Monday, December 20, 2010

Another Fine Instance

To further prove our point that St. Augustine was a fine preacher -- as though such a thing needed to be proven! -- we have dug up a seasonal example.

A Christmas sermon is included in the (Romish) Office of Readings, whence it has been copied many times to the Internet. Often, lamentably, there is no indication of its source. Fortunately, we live in the Information Age; four minutes of diligent searching turned up the Latin original here, at the indispensable site. (For those who don't know, Augustinus makes the complete works of its namesake available, searchable and annotated. Please don't confuse it with, which is something else entirely).

The breviary version has been, appropriately enough, abbreviated. The first few sentences are missing; they're good, and introduce his theme, but the shorter version has a more dramatic opening. Here it is:

Awake, mankind! For your sake God has become man. Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will enlighten you. I tell you again: for your sake, God became man.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

Let us then joyfully celebrate the coming of our salvation and redemption. Let us celebrate the festive day on which he who is the great and eternal day came from the great and endless day of eternity into our own short day of time.

He has become our justice, our sanctification, our redemption, so that, as it is written: Let him who glories glory in the Lord.

Truth, then, has arisen from the earth: Christ who said, I am the Truth, was born of the Virgin. And justice looked down from heaven: because believing in this new-born child, man is justified not by himself but by God.

Truth has arisen from the earth: because the Word was made flesh. And justice looked down from heaven: because every good gift and every perfect gift is from above.

Truth has arisen from the earth: flesh from Mary. And justice looked down from heaven: for man can receive nothing unless it has been given him from heaven.

Justified by faith, let us be at peace with God: for justice and peace have embraced one another. Through our Lord Jesus Chris for Truth has arisen from the earth. Through whom we have access to that grace in which we stand, and our boast is in our hope of God’s glory. He does not say: “of our glory,” but of God’s glory: for justice has not come out of us but has looked down from heaven. Therefore he who glories, let him glory, not in himself, but in the Lord.

For this reason, when our Lord was born of the Virgin, the message of the angelic voices was: Glory to God in the highest, and peace to men of good will.

For how could there be peace on earth unless Truth has arisen from the earth, that is, unless Christ were born of our flesh? And he is our peace who made the two into one: that we might be men of good will, sweetly linked by the bond of unity.

Let us then rejoice in this grace, so that our glorying may bear witness to our good conscience by which we glory, not in ourselves, but in the Lord. That is why Scripture says: He is my glory, the one who lifts up my head. For what greater grace could God have made to dawn on us than to make his only Son become the son of man, so that a son of man might in his turn become son of God?

Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but sheer grace.

Now, what makes this such a fine sermon? Many things come to mind. Not least of all, it is very short. This would take four minutes to preach; double it, and you still have a short sermon by any standard. And it needs to be short, because it is dense, both with Biblical language (everything in italics, obviously) and dense with theology. You can't do this for long without losing your listeners.

"Dense," however, does not mean "dull." Try reading this out loud, and you can almost feel the excitement created by the language itself. This is no accident. Augustine was a master of rhetoric, and his mastery comes through at least a little bit in the translation. For example, the repetition of his principal text, "veritas de terra orta est" (Ps 84:12 in the Vulgate, 85:11 to most of us) -- this is a dramatic effect. What the translation can't capture is the rhythm. The latter half of our second paragraph reads this way in Latin:
Perpetua te possideret miseria, nisi fieret haec misericordia. Non revixisses, nisi tuae morti convenisset. Defecisses, nisi subvenisset. Perisses, nisi venisset.
Notice the way the sentences get shorter, driving us to the point.

And above all, it is the point which makes this a great sermon. Because Augustine's point, as you surely notice, is what a later generation of Augustinian thinkers would call the articulus stantis et cadentis Ecclesiae. That is to say, justification by grace. And Augustine could not possibly be more straightforward about it. The last line is worth framing: Quaere meritum, quaere causam, quaere iustitiam; et vide utrum invenias nisi gratiam. Seek the price, seek the cause, seek the reason; and you find nothing but grace.

Arguably the most Lutheran Christmas sermon ever preached, including any of Luther's.


Anonymous said...

"Romish"? Like sort of Roman, but not quite? Like bluish is to blue?
Are you seriously still obsessed with the idiocy of the "other side"?
Have you ever heard of the narcicism of small differences?
Any idea of how this only makes you look not only delusional but petty and precious?

Father Anonymous said...

"Obsessed with the idiocy of the other side?" Have you actually read this blog? I quite like the other side, which is why I link to their homepage and reprint, with copious praise, a text from their prayer-book.

Now, as to "delusional and precious," you'll get no argument. But as I had to explain to the last unhappy commenter, that's sort of the point. That's my schtick. It's like complaining that Fox News is shrill and one-sided, or that Keith Olbermann is a blowhard. The only real response is, "Yes. And ...?"

Anonymous said...

Thank you Father A. for sharing this sermon. Wonderful, and so very Lutheran. I like your translation of the last line. Blessed Christmas to you and Mother A. and baby A.


Pastor Joelle said...

"Petty and Precious" But that's why we love you.