Augustine, as a pastor-bishop-theologian, had numerous opportunities to preach and teach. One reoccurring opportunity was the different seasons of the Church Calendar. During Lent I am reading his Lenten Homilies. In Homily 206, Augustine points out that Christians are called to pursue Christ-likeness throughout the year. So why Lent? Augustine argues Lent offers an opportunity for greater humility and service for those who are faithful, and and time of repentance and renewal for those who are nominal (86). This opportunity, is not abstract, but grounded in the person and work of Christ.
What is the theological basis for Lent as a time of repentance and discipline? For Augustine, it is the life of Jesus Christ: “The humility of Christ has taught us to be humble because he yielded to the wicked by his death; the exaltation of Christ lifts us up because by rising again He blazed the way for his devoted followers” (87). During Lent, we celebrate, imitate, and walk in the way of Christ’s humility. During Easter we celebrate, enjoy and walk in his exaltation. This, however, is not just a pattern for Lent and Easter; it is the pattern of the Christian life, dying and rising, mortification and vivification.
So during Lent what do we put to death? How do we walk in the humility of Christ? This is what Augustine exhorts his congreation to: “Let us by our prayers add the wings of piety to our alms-deeds and fasting so that they may fly more readily to God” (87). Augustine goes on to meditate on alms-deeds and fasting. Here, I will just consider his discussion of alms-deeds
Citing Luke 6:37-38 as his text to discuss alms-deeds, Augustine sees in the text two kinds of alms, physical giving and forgiving. He considers the first as he petitions his hearers to give to the poor, not because of the poor, but because of Christ who is with the poor: “For, in the person of the poor, He who experiences no hunger wished himself to be fed. Therefore, let us not spur our God who is needy in His poor, so that we in our need may be filled in him who is rich” (87-88). This poor and rich motif is a common one in Augustine in reference to Christ’s work of redemption, such that Christ who is rich comes and gives us, who are poor, his riches, i.e., salvation. This great exchange of incarnation and redemption is over-laid onto alms-giving. Just as we have received much in salvation, so must we give to those who have little. The motive is gratitude, not duty. Further, Augustine presses his audience to see that whatever we give is nothing compared to what we will receive in heaven. Thus, alms giving is couched in Christ’s death and the eschatological hope of life in God.
The second type of almsgiving is forgiving others. This almsdeed is something anyone, rich or poor, can do. “Even he who has no means of livelihood in this world may do this to insure his living for eternity” (88). For Augustine this alms-deed is implicitly grounded in the infinite gratuity of Christ’s death and resurrection. And he explicitly warns, following the text, that if we do not forgive we will not be forgiven. With a wonderful turn of phrase he says, “Let them [unforgiveness or enmities] be destroyed by the Redeemer, lest they destroy you, the retainer” (88).
Augustine grounds both practices of alms-deeds in the person and work of Christ even as he grounds the whole practice of Lent in the same person and work. Lent, for Augustine, is a time to enter more diligently into the work of the Holy Spirit who sanctifies us through the death and resurrection of Christ.