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Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Vol. VI:
Our Lord’s Sermon on the Mount.: Chapter XII

Early Church Fathers  Index     

Chapter XII.

40. There follows a precept concerning fasting, having reference to that same purification of heart which is at present under discussion. For in this work also we must be on our guard, lest there should creep in a certain ostentation and hankering after the praise of man, which would make the heart double, and not allow it to be pure and single for apprehending God. “Moreover, when ye fast,” says He, “be not, as the hypocrites, of a sad countenance: for they disfigure their faces, 348 that they may appear 349 unto men to fast. Verily I say unto you, they have their reward. But ye, 350 when ye fast, anoint your head, and wash your face; that ye appear not unto men to fast, but unto your Father which is in secret: and your Father, which seeth in secret, shall reward you.” It is manifest from these precepts that all our effort is to be directed towards inward joys, lest, seeking a reward from without, we should be conformed to this world, and should lose the promise of a blessedness so much the more solid and firm, as it is inward, in which God has chosen that we should become conformed to the image of His Son. 351

41. But in this section it is chiefly to be noticed, that there may be ostentatious display not merely in the splendour and pomp of things pertaining to the booty, but also in doleful squalor itself; and the more dangerous on this account, that it deceives under the name of serving God. And therefore he who is very conspicuous by immoderate attention to the body, and by the splendour of his clothing or other things, is easily convicted by the things themselves of being a follower of the pomps of the world, and misleads no one by a cunning semblance of sanctity; but in regard to him who under a profession of Christianity, fixes the eyes of men upon himself by unusual squalor and filth, when he does it voluntarily, and not under the pressure of necessity, it may be conjectured from the rest of his actings whether he does this from contempt of superfluous attention to the body, or from a certain ambition: for the Lord has enjoined us to beware of wolves under a sheep’s skin; but “by their fruits,” says He, “shall ye know them.” For when by temptations of any kind those very things begin to be withdrawn from them or refused to them, which under that veil they either have obtained or desire to obtain, then of necessity it appears whether it is a wolf in a sheep’s skin or a sheep in its own. For a Christian ought not to delight the eyes of men by superfluous ornament on this account, because pretenders also too often assume that frugal and merely necessary dress, that they may deceive those who are not on their guard: for those sheep also ought not to lay aside their own skins, if at any time wolves cover themselves there with.

42. It is usual, therefore, to ask what He means, when He says: “But ye, when ye fast, anoint your head, and wash your faces, that ye appear not unto men to fast.” For it would not be right in any one to teach (although we may wash our face according to daily custom) that we ought also to have our heads anointed when we fast. If, then, all admit this to be most unseemly, we must understand this precept with respect to anointing the head and washing the face as referring to the inner man. 352 Hence, to anoint the head refers to joy; to wash the face, on the other hand, refers to purity: and therefore that man anoints his head who rejoices inwardly in his mind and reason. For we rightly understand that as being the head which has the pre-eminence in the soul, and by which it is evident that the other parts of man are ruled and governed. And this is done by him who does not seek his joy from without, so as to draw his delight in a fleshly way from the praises of men. For the flesh, which ought to be subject, is in no way the head of the whole nature of man. “No man,” indeed, “ever yet hated his own flesh,” as the apostle says, when giving the precept as to loving one’s wife; 353 but the man is the head of the woman, and Christ is the head of the man. 354 Let him, therefore, rejoice inwardly in his fasting 355 in this very circumstance, that by his fasting he so turns away from the pleasure of the world as to be subject to Christ, who according to this precept desires to have the head anointed. For thus also he will wash his face, i.e. cleanse his heart, with which he shall see God, no veil being interposed on account of the infirmity contracted from squalor; but being firm and stedfast, inasmuch as he is pure and guileless. “Wash you,” says He, “make p. 48 you clean; put away the evil of your doings from before mine eyes.” 356 From the squalor, therefore, by which the eye of God is offended, our face is to be washed. For we, with open face beholding as in a glass the glory of the Lord, are changed into the same image. 357

43. Often also the thought of things necessary belonging to this life wounds and defiles our inner eye; and frequently it makes the heart double, so that in regard to those things in which we seem to act rightly with our fellowmen, we do not act with that heart wherewith the Lord enjoins us; i.e., it is not because we love them, but because we wish to obtain some advantage from them for the necessity of the present life. But we ought to do them good for their eternal salvation, not for our own temporal advantage. May God, therefore, incline our heart to His testimonies, and not to covetousness. 358 For “the end of the commandment is charity out of a pure heart, and of a good conscience, and of faith unfeigned.” 359 But he who looks after his brother from a regard to his own necessities in this life, does not certainly do so from love, because he does not look after him whom he ought to love as himself, but after himself; or rather not even after himself, seeing that in this way he makes his own heart double, by which he is hindered from seeing God, in the vision of whom alone there is certain and lasting blessedness.



Vultum…videantur; Vulgate, facies…appareant. The Greek has a play on words, ἀφανιζουσι…φανῶσι (“they mar their appearance, that they may make an appearance”).


Vultum…videantur; Vulgate, facies…appareant. The Greek has a play on words, ἀφανιζουσι…φανῶσι (“they mar their appearance, that they may make an appearance”).


Vulgate has the singular as the Greek. The Pharisees were scrupulous in keeping fast-days. Monday and Thursday were observed by the strict with different degrees of scrupulosity,—the lowest admitting of washing and anointing the head. (See Schürer, N. Zeitgesch. p. 505 sqq.). The early practice of fasting in the sub-apostolic Church is evident from the Teaching of the Twelve Apostles, which enjoins it before baptism, and on the “fourth day and the Preparation Day” (vii., viii.).


Rom. viii. 29.


So modern exegetes (Meyer, etc.).


Eph. v. 25-33.


1 Cor. xi. 3.


“It hardly needs to add,” says Trench, “that Augustin everywhere interprets ‘when ye fast’ as a command.”


Isa. i. 16.


2 Cor. iii. 18.


Ps. cxix. 36.


1 Tim. i. 5.

Next: Chapter XIII

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