Monday, April 21, 2014

Christ is Risen! A brief commentary on St. Augustine's Sermon 228b

Jan Van Eyck's The Adoration of the Lamb of God
Today I would like to offer a commentary on one of St. Augustine’s sermons purported to have been given during the Resurrection of the Lord perhaps prior to 411 AD. This would have placed the sermon between the first 16 years of his episcopate, and we place this cutoff point because it was at the Council of Carthage in 411 AD that St. Marcellinus (a Roman official) and the Catholic bishops exiled the Donatists from northern Africa and seized their properties, which eliminated much of St. Augustine’s need to address questions of the unity of the Church and Donatism. It is disputed by some scholars that this sermon is a true sermon of St. Augustine, but some (like Edmund Hill OP, whose work I’ve used before) believe it to be a true sermon and so I will proceed anyway in presenting it.

Lord grant me wisdom. May we O Lord, who are but infants in Your ways, but beginners in the long trial and journey which is love, be enlightened by Your holy servant St. Augustine, and on reflecting on Your sacred majesty, come forever to adore You as is just and necessary. Holy Savior truly I do believe, You are risen! Grant pardon and mercy upon me, and help me take up my cross to follow You, that I might rise with You on that fateful day. Grant this through Christ our Lord!

Part 1
You have all just now been born again of water and the Spirit, (cf. John 3:5) and can see that food and drink upon this table of the Lord's in a new light, and receive it with a fresh love and piety. So I am obliged by the duty I have of giving you a sermon, and by the anxious care with which I have given you birth, that Christ might be formed in you, (cf. Gal 4:19) to remind you infants[1] of what the meaning is of such a great and divine sacrament, such a splendid and noble medicine, such a pure and simple sacrifice, which is not offered now just in the one earthly city of Jerusalem, nor in that tabernacle which was constructed by Moses, nor in the temple built by Solomon. These were just shadows of things to come (Col 2:17; Heb 10:1). But from the rising of the sun to its setting (Mal 1:11; Ps 113:3) it is offered as the prophets foretold, and as a sacrifice of praise to God, according to the grace of the New Testament. [2]

[1] Literally, ‘your infancies’, as if a title
[2] The author of this source suggests that the age old secret of not discussing what the Eucharist is, until after baptism is an anachronism by this point in north African Christianity, wherein before it was rigorously held (or so we are told).

No longer is a victim sought from the flocks for a blood sacrifice, nor is a sheep or a goat any more led to the divine altars, but now the sacrifice of our time is the body and blood of the priest himself. About him, indeed, it was foretold so long ago in the psalms, You are a priest for ever according to the order of Melchizedek (Ps 110:4). While that Melchizedek, priest of God Most High, offered bread and wine when he blessed our father Abraham, we gather from reading about it in the book of Genesis. (cf. Gen 14:18-21)

Here St. Augustine is giving a sermon to the newly baptized catechumenates who are now allowed to fully participate in the Eucharist during the Catholic liturgy. It is common in the patristic documents to see the Eucharist referred to as “a splendid and noble medicine” as St. Ignatius of Antioch (cf. Letter to the Ephesians Chapter 20, “…breaking one and the same bread, which is the medicine of immortality, and the antidote to prevent us from dying, but [which causes] that we should live for ever in Jesus Christ.”), and of course as the great and divine Mystery (sacramentum literally means mystery in Latin). Here we see the striking statements in that St. Augustine truly does call the Eucharist the pure sacrifice of Christ Himself (as priest and victim) as fulfilling the prophesy in Malachi 1:11, that from the rising of the sun to its setting a pure sacrifice of praise would be offered to God. St. Augustine states that according to the grace of the New Testament all sacrifices are brought to null and triumphed by the sacrifice of Christ, yet it is again present at the Eucharistic table through a mystery. This is a common phrase in St. Augustine’s writing, “the grace of the New Testament”, lending itself perhaps to the notion of a changing of order in God’s relationship to His people (the Church) and to the world. Whereas before, in St. Augustine’s theology, God ruled through the exterior (in essence, threats, condemnations, law, earthly reward, etc.), now God relates to us through the interior, through the movements of the Holy Spirit which writes His law in our hearts.

It is quite stunning how closely the sermon is to the current Roman liturgy (and the liturgy of that time), which is perhaps a pedagogical move on the part of St. Augustine to his infantes.

Part 2

So Christ our Lord, who offered by suffering for us what by being born he had received from us, has become our high priest for ever, and has given us the order of sacrifice which you can see, of his body that is to say, and his blood. When his body, remember, was pierced by the lance, it poured forth the water and the blood by which he cancelled our sins. Be mindful of this grace as you work out your salvation, since it is God who is at work in you, and approach with fear and trembling (cf Phil 2:12-13) to partake of this altar. Recognize in the bread what hung on the cross, and in the cup what flowed from his side.

You see, those old sacrifices of the people of God also represented in a variety of ways this single one that was to come. Christ himself, I mean, was both a sheep, because of his innocence and simplicity of soul, and a goat because of the likeness of the flesh of sin (cf Rom 8:3). And whatever else was foretold in many and diverse ways (cf Heb 1:1) in the sacrifices of the old covenant refers to this single one which has been revealed in the new covenant.

Christ is offered in the Eucharist, it is clearly stated, “Recognize in the bread what hung on the cross, and in the cup what flowed from His side.” I find the second paragraph to be pregnant with meaning in that Christ is both considered a sheep and a goat, a sheep in that He was innocent, and a goat because as we remember in Numbers 28 of the male goat offered as a sin offering to make atonement for one’s sins. And of course these sorts of references are strewn throughout St. Paul’s letters to the Romans and  Hebrews, wherein Christ is presented in such a way, that Christ is made sin (a sin offering) in that having taken on the likeness of sinful (came in the flesh, though had no sin) flesh He redeemed us through His sacrifice and offering on the cross. In essence then, Christ offers what we could not to God and supplies amply the gap between us and our God, all according to the goal of our redemption.

Again St. Augustine reiterates that there is one sacrifice, one alone, Christ’s but it is present everyday through a mystery in the Eucharist.

Part 3:
And therefore receive and eat the body of Christ, yes, you that have become members of Christ in the body of Christ; receive and drink the blood of Christ. In order not to be scattered and separated, eat what binds you together; in order not to seem cheap in your own estimation, drink the price that was paid for you. Just as this turns into you when you eat and drink it, so you for your part turn into the body of Christ when you live devout and obedient lives. He himself, you see, as his Passion drew near, while he was keeping the Passover with his disciples, took bread and blessed it, and said, This is my body which will be handed over for you (1 Cor 11:24). Likewise he gave them the cup he had blessed and said, This is my blood of the new covenant, which will be shed for many for the forgiveness of sins (Mt 26:28).[1]

You were able to read or to hear this in the gospel before, but you were unaware that this Eucharist is the Son. But now, your hearts sprinkled with a pure conscience, and your bodies washed with pure water, (cf. Heb 10:22) approach him and be enlightened, and your faces will not blush for shame (Ps 34:5). Because if you receive this worthily, which means belonging to the new covenant by which you hope for an eternal inheritance, and if you keep the new commandment to love one another, then you have life in yourselves. You are then, after all, receiving that flesh about which Life itself says, The bread which I shall give is my flesh for the life of the world; and Unless people eat my flesh and drink my blood, they will not have life in themselves (Jn 6:51. 53).

[1] The author believes that this is likely akin to the Eucharistic formula of the north African churches at the time, as it is akin to the Spanish Mozarabic churches’ formula, which is geographically very near to north Africa. We know that the Mozarabic rite predates the Visigoth expansions, and so likely this is an astute assumption.

The first paragraph represents the canonical Augustinian Eucharistic doctrine wherein the Eucharist becomes a paradox of eating. Typically food becomes a part of us (we take its nutrients, absorb them, and put them to use in our body) when we eat it, but for St. Augustine, when we consume the Eucharist, we become what we just ate. That is we become a part of Christ, and He brings us to Himself. Such is the canonical phrase, behold what you are, behold what you receive, and become what you receive. We literally receive Christ and with Him all that He has won for us.

In the second paragraph, we see the Johannine and Pauline admonitions, that we must receive Christ’s body worthily (free from blemish that excommunicates [literally sends out from communion] us from the Church [i.e. mortal sin]), and eat (St. John uses gnaw in John 6) of His flesh if we desire immortal life.

Part 4:
4. So then, having life in him, you will be in one flesh with him. This sacrament, after all, doesn't present you with the body of Christ in such a way as to divide you from it.[1] This, as the apostle reminds us, was foretold in holy scripture: They shall be two in one flesh (Gn 2:24). This, he says, is a great sacrament; but I mean in Christ and in the Church (Eph 5:31-32). And in another place he says about this Eucharist itself, We, though many, are one loaf, one body (1 Cor 10:17). So you are beginning to receive what you have also begun to be, provided you do not receive unworthily; else you would be eating and drinking judgment upon yourselves. That, you see, is what he says: Any who eat the bread or drink the cup of the Lord unworthily will be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord. But people should examine themselves, and in this way eat of the bread and drink of the cup; for those who eat and drink unworthily are eating and drinking judgment upon themselves (1 Cor 11:27-29).

[1] St. Augustine is telling the infantes that when they consume the Body of Christ, they are not rending it, destroying it, by eating it, and so not causing violence to Christ, but rather he draws attention in the next sentence to how the consuming of the Sacrament is likened to the consummation of a heavenly marriage. It is the sacrament of the Bride and the Bridegroom, where the two come together, and become one flesh. The Blessed Sacrament is always intimately tied to the Church, and the Church is truly present in Christ, and so we receive Christ in the Eucharist, it is true, but we also receive ourselves transfigured in and through Him from Christ in the Eucharist. This is all if we receive justly.

Part 5:
You receive worthily, however, if you avoid the yeast of bad doctrine, in order to be unleavened loaves of sincerity and truth (1 Cor 5:8); or if you keep hold of that yeast of charity, which the woman hid in three measures of flour until the whole of it was leavened. (cf. Luke 13:21 and Sermon 111, 2, last paragraph) This woman, you see, is the Wisdom of God, who came through the virgin in mortal flesh, and who, having repaired the wide world after the flood through the three sons of Noah, disseminated her gospel throughout it, as in three measures until the whole should be leavened. This “whole” is what is called holon in Greek where, if you keep the bond of peace, (cf. Eph 4:3) you will be “in accord with the whole,” which in Greek is catholon, from which the Church is called “Catholic.”

So we see St. Augustine’s extraordinary articulation and rhetorical skill in discussing bad yeast, and good yeast, which I have to admit, was a bit artful. Finally, we see the reason for its attribution to prior to 411 AD, in that the sermon ends with a call to peace, a call to unity within the Catholic Church over and against the Donatists. It’s not a strong enough case to say it was prior to 411 AD.


And so in the interest of brevity, let us pray that the Lord will help us to continue to adore Him in the Most Blessed Sacrament. While I admit I had some doubts on to the full depth of Augustinian Eucharistic theology in light of the more easily seen Medieval Eucharistic doctrines, I think St. Augustine was fully aware of the symbolism present throughout the Old and New Testament that point to Christ being totally present in the Eucharist as priest, victim, and medicine of immortality. It strikes me that St. Augustine perhaps may not have preached this doctrine of the real presence and the Eucharist as the really present sacrifice of Christ on Calvary due to perhaps his congregation’s needs. Reading St. Augustine’s sermons shows that they are sensitive to the congregation’s needs and the controversies at the time. I do not personally know of any disputes in the north African provinces during this time regarding the doctrine of the Eucharist. This is perhaps why we hear more comments from St. Augustine regarding the Eucharist representing the Church that we are to receive as present in the Body of Christ, as schism was ripe throughout north Africa during the 3rd, 4th, and 5th centuries.

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