'Take Up Your Cot'

Lent 2014: Readings from Augustine

How do we find the two precepts of love indicated in these two commands of the Lord? “Take up your cot,” he says, “and walk” (Jn 5:11). Recall with me, brothers and sisters, what those two precepts are. For they should be very well known to you and should not come to mind only when mentioned by us; they must never be erased from your hearts. Always consider that God and neighbor are to be loved, “God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind,” and “your neighbor as yourself.” These must always be thought about, meditated on, remembered, practiced, and fulfilled. Love of God is first in the order of precept, but love of neighbor is first in the order of practice. He who commanded this love in two precepts did not first commend your neighbor and then God, but God first and then your neighbor. You, however, because you do not yet see God, merit to see God by loving your neighbor. By loving your neighbor you purify your eye so that you can see God. John says it clearly: “If you do not love the brother whom you see, how will you be able to love the God whom you do not see” (1 Jn 4:20). So, you’re told, “Love God.” If you tell me, “Show me whom I am to love,” what shall I reply except what John himself says, “No one has ever seen God” (Jn 1:18) And so you won’t think that seeing God is completely foreign to you, he says, “God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God” (1 Jn 4:16). Love your neighbor, then, and see in yourself the source of your love of neighbor, and there you will see God as much as you can.

Begin, then, by loving your neighbor. “Break your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless into your home; if you see someone naked, clothe him, and do not despise the servants of your seed.” If you do these things, what do you obtain? “Then your light shall break forth like the morning light” (Is 58:7-8) Your light is your God; it is a morning light because it will come to you after the night of this world, for he neither rises nor sets because he abides forever. He set for you when you fell away; he will be a morning light for you when you return. So, “Take up your cot,” it seems to me, means “Love your neighbor.”

But it’s still not clear, and, I believe, needs explanation, why love of neighbor is proposed by taking up the cot; and we may even be offended that one’s neighbor is symbolized by a cot, a stupid and insensate thing. Let not your neighbor be angered that he is proposed to us by a thing without a soul and without a mind. Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ was said to be a cornerstone to build up two in himself (Eph 2:14-20). He was also called a rock from which water flowed out: “And that rock was Christ” (1 Cor 10:4) If Christ is called a rock, why is it surprising that one’s neighbor is called a piece of wood? But not just any kind of wood, just as that was not just any kind of rock from which water flowed for the thirsty and that was not just any stone, but the cornerstone which in itself joined two walls coming from different directions. So don’t take your neighbor to be just any kind of wood, but a wooden cot. But, I ask you, what is there in the cot except this, that when he was ill, he was carried by that cot, and when he was healed, he carried the cot. What does the Apostle say? “Bear one another’s burdens and so you will fulfill the law of Christ” (Gal 6:2). Now the law of Christ is love, and love is not fulfilled unless we bear one another’s burdens. “Supporting one another in charity,” he says, “careful to keep unity of spirit in the bond of peace” (Eph 4:2-3). When you were ill, your neighbor carried you; now that you are healed, carry your brother: “Bear one another’s burdens, and you will fulfill the law of Christ.” In this way, O man, you will accomplish what you lacked. “Take up your cot, then.”

But when you take it up, don’t stand there: “Walk.” By loving your neighbor, by caring for your neighbor, you set out on a journey, and where does that journey go if not toward the Lord your God, to him whom you must love with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind? We have not yet arrived at the Lord, but we have our neighbor with us. Bear him, then, with whom you are walking, so that you may arrive at him with whom you desire to abide. “Take up your cot, then, and walk.” (In Ioannem, Tr. 17, 8-9; PL 35, 1531-32)

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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