Augustine on Lawrence… or maybe not…

St. Augustine of Hippo preached various sermons on St. Lawrence. Here is one the bishop preached in about the year 401.  It might not be quite what you expected, however!  It sure wasn’t what Augustine himself expected, you can bet on that.

Put yourself in the cathedral of Carthage on a bright morning. Bishops and emissaries are gathering from all over a great council to be held in a couple weeks. You perhaps came to see the interesting people from near and far. You are standing in the nave of the basilica and the light streams through the upper story alabaster windows in dusty shafts. Incense is still wafting from the presbyterium. It is August in N. Africa and it is blazing hot already in the morning. It is clear that Augustine, a very junior bishop in the crowd, had had no intention of preaching, but you watch as the primate of Carthage Bishop Aurelius and bishops of the North African delegation pressure him into saying something in the presence of the representatives from Rome who are there for the upcoming meeting.

Augustine reluctantly takes his seat in a chair in the center takes the scroll of the Scriptures in his lap and begins (s. 305A).

1. Because the audience is getting bored and restless, the sermon was supposed to have been cancelled [subtrahendus fuit]; but out of respect for the martyr, it has to be given. So with the Lord’s help it will be so timed that it is neither burdensome, not yet cut too short to do justice to the subject. In Rome today has dawned as one of the greatest feasts there, which is celebrated by a great concourse of the people; we are uniting ourselves to our brothers and sisters there in one body, under one head, absent indeed in body, but still present in spirit. After all, it’s not only where the tomb of his body is, that the memory of his merits is celebrated. Devotion is owed to him everywhere; his flesh is laid in one place, but his spirit is triumphant with the one who is everywhere.


The blessed Lawrence was, as we have been informed, a youth in body, but a man gravity in spirit; the greener his age, the more unfading was the victor’s wreath that commended him so much to our devotion. Well, he was a deacon, subordinate to the bishop in rank, equal to an apostle in his crown. [And with that brief comment on Lawrence, Augustine spends the next ten paragraphs talking about everything except Lawrence!] Now this kind of festival of al the glorious martyrs has been instituted in the Church so that those who didn’t see them suffering may be led by faith to imitate them, and may be reminded of them by the festival. It’s probable, you see, that what wasn’t repeated by an annual commemoration would escape people’s minds altogether. And we can’t have fervent celebrations of all the martyrs everywhere, because then not day would pass without them; I mean, you could scarcely find a single day in the whole course of the year, on which some martyrs were not somewhere rewarded with the victor’s crown. But if fervent celebrations were a continuous event, they would induce boredom; while intervals between them renew our loving interest. For our part, let us simply listen to what we have been commanded, attend to what we have been promised. On the festivals of any martyrs you like, let us prepare our hearts to celebrate them in such a way that we do not cut ourselves off from imitating them.

At this point Augustine launches himself into to an extended and rambling talk about the different ways people celebrate and never says another word about Lawrence! He seems to be taking a few swipes at the Roman delegation there too. Then he talks about St. Cyprian of Carthage, who is far more interesting for the natives anyway, and then takes some shots at their overdoing the feast of St. Cyprian.

This is one of those sermons that Augustine, who is feeling a little testy and put upon, just doesn’t seem to be able to bring to a close easily. This often happens when people who don’t really want to speak are put in a position of having to say something anyway. And his swift writing stenographers were there and caught every word for us.

About Fr. John Zuhlsdorf

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