Memorial of Saint Monica

“And you say, ‘If one swears by the altar, it means nothing, but if one swears by the gift on the altar, one is obligated...” (Matthew 23:18.)

Origen of Alexandria (part 2 of Pope Benedict’s reflections on Origen) comments on this verse from the Gospel proclaimed at Mass today:

”Those who work in the fields of the gospel seek the hidden meaning of these passages of Scripture. We are not simply confiscating the higher parts of Scripture but rather looking toward its whole sense. As regards swearing, it is intended as a binding action, seeking to confirm the word concerning which something is sworn.

Consider this analogy. Think of the altar as the heart and the temple as the whole of Scripture. The temple of God’s glory, spiritually understood, is the divinely inspired Scripture. The gold refers to the meanings it conveys. To swear is to witness to the Scriptures, as a validation and confirmation of the word we speak. Therefore we ought to profess the whole sense of Scripture as a confirmation of the sense which we invoke in all of our words.

Gold found outside the temple is not sanctified. Rather, that gold which is found in the temple is the measure of that which is outside it. Similarly the meaning which is found outside of the Scriptures is not holy, but it is contained in the meaning of the Scriptures. Only that sense of Scripture is sanctified which can be seen from within the temple itself, that is, within the whole of Scripture. The temple, that is, the reading of the Scriptures, makes a great and venerable sense, just as consecrated gold is valuable. So we ought not to swear by our own intellects to confirm our beliefs, as if we were creating witnesses that could judge according to the truth. But let us explore further the analogy of the temple, the gold and the altar. The altar is the place where a vow is sanctified. The altar in this passage is the heart of a man. What happens in the heart happens deeply within a person. Vows and gifts placed on the altar are clearly those placed upon the human heart. When you begin to pray, you place the vow of your prayer upon your heart, as if you had placed something upon the altar, so that you might offer your prayer to God.

Suppose you are ready to place an offering of psalms upon your heart, so as to offer to God an offering of psalms, accompanying yourself with a harp. Or suppose you are ready to give alms. You make an offering of alms upon your heart, just as if you had placed something on the altar, as you would offer your alms to God. Suppose you have proposed to fast in order to make an offering of your fasting upon your heart, as if you had placed something upon the altar.

In this way the heart of a man makes vows in a holy and venerable way. It is from the heart, that is, the altar, that the vow is offered to God. Therefore it is not possible for the offering of a man to be more honorable than his heart from which the offering is sent up.” (Commentary on Matthew, 15)

O God, who console the sorrowful
and who mercifully accepted
the motherly tears of Saint Monica
for the conversion of her son Augustine,
grant us, through the intercession of them both,
that we may bitterly regret our sins
and find the grace of your pardon.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
Who lives and reigns with You
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Glory to the Father
and to the Son
and to the Holy Spirit:
as it was in the beginning,
is now, and will be forever. Amen