can fail to see this? But it is true also that thou hast great things, and knowest well that from a little less, and from much more should be put out to use. Let charity induce thee to write in reply; let not the roughness of my letter hinder thee from expounding, seeing that it is my mode of expression that has been in fault, and I have it in my heart to pay thee due honor. It was for me to provoke, to interrogate, to request: it is for thee not to refuse what thou hast received freely, to put thy talent out to use, to give to him that asks the bread of doctrine, as Christ enjoins. Peace be to thee and thine; pardon my forwardness, blessed pope, in that I have written so boldly; and I pray thee in thy holy prayers to our common Lord to pray for me, a most vile sinner. I think it quite superfluous to commend to thee my people, whom the Saviour judges fit to be received, as walking in His name; and if, as I have heard from thy holy Candidus (sent by Gregory the great as rector to Gaul), thou shouldest be disposed to say in reply that things confirmed by ancient usage cannot be changed, error is manifestly ancient; but truth which reproves it is ever more ancient still.

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