This is a most unusual depiction of Saint Augustine washing the feet of Christ. A friar named Strozzi painted it in 1629. Augustine, wearing an apron over his black monastic habit, is assisted by an angel. A tonsured monk looks on from a distance. With his right hand Augustine clasps the foot of Our Lord. His gaze is wholly turned towards the Face of Christ, who appears to be instructing him on what he is doing.
I preached this homily in 2007.
1 John 4:7-16
Psalm 118: 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14
Matthew 23; 8-12
The Doctor of Charity
The words of Saint John in today’s First Lesson are the perfect expression of Saint Augustine’s own experience. Augustine is called the “Doctor of Charity,” and with good reason. Saint John speaks of the discovery of charity that grounds every Christian life:
“Dearly beloved, let us love one another, for charity is of God. And every one that loveth, is born of God, and knoweth God. He that loveth not, knoweth not God: for God is charity. By this hath the charity of God appeared towards us, because God hath sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we may live by Him. In this is charity: not as though we had loved God, but because He hath first loved us, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for our sins” (1 Jn 4:7-10).
He Hath First Loved Me
For Saint Augustine, however, the words of the Beloved Disciple became intensely personal: “By this hath the charity of God appeared towards me, Augustine, because God hath sent His only begotten Son into the world, that I may live by Him. In this is charity: not as though I had loved God, but because He hath first loved me, and sent His Son to be a propitiation for my sins.”
The discovery of the love of God came late in Augustine’s life. It is always late. One cannot discover the love of God too soon. And so, the Doctor of Charity laments his tardy discovery of the One Thing Necessary:
Late have I loved Thee, O Beauty so ancient and so new!
Too late have I loved Thee.
And lo, Thou wert inside me and I outside,
and I sought for Thee there, and in all my unsightliness
I flung myself on those beautiful things which Thou hast made.
Thou wert with me and I was not with Thee.
Those beauties kept me away from Thee,
though if they had not been in Thee, they would not have been at all.
Thou didst call and cry to me and break down my deafness.
Thou didst flash and shine on me and put my blindness to flight.
Thou didst blow fragrance upon me and I drew breath,
and now I pant after Thee.
I tasted of Thee and now I hunger and thirst for Thee.
Thou didst touch me and I am aflame for Thy peace….
(Confessions, Book X:38)
Praise of the Divine Perfections
The Responsorial Psalm is drawn on this feast of Saint Augustine from that long litany in praise of the Law that is Psalm 118. What was the Law for Israel? It was, before anything else, a revelation of the Heart of God and an epiphany of all that reflects the Divine Perfections. One who praises the Law praises Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, the very things that every human heart seeks, the only things that can satisfy one’s deepest longings.
In the Scriptures: the Heart of God
Saint Augustine loved the Scriptures. In the Scriptures he found the Heart of Christ. In the Scriptures he mined the treasures of Truth, Goodness, and Beauty, hidden in Christ. In Augustine’s mouth, the psalmist’s passionate attachment to the Law becomes a passionate attachment to Christ.
“By what doth a young man correct his way? by observing Thy words.
With my whole heart have I sought after Thee:
let me not stray from Thy commandments.
Thy words have I hidden in my heart, that I may not sin against Thee.
Blessed art Thou, O Lord: teach me Thy justifications.
With my lips I have pronounced all the judgments of Thy mouth.
I have been delighted in the way of Thy testimonies, as in all riches.
I will meditate on Thy commandments: and I will consider Thy ways” (Ps 118:9-15).
And Their Words Are Very Deep
Listen to our saint address God on the Word of God:
O Truth, O Light of my heart, let not my own darkness speak to me!
I had fallen into that darkness and was darkened thereby.
But in it, even in its depths, I came to love Thee.
I went astray and still I remembered Thee.
I heard Thy voice behind me, bidding me return,
though I could scarcely hear it for the tumults of my boisterous passions.
And now, behold, I am returning, burning and thirsting after Thy fountain.
Let no one hinder me; here will I drink and so have life.
Let me not be my own life; for of myself I have lived badly.
I was death to myself; in Thee I have revived.
Speak to me; converse with me.
I have believed Thy books, and their words are very deep.
(Confessions, Book XII, Chapter 10)
The Servanthood of Christ
Finally, we learn from the Church’s choice of today’s Gospel that Augustine encountered the meek and humble Christ, the Servant Christ. Contemplating Our Lord in His servanthood, Augustine was compelled to follow Him there.
“He that is the greatest among you shall be your servant. And whosoever shall exalt himself shall be humbled: and he that shall humble himself shall be exalted” (Mt 23:11-12).
Victor and Victim, Priest and Sacrifice
Addressing the Eternal Father, Saint Augustine speaks of the Humble Christ, calling Him: ” . . . the true Mediator, whom Thou in Thy secret mercy hast revealed to the humble, and hast sent to them so that through His example they also might learn the same humility.” His contemplation of the Humble Christ overflows in what is, I think, one of his most beautiful prayers to the Father:
How hast Thou loved us, O good Father,
who didst not spare Thy only Son, but didst deliver Him up for us wicked ones!
How hast Thou loved us, for whom He who did not count it robbery to be equal with Thee “became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross”!
He alone was “free among the dead.”
He alone had power to lay down His life and power to take it up again,
and for us He became to Thee both Victor and Victim;
and Victor because He was the Victim.
For us, He was to Thee both Priest and Sacrifice,
and Priest because He was the Sacrifice.
Out of slaves, He maketh us Thy sons,
because He was born of Thee and did serve us.
Rightly, then, is my hope fixed strongly on Him,
that Thou wilt “heal all my diseases” through Him, who sitteth at Thy right hand
and maketh intercession for us.
Otherwise I should utterly despair.
For my infirmities are many and great;
indeed, they are very many and very great.
But Thy medicine is still greater.
Otherwise, we might think that Thy Word was removed from union with man,
and despair of ourselves,
if it had not been that He was “made flesh and dwelt among us.”
Terrified by my sins and the load of my misery,
I had resolved in my heart and considered flight into the wilderness.
But Thou didst forbid me, and Thou didst strengthen me, saying
that “since Christ died for all,
they who live should not henceforth live unto themselves,
but unto Him who died for them.”
Behold, O Lord, I cast all my care on Thee,
that I may live and “behold wondrous things out of Thy law.”
Thou knowest my incompetence and my infirmities; teach me and heal me.
Thy only Son — He “in whom are hid all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge”
— hath redeemed me with His blood.
Let not the proud speak evil of me, because I keep my ransom before my mind,
and eat and drink and share my food and drink.
For, being poor, I desire to be satisfied from Him,
together with those who eat and are satisfied:
“and they shall praise the Lord that seek Him.”
(Confessions, Book X:69-70)