A Patristic Medley

(For Father John Connelly, theologian and pastor, on the Seventieth Anniversary of his Ordination to the priesthood of Jesus Christ)


St. Irenaeus (130-202), Bishop of Lyons during the last quarter of the 2nd Century, is often said to be the Church’s first systematic theologian. In the Fourth Book of his magnum opus, Adversus Haereses (“Against the Heresies”), he expresses a conviction that lies at the heart of the Church’s faith, yesterday and today: “Christ brought all newness by bringing himself” – omnem novitatem attulit semetipsum afferens. And he adds, as an inseparable corollary: newness has dawned “to renew and give life to humankind” – innovatura et vivificatura hominem.

I am persuaded that the witness of the New Testament is governed by this “logic” of newness and transformation. The absolute newness of Jesus Christ, the New Adam, bears, as its consequence, the radical newness of life to which disciples of Christ are called. To state the conviction in another way: “newness/transformation” is the very “grammar” of the New Testament, which its diverse assertions but illustrate.

St. Irenaeus

The perennial importance of the early Fathers of the Church lies in their profound realization of this surpassing grace. In language redolent with the freshness of discovery, they draw upon this grammar in works both exacting and lyrical, intellectual and affective. They do so in closely argued treatises and soaring poetry. They thereby belie any facile separation, much less disjunction, between the “doctrinal” and “pastoral.” Their homilies are infused with doctrine and their essays spurred by pastoral concern. For the newness is Jesus Christ, and the new life is life in Christ.

I offer here some examples of their Spirit-inspired realization and proclamation of this newness.

The incomparable St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430), preaching to his North African congregation on Christ’s giving of a “new commandment,” asks where this newness lies? And he responds: it is to love as Christ has loved. “Love one another, as I have loved you.” Christ’s love is the newness to which every page of the New Testament bears witness. And it is inseparable from the “I” of Christ himself who is God’s Love made flesh.

St. Augustine

In a splendid homily on the psalm, “Sing to the Lord a new song,” Augustine reminds his listeners: “We are urged to sing a new song to the Lord as new men and women who have learned a new song.” Expounding the meaning of “new song,” he riffs a set of variations on the theme of “new.” “A song is a thing of joy; more profoundly, it is a thing of love. Anyone, therefore, who has learned to love the new life has learned to sing a new song, and the new song reminds us of our new life. The new man, the new song, the new covenant, all belong to the one kingdom of God, and so the new man will sing a new song and will belong to the new covenant.”

One of Augustine’s most striking insights into the Gospel’s newness is that the New Adam is inseparably Christ and Christians. His term for this is “totus Christus,” the Whole Christ, Head and Members. The insight is, of course, Pauline, but Augustine applies this to the Church’s praying the psalms. They are the prayer of the Whole Christ, at times the dominant voice is the Head’s, at other times members take the lead. But it’s always the whole Chorus singing, with Christ the Chorus Master, who guarantees proper rhythm and harmony.

St. Leo

Pope St. Leo the Great (400-461), a generation later, will echo many Augustinian themes, in his sermons on the liturgical seasons, though in a more modulated Roman style. His constant refrain is etiam hodie – “today as well!” Christ’s mysteries are not consigned to the past; they are actual in the today of faith, in the members of his Body.

Leo exults: “all that the Son of God did and taught for the world’s reconciliation is not for us simply a matter of past history. Here and now we experience his power at work among us.” Through baptism and Eucharist, Christians participate in the new transformed life brought by Christ:

The leaven of our former malice is thrown out, and a new creature is filled and inebriated with the Lord himself. For the effect of our sharing in the body and blood of Christ is to change us into what we receive. As we have died with him, and have been buried and raised to life with him, so we bear him within us, both in body and in spirit, in everything we do.

Leo often entreated his hearers: “Christian man and woman, recognize your great dignity!”

One theological-pastoral exploration of that dignity is found in a wonderful homily of the Bishop of Ravenna, St. Peter Chrysologus (380-450). Though less well known than Augustine or Leo, Peter has the charism of concreteness and depth.

St. Peter Chrysologus

Commenting on Paul’s exhortation to “offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (Rom 12:1), Chrysologus rhapsodizes. “How marvelous is the priesthood of the Christian, for he is both the victim that is offered on his own behalf, and the priest who makes the offering.” Christ alone establishes the pattern by instituting the new covenant. But he thereby constitutes Christian men and women as members of a priestly people, called to follow in Christ’s paschal Way.

Thus Peter can admonish his congregation: “Let your heart be an altar. Then, with full confidence in God, present your body for sacrifice. God desires not death, but faith; God thirsts not for blood, but for self-surrender; God is appeased not by slaughter, but by the offering of your free will.”

The above is but a sampling of the rich variations the Fathers played upon the cantus firmus of newness and transformation in Christ. And an invitation to read further. They urge their first hearers, and us their latter-day readers, to compose our own variations on the inexhaustible Good News, the mystery that is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col 1:27), as we are being transformed “from glory to glory.” (2 Cor 3:18)

Robert P. Imbelli, a priest of the Archdiocese of New York, is the author of Rekindling the Christic Imagination: Theological Meditations on the New Evangelization (Liturgical Press).