We have the opportunity today, Aug. 28th, of a Sunday on the Feast of St. Augustine. I would like to highlight a certain homily that Augustine gave, while at a Mass in Carthage, Africa, sometime in June of 404 a.d. I will do that in a few minutes but need to set it up for you in relation to a few pertinent things. Let us know this Bishop Augustine who served the Church for many years as a good apostle, and what things were like in this eighth year of his episcopacy in Africa.
A Carthage community had gathered for Eucharist in 404 a.d. The ancient liturgy of that time had the Mass Of Sacrifice and Eucharist, with the Holy Word of God shared first, and the bishop’s speaking of applying the mind and heart of Christ to living out the Scriptures. Augustine would be preaching from the text of St. Paul to the Corinthians, that if “one has not love, thou art a noisy, bothersome gong, and even if thou showed prophecies and or many talents given to the poor… if not in authentic love, thou art nothing. Love is all.” That was Augustine’s theme for this Mass. With our own 2016 texts on this St. Augustine Sunday, we are not in 1st Cor. 13, but in Hebrews 12 (the festal gathering in Zion–or Heaven) and in Luke 14 (the misbehaving guests at a banquet). Perhaps we can tie our readings, though, back to Augustine’s love message of that day in Carthage.
Sixteen centuries ago, Augustine saw things as one festal gathering in Heaven and for one people, but in his time there were heretics, separating the Flock (the Church) from one gathering. That’s was a violation of (today’s text) of Hebrews 12. Augustine also saw many misbehaving persons at the banquet that is for the Flock of Christ, as the heretic Donatists and Manicheans of his time in Church history were acting to break up The Church. While Manicheans felt that Christians could sin away without remorse, since ‘their soul was saved’ (‘sound familiar today?); Donatists were almost the opposite, trying to re-make the Church as re-purified, and in denying how Christ as Sacrament could be involved with sinners or through sinners at all, in an imperfect Church. Donatist claimed no toleration for any sin in the faithful, that only a re-made, parting church could be the continuation of Christ’ work on earth. You can see that this misbehavior was much like Luke 14′s warnings from Jesus. Augustine saw it clearly. They needed him to speak up on it.
So he came to speak on love at Carthage. He was the bishop of authority. We know that Carthage was a key city of Christianity in Africa back then. Because too many people were calling themselves Christian, but divided by their proud and arrogant Christian tangents into Donatism and Manicheanism, Augustine saw that only Christ’ Love would be the answer. These heretics were deviating away from the apostolic teaching and unity of the Church, of the one love and one mind in Christ. Donatists were set in their ways of a new so-called “better” position on practicing Christianity, as if they were given some special knowledge about Christ, that He could make them the only sanctified followers. And, with all their tangents away from the apostolic teaching, Augustine probably felt the Donatists of Carthage main sin was not of theological speculation and error, but simply of being now un-loving. Donatists were the modern gongs of Paul’s definition of unloving believers. What use were they–even with all their spiritual jargon?! They were turned against the original Church, acting like they were superior and enlightened, pitying the traditional backward Church of Peter.
The Manicheans were the classic Excusers from living the Faith in love. Manicheans were not of the original Church either, saying that all matter was evil, but only the spirit was pure, and therefore: ‘All sins against love could be excused, since it just was the evil flesh acting itself out. Excuse me for stabbing you in the back– my bad! But not my fault! Excuse for not practicing core beliefs anymore! My bad, and I am personally opposed to them, but just can’t help it, and what does it matter? (‘Sound familiar in 2016?) Excuse me for not embracing the rest of the Church, with its holy martyrs and heroes that passed on the Faith with blood and toil– I need not join you for you are too strict on your position versus evil. But excuse me, it’s just my so-called bad side. Yet there’s hardly any real evil people, just evil inclinations of the flesh. All can be excused, including my terrible looking down on you. I am of bad matter, but I am of pure soul.’ (Sik)
Augustine in his ministry said: No, your are lost in sin, and you can’t claim purity of soul without the responsibility of your body and mind to God. You lack love and responsibility. Come back to the truth. Yes, it’s hard to struggle in sin, but don’t say they devil made me do it or I couldn’t help it. We all are sinners, but are called to a witness of love though a repentant life. (If you recognize St. John Paul the Great’s teaching from this, then you see how much a student of Augustine he was. If you recall Mother Teresa’s example was like this, then you see Augustine’s influence again.) Augustine said to them, and to us today: No, you are all in body, mind and soul a Christian– loving God and others with all you have- and loving Christ– or you are nothing at all. Come back to the truth, brothers and sisters of the Manichean Way.
So in his homily that day Augustine preached to them about the way of Christ always being the way of love. He spoke on the pre-eminence of love. In Sermon 162A.1 he opens saying: “It is a good thing to speak about love to those who love [in God's love], by which very love, whatever is loved, is loved well.” The opening sentence of the sermon mentions love six times! Augustine preached an hour in that homily. Taking his cue from Paul’s own words, that love is the “supereminentissima via” —the most excellent way (1 Cor. 12:31) : Augustine’s says that God’s Love is the “superlative superlative”: It is all. Nothing does surpass Love, and nothing should cancel it out or change it.
Augustine preached to them: “No matter what our accomplishments, if they do not flow from and are not built upon love, they are worthless. Augustine insists upon a truth that we know is at the heart of his spirituality: love.” Do you hear the message of Pope Francis in that?! Francis is saying it a lot.
Augustine, in his homily, goes to show some examples in Scripture of arrogant men in the Bible, who think, by still doing religiousity (but without love) that they are ok. King Saul, even after his one-time favor with God, lost God’s favor, and became a persecutor of David (see 1 Kings 19:18-24, LXX), even though one sees that he still was able to prophesy—he had prophesy, but not love. Augustine gives a second example in his Sermon 162 of one prophesying or acting religious, but being empty or very short on love. The high priest Caiphas, of Jesus’ time, was heard prophesying during the trial of Jesus (Jn.11: 50-51)—he had the religious gift. Yet he was on the team to put Christ to death. No love there in his heart. Caiphas and Saul, and Donatists and Manaccheans–all have a common problem of being unloving. I think some of the hearers of the Sermon got the connection. Augustine went to great lengths in the Sermon to highlight how outstanding were the gifts of Saul and Caiphas—suggesting the seductive attractiveness of “attention-getting” accomplishments in their story. Hence, Augustine compared it to be like the heretics who now were the loud, noisy gongs of the Church, but sums it up saying “to have great gifts and, by way of implication, do great things, without love, leads to judgment, not accomplishment (non ad adiutorium sed ad iudicium). It is nothing great to have great gifts, only to use them well is; and only love does this.” The Latin Augustine uses in the homily is carefully constructed: non magna habere magnum est, sed bene uti magnis magnum est; non autem utitur bene, qui non habet caritatem. ” It is nothing great to have great gifts, only to use them well is; and only love does this.”
Augustine’s message of 404 a.d. does resonate now in 2016 a.d.: Surrender first into the Love of God. Mercy will make the way. Keeping priorities straight— Love is the Mission.
Do you recognize that phrase? Yes, it is from Pope Francis, and it was his theme to America last Fall season. It was draped over the Basilica Shrine of Mary entrance. ‘See it in my photo?
And lest his listeners in Carthage began to see all of this message as one for only the mind to agree on–as theoretical, Augustine makes a deliberate finish in the homily summarizing his message: “Bene Vivere.” (Live well.) “Male Vivere” (to live badly), “…means one has sought to live without deep loving, without caritas.”
In the Sermon, Augustine reminds us of the love command of the gospel. “Jesus said: Love one another, as I have loved you.” and “Forgive one another, as the Lord has forgiven you.” Bishop Augustine says there is no excuse for avoiding the truth of our own behavior, for not loving or forgiving. Augustine says we need to live the two ways: Of how “God is love” to us AND how “love is God.” Love in us actively shown indicates the truth that “love is God.” And we’re the ones to love and show it.
So “Bene Vivere!” Live Well. Love well.