28 August 2021

Homily - Saint Augustine on Saint Joseph

The Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo

Dear brothers and sisters,

As we celebrate today this Solemnity of Saint Augustine of Hippo, Bishop and Doctor of the Church, we find ourselves still in the midst of the Year of Saint Joseph. This is a year Pope Francis proclaimed, he said, “to increase our love for this great saint, to encourage us to implore his intercession and to imitate his virtues and his zeal.”[1] With this in mind, I thought it might be good this year to have a look at what our heavenly patron has to say about the one we call Protector of the Holy Church.

Alexandre Cabanel
Detail, Saint Augustine in His Study, 1845

AI do so, in part, taking the lead of the Holy Father. He concluded his Apostolic Letter proclaiming the Year of Saint with a quote from Saint Augustine, who asked, “What they could do, can you not also do?[2] What is it Saint Augustine saw in Saint Joseph that we can also do?

During Saint Augustine’s lifetime, there were some who took offense that the genealogy of Jesus was given not through Mary, but through Joseph. The reason they were offended is because, as we know, Joseph is not the natural father of Jesus, as if this somehow made him less of a father to the Son of God. But Saint Augustine would have nothing to do with this line of thinking; instead, he launched into a staunch defense of Saint Joseph.

While some laughed at Joseph for having been betrothed to a woman who appeared to be an adulteress, Saint Augustine saw Joseph’s response to the news of Mary’s pregnancy as a mark of his virtue. Augustine said:

He [Joseph] is upset as a husband, of course, but as a just man he does not fall into a rage. This man is credited with such a keen sense of justice, that he would neither agree to have an adulteress as his wife, nor venture to punish her by publicizing the matter. He “wished,” it says, “to break off the engagement quietly;” he was unwilling not only to punish her, but even to put her to shame.[3]

In Joseph’s intentions, there is much to learn for our society, which is so eager to shame others and to publicize one another’s private sins. Against this temptation, Saint Augustine teaches us that “those sins … are to be rebuked in front of everybody which are committed in front of everybody,” but “those which are committed less publicly are to be rebuked less publicly. Distinguish between the occasions, and scripture is at peace with itself.”[4] Joseph, then, teaches us to be just, humble, and gentle.

Before saying anything more here, we have to point out that Joseph was incorrect in his initial assessment of the situation. As the angel would reveal to him, Mary had not committed adultery but remained faithful to Joseph; she did not conceive through another man, bur through the Holy Spirit. Reflecting on this revelation, Saint Augustine said, “So while he [Joseph] was made uneasy by human weakness, he was reassured by divine authority.”[5] In effect, he reminds us that we should trust in God more than we trust in our own assessments.

From this observation, Saint Augustine returned to the argument of his opponents who claimed it was not right that the genealogy of Jesus be traced through Joseph.

Augustine pointed out it was this same divine authority who, through the angel, called Joseph the husband of Mary (cf. Matthew 1:20-21). Moreover, Joseph was commanded “to give the child a name, even though it was not born of his own seed,” which Augustine sees as proof that Joseph “is not deprived of his paternal authority.”[6]

Just in case these arguments are not enough for someone to stop questioning the role of Joseph as father to Jesus, Saint Augustine also notes that “the Virgin Mary herself, perfectly aware that she had not conceived Christ by Joseph’s conjugal embrace, still calls him Christ’s father” when she and Joseph found him in the Temple (cf. Luke 2:48).[7] To those who argue that Jesus denied being Joseph’s son when he asked them, “Did you not know I had to be about my Father’s business?,” Augustine points out that Saint Luke tells us Jesus “was obedient to them,” not just to Mary, but to Joseph, as well (Luke 2:51).

As if to crown his argument about the fittingness of tracing the genealogy of Jesus through Joseph and not through Mary, Saint Augustine turns his attention to marriage. He says, “So we can’t say that Joseph wasn’t a father, just because he never slept with the mother of the Lord – as though it were lust that made someone into a wife, and not married love.”[8] Augustine goes on from this argument to say that “a man can have two fathers, one who begot him from his seed, the other who adopted him out of love.”[9] Here Augustine highlights the importance of love within a family.

For each of these reasons, Saint Augustine says

It shouldn’t bother us that the ancestry of Christ is reckoned through Joseph and not through Mary; it’s because, just as she was a mother without carnal desire, so he was a father without carnal intercourse… We should allow that his greater purity confirms his fatherhood, or we might find ourselves rebuked by Saint Mary herself.[10]

Jesus, says Saint Augustine, “was born of the Virgin Mary, to the piety and love of Joseph” and so he is rightly called the father of Jesus.[11]

As we celebrate this Solemnity of our great patron, let us ask Saint Augustine to teach us how to imitate Saint Joseph with him and to implore his intercession. May he teach us to be just, humble, and gentle, to trust in God, and to establish our families on the foundation of love. Amen.

[1] Pope Francis, Patris corde, 7.

[2] Saint Augustine of Hippo, Confessions, VIII.11.27.

[3] Ibid., Sermon 51.9.

[4] Ibid., 82.10.

[5] Ibid., 51.9.

[6] Ibid., 51.16.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Ibid., 51.21.

[9] Ibid., 51.27.

[10] Ibid., 51.30.

[11] Ibid.

22 August 2021

Homily - On the subordinance of marriage

 The Twenty-first Sunday in Ordinary Time (B)

 Dear brothers and sisters,

We have heard for the past several weeks of Jesus’ desire to give himself completely for us, to the point of offering himself on the Cross for our salvation and of giving himself to us as our true food and drink (cf. John 6:1-69). Today, he asks us, “Does this shock you” (John 6:61)?

No doubt there are many today who are indeed shocked at so great a love. In an age of ever-increasing self-absorption and of strident, independent individualism, so self-less a love seems unfathomable. Yet this love is true; it is real. Jesus did - and does - love us with a love greater than we can comprehend. Yet some doubt such a love and others do not desire to be loved so intimately. At what point in this spectrum do we fall? Today, many people’s ability to accept the love of Jesus is related to their upbringing, to the manner in which they received love in their families.

Saint Paul realized this profound relationship between marriage and God’s own love. This is why he said, “This is a great mystery, but I speak in reference to Christ and the Church” (Ephesians 5:32). The portion of his letter to the Ephesians which we have just heard finds little support in society today. For this reason, many marriages have failed because spouses have not rooted their love for each other in the love of Jesus Christ; they have not measured their love according to God’s way of loving.

We strive for independence because of our fallen and sinful condition and long for what we call freedom, but which – in reality - is really mere license. When we attain what we seek we do not find ourselves, but rather slaves to our own desires and passions. Saint Paul shows us the way out of this vicious cycle of self-enslavement and opens for us the path to authentic freedom.

“Follow the way of love,” he says earlier in the same letter, “even as Christ loved you. He gave himself for us” (Ephesians 5:2). Who would say that Jesus was not free? Indeed, he was – and is - freer than any one of us has ever been. It is true that he was obedient to the Father even to the point of death, but it is equally true that he freely chose obedience. His was the obedience not of enslavement, but of love; it is this obedience of love that Saint Paul urges wives to live when he says, “Wives should be subordinate to their husbands as to the Lord” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before we grow angry with Saint Paul and think him a bigot, we must remember what he writes just before this so-called controversial statement: “Be subordinate to one another out of reverence for Christ,” words he addresses to everyone (Ephesians5:21). As Christ loved us, so we are to love one another. Because wives are to love their husbands as they would love Christ, they should be subordinate to them “because the husband is head of his wife just as Christ is head of his body the church” (Ephesians 5:22).

Before saying anything further, we must consider what it means to be “subordinate” to someone.

The Greek verb is hypotasso, which means literally ‘to place or arrange under.’ Here it occurs in the middle voice (hypotassomai) with the meaning ‘to place oneself under,’ or more simply, ‘submit oneself to’ or ‘defer to.’ It is clear from the context that voluntary subordination is intended, like the other voluntary expression of Spirit-filled life mentioned [by Paul].[1]

This voluntary act of deferring to one another is placed by Saint Paul in the context of “reverence for Christ.”

The truly unusual nature of this instruction is that Paul tells his readers to submit themselves to one another, still addressing all the members of the community. At first this seems contradictory. How can two individuals place themselves ‘under’ each other? … The meaning of this unusual instruction becomes clearer in the light of similar texts that teach about relationships in the church… Reciprocal humility and love determine even the relationship that entail authority… Undoubtedly, behind this teaching stands Jesus’ own teaching about leadership as service (Luke22:25-27), which was demonstrated and explained when he washed the feet of his disciples (John 13:13-15), foreshadowing his humbling himself for our sake on the cross.[2]

Here we see clearly that “God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.” [3]

The head of the body always looks to the good of the body, to its health, safety, and satisfaction. This is how Christ cares for his Bride, the Church; this is how husbands are to care for their wives. What is more, Saint Paul says, “Husbands, love your wives, even as Christ loved the Church and handed himself over for her to sanctify her” (Ephesians 5:25). Every husband, then, must be filled with so selfless a love for his wife that he is ready and willing to lay down even his very life for her. “While on rare occasions dying for one’s wife may be literally necessary, [Paul] means it in the everyday sense of husbands dying to self by prioritizing their wives’ needs and wants before their own. Essentially, Paul is saying, ‘Husbands, seek the good of your wives regardless of the cost to you.”[4] If a husband loves his wife in this way, there is no difficulty in deferring to him. Again, we see clearly that God’s way of loving becomes the measure of human love.

Certainly, to live in this way is no simple task and for this reason, in his goodness, Christ the Lord has raised marriage to the dignity of a Sacrament and has bestowed his grace upon it to enable husbands and wives to live in such a way that the love of Christ for the Church is reflected in their marriage.

Christ’s grace is not an external addition to human nature, it does not do violence to men and women but sets them free and restores them, precisely by raising them above their own limitations. And just as the Incarnation of the Son of God reveals its true meaning in the Cross, so genuine human love is self-giving and cannot exist if it seeks to detach itself from the Cross.[5]

We can say, then, that the love of husband and wife is in some way a Eucharistic love, a love that must imitate the selfless and self-giving love of Jesus Christ. Husbands and wives must give themselves to each other completely, just as Jesus gives himself completely for us. When a husband cares more about himself than his wife, a marriage begins to fail. When a wife cares more about herself than her husband, a marriage begins to fail. This, too, is a hard saying and one largely rejected by our society, to great harm for all.

It is only by following the way of love, it is only by deferring to one another out of reverence for Christ, that we find true freedom; it is only by imitating the self-giving love of Jesus that we find everything we seek in life. May the Lord, then, lead us deeper and deeper into the mystery of his love until our love perfectly reflects his own, until the measure of our love is the measure of his love. Amen.

[1] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Academic, 2009), 155-156.

[2] Ibid., 156-157.

[3] Pope Benedict XVI, Deus caritas est, 11.

[4] Peter S. Williamson, Catholic Commentary on Sacred Scripture: Ephesians, 166.

[5] Pope Benedict XVI, Address to Participants in the Diocesan Convention of Rome, 6 June 2005.