Of the custom which is kept up in the Province of Egypt for signifying the time of Easter.
In the country of Egypt this custom is by ancient tradition observed that—when Epiphany is past, which the priests of that province regard as the time, both of our Lords baptism and also of His birth in the flesh, and so celebrate the commemoration of either mystery not separately as in the Western provinces but on the single festival of this day, 1660 —letters are sent from the Bishop of Alexandria through all the Churches of Egypt, by which the beginning of Lent, and the day of Easter are pointed out not only in all the cities but also in all the monasteries. 1661 In accordance then with this custom, a very few days after the previous conference had been held with Abbot Isaac, there arrived the festal letters of Theophilus 1662 the Bishop of the aforesaid city, in which together with the announcement of Easter he considered as well the foolish heresy of the Anthropomorphites 1663 at great length, and abundantly refuted it. And this was received by almost all the body of monks residing in the whole province of Egypt with such bitterness owing to their simplicity and error, that the greater part of the Elders decreed that on the contrary the aforesaid Bishop ought to be abhorred by the whole body of the brethren as tainted with heresy of the worst kind, because he seemed to impugn the teaching of holy Scripture by the denial that Almighty God was formed in the fashion of a human p. 402 figure, though Scripture teaches with perfect clearness that Adam was created in His image. Lastly this letter was rejected also by those who were living in the desert of Scete and who excelled all who were in the monasteries of Egypt, in perfection and in knowledge, so that except Abbot Paphnutius the presbyter of our congregation, not one of the other presbyters, who presided over the other three churches in the same desert, would suffer it to be even read or repeated at all in their meetings.
The observance of Epiphany can be traced back in the Christian Church to the second century, and, as Cassian tells us here, in the East (in which its observance apparently originated) it was in the first instance a double festival commemorating both the Nativity and the Baptism of our Lord. From the East its observance passed over to the West, where however the Nativity was already observed as a separate festival, and hence the special reference of Epiphany was somewhat altered, and the manifestation to the Magi was coupled with that at the Baptism: hence the plural Epiphaniorum dies. Meanwhile, as the West adopted the observance of this festival from the East, so the East followed the West in observing a separate feast of the Nativity. Cassians words show us that when he wrote the two festivals were both observed separately in the West, though apparently not yet (to the best of his belief) in the East, but the language of a homily by S. Chrysostom (Vol. ii. p. 354 Ed. Montfaucon) delivered in a.d. 386 shows that the separation of the two festivals had already begun at Antioch, and all the evidence goes to show that “the Western plan was being gradually adopted in the period which we may roughly define as the last quarter of the 4th and the first quarter of the 5th century.” Dictionary of Christian Antiquities, Vol. i. p. 361. See further Origines du Culte Chrétien, par LAbbé Duchesne, p. 247 sq.401:1661
The “Festal letters” (ἑοταστικαὶ ἐπιστολαί, Euseb. VII. xx., xxi.) were delivered by the Bishop of Alexandria as Homilies, and then put into the form of an Epistle and sent round to all the churches of Egypt; and, according to some late writers, to the Bishops of all the principal sees, in accordance with a decision of the Council of Nicæa, in order to inform them of the right day on which Easter should be celebrated. Cassian here speaks of them as sent immediately after Epiphany, and this was certainly the time at which the announcement of the date of Easter was made in the West shortly after his day (so the Council of Orleans, Canon i., a.d. 541); that of Braga a.d. 572, Canon ix., and that of Auxerre a.d. 572, Canon ii.), but there is ample evidence in the Festal letters both of S. Athanasius and of S. Cyril that at Alexandria the homilies were preached on the previous Easter, and it is difficult to resist the inference that Cassians memory is here at fault as to the exact time at which the incident related really occurred, and that he is transferring to Egypt the custom with which he was familiar in the West, assigning to the festival of Epiphany what really must have taken place at Easter.401:1662
Theophilus succeeded Timothy as Bishop of Alexandria in the summer of 385. The festal letters of which Cassian here speaks were issued by him in the year 399.401:1663
The Anthropomorphite heresy, into which the monks of Egypt had fallen, “supposed that God possesses eyes, a face, and hands and other members of a bodily organization.” It arose from taking too literally those passages of the Old Testament in which God is spoken of in human terms, out of condescension to mans limited powers of grasping the Divine nature and appears historically to have been a recoil from the allegorism of Origen and others of the Alexandrian school. The Festal letter of Theophilus in which he condemned these views, and maintained the incorporeal nature of God is no longer extant, but is alluded to also by Sozomen, H. E. VIII. xi., where an account is given of the Origenistic controversy of which it was the occasion, and out of which Theophilus came so badly. On the heresy see also Epiphanius, Hær. lxx.; Augustine. Hær. l. and lxxvi.; and Theodoret, H. E. IV. x.