John 5:1-15; Homily of St Augustine, Bishop
Let us see what is mystically signified by that one infirm man whom the Lord himself, keeping to a mysterious unity, chose out of so many sufferers to be the subject of his healing power.
He found in him a certain number of years indicative of sickness. He had had an infirmity thirty-eight years. How this number pertains rather to weakness than to health, must be somewhat more carefully expounded.
I wish you to be attentive: the Lord will be at hand to help us, that I may speak in fitting words, and that you may listen well.
The number 40 in Holy Scripture
The number forty is commended to our notice as one consecrated by a kind of perfection: this, I suppose, is well known to you, beloved; the Holy Scriptures very often bear witness of it.
You are well aware that fasting was consecrated by this number. For Moses fasted forty days, and Elia the same; and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself fulfilled this number by fasting.
By Moses is signified the law; by Elia is signified the Prophets; by the Lord is signified the Gospel. And therefore, all three appeared on that mountain, where he showed himself to his disciples in the brightness of his countenance and raiment: for he appeared in the middle, between Moses and Elia, even as the Gospel receives testimony from the Law and the Prophets.
The Gospel, the Law, and the Prophets
And, therefore, whether it be in the Law, or in the Prophets, or in the Gospel, the number forty is brought to our notice in the matter of fasting.
Now, fasting, in its large and general import, is to abstain from sin and the unlawful pleasures of the world, and this is the perfect fast: That, denying ungodliness and worldly desires, we should live soberly and justly, and godly in this world.
What reward does the Apostle attach to his fast? He goes on to say: “Looking for the blessed hope and glorious coming of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ.”
The 40 days abstinence in Lent
In this world, therefore, we celebrate, as it were, the forty days’ abstinence, when we live aright, when we abstain from sin and unlawful pleasures; but since this abstinence will not be without reward, we look for that blessed hope and revelation of the glory of the great God and our Saviour Jesus Christ. In that hope, when the reality of the hope shall have come to pass, we are to receive our wages, a denarius. the wages paid to the labourers working in the vineyard, according to the Gospel, as I believe you remember; for one must not repeat everything, as if to persons ignorant and inexperienced. This denarius, then, which takes its name from the number ten, is paid, and this joined with the forty makes up fifty; and so it is that before Easter we keep the forty days of Lent with hardships; but with joy, as though having received our wages, do we keep the fifty days after Easter.
Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart…
Remember what I proposed: the number thirty-eight of the years of this weakened man. I wish to explain how this number thirty-eight belongs rather to weakness than to health.
Therefore, as I was saying, charity fulfils the Law: the number forty belongs to the completing of the Law in all works.
But in charity there are two commandments commended to us: “Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with thy whole heart, with thy whole soul, and with thy whole mind” and “thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.” On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets. With good reason did that widow place, in the offerings of God, two mites – all she had; with good reason did the innkeeper receive two pieces of money for the sick man who had been wounded by robbers, that he might restore him to health; with good reason did Jesus spend two days among the Samaritans, that he might confirm them in charity. For by this number two, since it signifies something good, the two-fold duty of charity is especially commended. If then, in the number forty is contained the perfection of the Law, and the Law cannot be fulfilled but by the twofold precept of charity, why do you wonder that this man was sick, who was short of forty by two years?
R. The season of the fast has opened to us the gates of heaven; let us enter it with prayer and supplication, * That on the day of the resurrection we may rejoice with the Lord. V. In all things let us conduct ourselves as ministers of God in much patience.
Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be. World without end.
– From: An Approved English Translation of the Breviarium Romanum, Burns & Oates, London, 1964