Excerpts from an Ash Wednesday Sermon by St. Lawrence of Brindisi, O.F.M.Cap., Doctor of the Church
When you fast do not look gloomy like the hypocrites. They put on long faces, etc.
Today Christ, the divine artist, molds and fashions a spiritual man, a theological man, the inner self
, as Paul calls him. Physical man consists of body and soul. Metaphysical man is defined by genus and species. Christian man is composed of nature and grace. In his treatise on man today, Christ speaks not as a physical or metaphysical philosopher, but as a theologian and moral philosopher. A man is born natural and physical. In baptism he becomes supernatural and theological.
Moses spoke of the formation of the natural and physical man when he wrote that man is made up of body and soul, flesh and spirit, just as this world is also composed of heaven and earth, the corporeal and spiritual, visible and invisible substances and natures: The Lord God formed man out of the clay of the ground, and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and so man became a living being
. God formed his body and breathed into him his soul, and so man consists of body and soul. Without a body man would be an angel. Without a rational soul, he would be a brute animal.
Christ, the creator of this spiritual and mystic world which we call the Church, also requires both corporeal and spiritual virtues for the formation of this spiritual and theological man. The corporeal virtue is fasting. The spiritual virtues are humility: so that you may not appear to be fasting
; faith: except to your Father who is hidden
; hope: and your Father who sees what is hidden will repay you
; love: where your treasure is, there will your heart be
; nobility of spirit: Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth... but store up treasure in heaven
; spiritual strength and purity of conscience: wash your face
; the spiritual unction of the Holy Spirit: anoint your head
For this reason, the Lord compared the Church to a vineyard rather than to that paradise where our first parents were placed. In paradise there was no labor or sweat required to bear the day's burden and the heat
. There was also no need, then, to tame the flesh or mortify the body, because the flesh was obedient to the spirit like a humble handmaid to her mistress, like Hagar to Sarah before she conceived Ishmael. But now the flesh is in revolt, like Hagar after she had conceived Ishmael. She no longer wanted to obey her mistress and instead despised her and coveted Sarah's place as mistress. Sarah, consequently, began to abuse her to maintain her own status.
Man then was like a well ordered city, a well trained army. He was a perfectly tuned musical instrument; he was like the finest clock. But sin threw everything into disarray. In paradise man held the middle ground between the animals and the angels, like the dawn between the night and the day; like the sky with its perfectly ordered movements between earth's elements and the empyrean. All man's actions had a happy outcome, whether they were the natural activities of the body or the more angelic and divine activities of the spirit. Man might truly have been called an angel in the flesh. He was like the finest knight, second to none in equestrian skills, mounted on a superbly trained horse obedient to the slightest tug of bridle and bit, like Alexander the Great astride his celebrated steed, Bucephalus.
But sin threw everything into confusion. Man when he prospers forfeits intelligence. He is compared to senseless beasts and becomes like them
, transformed into a beast like King Nebuchadnezzar. The natural person does not accept what pertains to the spirit of God
. Then human nature was like blessed soil which yielded its fruits for man without any labor on his part. Now the land is cursed because of sin. It sprouts forth thorns and thistles and only with great effort and sweat does it yield the necessities of life. The vine needs careful pruning now, and needs to have a trench dug around it that is filled with fertilizer in due season, or it will not bear fruit.
Today the Lord asks us to be prudent people, as Paul says, who do not continue in ignorance but try to understand what is the will of the Lord, to discern what is the will of God, what is good and pleasing and perfect
. He wants to see us endowed with keen and right judgment, with neither a perverted nor inverted sense of values, lest we become like those who call evil good, and good evil, who change darkness into light, and light into darkness, who change bitter into sweet, and sweet into bitter
. The Lord seeks a people undefiled by vices, but endowed and adorned with virtues. Lives there such a man who does not want others to think and speak well of him, who is not upset by some evil mark or remark levied against him? Even criminals detained in prison constantly profess their innocence and want others to concur in their opinion. They know that once their innocence is discounted, they have nothing to look forward to except continued incarceration or the galley of a slave ship. God desires us to be truly rich, truly noble, endowed with a lofty spirit and generous heart so that we will spurn the worthless goods of earth and strive only for those of heaven.
(Source: from "Lenten Sermons, Volume I in Opera Omnia, Collected Sermons and Homilies of St. Lawrence of Brindisi." Translated from the Latin by Vernon Wagner, O.F.M.Cap., and available for purchase online at: www.mediahousedelhi.com)