Today is All Saints Day, and it reminds me how deeply aware, in his homilies on 1 John, Augustine was of the connectedness of this world with the world which is to come. God’s love, he explained, is drawing us into an unimaginable future, where we will be one with Jesus, and with all the family of God. Trying to describe the indescribable, Augustine told his congregation,
we are to see a certain vision, … a vision surpassing all earthly beautifulness, of gold, of silver, of groves and fields; the beautifulness of sea and air, the beautifulness of sun and moon, the beautifulness of the stars, the beautifulness of angels: surpassing all things: because from it are all things beautiful.
Yet in his fourth century congregation he must have been aware of many who lived with uninvited suffering and tragedy of their lives. For them, as well as for us, life at times could feel like a wilderness, a desert. However, said Augustine, what makes the suffering of this world bearable, and leads us to the joy of the world to come, is love.
That therefore which God promises us is ineffable sweetness and a good … But by temporal labours we are exercised, and by temptations of this present life are trained. Howbeit, if you would not die of thirst in this wilderness, drink love. It is the fountain which God has been pleased to place here that we faint not in the way: and we shall more abundantly drink thereof when we have come to our own land.
In the suffering and tragedy we see around us, love alone will quench the thirst of our souls, sustain us on our journey, and draw us into the deep, indescribable love of the One who is Love. May you this week, be aware of that love which alone will sustain you, quench the thirst of your soul, and draw you into the joy of the world which is to come.
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In his younger days, Augustine mocked the seeming contradictions and inconsistencies in the Christian Scriptures. They were a great obstacle to him. But after his conversion, under the erudite preaching of Ambrose, everything seemed to change. In fact, as a preacher, it led to him seeking out knotty issues in the Scriptures and presenting them to his congregation! I admire his boldness and the way he analysed contradictions so eloquently. One such issue, which Augustine raised with his congregation, is from 1 John 4 which says that “perfect love casts out fear,” yet Psalm 19 says “the fear of the Lord is pure and lasts forever.” So he asked the question,
if two pipes filled by one breathing sound in unison,
can two tongues, filled with the Spirit or Breathing of God, make a dissonance?
He went on to elaborate that there are different kinds of fear in the Scriptures, the fear of punishment and the fear of being separated from the presence of God for whom we yearn. The fear which is not yet pure, he said,
comes not from the love of God, but from the fear of punishment:
but when you fear God lest His presence forsake you,
you embrace Him, you long to enjoy God Himself.
Augustine was a man who yearned after God, and as I reflect on his thoughts I am stirred in my yearning for God too. May your longing and love for God this week draw you into a unison “with the Spirit or the Breathing of God.”
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With the rise of the internet, the multiplicity of voices making claim and counter claim can be confusing for people who are searching after God. But this is not new. In the fourth century there were many voices talking about Christianity, and the claims and counter claims were a hot topic for many ordinary people. So I imagine that Augustine, being such a great orator, attracted many people to his congregation in Hippo. But rather than bask in that glory, Augustine had a warning for his listeners. He told them that as preachers,
we can admonish by the sound of our voice, but if there be not One within that shall teach, vain is the noise we make.
“The One within” who teaches us is the Spirit of God, so that the voice of our heart and the voice of God become one. Later in the same homily, speaking of the gaze of God’s Spirit, Augustine says, our
witness is that eye which penetrates the heart, where others cannot look.
Again, the eye of our heart and the eye of God become one. It is by hearing with the ear of the heart, and seeing with the eye of the heart that we can have confidence in our relationship with God, ourselves, and others. May you this week, amongst the multiplicity of voices you hear, take time to be aware of “the One within,” who gently whispers in your soul and lovingly gazes upon you.
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Winter is a season which always catches my attention and surprises me. It has not been the cold and the rain, as I expect those in winter, but it has been the crisp, clear days, and the red hues of sunsets. In our neighbourhood, it has also been the fragrance of the flowering wattle, and the vibrant bottlebrush which has been starting to bloom again. It makes me wonder as I write, how can those sunsets, fragrances, and colours ever be described in words?
Augustine, in his homily in 1 John, describes the world and its beauty as the gold ring the bridegroom gives the bride as a pledge, an earnest, not just of his love but of his own self. Augustine says:
For this, the bridegroom gives an earnest,
that in his earnest he may himself be loved.
Well then, God gave you all these things:
love Him that made them.
There is more that He would give you, that is,
His very Self that made these things.
Now, while out walking, as I enjoy the surprises which catch my attention, I seek to hear in them the whispers of God’s deep, self-giving love for me. Such surprises of love from a Lover call my soul to love God in return. May you, as you enjoy creation’s surprises around you, also hear in them the whispers of God’s deep love for you.
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Reading the Homilies on the First Epistle of John, I feel as if I am sitting in Augustine’s congregation in Hippo. His sermons are simple, and, like any good preacher, he illuminates his points with simple, everyday illustrations.
In his fourth homily on the first few verses of 1 John 3, he tackles the issue of how we love God whom we cannot see. Our work, our duty as Christians, Augustine explains to those listening, is to cultivate and grow our desire for God. He tells us,
because you cannot at present see, let your part and duty be in desire.
The whole life of a good Christian is an holy desire.
He goes on to illustrate what he means by talking about the stretching of a bag, or a skin, so it can hold more contents. The hope we have as Christians is deferred, he says, and so it stretches us and increases our desire, our longing for God.
This is our life, that by longing we should be exercised.
But holy longing exercises us just so much as we prune off our longings from the love of the world.
To me, this stretching of longing is a long, slow work. It is seeking to regularly give my attention to those things that connect me to the loving presence of God, and so expand my inner longing and “holy desire.” May you, this week, find your heart stretched by hope and filled with a deeper longing for the loving presence of the unseen God.
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Reading Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John, I get a strong sense of the love he has for the congregation at Hippo. In the fifth homily on 1 John 3:9-18 he explains at length how the one commandment we have as Christians is to love one another. Then he makes the following statement which I found startling when I first read it:
You may say to me, I have not seen God: can you say to me, I have not seen human beings? Love your brother and sister. For if you love your brother and sister whom you see, at the same time you shall see God also; because you shall see Love itself, and within dwells God. (adapted)
As I have pondered this statement, I have been drawn to noticing how I show love those around me, and how they in turn show love me. I have realized how feeble my love is, and how harshly I criticize myself. Yet I have sought to act kindly and look with love on those around me, believing that these small, everyday connections also connect me to the loving heartbeat of God. May you, in the small acts of loving kindness you experience and give this week, be aware of seeing and hearing in them the loving heartbeat of God for you.
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Throughout the history of the Church, words of confession have often divided Christians and have led to many violent and shocking deaths. If only they had listened carefully to Augustine’s sixth homily on the First Epistle of John where, a mere three hundred years after Jesus’ death, he explain what it means to confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh. God becoming human flesh, says Augustine, the incarnation, is motivated by the one thing – love. Therefore, we confess that Jesus Christ came in the flesh, not by words, but by actions of love. It is on this point, he says, we should test believers,
Give the earthen vessels a tap, put them to the proof, whether haply they be cracked and give a dull sound: see whether they ring full and clear, see whether love be there.
Augustine is adamant,
This then is the Spirit of God, which says that Jesus has come in the flesh which says, not in tongue but in deeds; which says, not by making a noise but by loving. And that spirit is not of God, which denies that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh; denies, here also, not in tongue but in life; not in words but in deeds.
What freedom and joy Augustine’s message brings, and I imagine tapping myself to see if “love be there.” May you find your faith lived out this week, “not by making a noise but by loving,” for God first loved us and came to dwell amongst us.
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There is something I find refreshing about Augustine’s Homilies on the First Epistle of John, something which for me is liberating. One of those things is the bold Scriptural connections Augustine makes and the clarity of his statements. For example, when 1 John 3:21-22 says we can ask God for things in prayer and know that God will hear and answer, Augustine boldly uses Paul’s cry to be rid of his “thorn in the flesh,” and Jesus’ cry to “have this cup taken from me,” as examples of unanswered prayer. “So,” Augustine asks, “which prayers does God always answer?”
He then asserts,
We ought to understand that though God gives not to our will, God does give for our salvation.
Or as he puts it later,
God does not attend to you for your will, but God does attend to you for your healing.
Recalling the main message throughout 1 John that God is Love, and that we are called to love one another, Augustine goes on to say to his congregation,
Set your minds at rest: let love ask, and the ears of God are there.
I am not sure that Augustine, or anyone, can truly explain answered, or unanswered, prayer. But I admire the boldness of Augustine, and the singular clarity of his explanations. It has once again made me ponder and think about my relationships, about the focus of my prayers, and about my dialogue with the Unseen God. May you, in your prayers this week, have an awareness of letting “love ask,” and a sense of the listening ear of the One who loves you so much.
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This last week, I found myself deeply moved as I watched the funeral procession of Queen Elizabeth from Buckingham Palace to Westminster Hall. The marching lines of the guard of honour, the slow beat of the funeral dirge, the draped coffin on the gun carriage, and her body leaving Buckingham Palace for the last time made me realise that the Queen had died. Then, as the coffin entered Westminster Hall and the beautiful rendition of Psalm 139 filled the sparsely decorated room, I felt a sense of hope and quiet joy emerge amongst the sadness.
The singing of Psalm 139 reminded me of Augustine’s very clear understanding of why God, in Jesus, took on flesh like us. As Augustine puts it,
God He was, and in flesh He came;
for God could not die, flesh could die;
He came then in the flesh, that He might die for us.
But what speaks most to me is the simple reason Augustine gives for Jesus coming and dying. It is so we can
have the hope of resurrection shown unto us.
God, in great love and vulnerability, took on mortal flesh, and personally demonstrated to us the hope of resurrection. May you, this week, in your journey with the inevitable grief and loss that comes in this life, be aware of God’s great love and vulnerability which has shown to us “the hope of resurrection.”
The season of Advent begins in a couple of weeks, and I have been reflecting on why I look forward to it so much. When I was young my excitement was about Christmas Day itself, but now it is more about “the waiting” of Advent: the expecting, the unknowing, and the anticipating of new birth. This expectancy is not just about the birth of God amongst us, but is about our new birth as well. I sense this Advent thrill in Julian of Norwich when she says that
our Saviour is our Very Mother in whom we be endlessly borne … We are all in Him enclosed and He is enclosed in us.
Meister Eckhart shares this same Advent excitement, for he writes,
When we say, "God is eternal," we mean:
God is eternally young,
God is ever green, ever verdant, ever flowering.
Every action of God is new, for God makes all things new.
God is the newest thing there is;
the youngest thing there is.
God is the beginning
and if we are united to God
we become new again.
As Advent approaches this year, my you be blessed by the thrill, the anticipation, and the mystery of endless new birth; that you are enclosed in God, and God is enclosed in you.
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