The Paschal Triduum is the center of Christian time. It runs from the evening of Holy Thursday to sundown on Easter Sunday. For millennia Christians have ordered their whole lives around this summit of faith—but this year, our way to Calvary is strewn with obstacles of social distance. It’s as though we have entered a time akin to Narnia under spell, where it is always Lent and never Easter.
Yet it is precisely in this exile that we must find our way to Calvary this year. We may be weary pilgrims, spiritually gaunt for so much sacramental fasting, but we are still pilgrims who must press our lips to the Cross. We cannot enter into the Paschal Triduum through Skype or Zoom. So what are we to do, we poor banished children of pandemic?
St. Thomas Aquinas gives us a hint: “the reality of the sacrament can be had through the very desire of receiving the sacrament.” He makes a distinction here between the signum and the res—the sacrament and the reality that the sacrament communicates. It is a distinction that goes back to St. Augustine.
Augustine’s own pilgrimage toward Easter is blissfully free of technology. Yet his road was also strewn with obstacles blocking the way to the sanctuary. As readers of his Confessions will know, the obstacles in his way were interior ones rooted in ignorance and will. He struggled to free himself from Manichaean errors. He also struggled, as a Platonist, to ascend to the source and summit of reality itself. He confesses that in every attempt to transcend his own mind through Platonic contemplation of the One, he found himself tumbling down like Icarus into this vale of tears. Augustine is anguished that however much he wills it, he cannot simply attach himself to God.
Inspired by a vision of Lady Continence and the sound of children’s voices singing “tolle lege,” Augustine sits weeping before the res of Jesus Christ as he reads the signum of St. Paul’s Letter to the Romans: “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh with the gratification of your desires” (Confessions 8.29). This is the biblical hinge upon which Augustine’s journey to Easter depends. He sees, in an instant, that only God can move us. We cannot unite ourselves to the supreme reality. He discovers that Platonic ascent fails because it lacks the proper means of attachment. Augustine suddenly sees that Jesus Christ is both God and our only way to God—and suddenly he also longs for the sacraments of this reality.
We often treat Augustine’s “conversion” in the Milanese garden as the end of the story. I suspect there are modern reasons for that. It isn’t a sacramental moment, and it doesn’t happen in a church. It happens in the walled garden of a home. Yet it is in that walled garden that he begins his journey to Easter. And he continues that journey not in a church, but in a country house in Cassiciacum—about 30 miles northeast of Milan, and due east of Como in the Lombardy Lake District—to escape “the hurly-burly of the world” and to rest in God.
For six months, Augustine locked himself away in this country house. There were no computers, no phones, no Amazon deliveries. His son Adeodatus and his mother Monica perhaps shared a room. His friend Alypius, and his cousins and pupils, might have taken walks. There were scholastic disputations (several of which you can still read), but in the main there was silence and prayer—the prayers of catechumens who longed not only for the sacraments, but for the reality of the sacraments.
Augustine tells us that he found something in this retreat. He writes that he made a sacrifice of tears in the “inner chamber” of his heart—and that upon this inner altar, he found “joy in my heart.” The reality of Easter was dawning. As for many Catholics right now, the Eucharist wasn’t yet accessible to him, yet he nevertheless says that he tasted upon this inner altar of the heart “a different wheat and wine and oil” (9.9).
In A.D. 387, on the evening of April 24, Augustine, Alypius, Adeodatus, and the others were baptized at the Easter Vigil by Bishop Ambrose in a wide octagonal font. The water was exorcised and blessed by the bishop. Augustine descended the steps into the cathedral baptistry. “Put on the Lord Jesus Christ.” Those words must have rung like midnight church bells in the temple of Augustine’s memory. Ambrose baptized him in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
“And so we were baptized, and all our dread about our earlier lives dropped away from us. I could not get enough of the wonderful sweetness that filled me,” Augustine later wrote. He immediately received first communion. He was intensely moved by the beauty of the liturgy, and by sacred music—most likely clerical choirs singing Ambrosian chant. “Those voices flooded my ears, and the truth was distilled into my heart until it overflowed” (9.6.14). He delights in “the fragrance” of it all—“I once gasped for you, but now at last I breathed your fragrance”—enveloped by the graces flowing freely to him (9.16).
Augustine might agree in theory with Aquinas—that “the reality of the sacrament can be had through the very desire of receiving the sacrament”—but in his white baptismal garments, Augustine is enraptured by the liturgical magnificence of Easter at the cathedral in Milan. Many Christians now have this same longing, and many now weep that they cannot enter into the sanctuaries this Easter. It is a fair lament. We can weep over what we have had to sacrifice for social distancing. Yet there is one more turn in Augustine’s Confessions that may help us make our way to Easter.
He takes us far away from the smells and bells of Ambrosian liturgy to “Ostia on the Tiber.” It’s just him and his mother: “we were alone, conferring very intimately.” In paintings of the scene, Augustine and Monica are often shown looking out to sea. They confer intimately about what “the eternal life of the saints would be like” (9.24). Augustine draws the reader into their vision. Unlike the Platonic ascents of his pagan past, it is communal rather than solitary, and it is not followed by disappointment. Augustine and Monica make a mystical ascent—he tells us they touch the “eternal Wisdom who abides above all things”—and they ache for more, they ache to enter He Who Is (9.25).
Their shared vision does not last. It is but a foretaste of heaven. Yet unlike Augustine’s Platonic ascents, they do not fall back into disappointment, but into the hope of Easter. They do not lament. They do not fear death. They descend the mystical ladder into the reality of the sacrament. They descend into the hope of the Risen Lord—who raises up our hope for that eternal happiness of the bodily resurrection that cannot be lost.
Knowing that she is dying, Monica asks Augustine only one thing: “remember me at the altar of the Lord wherever you may be.” The longing for the sacrament and the longing to be united to the reality of the sacrament have become one. Even in death Monica desires to be remembered only in union with the sacrifice of Christ—the door through which she hopes to enter that vision (9.11.27). The sacraments have formed hope in her, and she dies in the hope of Easter. Augustine closes her eyes and “a huge sadness surges” into his heart. He pours out his own tears as a sacrifice for his mother’s soul. He intercedes for her, since she was also a sinner: “Hear me through that healing remedy who hung upon the tree.” But just as he promised, he also unites her memory to the sacrifice of the altar “where we win our victory.”
It is not right that Christians must hunger for the sacraments. But as St. Thomas says, and as St. Augustine and St. Monica show, it is possible to receive the reality in our longing for the sacrament of the reality. This Good Friday we must find a cross and press our lips to that “sacrament of ransom price.” We must gaze at Christ Crucified—the cause of our redemption. On Easter, even if we are cloistered in our homes, let no one wrench us away from our desire for the eternal reality of God Himself. Let us hunger in hope.
C. C. Pecknold is Associate Professor of Systematic Theology at The Catholic University of America.