Today is not only the 15th Sunday after Pentecost; it is also the feast of Saint Augustine, the Doctor of Grace. The liturgical providence of God has so beautifully ordered things today, that we hear the Gospel of the son of the widow of Naim, raised from death, and given back to his mother. In this very Gospel, the Church recognises Saint Augustine’s own resurrection to the life of grace. Augustine, the only son of a widowed mother, was raised to life again, when Our Lord Jesus Christ, moved by the tears of his Saint Monica, said to him, «Young man, I say to thee, arise» (Luke 7:14). Even in the Introit, taken from Psalm 85, we find the figure of Saint Augustine, for the psalmist expresses the prayer that Saint Augustine made his own: «O look upon me, and have mercy on me: give thy command to thy servant, and save the son of thy handmaid» (Psalm 85:6).
Death and Life
Saint Augustine himself preached on today’s Gospel in his 98th Sermon. I thought that, today, I might step aside and, for a few moments, allow Saint Augustine to preach to us. What does the Bishop of Hippo say concerning the Gospel? He speaks of the resurrection of the young man from bodily death, and compares it to the resurrection of sinners from the death of the soul.
The widowed mother rejoiced at the raising again of that young man; of men raised again in spirit, day by day, does Mother Church rejoice. He indeed was dead in the body, but they in soul. His visible death was bewailed visibly; their death invisible was neither enquired into nor perceived. (Sermon 98)
Saint Augustine’s point here is that while all can see bodily death, not all can see spiritual death. Those who are bodily dead lie lifeless, motionless, unaffected by the sights and sounds around them. Men who are dead in their souls, on the other hand, continue to move about. They speak, take note of the sights and sounds around them, and give the impression being alive, but their spiritual senses are dead. Sin has rendered them insensitive to God.
Too Late Loved I Thee
No wonder, then, that when, in Book X of The Confessions, Saint Augustine speaks of his own conversion, he describes it in terms of a re–awakening of all his spiritual senses: his deafness becomes hearing; his blindness, sight; his inability to smell, enjoyment of the fragrance of Christ; his loss of taste, a new palate by which to taste the sweetness of God; his insensibility, the capacity to feel the touch of God. We all know well, I think, the relevant passage from The Confessions, but it is always worth hearing again:
Too late loved I Thee, O Thou Beauty of ancient days, yet ever new! Too late I loved Thee! And behold, Thou wert within, and I abroad, and there I searched for Thee; deformed I, plunging amid those fair forms which Thou hadst made. Thou wert with me, but I was not with Thee. Things held me far from Thee, which, unless they were in Thee, were not at all. Thou calledst, and shoutedst, and burstest my deafness. Thou flashedst, shonest, and scatteredst my blindness. Thou breathedst odours, and I drew in breath and panted for Thee. I tasted, and hunger and thirst. Thou touchedst me, and I burned for Thy peace. (The Confessions, Book X)
Wheresoever Jesus Christ is present, He heals the infirm; opens the ears of the heart; gives sight to the spiritually blind; breathes forth the fragrance of His divinity; invites the hungry to eat and the thirsty to drink; reaches out and touches those who lie in wait for the power of His hand.
Saint Augustine notes that we find in the Gospels three resurrections from the dead: the daughter of Jairus lay dead within the house (Luke 8:48–56); the young man of Naim was being carried along the road (Luke 7:11–16); Lazarus was buried and already four days in the tomb (John 11:3–44). Each of these resurrections signifies a kind of spiritual death or, if you will, a state of sin. Saint Augustine says:
These three kinds of dead persons, are three kinds of sinners whom even at this day Christ doth raise. For that dead daughter of the ruler of the synagogue was within in the house; she had not yet been carried out from the secrecy of its walls into public view. There within was she raised, and restored alive to her parents. But the second was not now indeed in the house, but still not yet in the tomb; he had been carried out of the walls, but not committed to the ground. He who raised the dead maiden who was not yet carried out, raised this dead man who was now carried out, but not yet buried. There remained a third case, that He should raise one who was also buried; and this He did in Lazarus. (Sermon 98)
First, Saint Augustine describe those whose sin is covert, those who have not carried the evil deed to which, inwardly, they have already given consent. No one, I think, better understands and describes the psychology of sin than Saint Augustine:
There are then those who have sin inwardly in the heart, but have it not yet in overt act. A man, for instance, is disturbed by any lust. For the Lord Himself saith, «Whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her, hath committed adultery with her already in his heart». He has not yet in body approached her, but in heart he has consented; he has one dead within, he has not yet carried him out. And as it often happens, as we know, as men daily experience in themselves, when they hear the word of God, as it were the Lord saying, «Arise»; the consent unto sin is condemned, they breathe again unto saving health and righteousness. The dead man in the house arises, the heart revives in the secret of the thoughts. This resurrection of a dead soul takes place within, in the retirement of the conscience, as it were within the walls of the house. (Sermon 98)
Sin Carried Out
Secondly, Saint Augustine describes those who have carried out — note the play on words — their sinful intention:
Others after consent proceed to overt act, carrying out the dead as it were, that what was concealed in secret, may appear in public. Are these now, who have advanced to the outward act, past hope? (Sermon 98)
Saint Augustine asks if souls who carry out the consent to sin are past hope? Here Saint Augustine and Saint Benedict would join together to say to us with one voice: Et de Dei misericordia numquam desperare, «And never to despair of the mercy of God» (Rule of Saint Benedict, Chapter 4:74). No sinner is past hope.
Was it not said to the young man in the Gospel also, «I say unto thee, Arise?» Was he not also restored to his mother? So then he too who has committed the open act, if haply admonished and aroused by the word of truth, he rise again at the voice of Christ, is restored alive. Go so far he could, perish for ever he could not. (Sermon 98)
There is great consolation in this last line, precisely because it holds out hope to the sinner.
Buried Under the Weight of Vice
Thirdly, Saint Augustine describes sinners who are sunk so deeply in sin, that they deny that sin is sin, and lie, as it were, buried and stinking beneath the weight of vice.
But they who by doing what is evil, involve themselves even in evil habit, so that this very habit of evil suffers them not to see that it is evil, become defenders of their evil deeds; these are angry when they are found culpable; to such a degree, that the men of Sodom of old said to the righteous man who reproved their abominable design, «Thou art come to sojourn, not to give laws». So powerful in that place was the habit of abominable filthiness, that profligacy now passed for righteousness, and the hinderer of it was found fault with rather than the doer. Such as these pressed down by a malignant habit, are as it were buried. Yea, what shall I say, brethren? In such sort buried, as was said of Lazarus, «By this time he stinketh». That heap placed upon the grave is this stubborn force of habit, whereby the soul is pressed down, and is not suffered either to rise, or breathe again. (Sermon 98)
Into the Light of Life
Saint Augustine preaches today to rouse us from the sleep of death that is sin. He calls us anew into the light of life.
Let us then, dearly beloved, in such wise hear these things, that they who are alive may live; they who are dead may live again. Whether it be that as yet the sin has been conceived in the heart, and not come forth into open act; let the thought be repented of, and corrected, let the dead within the house of conscience arise. Or whether he has actually committed what he thought of; let not even thus his case be despaired of. The dead within has not arisen, let him arise when «he is carried out». Let him repent of his deed, let him at once return to life; let him not go to the depth of the grave, let him not receive the load of habit upon him. But peradventure I am now speaking to one who is already pressed down by this hard stone of his own habit, who is already laden with the weight of custom, who «has been in the grave four days already, and who stinketh». Yet let not even him despair; he is dead in the depth below, but Christ is exalted on high. He knows how by His cry to burst asunder the burdens of earth, He knows how to restore life within by Himself, and to deliver him to the disciples to be loosed. Let even such as these repent. For when Lazarus had been raised again after the four days, no foul smell remained in him when he was alive. (Sermon 98)
Saint Augustine’s conclusion is an appeal to all of us. Today Christ comes nigh. The tears of Mother Church move Him to pity for sinners.
So then let them who are alive, still live; and let them who are dead, whosoever they be, in which kind soever of these three deaths they find themselves, see to it that they rise again at once with all speed. (Sermon 98)
The Offertory Antiphon that we shall say in just a few moments continues the narrative of the Gospel. It is, as is often the case on Sunday, the prayer of one called out of death into life. Today it is the prayer of the young man of Naim who, upon opening his eyes, saw the face of Jesus, and then the face of his mother. It is the prayer of each of us:
With expectation I have waited for the Lord, and he was attentive to me. And he heard my prayer, and He put a new canticle into my mouth, a song to our God. (Psalm 39:2–4)