Saturday, September 27, 2008

Anniversary offering for the dead in Augustine's Confessions

I have some interest in tracking the history of the practice of anniversary offerings for the dead in the early Christian church. In re-reading St Augustine's Confessions recently, I came across a passage that bears on the subject. In fact, Book VI Chapter 2 deals largely with this subject. Here are some relevant excerpts, though the passage is lengthier than I will quote and is worth reading in full:
There was an occasion when my mother had brought, as was her custom in Africa, cakes and bread and wine to some of the chapels built in memory of the saints and was forbidden to do this by the doorkeeper. When she found that it was the bishop (note: St Ambrose) who had forbidden the practice, she accepted his ban ...

But when she found that that famous preacher and that great example of piety (still St Ambrose) had forbidden the practice even to those who used it soberly -- so that drunkards should not be given an occasion for excess and also because this kind of anniversary funeral feast is very like the superstitious ceremony of the pagans -- she most willingly gave up her old habit. Instead of a basket filled with the fruits of the earth, she had learned to bring to the chapels of the Martyrs a breast full of something much purer, her prayers.
It is interesting to note that the annual offerings of the dead (also seen in Tertullian) were practiced apparently without opposition in Africa, but received a flat prohibition under St Ambrose. The practice of the church in that day was not uniform on the matter of offerings for the dead. It is also interesting to note Ambrose's reason for prohibiting the annual offerings even when done with sobriety: these offerings resembled pagan practices. They may have been a continuation of pagan practices carried over into Christianity by converts from pagan religions. At any rate, while Ambrose's ban was by no means church-wide, it is an interesting episode in the history of offerings for the dead within Christianity.


Fr. Ernesto Obregon said...

As both a former missionary and an Orthodox priest, I know the difficulties in deciding which cultural practices may be brought into the Church with no harm and which cultural practices must be kept out lest the faith be sullied.

However, I would also like you to consider another option. That is, certain practices may be permitted in one culture but forbidden in another. That is, some things may be perfectly appropriate in one culture, but may cause scandal in another. Let me give you one example.

In most of the Orthodox home nations, priests wear long beards and, often, long hair. The beards are not neatly trimmed or shaped but "bushy". They also wear their cassock as normal street wear.

But, here in the USA, many Orthodox priests wear no beard or a very trimmed, neat, and short beard. Why the difference?

Well, in this culture a "bushy" beard and long hair do not lead to honor and respect but to dishonor and suspicion. Thus, in this culture, the use of the beard, and long has diminished greatly. The use of the cassock as street wear has essentially disappeared. It is now "temple" wear.

Thus, could it be that the situation in North Africa (from where Monica came) and the situation in Italy were different enough that it was a case of differing cultural practices rather than theological difference?

Weekend Fisher said...

Hi Fr. Obregon

I'm actually very interested in exactly that question. There were several pagan cultures involved in the discussion, and I have not yet found out how the different pagan cultures around the Mediterranean viewed sacrifices for the dead, or how widespread the pagan practice may have been.

Consider, for example, birthday celebrations. We know the ancient pagans celebrated them; they may be of "pagan origin" in that way. The Jehovah's Witnesses consider birthday celebrations to be over the line because of their pagan origins, whereas most of us can hardly comprehend their concern since the pagan roots are 1) not integral and 2) not a going concern as if there were possible contamination of Christian beliefs by going to a birthday party.

All the same, I love to dig into the history of things.

I'd be glad to hear about where you were a missionary, if you were inclined to tell.

Take care & God bless