Contained within the collection of homilies of St. Augustine of Hippo on the liturgical seasons is a series of seven “appropriately solemn” homilies offered at the beginning of the Lenten season in various years. In this series St. Augustine touches upon the classic Lenten themes of fasting, prayers, and almsgiving which enable us as Christians to enter upon the battle against the passions and for the virtues, such as humility and patience, which represent for us the taking up of our own crosses, and which we learn supremely from the Crucified Lord Himself. We offer here one of these sermons each day for the first week of Great Lent:
The solemn season has come when I remind and goad on your charity in the Lord, although, were I to remain silent, the time itself would remind and encourage you to be enkindled with more active and lively fervor than usual in fasting, praying, and almsgiving. But the help of this sermon is given you so that, by the trumpet of this voice, your spirit, about to wage war against the flesh, may gain strength. Therefore, let your fasting be without contention, noise, and conflict, so that even those who are under your sway may notice a provident and gracious gentleness; so that harsh severity may be checked, but not so as to cast out salutary discipline. In truth, when you abstain from any kind of food, even that which is granted and permitted, for the purpose of chastising the body, remember that for the clean all things are clean and do not consider anything unclean except what infidelity has polluted. For the Apostle says: For the defiled and unbelieving nothing is clean.1 Obviously, when the bodies of the faithful are brought into subjection, whatever lessens physical desires contributes to spiritual salvation. On that account you must take care not to substitute equally costly foods or even more costly banquets while you abstain from the flesh of animals. For, when the body is chastised and brought into subjection,2 pleasures are to be limited, not merely changed. What difference does the kind of food make when it is immoderate desire that is censured? Not only in regard to flesh, but also in regard to certain fruits and products of the fields, was the desire of the Israelites condemned by the divine voice.3 And Esau lost his first birthright, not for a morsel of pork, but for a mess of pottage.4
I need not mention what our hungry Lord said about bread to His tempter,5 when, far from taming His flesh as if it were rebellious, He was mercifully advising us as to what we ought to answer in similar temptations. Wherefore, my dearly beloved, regardless of whatever food you have decided to retrench, remember to keep your resolution with devout temperance and do not, by a sacrilegious error, condemn a creature of God. And you, who are bound by conjugal ties, do not despise the Apostle’s advice that you mutually practice self-denial for a time so that you may have time for prayer.6 For it is without reproach to omit on these days what is useful on other days. I think it should not be burdensome for married people to do on the holy days of this yearly observance what widows have openly professed for a certain part of their life and what virgins have undertaken for their entire life.
It is truly a kind of obligation to increase one’s almsdeeds during these days. For where do you expend what you deprive yourself of by abstinence more justly than in pity? And what is more unjust than that prolonged avarice should hold on to, or deferred self-indulgence should consume, what abstinence saves? Consider to whom you owe what you deny yourself, so that mercy may give to charity what temperance withholds from self-satisfaction. What shall I say of that work of mercy wherein nothing is weighed out from the storerooms, nothing taken from the purse, but alms is given from the heart, alms which begins to be harmful if it is kept rather than bestowed? I speak now of anger against another held in the heart. For what is more foolish than to avoid one enemy outwardly, yet hold a much more dangerous one in the inner recesses of your heart? In this regard the Apostle says: Do not let the sun go down on your anger, to which he immediately adds: Do not give place to the devil,7 as if he meant that he who does not quickly drive anger from his mind furnishes through his anger, as through a door, an opening for the Devil. In the first place, then, man must see to it that the sun does not go down on his anger lest the sun of justice leave his mind. But, if anger has persisted in anyone’s heart up to the present, at least let it be routed by the approaching day of the Passion of our Lord, who, instead of being angry at His slayers, poured forth His prayers and His blood for them while He hung upon the wood of the cross.8 Therefore, if anger has held out with most shameful boldness in the heart of any one of you until these holy days, now at least let it depart,9 so that your prayer may proceed in peace and so that it may not stumble, tremble, or become mute under the pricking of conscience when it has come to that passage where it must say: Forgive us our debts, as we also forgive our debtors.10 You are about to ask that something may not be paid back to you and that something may be given to you. Then, forgive, and you shall be forgiven; give, and it shall be given to you.11 Even if I did not admonish you, my brethren, you ought to attend to these matters with constant consideration. But, since my sermon is helped, not only by the assistance of so many divine testimonies, but also by the celebration of this present day, I ought not to fear lest any one of you despise, not me, but the Lord of all in me. I ought, rather, to hope that His flock, recognizing what is said as His, will listen to Him with profit, since this flock, in turn, needs to be listened to by Him.
From The Fathers of the Church vol. 38: St. Augustine: Sermons on the Liturgical Seasons, (New York: Fathers of the Church, Inc.), 1959, pp. 92-95