The Feast of St. Augustine of Hippo falls on August 28. In his Sermon 34, Augustine observes: “There is not one who does not love something, but the question is, what to love?” Augustine did not examine whether people loved but what they chose to love. He added, “The Psalms do not tell us not to love, but to choose the object of our love.”
Not every object is equally worthy of our love. People who hate, for example, are really only lovers of themselves. Augustine maintained that the fundamental division within mankind is not between those who love and those who do not, but between the objects of their love. All that exists deserves our love, but in its own proper manner and capacity and not merely according to our own self-constructed, artificially imposed order.
Augustine articulated another, still more mysterious aspect of love that reveals the very heart of our human condition: “But how can we choose [to love], unless we are first chosen? We cannot love unless someone has loved us first.” How profound is this almost casual remark from a Sunday sermon! Love is first and foremost a gift, our response to its reality, to what is. We do not make reality. We receive it. Were Augustine alive today, he would identify the major causes of our civilization’s disorders with our basic failure to see that love is essentially a gift.
Like all expressions of love, our way of worship is also a gift. “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten son” for us to behold and adore. The early Christian writer St. Justin Martyr wrote in his Apology in about 150 A.D., “No one may share the Eucharist with us unless he believes that what we teach is true, unless he is washed in the regenerating waters of baptism for the remission of his sins, and unless he lives in accordance with the principles given us by Christ.”
There ought to be a correspondence between what we hold and what we do, especially concerning divine things. Why would anyone want to receive Holy Communion if he does not first believe that it is the body of Christ? Why would we want to receive Communion if our lives do not conform to the way Christ has asked us to live, loving the objects He desires us to love? The public act of going to communion is an implicit announcement that in our hearts, insofar as we know, all is well with us; we are not making up our own rules or creating our own reality.
Why does Justin require that in eating “this food which we call the Eucharist,” we “believe” something about it, so that there should be a correspondence with our inner thought and our outer action? The most obvious answer is that if the Eucharist is the body and blood, soul and divinity of Christ, we would be mocking the reality before us if we announced, as we received Him, that we did not accept Him.
Justin remarks, “The Apostles, in their recollections, which are called Gospels, handed down to us what Jesus commanded them to do.” It is the essence of Catholicism to maintain that this “essence” is also handed down to us in the same Eucharist and baptism, faith and repentance. “We do not consume the Eucharistic bread and wine as if it were ordinary food and drink,” Justin continued, “for we have been taught that Jesus Christ our Savior became a man of flesh and blood by the power of the Word of God.”
Some unbelievers who receive Communion at Mass may just want to be polite. Surely, they may think, it can do no harm to believe one thing in my soul but imply another by my action. Actions and words, however, are meant to correspond. “Make sure that your life does not contradict your words,” Augustine tells his congregation. “Live good lives, and you yourselves will be His praise.”
In 1947, at the University of Tubingen in Germany, Romano Guardini gave a lecture prophetically titled “The End of the Modern World,” in which he said, “Modern anxiety…arises from man’s deep-seated consciousness that he lacks either a ‘real’ or a symbolic place in reality.”
For Justin and Augustine, our anxiety should not concern whether we have a real or symbolic place in reality. We have both. For them, the true source of anxiety should be that we can receive the Eucharist unworthily, and we can love the beautiful things of creation in the wrong way.
The question is: What do we love? Why are we first loved? Do our deeds and our thoughts correspond not to our own desires but to what is? Do they freely assent to what is revealed to us as our proper Eucharist, our proper thanksgiving?