Document: Letter 41
Date: 388
Addressee: Marcellina
English Translation: FC 26.385-397
Summary of Contents: Explanation of the Callinicum synagogue situation

You condescended to write me saying that your Holiness was still anxious because I had written that I was anxious. I am surprised that you did not receive my letter in which I wrote that peace had flowed back upon me. For, when the report came that the synagogue of the Jews and an assembly place of the Valentinians had been burned at the instigation of a bishop, the order was made, while I was at Aquileia, for the bishop to rebuild the synagogue, and the monks who had burned the Valentinians’ building to be punished. Thus, when I accomplished nothing by frequent attempts, I wrote and sent a letter to the emperor, and when he came to church I delivered this sermon:

It is written in the book of the Prophet: “Take to thyself a rod of a nut tree,” so we must consider why the Lord said this to the Prophet, for it is not written without a purpose, since we also read in the Pentateuch that the nut tree of Aaron, the priest, blossomed after it had been laid away for a long while. By the rod he appears to point out that the prophetic or priestly power should be straightforward, so that it may counsel not what is pleasant but what is expedient.

Indeed, the Prophet is bidden to take a nut tree branch because the fruit of that aforesaid tree has a bitter rind and a hard shell, but a good fruit within; thus, in imitation of it, the Prophet also may utter bitter and hard sayings, and be unafraid to give voice to harsh teaching. The priest, too, may do the same, because his teaching, bitter though it may seem to some persons for a while and long laid away in the ears of hypocrites, yet, after a time, when it seems to have dried up, it blossoms forth like Aaron’s rod.

Therefore the Apostle says: “What is your wish? Shall I come to you with a rod, or in love, and in the spirit of meekness?” He first mentioned the rod and, as it were, struck with the nut-tree rod those going astray, so that he might comfort them later in the spirit of meekness. Thus did meekness restore one whom the rod had deprived of the heavenly sacraments. He also gave similar commands to his disciple, saying: “Reprove, entreat, rebuke.” Two of these are harsh, one is mild; but they are harsh only that they may soften, as persons, suffering from an excess of gall, find the bitterness of food or drink sweet, and, on the other hand, sweet foods bitter; thus, when the soul is wounded, it grows worse under the warmth of pleasurable flattery, and is again put in order by the bitterness of correction.

These thoughts may be gathered from the reading of the Prophet. Let us also consider what is contained in the reading of the Gospel: “One of the Pharisees asked the Lord Jesus to dine with him; so he went into the house of the Pharisee, and reclined at table. And behold, a woman in the town, who was a sinner, upon learning that Jesus was at table in the Pharisee’s house, brought an alabaster jar of ointment; and standing behind him at his feet, she began to bathe his feet with her tears.” And then I read on to the words: “Your faith has saved you; go in peace.” How simple, I went on to say, in words, how deep in meaning is the reading of the Gospel! Therefore, since they are the words of the great Counselor, let us consider their depth.

Our Lord Jesus Christ decided that men could be bound and won over to what is right more readily by love than by fear, and that love does more for correction than does fear. And so when He came, born of a virgin, He sent ahead His grace to forgive sin in baptism in order to make us more pleasing to Himself. Then, if we repay Him by services befitting grateful men, He declared in this woman that there shall be to all men the reward of grace itself. If He had forgiven only our first debts, He would have seemed more cautious than generous, more intent on our correction than magnanimous in His reward. It is only the cunning of a narrow mind which tries to entice, but it is fitting that God lead on with an increase of His grace those whom He has invited by grace. So He first bestows on us a gift in baptism, and later He is most generous with His gifts to those who serve Him well. These benefits of Christ, therefore, are both incentives and rewards of virtue.

Let no one be surprised if we use the word ‘creditor.’ We were formerly under a harsh creditor who could not be satisfied or fully paid except by the death of the debtor. The Lord Jesus came; He saw us bound by a heavy debt. No one could pay his debt with his inheritance of innocence; I was able to take nothing of mine with which to free myself; He gave me a new kind of acquittal, enabling me to get another creditor, because I had not the means of discharging my debt. Yet, not nature, but sin, had made us debtors; by our sins we contracted heavy debts so that we who were free became bound, for a debtor is one who uses any of a creditor’s money. Sin is from the Devil. That wicked one, as it were, has these treasures among his possessions, for as Christ’s riches are virtues, so the Devil’s possessions are crimes. He had reduced the human race to everlasting captivity under a heavy debt of inherited liability, which our forefather, being under debt, had transmitted by legacy to his posterity. The Lord Jesus came; He offered His death for the death of all; He poured out His blood for the blood of everyone.

We, then, have changed our creditor; we have not entirely escaped, or, rather, we have escaped, but the debt remains, while the interest is canceled, the Lord Jesus saying: “To them that are bound: Come forth. And to them that are in prison: Go forth,” for your sins have been forgiven. He has forgiven all and there is no one whom He has not set free. For it is written that He forgave “all your sins, canceling the decree against us.” Why, then, do we hold decrees of others and wish to make exactions of others, while we enjoy our own freedom? He who forgave all required of all that each forgive others, remembering his own forgiveness.

See to it that you do not get into a worse state as creditor than you did as debtor, like the man in the Gospel whose master forgave his whole debt, but who began later to demand of his fellow servant what he had not paid, so that the master in anger exacted from him with great severity what he had forgiven him before. Let us beware of this happening to us, that by not forgiving what is owed to us we be held responsible for what we owe, for it is written in the words of the Lord Jesus: “So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if you do not each forgive your brothers from your hearts.” Let us who have been forgiven much forgive a little, and let us realize that we will be more acceptable to God the more we forgive, for we are more pleasing to God the more we have been forgiven.

Then, when the Pharisee was asked by the Lord: “Which of them loved him more?” He answered: “He, I suppose, to whom he forgave more.” And the Lord replied: “You have judged rightly.”

The Pharisee’s judgment is praised, but his affection is disapproved. He judges well of others, but he does not believe what he thinks of others. You hear a Jew praise the Church’s discipline, proclaim its true grace, honor the Church’s priests; you ask him to believe, but he refuses, so that what he praises in us he himself does not follow. It was not ample praise he heard from Christ: “You have judged rightly,” for Cain also made his offerings rightly, but did not divide rightly, and so God said to him: “If you offer rightly, but do not divide rightly, you have sinned, be still.” In like manner this man offered rightly, because he judged that Christ ought to be more loved by Christians, for He forgave us many sins, but he did not divide rightly, because he thought that the One who forgave men their sins could be ignorant of men’s sins.

Therefore He says to Simon: “Do you see this woman? I came into your house; you gave me no water for my feet; but she has bathed my feet with tears.” We are all the one body of Christ, whose head is God, whose members we are; some perhaps are the eyes, like the Prophets; others, teeth, as the Apostles who passed the food of the Gospel teaching into our hearts, and so it is written: “His eyes are bright with wine, his teeth whiter than milk.” His hands are those who are seen carrying out good works. Those who bestow the strength of nourishment upon the poor are His belly. Some are His feet, and would that I were worthy to be His heel! He pours water on the feet of Christ who forgives the lowly their sins, and, in setting free the common man, he bathes the feet of Christ.

He pours water on Christ’s feet who cleanses his conscience from the filth of sin, for Christ walks in the hearts of each and every one. Beware of having a soiled conscience and beginning to defile the feet of Christ. Beware of His stumbling on a thorn of wickedness in you, for this would hurt His heel as He walks in you. This is why the Pharisee poured no water on Christ’s feet, because he had not a soul free from the filth of unbelief. And how could he wash his conscience if he had not received the water of Christ? But the Church has this water and the Church has tears, the water of baptism, the tears of penance. Faith which weeps over former sins bewares of sinning anew. Therefore, Simon the Pharisee, who had no water, had, of course, no tears. How could he have tears if he did not do penance, for, not believing in Christ, he had no tears? If he had had them, he would have bathed his eyes so that he could see Christ whom he did not see although he was at table with Him. If he had seen Him, surely he would never have doubted His power.

The Pharisee had no hair, since he could not recognize the Nazarite, but the Church has it, for she sought the Nazarite. Hairs are considered among the superfluities of the body, but, if they are anointed, they give forth a good perfume and are an ornament to the head; if they are not anointed with oil, they are a burden. Thus riches are a burden if you do not know how to use them, if you do not sprinkle them with the perfume of Christ. But if you feed the poor, and wash their wounds, and cleanse their filth, you have indeed wiped the feet of Christ.

“You gave me no kiss, but she, from the moment she entered, has not ceased to kiss my feet.” A kiss is a mark of love. How, then, can a Jew have a kiss, who has not known peace, who has not received peace from Christ when He said: “My peace I give you, my peace I leave unto you.” The synagogue has no kiss, but the Church has, for she waited and loved and said: “Let him kiss me with the kiss of his mouth.” She wished with His kiss to quench gradually the burning of the long desire which had grown with longing for the Lord’s coming; she wished to satisfy her thirst with this boon. Therefore, the holy Prophet says: “You will open my mouth, and it shall declare thy praise. One who praises the Lord Jesus gives Him a kiss; one who praises surely believes. David himself says: “I trusted, even when I spoke,” and above: “Let my mouth be full of your praise, and let me sing your glory.”

The same Scripture teaches you of the infusion of special grace, how he gives a kiss to Christ who receives the Spirit, the holy Prophet saying: “I opened my mouth, and drew in the Spirit.” He kisses Christ who confesses Him: “For with the heart a man believes unto justice, and with the mouth profession is made unto salvation.” He truly kisses Christ’s feet who, in reading the Gospel, recognizes the acts of the Lord Jesus and admires them with holy affection, and so with a reverent kiss, as it were, he caresses the footprints of the Lord as He walks. We kiss Christ, therefore, in the kiss of Communion: “Let him who reads understand.”

How could a Jew have this kiss? For he who did not believe in His coming did not believe in His passion. How does he believe that He suffered whom he did not believe to have come? The Pharisee, therefore, had no kiss except perhaps that of the traitor Judas. But even Judas did not have a kiss, and when he wished to show the Jews the promised kiss as a sign of betrayal the Lord says to him: “Judas, dost thou betray the Son of Man with a kiss?” That is, you are offering Me a kiss, and you do not have the love of a kiss; you offer a kiss, and you know not the mystery of a kiss. It is not the kiss of the lips which is sought, but of the heart and soul.

But you say: He kissed the Lord. Yes, he kissed with his lips. This kiss the Jewish people have, and so it is written: “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me.” Therefore, one who has not faith and love has not a kiss, for with a kiss the strength of love is impressed. Where there is not love, there is not faith, there is not tenderness, and what sweetness of kisses can there be?

But the Church does not cease to kiss Christ’s feet, and demands not one but many kisses in the Canticle of Canticles, since like blessed Mary she listens to His every saying, she receives His every word, when the Gospel or the Prophets are read, and she keeps all these words in her heart. The Church alone has kisses, like a bride, for a kiss is a pledge of nuptials and the privilege of wedlock. How could a Jew have kisses, since he does not believe in the Bridegroom? How could a Jew have kisses, if he still does not know that the Bridegroom has come?

He has not only no kisses, but neither does he have oil to anoint Christ’s feet, 30 for if he had had oil, he would have, before now, softened his own neck. Therefore, Moses says: “For it is a stiff-necked people,” and the Lord says that the Levite and the priest passed by and neither of them poured oil or wine into the wounds of the man beaten by robbers, for they had nothing to pour, but, if they had had oil, they would have poured it into their own wounds. But Isaiah declares: “They cannot apply ointment nor oil nor bandage.”

But the Church has oil with which she dresses her children’s wounds lest the severity of the wound work deep within. She has oil which she received secretly. With this oil Aser washed his feet, as it is written: “A blessed son is Aser, and he shall be acceptable to his brethren, and shall dip his foot in oil.” With this oil the Church anoints the necks of her children so that they may take the yoke of Christ; with this oil she anointed the martyrs so that they might wipe off the dust of this world; with this oil she anointed confessors lest they give way to toil, succumb, being weary, or be overcome by the heat of this world. Therefore did she anoint them so that she might cool them with the oil of the Spirit.

The synagogue has not this oil, for it has not the olive, not having known that dove which carried an olive branch after the flood. That dove descended later when Christ was being baptized, and it remained over Him, as John testifies in the Gospel, saying: “I beheld the Spirit descending as a dove from heaven, and it abode upon him.” How did he see the dove who did not see Him over whom the Spirit descended as a dove?

The Church, therefore, washes the feet of Christ and wipes them with her hair and anoints them with oil and pours ointment upon them, since not only does she care for the wounded and fondle the weary, but she also bedews them with the sweet perfume of grace. And she pours this grace not only on the rich and powerful, but also on men of lowly birth. She weighs all in an equal balance; she receives all into the same bosom; she fondles all in the same embrace. Christ died once; He was buried once; nevertheless, He wishes ointment poured upon His feet each day. What feet of Christ are they that we pour ointment upon? They are the feet of Christ of whom He Himself says: “What you have done for one of the least of these, you have done to me.” These feet the woman in the Gospel refreshes, these she bedews with her tears, when sin is forgiven the lowest of men, guilt washed away, and pardon granted. These feet he kisses who loves even the least of God’s people. These feet he anoints with ointment who imparts the favor of his gentleness to those who are more frail. In these the martyrs, in these the Apostles, in these the Lord Jesus Himself declares He is honored.

You see how virtuous the Lord is, that He urges you to piety through His own example, for He is virtuous even when He offers reproof. Accusing the Jews, He says: “O my people, what have I done to thee or in what have I grieved you or in what have I molested you? Answer me. For I brought you out of the land of Egypt and I delivered you out of the house of servitude.” And He adds: “And I sent before your face Moses and Aaron and Mary.” Bear in mind what Balac plotted against you, that is, the one seeking the help of magical art; but still I did not permit him to harm you. As an exile in a foreign country, you were overwhelmed and hard pressed with burdensome trials; I sent before your face Moses and Aaron and Mary, and he, who had robbed the exile, was himself first robbed. You who had lost your possessions gained those of others, being freed from the enemy who walled you in, and safely you saw the destruction of your enemies amid the waves, while the same water which surrounded and carried you forward flowed back and drowned the enemy. When you needed food, as you came through the desert, did I not provide a rain of food and provisions in abundance wherever you went? Did I not bring you, after subduing all your enemies, into the country of the Botrys? Did I not deliver to you Sehon, King of the Amorrhites (that is, the proud, the king of those who provoke you), and did I not hand over to you the King of Hai alive, whom you, because of an ancient curse, fixed to the wood and hung upon a cross?” Why should I mention the slaughter of the troops of the five kings who endeavored to keep the land they owed you? And in return for all this, O man, what do I ask but that you do judgment and justice, and love mercy, and be prepared to walk with the Lord your God.

What was His reproach through the Prophet Nathan to King David himself, that pious and gentle man? I chose you, He said, the youngest of your brethren; I filled you with the spirit of meekness; I anointed you king through Samuel in whom I and My name dwelt; I removed that former king whom an evil spirit induced to persecute the Lord’s priests, and from an exile I made you a conqueror. I raised up to your throne one of your seed, not an heir as much as partner; I made the strange nations subject to you, to serve you, whereas they had been your attackers. Will you draw those who serve Me into the power of My enemies? And will you take away what belonged to a servant of Mine, and thereby be branded with sin, and will you give Myadversaries an occasion to boast?

Therefore, O Emperor for I will speak not only about you, but to you since you observe how seriously the Lord is wont to censure, take thought, now that you have become glorious, to submit all the more to your Maker. For it is written: “Say not when the Lord your God has brought you into another’s land and you have eaten another’s fruit: ‘My virtue and my justice gave this to me, but the Lord God bestowed it, but Christ in His mercy brought it.’” Thus, in loving this body, that is, the Church, bring water for His feet, and kiss His feet, not only pardoning those who have become enmeshed in sin, but by your peace giving them concord and putting them at peace. Pour ointment on His feet, that the whole house wherein Christ reclines at table may be filled with the odor of your ointment, that all at table with Him may be pleased with your perfume; in other words, pay honor to the least [of men]. Thus, angels may be gladdened by the forgiveness of these, as over one sinner doing penance; the Apostles may rejoice, the Prophets may delight! The eyes cannot say to the hand: “We do not need your help”; nor, again, the head to the feet: “I have no need of you.” But, because all are needed, guard the whole body of the Lord Jesus, that He also by His heavenly condescension may preserve your kingdom.

When I came down from the pulpit, he [the emperor] said to me: “You spoke about me.” I answered: “I preached what is intended to benefit you.” Then he said: “I really made too harsh a decision about the bishop’s repairing the synagogue. The monks do many outrageous things.” Then Timosius, general of the cavalry and infantry, began being abusive about the monks. I answered him: “I am dealing with the emperor, as is fitting, for I know that he fears the Lord; but one must deal otherwise with you, for you speak so rudely.”

Then, when I had stood for some time, I said to the emperor: “Let me confidently sacrifice in your behalf; set my mind at rest.” When he continued sitting and nodding, and made no promise openly, and I remained standing, he said he would correct the edict. I immediately went on to say that he should end the whole investigation, so that the count would not harm the Christians in any way on the pretext of an investigation. He promised. I said to him: “I am acting on your promise,” and I repeated: “I am acting on your promise.” “Go ahead,” he said, “on my promise.” So I went to the altar, but I would not have done so if he had not fully promised. Indeed, so great was the grace of the offering that I myself felt that the favor had been very pleasing to our God, and that we were in the presence of God. Thus, all was done as I wished.

Translation from FC 26.385-397, adapted by SMT

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