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The Lenten Cross

{ Tags: , \ Feb27 }

In Augustine’s Sermon 205, the great bishop of Hippo offers us some thoughts on the cross of Lent. The Sermon is an explanation of how during the season of Lent what Christians are already doing throughout the year is intensified.

The cross, Augustine says, is the place where the Christian should be throughout his life, if he is not to sink into the quagmire of the world. To drive this idea home, he uses a series of scriptural passages.

The first is from Gal. 5:24. "Those who belong to Christ have crucified their flesh with its passions and desires." This passage comes in the context where Paul exhorts the Galatians to cultivate the fruits of the Spirit instead of that of the flesh (Gal. 5:16-23). Augustine quotes this passage after saying that during the season of Lent, Christians shold make a cross "out of the curbing of the passions of the flesh." In other words, the mark of the cross that is placed on the forehead of the Christian at the beginning of the season must be the characteristic of the Christian during the whole of his/her life, as one whose flesh has been nailed by the commandments of justice on the cross.

The idea just mentioned is based on a rendering of Psalm 119:120: "Let my flesh be transfixed by nails by the fear of You" (LXX). The Hebrew text is marked to read: "My flesh bristles up by the fear of you." (In Filipino, ‘Nangingilabot ang aking laman dala ng takot sa Iyo‘). I say "marked" because the consonants when left alone can alone can also be rendered as the LXX had, by a verb which means "to nail".

The image of the Christian whose flesh has been nailed by the commandments of to the cross, recalls Christ’s sacrifice on Good Friday. It is this idea which allows Augustine to associate the nailing of the flesh to the "sacrifice" mentioned in Romans 12:1: "Present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God." It is through the cross then, that one’s life becomes an oblation to God, and so with St. Paul, one glories in the cross

of our Lord Jesus Christ through which the world has been crucified to me and I to the world. (Gal. 6:14)

Finally, Augustine explains that as Moses, Elijah and the Lord himself fasted for forty days, so too the Christian must fast throughout his life so as "to ensure that we aren’t conformed to the world and don’t cling to it", but instead, we live with our "old self crucified."

The allussion is to Romans 6:6 where Paul explains the Christian’s baptism as his union with the dying and rising to life of Christ.

We know that our old self has been crucified with him so that the body of sin might be done away with, that we should no longer be slaves to sin (because anyone who has died has been freed from sin). (Rom. 6:6-7)

In this way, Augustine connects the cross of Lent to the mystery of the Christian’s baptismal life which requires him to put on the Lord Jesus Christ

Let us behave decently as in the day time
not in orgies or in drunkenness
not in sexual immorality and debauchery
not in dissension and jealousy.
Rather, put on the Lord Jesus Christ
and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the flesh. (Rom. 13:13-14)

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