How hard it is, even for Christ, to break a habit

For St. Augustine the miracles of Jesus point beyond themselves, that is, as for the Fourth Evangelist, they are "signs," and that is why Augustine never dwells on their wondrous aspect--less wondrous, he thought, than the daily wonders of God's works in nature--but looks for what they have to say about the Christian life. The three raisings of the dead in the Gospels thus become symbolic of the three ways in which souls can die and the three ways in which Christ has the power to restore those souls to life. Here is a portion of the symbolic significance he found in the resurrection of Lazarus:

People who do what is evil entangle themselves in an evil habit to the point that it does not allow them to see that it is evil, and they become defenders of their evil deeds and angry when criticized.... Weighed down by such wicked habits, its as if they were buried. What should I say, brothers and sisters? Theyre so buried that one could say of them what was said of Lazarus, "He stinks by now." That stone laid against Lazarus tomb is the hard power of habit by which a soul is crushed and cant rise or breathe again.But Martha said: "He is now four days." And indeed a soul comes to that habit of which I am speaking in four stages. The first isa pleasurable tickling in the heart; the second is consent to it; the third is the act itself; and the fourth is the habit. There are some people who when they encounter unlawful things so dismiss them from their thoughts that they take no delight in them. There are some who experience the pleasure but do not consent to it; their death is not yet complete but in a way has begun. When consent is added to the pleasure, that is already damnation. Then from consent one goes to the act, the act becomes a habit, and one has reason to despair, as it is said: "He is four days. He stinks by now." Then came the Lord, and although all things were easy to him, he displayed some difficulty for your sake. He groaned in his spirit, and his loud voice showed what rebuke is necessary for people whom habit has hardened. But at the voice of the shouting Lord, the chains of compulsion were broken. (Augustine, Sermon 98, 5; PL 38, 594)

A little note: a friend of mine told me yesterday that as a girl she loved this Gospel account because of Martha's response when Jesus orders the stone removed from the tomb: "Lord, by this time he stinketh, for he is now of four days" (Jn 11:39). This was back in the days when you didn't use the word "stink" in polite company, a prudishness one might think still exists. The NAB translation used in our churches yesterday has: "Lord, by now there will be a stench".... I wonder how memorable that will prove tobe.

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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