SERMONS TO THE PEOPLE: ADVENT, CHRISTMAS, NEW YEAR's, EPHIPHANY by Augustine of Hippo Translated by William Griffin Doubleday/Image, 2002 231 pages, $13.95
There's no place like Hippo for the holidays. Especially when it's the turn of the fifth century and you've gotten yourself over to the cathedral early enough to score a good spot for the bishop's Mass. I'm telling you, that guy can flat-out preach.
Fast-forward 16 centuries. Many familiar with St. Augustine know him from his greatest written works, The Confessions and The City of God. Both are bedrocks in the Western literary canon, fussed over by students not only of literature, but also of history, philosophy and theology. But how many of us, his fawning fans included, know what it was like to have your ears tickled by the very voice of Christendom's greatest genius?
William Griffin thinks he has a pretty good idea. And he does a fine and fun job of putting his insights across in these translations of Augustine's Christmas-season sermons.
This is Augustine like you've never read him. Glib, pointed, playful, colloquial, streetwise: He'll say whatever needs to be said to get you to let the facts of Christ's coming open your mind, penetrate your heart and change your life. And, true to form, for all his crafty rhetorical flourishes, he doesn't speak a word or even think a thought that can't be directly traced to Scripture. We already knew that about the bishop of Hippo, but we haven't seen it relayed in quite this way before.
“Let's recognize this day for what it is, my dear Brothers and Sisters,” Griffin's Augustine says of Christmas. “From this point onward in human history, the nights grew shorter, the days longer.” John 1:9, anyone?
Just as Augustine was a dexterous and innovative interpreter of the Word of God, ever intent on making the Bible accessible to the widest possible swath of humanity, so Griffin shows himself a witty and creative interpreter of the words of Augustine. In fact, so breezy is the sermonizing here that many turns of phrase beg the question: At what point does Augustine leave off and Griffin pick up?
The latter drops some helpful clues. The largest single section of Griffin's informative and entertaining foreword is an apologia for his use of the paraphrasal method of translation, rather than the literal, in turning ancient Latin into contemporary English. It's an approach that allows him to present Augustine as he might sound were he alive today.
Naturally, it also permits plenty of leeway for artistic indulgence. “Neither [men nor women] should give the Creator the finger,” Griffin has the saint saying, “for that horrible trick he played on them in the Garden.”
The bishop of Hippo may well have been similarly jarring in person. But would he have used so low-brow an expression — in a homily? I'm not sure, but I'm giving Griffin a pass on that passage and several others in the same vein because, on the whole, Augustine in this brusque, thoroughly modern voice is so arresting and thought-provoking. There are worse ways to get good theology. And I've seen no better way to absorb Augustine for Advent.
“The angel delivered the message,” we read. “Kindly the Virgin listened to it. Against her better judgment she believed it. The conception took place. Faith in her soul. Christ in her womb. And that's all there was to it. … What storyteller — the great Isaiah included — could do justice to a birth like that?” If Augustine wasn't up to the job, neither is William Griffin. But what a joy their combined efforts are to read — make that hear — as Christmastide comes this year.
David Pearson is the Register's features editor.