Friday 10 April 2020

For what was seen at the time as a joke, a friend gave me a copy of the book, Confessions by St Augustine, as a present when I was entering the seminary to begin study for priesthood. He had no doubt heard how Augustine had been a great sinner before his conversion to Christ and probably thought it might contain some spicy bits about his profligate life.

The first stage of learning is “I don’t know what I don’t know”. At that time there was an awful lot I did not know about St Augustine, and even less about the content of Confessions. As a result, I thought it was a good joke and soon after discarded the book.

Later in my life, I then had to buy myself a copy of Confessions which I came to learn was one of the classics of Christian Spirituality. If only I had known then what I later came to know!

Augustine is something of a giant in Christian history. People seldom realise how often the positions that they take are as a result of Augustinian thought from the late 4th and early 5th centuries AD. For example, we should remember that Martin Luther was originally an Augustinian friar imbued with the spirituality and theology of the great Latin Father.

So Augustine is always worth at least listening to.

In one of his Sermons he gave us this unique and insightful perspective on the crucifixion of Jesus:
“This Word of God ‘became flesh and dwelt among us’: for in himself he was incapable of dying for us, unless he had assumed mortal flesh from us. In this way the immortal one was able to die, in this way he wished to give life to mortals; he would later make them sharers in himself, since he had first shared in theirs. For ourselves we did not have the ability live, as of himself he did not have the ability to die”.

As is often the case with great insights, they are in fact perfectly obvious. God is immortal and so cannot die. The only way that God could die is if God “became flesh”. The second part of the insight is not quite so obvious, but is born out through reflection on various parts of the New Testament – because Christ’s death was “for us”, it gives us who are mortal his life.

In another part of the Sermon, Augustine states:
“When Christ died for the wicked, where were they or what were they? Who can doubt that he will give the saints his life, since he has already given them his death? Why is human weakness slow to believe that men will one day live with God?”

For this reason, Augustine emboldens us to see Christ’s death as victory and not as defeat. He says:
“So, brethren, let us acknowledge without fear or indeed let us declare it publicly that Christ was crucified for us. Let us announce it not trembling but rejoicing, not with shame but boasting.” 

Archdeacon Allan Paulsen
Parish Priest

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