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Home > Fathers of the Church > Tractates on the Gospel of John (Augustine) > Tractate 57

Tractate 57 (John 13:6-10, SONG OF SOLOMON 5:2-3)

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In what way the Church should fear to defile her feet, while proceeding on her way to Christ.

1. I Have not been unmindful of my debt, and acknowledge that the time of payment has now come. May He give me wherewith to pay, as He gave me cause to incur the debt. For He has given me the love, of which it is said, Owe no man anything, but to love one another. Romans 13:8 May He give also the word, which I feel myself owing to those I love. I put off your expectations till now for this reason, that I might explain as I could how it is we come to Christ along the ground, when we are commanded rather to seek the things which are above, not the things which are upon the earth. Colossians 3:1-2 For Christ is sitting above, at the right hand of the Father: but He is assuredly here also; and for that reason said also to Saul, as he was raging on the earth, Why do you persecute me? Acts 9:4 But the topic on which we were speaking, and which led to our entering on this inquiry, was our Lord's washing His disciples' feet, after the disciples themselves had already been washed, and needed not, save to wash their feet. And we there saw it to be understood that a man is indeed wholly washed in baptism; but while thereafter he lives in this present world, and with the feet of his human passions treads on this earth, that is, in his life-intercourse with others, he contracts enough to call forth the prayer, Forgive us our debts. Matthew 6:12 And thus from these also is he cleansed by Him who washed His disciples' feet, and ceases not to make intercession for us. Romans 8:34 And here occurred the words of the Church in the Song of Songs, when she says, I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? when she wished to go and open to that Being, fairer in form than the sons of men, who had come to her and knocked, and asked her to open to Him. This gave rise to a question, which we were unwilling to compress into the narrow limits of the time, and therefore deferred till now, in what sense the Church, when on her way to Christ, may be afraid of defiling her feet, which she had washed in the baptism of Christ.

2. For thus she speaks: I sleep, but my heart wakes: it is the voice of my Beloved that knocks at the gate. And then He also says: Open to me, my sister, my nearest, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is filled with dew, and my hair with the drops of the night. And she replies: I have put off my dress; how shall I put it on? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? Song of Songs 5:2-3 O wonderful sacramental symbol! O lofty mystery! Does she, then, fear to defile her feet in coming to Him who washed the feet of His disciples? Her fear is genuine; for it is along the earth she has to come to Him, who is still on earth, because refusing to leave His own who are stationed here. Is it not He that says, Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world? Matthew 28:20 Is it not He that says, You shall see the heavens opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending upon the Son of man? If they ascend to Him because He is above, how do they descend to Him, but because He is also here? Therefore says the Church: I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? She says so even in the case of those who, purified from all dross, can say: I desire to depart, and to be with Christ; nevertheless to abide in the flesh is more needful for you. Philippians 1:23-24 She says it in those who preach Christ, and open to Him the door, that He may dwell by faith in the hearts of men. Ephesians 3:17 In such she says it, when they deliberate whether to undertake such a ministry, for which they do not consider themselves qualified, so as to discharge it blamelessly, and so as not, after preaching to others, themselves to become castaways. 1 Corinthians 9:27 For it is safer to hear than to preach the truth: for in the hearing, humility is preserved; but when it is preached, it is scarcely possible for any man to hinder the entrance of some small measure of boasting, whereby the feet at least are defiled.

3. Therefore, as the Apostle James says, Let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak. James 1:19 As it is also said by another man of God, You will make me to hear joy and gladness; and the bones You have humbled will rejoice. This is what I said: When the truth is heard, humility is preserved. And another says: But the friend of the bridegroom stands and hears him, and rejoices greatly because of the bridegroom's voice. Let us rejoice in the hearing that comes from the noiseless speaking of the truth within us. For although, when the sound is outwardly uttered, as by one that reads; or proclaims, or preaches, or disputes, or commands, or comforts, or exhorts, or even by one that sings or accompanies his voice on an instrument, those who do so may fear to defile their feet, when they aim at pleasing men with the secretly active desire of human applause. Yet the one who hears such with a willing and pious mind, has no room for self-gratulation in the labors of others; and with no self-inflation, but with the joy of humility, rejoices because of the Master's words of truth. Accordingly, in those who hear with willingness and humility, and spend a tranquil life in sweet and wholesome studies, the holy Church will take delight, and may say, I sleep, and my heart wakes. And what is this, I sleep, and my heart wakes, but just I sit down quietly to listen? My leisure is not laid out in nourishing slothfulness, but in acquiring wisdom. I sleep, and my heart wakes. I am still, and see that You are the Lord: for the wisdom of the scribe comes by opportunity of leisure; and he that has little business shall become wise. Sirach 38:24 I sleep, and my heart wakes: I rest from troublesome business, and my mind turns its attention to divine concerns (or communications).

4. But while the Church finds delightful repose in those who thus sweetly and humbly sit at her feet, here is one who knocks, and says: What I tell you in darkness, that speak ye in light; and what ye hear in the ear, that preach ye upon the house-tops. Matthew 10:27 It is His voice, then, that knocks at the gate, and says: Open to me, my sister, my neighbor, my dove, my perfect one; for my head is filled with dew, and my locks with the drops of the night. As if He had said, You are at leisure, and the door is closed against me: you are caring for the leisure of the few, and through abounding iniquity the love of many is waxing cold. Matthew 24:12 The night He speaks of is iniquity: but His dew and drops are those who wax cold and fall away, and make the head of Christ to wax cold, that is, the love of God to fail. For the head of Christ is God. 1 Corinthians 11:3 But they are borne on His locks, that is, their presence is tolerated in the visible sacraments; while their senses never take hold of the internal realities. He knocks, therefore, to shake off this quiet from His inactive saints, and cries, Open to me, thou who, through my blood, has become my sister; through my drawing near, my neighbor; through my Spirit, my dove; through my word which you have fully learned in your leisure, my perfect one: open to me, go and preach me to others. For how shall I get in to those who have shut their door against me, without some one to open? And how shall they hear without a preacher? Romans 10:14

5. Hence it happens that those who love to devote their leisure to good studies, and shrink from encountering the troubles of toilsome labors, as feeling themselves unsuited to undertake and discharge such services with credit, would prefer, were it possible, to have the holy apostles and ancient preachers of the truth again raised up against that abounding of iniquity which has so reduced the warmth of Christian love. But in regard to those who have already left the body, and put off the garment of the flesh (for they are not utterly parted), the Church replies, I have put off my dress; how shall I put it on? That dress shall, indeed, yet be recovered; and in the persons of those who have meanwhile laid it aside, shall the Church again put on the garment of flesh: only not now, when the cold are needing to be warmed; but then, when the dead shall rise again. Realizing, then, her present difficulty through the scarcity of preachers, and remembering those members of her own who were so sound in word and holy in character, but are now disunited from their bodies, the Church says in her sorrow, I have put off my dress; how shall I put it on? How can those members of mine, who had such surpassing power, through their preaching, to open the door to Christ, now return to the bodies which they have laid aside?

6. And then, turning again to those who preach, and gather in and govern the congregations of His people, and so open as they can to Christ, but are afraid, amid the difficulties of such work, of falling into sin, she says, I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? For whosoever offends not in word, the same is a perfect man. And who, then, is perfect? Who is there that offends not amid such an abounding of iniquity, and such a freezing of charity? I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? At times I read and hear: My brethren, be not many masters, seeing that you shall receive the greater condemnation: for in many things we offend all. James 3:1-2 I have washed my feet; how shall I defile them? But see, I rise and open. Christ, wash them. Forgive us our debts, because our love is not altogether extinguished: for we also forgive our debtors. Matthew 6:12 When we listen to You, the bones which have been humbled rejoice with You in the heavenly places. But when we preach You, we have to tread the ground in order to open to You: and then, if we are blameworthy, we are troubled; if we are commended, we become inflated. Wash our feet, that were formerly cleansed, but have again been defiled in our walking through the earth to open unto You. Let this be enough today, beloved. But in whatever we have happened to offend, by saying otherwise than we ought, or have been unduly elated by your commendations, entreat that our feet may be washed, and may your prayers find acceptance with God.

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Source. Translated by John Gibb. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1888.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. <>.

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