Lenten Reading: Augustine on the Mercy of God and almsgiving

What did you give up for Lent? There is a temptation to treat Lent and lenten fasts as nothing more than a renewal of our new years resolutions. Maybe Lent, in the secret places of our hearts, is just a way to prepare for summer – lose some weight while looking righteous. According to Augustine, Lent is not so much about adding Spiritual disciplines, the traditional three being almsgiving, fasting and prayer, but intensifying these three in preparation for the celebration of Christ’s death and resurrection. This means that almsgiving, fasting, and prayer are suppose to be a normal part of the Christian life.

Why do we discipline our minds and bodies as Christians? To overcome sin and temptation, and to put on the character of Christ. This, however is not something we do in our own strength, but through Jesus Christ in the power of the Holy Spirit. In Sermon 207 Augustine grounds the disciplines of Lent in the person and work of Jesus Christ: “Our Lord, the only begotten Son of God showed mercy to us and fasted and prayed for us” (89). He goes on to show how our acts of mercy, fasting and prayer are all done in and through Jesus Christ. In his section on Almsgiving he offers a classic example of how Augustine thinks about Christ’s person and work for us:

Moreover, what mercy could be greater, so far as we poor wretches are concerned, than that which drew the Creator of the heavens down from heaven, clothed the Maker of the earth with earthly vesture, made him, who in eternity remains equal to His Father, equal to us in mortality, and imposed on the Lord of the universe the form of a servant, so that He, our Bread, might hunger; that He our Fulfillment, might thirst; that He our Strength might be weakened; that He our Health, might be injured; that He our Life might die? And all this [He did] to satisfy our hunger, to moisten our dryness, to soothe our infirmity, to wipe out our iniquity, to enkindle our charity. What greater mercy could there be than that the Creator be created, the Ruler be served, the Redeemer be Sold the Exalted be humbled, and the Reviver be Killed? In regards to almsgiving, we are commanded to give bread to he hungry, but he first have himself over to cruel enemies for us so that He might give Himself as food to us when we were hungry.

Augustine, Sermon 207, 89-90

Augustine grounds almsgiving in Jesus’s own infinite and humble gift of his life. Jesus took on the Form of a Servant to serve and die for us and to give us his life. In grounding the Christian discipline of almsgiving in Christ Jesus’s infinite gift of his life for us, and his continual sustaining of us through the Holy Spirit and the Sacraments, Augustine is grounding our good works in our union with Christ. We give because we’ve received and we are united to Christ who gives us more than we can ask or imagine.

Fasting and prayer are grounded in Christ’s own fasting and prayer. As he humbled himself to death on the cross, so we walk in the way of the cross and put to death the deeds of the flesh (90). Almsgiving and fasting prepares us, according to Augustine to pray to God especially for our enemies (91). In all of this, the mercy of God expressed in the magnificent humble beauty of Christ’s is the means and end of our discipline.

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