An Amazing Vignette from a Late Antique Church

One day as Augustine was about to preach on a Psalm—presumably Psalm 137 LXX, i.e., 138 in the numbering most of us are probably familiar with—a funny thing happened: the lector chanted the wrong Psalm. By mistake, he chanted Psalm 138 LXX/139. Augustine comments on this at the outset, and then proceeds to preach on Psalm 138 (139) anyway. How would you like to have been that lector?!?

In an suggestive comment on double agency, Augustine sees the divine will manifested in the man’s error, and takes it as a hint that he should preach on the text read instead of the one he had intended to treat. You might notice that Psalm 138 (139) is a lot longer than Psalm 137 (138). Augustine comments on this fact, and says, essentially, “Get comfortable. Do not be annoyed; this will be good for you.”

He then proceeds to connect his opening to the curse in the Garden, our labor for bread, the bread of the Word, the bread of Christ, and our eating of Christ the Word and Christ the Bread in our hearing of the Bible and its preaching.

For convenience (and it is incredibly convenient), the text is that found in Patrologia Latina 36 as housed on augustinus.it. A critical text is available in CCSL 40, edited by E. Dekkers and J. Fraipont.

Text and Translation

Psalmum nobis brevem paraveramus, quem mandaveramus cantari a Lectore; sed ad horam, quantum videtur, perturbatus, alterum pro altero legit. Maluimus nos in errore Lectoris sequi voluntatem Dei, quam nostram in nostro proposito. Si ergo vos in eius prolixitate aliquandiu tenuerimus, nobis non imputetis; sed credatis Deum nos non infructuose laborare voluisse. Neque enim frustra in primo peccato nostro poenam accepimus, ut in sudore vultus nostri panem manducemus. Tantum si panis est, attendite. Panis autem est, si Christus est: Ego sum, inquit, panis vivus qui de coelo descendi. Quem manifestatum habemus in Evangelio, ipsum quaeramus et in Prophetis. Hunc ibi non vident super quorum cor adhuc velamen positum est, unde audivit Caritas vestra hesterno die. Nobis autem quia sacrificium vespertinum crucis Domini conscidit velum, ut pateant iam templi secreta; quamdiu nobis Christus praedicatur, etsi cum labore et sudore, manducandus est panis.

I had prepared a short Psalm for us, which I had instructed the lector to chant. But he—suddenly out of sorts, as it seems—read a different one instead of the one appointed. I have preferred to follow the will of God in the error of the lector rather than my own will in what I had intended to preach on.

If, therefore, I keep you for a while due to its length, do not charge it to my account, but believe that God has willed us to labor not without fruit. For it was not in vain that, in the case of our first sin, we received it as our punishment that we should eat bread in the sweat of our face. Only pay attention to whether there is bread. But if there is bread, it is Christ: “I am,” he said, “the living bread who have come down from heaven.” The one whom we have manifested in the gospel, him let us seek also in the prophets. Those over whose heart the veil (about which your charity heard something yesterday) is still placed do not see him there. But in our case, because the evening sacrifice of the Lord’s cross has torn the veil, so that the secrets of the temple are now revealed—we, as long as Christ is preached to us, even if it is with labor and sweat, must eat the bread.

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