The celebrations of the events of the life of Jesus Christ as they are celebrated today were not instituted at the very beginning of the Christian era; they were held by the believers of the early Church as vivid commemorations without a connection with certain days and hymns, but as a real event of the Lord Who was present in the Church.
Later on, when the Church was firmly established and its believers were free to worship the True God, they decided to commemorate and observe annually in the calendar year the events of the life of the Church and especially those of the Life and Person of Jesus Christ, whom they worshiped along with the Father and the Holy Ghost with prayers, hymns, and readings appropriate for the occasion. The reason why the first Christians did not institute these celebrations and observances at the very beginning is mainly because of the persecutions of the Church and its believers. For three entire centuries, the Church of Christ was underground, in catacombs, where under the grass and flowers of the earth was nourished the tree of faith and worship.
The Church extended the Kingdom of God to the hearts of its faithful without pompous expressions. It is not our purpose here to develop further the struggles and faith of the early Church of Christ which, since then, has made the Church of the Living God "the pillar and bulwark of the truth." What we wish to emphasize is that during the first three centuries the Church of Christ developed a clear ecclesiastical conscience both in theory and in practice; the Church formulated the principles of faith and worship and defended them with enormous sacrifices, fighting off both external and internal falsifications.
For three centuries, the Church developed its roots under the earth and watered them with the moisture of its catacombs and the blood of its martyrs. The Church spread its roots from Antioch to Rome. Alexandria, Jerusalem, Ephesus, Corinth, Thessalonica, and Athens also opened underground centers of the Christian faith which were warmed and brightened by the torches of devotion, sacrifice, and the cultivation of Christian character and conscience.
When the fullness of time came, that is, when the roots were ready to present an incorruptible trunk above the earth, then Divine Providence appointed political conditions and a remarkable personality, Constantine the Great, who not so much from a religious outlook as from a political foresight, gave to the Church of Christ the right of free exercise in matters of faith and worship. This action of expediency was initiated and imposed by the emperor.
The Church of Christ came out of its refuge from the persecutions armed with the strength of love among its members and equipped for defense and for missionary endeavors. Now the Church could freely apply its principles. The Church's first concern was the development of its prayer and worship, which ratify the faith and cultivate the relations of its members. This is why the 4th century is the golden link which connects the underground life of the Church with its later course on the surface of the earth. The celebrations of Epiphany and Christmas, the writing of divine liturgies, the formulation of faith in the Creed, and so many other incidents are permanent foundations which took place during the 4th century and which developed as flowers springing from roots which had existed beforehand.
The life of the Church has kept the fragrance of these unwithering flowers until today, and their aroma has given to civilization the precious Christian atmosphere which we breathe today. If we of today hold lamps and torches in our hands and in our hearts, this light has been transmitted from the lamps and torches which were held burning by the men and women of the catacombs who gave this inheritance of faith from their hearts.