Augustine on Christmas 4: The Word finds a voice

It is of some comfort to a preacher today to discover that St. Augustine also repeated himself in the various Christmas homilies that have survived. One of the favorite tropes is that the one who rules the stars sucked at his mothers breasts. Another one is various reflections on the Word who becomes speechless, where he plays upon the two meanings of the Latin noun infans, which first means one incapable of speech and then refers to a child in that state. He began Sermon 185 with this sentence: Natalis Domini dicitur, quando Dei Sapientia se demonstravit infantem, et Dei Verbum sine verbis vocem carnis emisit (Sermon 185, 1): "We call the Lords birthday the day when Gods Wisdom showed itself (1) as incapable of speech, or (2) as a child, and Gods Word without words uttered a voice of flesh." The second part is translated very literally. Other versions Ive seen render it: "and Gods Word expressed itself in a human voice without words." But I incline to the more literal version because as Edmund Hill points out, there are places in which Augustine seems to be saying that the humanity of Jesus was the voice that the Word of God assumed in order to communicate with us human beings. In more than one sermon he draws an analogy: Just as the inner word of ones understanding remains entire in oneself even when communicated to others, so the eternal Word of God remains with the Father even when expressed in the voice of his humanity. If there is a reminiscence of that here, then the second clause could be translated: "and Gods wordless Word uttered the voice of his flesh," that is, the voice that was his flesh, his human existence.In any case, here is another variation Augustine played on the theme:"What praise of the love of God we should express! What thanks we should give! He loved us so that he through whom all time was made for our sakes came to be in time; he who in his eternity is older than the world became younger in age than many of his servants; he who made man became man; he was created from a mother he created; he was carried by hands he shaped, sucked breasts he filled, and the Word without which human eloquence is dumb squalled in a manger, dumb, unable to speak [in praesepi muta vagiret infantia Verbum , sine quo muta est humana eloquentia]."See what God became for your sake; learn the lesson of such great lowliness, learn it even from a teacher not yet able to speak. Once, in paradise, you were so fluent that you gave names to every living thing (Gen 2:19-20); but for your sake your Creator lay speechless, unable even to call his mother by her name. In that broad estate of fruitful trees you lost yourself by failing to obey; he obediently came as a mortal into a very narrow lodge in order by dying to seek you who had died. Although you were man, you wished to be God, and you were lost; he, although he was God, wished to become a man so that he might find what was lost. So deeply did human haughtiness press you down that only divine lowliness could raise you up. [Tantum te pressit humana superbia, ut te non posset nisi humilitas sublevare divina.]" (Ps. 188, 2-3; PL 38, 1004)

Rev. Joseph A. Komonchak, professor emeritus of the School of Theology and Religious Studies at the Catholic University of America, is a retired priest of the Archdiocese of New York.

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