Thoughts from the Early Church

Commentary by Augustine

It was written that the Christ would suffer
and the third day rise from the dead. (Lk 24:46)

Christ rose from the tomb with his wounds healed, though their scars remained. He knew it would be good for his disciples if he retained the scars, for those scars would heal the wound in their hearts.

What wound do I mean? The wound of disbelief; for even when he appeared before their eyes and showed them his true body, they still took him for a disembodied spirit. So he showed himself to his disciples.

When we say “himself,” what precisely do we mean? We mean Christ as head of his Church.

He foresaw the Church extending throughout the world, a vision his disciples could not yet share. However, in showing them the head, he was promising them the body too.

What, in fact, were his next words to them?

“All these things I told you while I was still among you,” meaning: I still had to face death when I was among you as a mortal among mortals. But now I no longer live among you as before; never again shall I have to die as mortals do. What I was telling you, then, was that everything that had been written about me had to be fulfilled.

Then he opened their minds to understand the meaning of it all, explaining to them that, “it had been decreed that Christ should suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” 

But all this they had themselves seen: with their own eyes they had seen him suffer, seen him hanging on the cross, and now, after his resurrection, they could see him standing before them alive. What, then can it have been that they were still incapable of seeing?

It was his body, the Church.

Him they could see well enough, but the Church not at all. The bridegroom they could see, but the bride was still hidden from them. Nevertheless, he promised her to them. “Thus it is written: Christ must suffer and on the third day rise from the dead.” 

So much for the bridegroom, but what of the bride? "In his name repentance must be preached to every nation on earth for the forgiveness of sins, beginning at Jerusalem."

This is what the disciples had not yet seen: they had no vision yet of the Church spreading from Jerusalem over the whole world. But they could see the head before them, and when he spoke to them of the body, they believed him.

Now we too find ourselves in a situation not unlike theirs: we can see something which was not visible to them, while they could see something not visible to us. We can see the Church extending throughout the world today, something that was withheld from them, but Christ, who in his human body was perceptible to them, cannot be seen by us. 

And just as they, seeing his human flesh, were enabled to believe in his mystical body, so now we, seeing his mystical body, should be able to believe in the head. Just as the sight of the risen Christ helped the disciples to believe in the Church that was to follow, so the spectacle of that same Church helps to confirm our faith in the resurrection of Christ. 

The faith of the disciples was made complete, and so is ours: theirs by the sight of the head, ours by the sight of the body. But to them and to us alike the whole Christ is revealed, though neither to them nor to us has it yet been granted to see him in his entirety.

For while they could see the head alone with their physical eyes and the body only with the eyes of faith, we can see only the body and have to take the head on trust. Nevertheless, Christ is absent from no one; he is wholly present in all of us, even though he still waits for his body to be completed.

Sermon 116, 1.5-6: PL 38, 657-60

Augustine (354-430) was born at Thagaste in Africa and received a Christian education, although he was not baptized until 387. In 391 he was ordained priest and in 395 he became coadjutor bishop to Valerius of Hippo, whom he succeeded in 396. Augustine’s theology was formulated in the course of his struggle with three heresies: Manichaeism, Donatism, and Pelagianism. His writings are voluminous and his influence on subsequent theology immense. He molded the thought of the Middle Ages down to the thirteenth century. Yet he was above all a pastor and a great spiritual writer.

 

**From Saint Louis University

Kristin Clauson