Thursday, August 16, 2012

Letter 54: St. Augustine’s Reply to the Inquiries of Januarius (Book 1 of 2)

Franco Nero as St. Augustine
in Augustine: The Decline of
the Roman Empire by Christian
This letter comes from St. Augustine’s fifth or sixth year of being a bishop in Hippo and it is written to a certain Januarius who is asking about how it is that a faithful Christian ought to fast before receiving the Eucharist. St. Augustine replies in two books, the first one significantly smaller than the last one, and these are recorded as letters 54 and 55. Letters 54 and 55 were written around 400 AD, and seem to not only be replying to Januarius’ questions but also partially a response to another writer whose writings disturbed Januarius. The first book will comment on the Eucharistic fast and its purpose, as well as an outline of God’s plan of salvation for all those in the Church. I hope that it will be an enlightening look into St. Augustine’s conception of the sacraments (Divine mysteries), and of the Most Blessed Sacrament.

Excerpts of the Letter:
[First a greeting and questioning of Januarius to tell him more specifically what he believes regarding the Eucharistic fast so that St. Augustine can approve or correct his views]

In the first place, I want you to hold as the basic truth of this discussion that our Lord Jesus Christ, as He Himself said in the Gospel, has subjected us to His yoke and His burden, which are light. (cf Matthew 11:30) Therefore, He has laid on the society of His new people the obligation of sacraments, very few in number, very easy of observance, most sublime in their meaning, as, for example, baptism, hallowed by the name of the Trinity, Communion of His Body and His Blood, and whatever else is commended in the canonical writings, with the exception of those burdens found in the five books of Moses (the Pentateuch), which imposed on the ancient people a servitude in accord with their character and the prophetic times in which they lived. But, regarding those other observances which we keep and all the world keeps, and which do not derive from Scripture but from tradition, we are given to understand that they have been ordained or recommended to be kept by the Apostles themselves, or by plenary councils, whose authority is well founded in the Church. Such are the annual commemorations of the Lord’s Passion, Resurrection and Ascension into Heaven, the descent of the Holy Spirit from Heaven, and other such observances as are kept by the universal Church wherever it is found.

This paragraph is useful for the context of the Catholic Church’s faith in the 4th and 5th century.

As to other customs, however, which differ according to country and locality, as the fact that some fast on Saturday, others do not; some receive daily the Body and Blood of the Lord, others receive it on certain days; in some places no day is omitted in the offerings of the Holy Sacrifice, in others it is offered only on Saturday and Sunday, or even only on Sunday; and other such differences as may be noted, there is freedom in all these matters, and there is no better rule for the earnest and prudent Christian than to act as he sees the Church act wherever he is staying. What is proved to be against neither faith nor morals is to be considered optional and is to be observed with due regard for the group in which he lives.”

This is a particularly helpful text as St. Augustine affirms that the Eucharist was a sacrificial offering of the Body and Blood of the Lord, practiced during many different days of the week (but always Sunday) and with many different fasting days which varied. The best position then is to observe the faith of the Church which one is in, so long as it does not disrupt the peace of the Mystical Body of Christ, that is disrupt the faith and morals of the Church.

[St. Augustine notes the advice which St. Ambrose of Milan gave to St. Monica when she was disturbed that St. Ambrose’s church did not fast on Saturday. St. Monica did not know what to do, and for her sake, St. Augustine (though not yet Christian) sought to ask St. Ambrose what she should do. St. Ambrose answered that she should do what he did, that is follow the customs of the local church, that is, when in Rome fast on Saturday, and when in Milan do not fast on Saturday. This he said was best to avoid any scandal in any church. St. Augustine says that this advice is good on account of how many people who are weak in the faith often start scandals by these minor triflings. These scandals about things not in Scripture and not in the tradition of the universal Church, St. Augustine notes, are only detrimental to the Church and in nowise assist the building of the Body of Christ.]

Someone will say that the Eucharist is not to be received every day. You ask: ‘Why?’ ‘Because,’ he says, ‘those days are to be chosen on which a man lives with greater purity and self-restraint, so as to approach so great a sacrament worthily. “For he that eateth…unworthily, eateth and drinketh judgment to himself.” (1 Corinthians 11:29) [sic] Another, on the other hand, says: ‘Not at all, if the wound of sin and the onset of disease are so great that such remedies are to be postponed, then everyone should be debarred from the altar by the authority of the bishop, in order to do penance and to be reconciled by the same authority; for, this is to receive unworthily, if one receives at a time when he ought to do penance; but he should not deprive himself of Communion or restore it to himself at his own wish and will. But, if his sins are not so great that a man is judged fit for excommunication, he ought not to cut himself off from the daily remedy of the Lord’s Body.’ With good reason, perhaps, does someone break off the quarrel by exhorting them to remain, first of all, in the peace of Christ. Let each one do what he thinks he ought to do according to his faith and devotion. Let neither of them dishonor the Body and the Blood of the Lord, but vie with each other in honoring this life-giving sacrament. For, there was no quarrel between  Zachaeus and the centurion, nor did one set himself above the other when one, rejoicing received the Lord into his house, and the other said: ‘I am not worthy that Thous shouldst enter under my roof.’ (Matthew 8:8) Both honored the Savior in diverse and even contrary manners both were weighed down with sins; both found mercy. There is force in the comparison of the manna: as among the ancient people it tasted to each one according to what he liked, so in the heart of each Christian is that sacrament by which the world is brought into subjection. This one honors Him by not daring to receive the sacrament daily, that one by not daring to let a day go by without receiving it. But, that Food is not to be despised, as the manna was not to be disliked. Thus, the Apostle says it is unworthily received by those who do not distinguish it from other food, and do not render it the veneration eminently due; therefore when he says: ‘he eateth and drinketh judgment to himself,’ he adds: ‘not discerning the Body.’ (1 Corinthians 11:29) This is very clear if all that passage of the first Epistle to the Corinthians is carefully read.”

Here we have a statement of faith that the Eucharist is not ordinary food and must be venerated. He who is the Bread from Heaven must not be despised and must be taken into each Christian’s heart so that the Eucharist may bring the world into subjection for him. We must discern the Body and Blood of Christ as the Eucharist unless we eat and drink judgment and condemnation to ourselves. This is the clear reading of 1st Corinthians that St. Augustine gives us. Likewise, customs as to how to receive the Eucharist worthily must be on account of how they see fit to truly honor Christ the most, discerning the holiness of such a life-giving sacrament. We are only removed from communion with Jesus in those instances where we are in grave sin, that is in St. Augustine’s times, worthy of excommunication (being sent out or away from Communion). The bishop discerns when the sinner has done adequate penance and been absolved of his sin to come back to take Communion.

[There is a section on a hypothetical of one country having a Lenten fast that excludes Christians from bathing and from relaxing their fasts on the fifth day of the week (Friday), and about a visitor who doesn’t fast on that day when in the country. That visitor is trying to say that his customs are superior to another’s by not following that custom and his justification for such and such cannot come from the Scriptures or the traditions of the universal Church. Nor can he prove that these sorts of fasts are in particular of danger to morals. In that manner none should repudiate others’ fasting customs. There is then a comment on the hypothetical of a strange country offering two masses on Holy Thursday, where the custom is typically only one mass in the evening on Holy Thursday, then one ought not to complain because of the subtle difference in tradition.]

Next St. Augustine tackles three questions:

What ought to be done on the Thursday of the last week of Lent? Is the Sacrifice to be offered in the morning and again after supper, because it is said, “In like manner after He had supped,” (Luke 22:23) or is one to remain fasting and offer it only after supper, or is one to fast and then to sup after the offering as we are used to doing?

St. Augustine answers that if the authority of the Scriptures tell us a way to do this, we should obey it, and likewise if the custom is of the whole Catholic Church it is madness to even doubt that we should obey the Church. But the question belongs to neither of these cases. None of these methods of fasting is in particular greater in and of itself than another method.

We are not to think that the reason for the custom in many places of offering the Sacrifice on that day after the meal is because it is written: ‘In like manner, the chalice also, after he had supped, saying,’ (Luke 22:20, 1 Corinthians 11:25) for He could have called that supper their having now received the Body, in order thereafter to receive the Chalice. As to his saying elsewhere: ‘When you come into one place, it is not now to eat the Lord’s Supper,” (1 Corinthians 11:20) –calling the reception of the Eucharist the Lord’s Supper- that could rather induce men to offer or receive the Eucharist after the meal of the day, because it says in the Gospel: ‘Jesus took bread and blessed.’ (Matthew 26:26) even though he had said above: ‘But when it was evening He sat down with the twelve… and whilst they were eating, eh said that one of you is about to betray me,’ (Matthew 26:20,21) but afterwards He gave them the Sacrament. And it is quite clear that, when the disciples first received the Body, they did not receive it fasting.

Is the whole Church, then, to be unjustly blamed because the Sacrament is always received fasting? Form this time it has pleased the Holy Spirit that, in honor of so great a Sacrament, no other food should enter into the mouth of a Christian before the Lord’s Body; that custom, therefore, is observed throughout the world. If the Lord gave the Sacrament after the taking of food, that is no reason for the brethren to assemble to receive it after having dined or supped, or to mingle it with their own meals, as those did whom the Apostle rebuked and corrected. Our Savior commended the sublimity of that mystery with special emphasis, because He wished to impress this last gift on the hearts and memory of the disciples, whom He was about to leave to enter on His Passion. Therefore, He did not give directions on the manner of Its reception afterwards, in order to leave this sacred charge to the Apostles, through whom He was about to institute the Churches. If He had so ordained that the Sacrament would always be received after other food, no one, I believe would have changed the custom. But, when the Apostle, speaking of this Sacrament, says: ‘Wherefore, my brethren when you come together to eat, wait for one another; if any man be hungry, let him eat at home, that you come not together unto judgment,’ and straightway he subjoins: ‘And the rest I will set in order when I come,(1 Corinthians 11:33, 34) we are given to understand by this that it was too much for him to set forth in a letter the whole manner of proceeding to be observed by the universal Church, and that what he set in order personally is subject to no variation of custom.

[Next St. Augustine asks about why it is that on Holy Thursday that Christians are permitted to eat before going to the liturgy done in the evening.]

A certain probable explanation has appealed to some: on one fixed day of the year, when the Lord held His Supper, it should be allowed to offer and receive the Body and the Blood of the Lord, after taking food, as a special form of commemoration. However, I think it came about more naturally, so that anyone who had been fasting might be able to assist at the offering of the Sacrifice after the meal which is taken at the ninth hour [3 pm]. But, we do not, for that reason, oblige anyone to sup before that Banquet of the Lord, nor do we venture either to hinder anyone from doing it. I think this custom originated because many or almost all persons in many places were in the habit of bathing on that day, and, because many were keeping the fast, the Sacrifice was offered in the morning for the benefit of those who would dine- since they could not stand bathing and fasting at the same time- but it was offered at evening for the sake of those who remained fasting.

[St. Augustine takes to task the question about why certain people came to bathe in this way, and he says maybe because those who were to be baptized on Easter thought it to be foul to come to be baptized in the baptismal font without having bathed, and so they chose Holy Thursday to bathe. He also wonders perhaps that because of the foot washing [?, he says because the day was chosen for it, bathing]  that they bathed and others joined them to commemorate their joy and expectation for their coming baptism.

Finally St. Augustine retires to say that he has answered to the best of his abilities. And he will answer further questions at a later time. In Book 2, St. Augustine addresses questions of Januarius regarding the celebration of Easter.]

St. Augustine here calls the Most Blessed Sacrament to be a life-giving sacrament, that must be given proper veneration and discernment that It is the Body and Blood of the Lord. He states that this can plainly be seen by a simple reading of 1st Corinthians. Moreover, he writes that it is only proper to fast before receiving the Sacrament because no other food should enter the mouth of a Christian before the Body of the Lord. Questions as to how one ought to fast when in different cities and towns are answered simply by St. Augustine through the words of St. Ambrose, to do as the people do so as to not cause scandal. St. Augustine tells us that the Eucharistic fast and customs were not set down universally by the Apostles (which he notes in St. Paul’s comments) and that whatever they have in tradition (Apostolic or not) is good for that church. Furthermore, what is not against faith and morals is acceptable to practice, and no one who does not find an admonition from the universal Church’s faith or from the Scriptures ought to tell bishops or Christians to abandon their own church’s smaller traditions and customs. The Lord did not set down the custom for the celebration of the Eucharist at the Lord’s Supper, but rather they were set individually by the Apostles. Our Lord merely wanted to share Himself and His intimate Gift in a special and calm way for His friends and disciples. It is possible to interpret St. Augustine’s words here in a non-Catholic way, but I think the hints here are pointing far more towards a Catholic understanding of veneration of the Sacrament as the true Body and Blood of Christ. This is especially clear when one looks to the words of St. Ambrose of Milan, St. Augustine’s teacher, who speaks more clearly and strongly on the Eucharist as being Christ Himself Incarnated into the form of bread and wine.

The final note on following the precepts of a local church may help us to better appreciate the traditions that each church has carried in its heart, and offer us better respect towards our brothers and sisters in Christ who may have subtle and beautiful differences in the expression of their liturgy. May the Lord help us to be one with each other, trusting that the Lord will lead us in unity even in distinct expressions of the One True Faith.


  1. Note, I thought Christian Duguay's film was very, very good, and the attention to history was particularly good, though I wouldn't vouch for every detail of the film (especially the ending).

  2. It's amazing how much time we really put into thinking about fasting, we seem to be the only religion that has a purpose for fasting (such as the Eucharist). Well, us and the Orthodox. I usually start my fast on midnight of Saturday and won't eat or drink anything, but water, until after Mass the next day. I'm pretty serious about it, usually. But my biggest problem is, well, I haven't quite learned HOW to fast in the right manner with prayer. I know that when we are hungry, we should pray to God. Sometimes I even have a hard enough time doing just that. I need to take it a little more seriously.

    I wish these sort of things were preached from the homilies a little more. It's the center of our lives, I'm surprised to see so little thought given to it even by the priests, sometimes.

    1. Hey Jes,
      I certainly can understand where you're coming from. Fasting is actually a pretty universal religious observance to me it seems, since Muslims fast during Ramadan (which ends today I believe), and many other religions abstain from food during certain periods.

      As for how to pray and fast, one manner that may be helpful is simply to walk about your day humbly, and reflect on the poverty and need of our stomach in the way in which our soul ought to be humble, poor, and needy of our Lord. The actions of our body are meant to reflect the actions of our soul in some regard. Sometimes it is best to be simple about our fasting and to enter into suffering with a glad heart because in fasting we aim to give some of our self to God. This gift of the self comes through an attempt to join our lives to the example of Jesus, and in this manner we are given the chance to become humble like He did. To become as He Is, is the gift of sanctification and the truest gift of love and faith to share a part of His life.

      This may be vague, and it's a bit tough to type at this moment, but I hope that this is useful to you for some bit.

      God bless.