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.

Lenten Reading: Augustine’s Lenten Homilies

St. Augustine of Hippo

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.