Lo, Mercy is Feasting.

A Patristic Homily for the Saturday after Ash WednesdayFrom the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas, and the words of Sts Bede the Venerable, Cyril, John Chrysostom, Ambrose, and Theophylact.

Why do you eat and drink with tax collectors and sinners?

Luke and Mark, for the honor of the Evangelist, are silent as to his common name, but Matthew is the first to accuse himself, and gives the name of Matthew and publican, that no one might despair of salvation because of the enormity of his sins, when he himself was changed from a publican to an Apostle. Levi had been a publican, a rapacious man, of unbridled desires after vain things, a lover of other men’s goods, for this is the character of the publican, but snatched from the very worship of malice by Christ’s call. Hence it follows, And he said to him, Follow me. He bids him follow Him, not with bodily step, but with the soul’s affections. Matthew therefore, being called by the Word, left his own, who was wont to seize the things of others, as it follows, And having left all, he rose, and followed him. Here mark both the power of the caller, and the obedience of him that was called. For he neither resisted nor wavered, but forthwith obeyed; and like the fishermen, he did not even wish to go into his own house that he might tell it to his friends.

The Lord honored Levi, whom He had called, by immediately going to his feast. This testified the greater confidence in him. Hence it follows, And Levi made him a great feast in his own house. Nor did Jesus sit down to meat with Matthew alone, but with many: And there was a great company of Publicans and others that sat down with them. All the publicans came to Levi as to their colleague, and a man in the same line with themselves. Matthew glorified in the presence of Christ, and called his friends all together. For

Christ displayed every sort of remedy, and not only by discoursing and displaying cures, or even by rebuking the envious, but also by eating with them, He corrected the faults of some, thereby giving us a lesson, that every time and occasion brings with it its own profit. But He shunned not the company of Publicans, for the sake of the advantage that might ensue, like a physician, who unless he touch the afflicted part cannot cure the disease. By his eating with sinners he thus in no way forbids us from doing the same.

In his charity, the Lord was blamed by the Pharisees, who were envious, and wished to but division between Christ and His disciples – the long time and the new.  And the Pharisees murmured, saying, Why do you eat with Publicans, &c. This was the voice of the Devil. This was the first word the Serpent uttered to Eve, Yea has God said, You shall not eat. So they diffuse the poison of their father.

The Lord Jesus refutes all their charges, showing, that so far from its being a fault to mix with sinners, it is but a part of His merciful design. Jesus answering said to them, They that are whole need not a physician; He reminds them of their common infirmities, and shows them that they are of the number of the sick, but adds, He is the Physician. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance. As if He should say, So far am I from hating sinners, that for their sakes only I came, not that they should remain sinners, but be converted and become righteous. Yet, we know well how God loves righteousness and David has never seen the righteous man forsaken. So certainly this “calling of sinners” does not mean that the righteous are excluded! You must understand that Jesus meant “righteous” rather ironically: those who boast of the law and do not seek the grace of the Gospel. There was none righteous upon the earth St. Paul shows, saying, All have sinned, and need the grace of God. Those who claim to be justified in themselves. If grace is for repentance, surely those who despise repentance renounce grace. And even so, He calls those “sinners”, who considering their guilt, and feeling that they cannot be justified by the law, submit themselves by repentance to the grace of Christ.

The publican is he who serves the prince of this world, and is debtor to the flesh, to which the glutton gives his food, the adulterer his pleasure, and another something else. When Jesus saw this publican sitting at the receipt of custom, and not stirring himself to greater wickedness, He calls him that he might be snatched from the evil, and follow Jesus, and receive the Lord into the house of his soul. He who receives Christ into his inner chamber, is fed with the greatest delights of overflowing pleasures. The Lord therefore willingly enters, and reposes in his affection; but again the envy of the treacherous is kindled, and the form of their future punishment is prefigured; for while all the faithful are feasting in the kingdom of heaven, the faithless will be cast out hungry. At the same time also is shown the difference between those who are zealous for the law and those who are for grace, that they who follow the law shall suffer eternal hunger of soul, while they who have received the word into the inmost soul, refreshed with abundance of heavenly meat and drink, can neither hunger nor thirst.

Why Not Fast?


A Patristic Homily for the Friday after Ash Wednesday.

From the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas, and the words of Sts John Chrysostom, Jerome, Rabanus, Augustine, Hillary.

Then came to him the disciples of John, saying, Why do we and the Pharisees fast often, but thy disciples fast not?”

This is arrogance – to take pride in one’s piety; to boast, as it were, in one’s humility, if such were possible. Nor can we excuse John’s disciples for they sided with the Pharisees whom they knew had been condemned by John. Still here they are, bringing a false accusation against Jesus, whom they knew their master had preached. What they say is only this, Since you are the Physician of souls, why do your disciples neglect fasting and eat with sinners? And to augment the weight of their charge by comparison, they put themselves first, and then the Pharisees. They fasted as they learnt out of the Law, as the Pharisee spoke, “I fast twice in the week;” the others learnt it of John.

John drank neither wine, nor strong drink, increasing his merit by abstinence, because he had no power over nature. But Jesus has power to forgive sins. Why should He avoid eating with sinners? He has power to make them righteous – which none others have. Certainly Christ fasts – for he follows the law and you should not avoid the command; but He eats with sinners that you may know His grace and power.

Observe how when strangers, as before the Publicans, were to be defended, He accuses heavily those that blamed them; but when these same outsiders brought a charge against His own disciples, He makes answer with mildness. “And Jesus saith unto them, Can the children of the bridegroom mourn as long as the bridegroom is with them?” Before He had styled Himself Physician, now Bridegroom, calling to mind the words of John which he had said,  “He that hath the bride is the bridegroom.”  Christ is the Bridegroom and the Church the Bride. Of this spiritual union the Apostles were born; they cannot mourn so long as they see the Bridegroom in the chamber with the Bride. But when the nuptials are past, and the time of passion and resurrection is come, then shall the children of the Bridegroom fast.

Everyone who rightly fasts, either humbles his soul in the groaning of prayer, and bodily chastisement, or suspends the motion of carnal desire by the joys of spiritual meditation. And the Lord here makes answer respecting both kinds of fasting; concerning the first, which is in humiliation of soul, He says, “The children of the bridegroom cannot mourn.”  Then we must mourn because the Bridegroom is taken away from us. And we rightly mourn if we burn with desire of Him. Blessed they to whom it was granted before His passion to have Him present with them, to enquire of Him what they would, to hear what they ought to hear. Those days the fathers before His coming sought to see, and saw them not, because they were placed in another dispensation, one in which He was proclaimed as coming, not one in which He was heard as present. For in us was fulfilled that He speaks of, “The days shall come when ye shall desire to see one of these days, and shall not be able.” Who then will not mourn this? Who will not say, “My tears have been my meat day and night, while they daily say unto me, Where is now thy God?” With reason then did the Apostle seek “to die and to be with Christ.”

Figuratively, this His answer, that while the Bridegroom was present with them, His disciples needed not to fast, teaches us the joy of His presence, and the sacrament of the holy food, which none shall lack, while He is present, that is, while one keeps Christ in the eye of the mind. He says, they shall fast when He is taken away from them, because all who do not believe that Christ is risen, shall not have the food of life. For in the faith of the resurrection the sacrament of the heavenly bread is received.

Take Up and Deny


A Patristic Homily for the Thursday after Ash Wednesday.

From the Catena Aurea of St Thomas Aquinas, and the words of Sts John Chrysostom, Basil the Great, Bede the Venerable, Gregory the Great, and Theophylact, and also of Origen, the Teacher of the Fathers.
If anyone wishes to come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross daily and follow me.

Great and noble leaders provoke the mighty in arms to deeds of valour, not only by promising them the honors of victory, but by declaring that suffering is in itself glorious. Such we see is the teaching of the Lord Jesus Christ. For He had foretold to His disciples, that He must suffer the accusations of the Jews, be slain, and rise again on the third day. Lest then they should think that Christ indeed was to suffer persecution for the life of the world, but that they might lead a soft life, He shows them that they must also pass through similar struggles, if they desired to obtain His glory.  Now the Savior of His great mercy and lovingkindness will have no one serve Him unwillingly and from constraint, but those only who come of their own accord, and are grateful for being allowed to serve Him. And so not by compelling men and putting a yoke upon them, but by persuasion and kindness, He draws to Him every where those who are willing.

Unless a man renounces himself, he comes not near to Him, who is above him; it is said therefore, Let him deny himself. A denial of one’s self is indeed a total forgetfulness of things past, and a forsaking of his own will. A man also denies himself when by a sufficient alteration of manners or a good conversation he changes a life of habitual wickedness. He who has long lived in lasciviousness, abandons his lustful self when he becomes chaste, and in like manner a forsaking of any crimes is a denial of one’s self.

A desire of suffering death for Christ and a mortification of one’s members which are upon the earth, and a strong resolution to undergo any danger for Christ, and an indifference towards the present life, this it is to take up one’s cross.

In two ways also is the cross taken up, either when the body is afflicted through abstinence, or the mind touched by sympathy. Jesus rightly joins these two, Let him deny himself, and let him take up his cross, for as the man who is prepared to ascend the cross conceives in his mind the intention of death, and so goes on thinking to have no more part in this life, so he who is willing to follow our Lord, ought first to deny himself, and so take up his cross, that his will may be ready to endure every calamity.

Herein then stands a man’s perfection, that he should have his affections hardened, even towards life itself, and have ever about him the answer of death, that he should by no means trust in himself. But perfection takes its beginning from the relinquishment of things foreign to it; suppose these to be possessions or vain-glory, or affection for things that profit not.

Jesus assigns the cause of this when He adds, For whosoever will save his life shall lose it; that is, whosoever will according to the present life keep his own soul fixed on things of sense, the same shall lose it, never reaching to the bounds of happiness. But on the other hand He adds, but whosoever shall lose his life for my sake, shall save it. That is, whosoever forsakes the things of sense looking upon truth, and exposes himself to death, as it were losing his life for Christ, shall the rather save it. If then it is a blessed thing to save our life, (with regard to that safety which is in God,) there must be also a certain good surrender of life which is made by looking upon Christ. It seems also to me from resemblance to that denying of one’s self which has been before spoken of, that it becomes us to lose a certain sinful life of ours, to take up that which is saved by virtue.

Do not Display Yourself

For the Gospel for Ash Wednesday (Matthew 6:1-6, 16-18):

A homily from the works of St John Chrysostom, Bishop. 

And when ye fast, be not as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance. For they disfigure their faces, that they may appear unto men to fast.

Here we do well to sigh aloud, and to wail bitterly: for not only do we imitate the hypocrites, but we have even surpassed them. For, brothers and sisters, I know many, not merely fasting and making a display of it, but instead they neglect to fast, and yet still make a show as if being one of them that fast. They cloak themselves with an excuse worse than their sin. For “I do this,” say they, “that I may not offend everyone.” What? There is a law of God which commands these things, and you’re worried about “offense”? You imagine, I think, that in the keeping of God’s law there is offense, and in not keeping God’s law you are saving your neighbors from offense? And what can be worse than this folly?

When the Lord Jesus said, “Let not thy left hand know what thy right hand doeth,” it was not of hands that he was speaking, of course, but of our duty to keep our piety hidden from all. When he commanded us to enter into our closet for prayer, he didn’t say to go there alone all the time, nor even to go there primarily. He command us to pray, but he reminded us to be private. So likewise here, in commanding us “to be anointed” when we fast, he is not giving us a new command to anoint ourselves! As one can see clearly from David and from Daniel it was the fashion, for festive occasions to anoint oneself. Jesus says that we must anoint ourselves, not that we should positively do this, but that by all means we might endeavor, with great strictness, to hide what we were doing from others. If we were to always anoint ourselves when fasting that would just as surely proclaim it before others as fake morbidity.

Jesus does not make the fast more strict, nor command us to practice more of it, but he does command us that we should not lose our reward because of our pride and vainglory. Of course both hypocrites and the pious have the same command – to fast. Yet to those who actually follow Jesus the command is made all the more easy: he adds nothing to our toils, but only insists that we gather our wages with all security. Jesus  will not suffer us to go away unrewarded, as these others do.

Think of an athlete, a gymnast in the Olympic games. Though he works before so great a multitude sitting there, and so many princes, he desires to please only one: the judge; and this though the judge be much the inferior to the athletes. We have a twofold motive for displaying the our victory only to Christ. Jesus is the one supreme Judge. Also he is beyond compare fully superior to all that are sitting in the theatre.  Yet we still greatly enjoy making our display before others – and these cannot only not give us the prize, but they can also take it away from us!