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Oration 38: On the Manifestation of God in the Birth of the Christ

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I. Let Us Celebrate Christmas.

Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him! Christ on earth, be exalted! Sing to the Lord all the whole earth (Ps. 96:1,11), and that I may join both in one word, let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O you women live as virgins, that you may be mothers of Christ. Who does not worship Him who is from the beginning? Who does not glorify Him who is the last?

II. Why We Celebrate Christmas.

Once again the darkness is past; once again light is made; once again Egypt is punished with darkness; once again Israel is enlightened by a pillar (Ex. 14:20). Let the people who sat in the darkness of ignorance see the great Light of full knowledge (Is. 9:6). Old things have passed away: behold all things have become new (1 Cor. 5:17). The letter gives way: the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away; the Truth comes in upon them. Melchisedec is perfected (Heb. 7:3). He that was without mother comes into existence without a father (without mother in His earlier state, without father in His later). The laws of nature are overcome: the world above must be filled. Christ commands it: let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands all you people, for to us a Child is born, and to us a Son is given, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the Cross it is raised up), and His name is “the Angel of the Great Counsel of the Fr..”(Is. 9:6).

Let John cry, “Prepare the way of the Lord!” I too will cry the power of this day! He who is not carnal becomes flesh; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Heb. 13:8). Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride (1 Cor. 1:23), let heretics talk till their tongues ache. Then, they shall believe, when they see Him ascending up into heaven, and if not then, when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

III. The Meaning of Christmas

We shall speak of these matters on a future occasion; for the present the festival is the Manifestation of God or the Nativity, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was no word before the Word, and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He who gives us our being might also give us our well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation when we had by wickedness fallen from well-being. The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the Manifestation, and that of Nativity in respect of His birth.

IV. Let Us Celebrate Christmas in a Godly Manner

This is our present festival; it is this we celebrate to-day, the coming of God to man, that we might go forth (Eph 4:22,24), or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off the old man, we might put on the new, and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ (1 Cor. 15:22), being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him (Col. 2:!1). For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. “For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound” (Rom. 5:20); and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

V. Let Us Not Celebrate Christmas in a Pagan Manner.

And how shall this be? Let us not decorate our porches, nor organize dances, nor adorn the streets; let us not feast the eye, nor enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, nor prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in soft, flowing clothes, whose beauty consists in their uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold (Rom. 13:13) or the tricks of color, belying the beauty of nature and invented to do despite to the image of God; not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, in fornication and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil, or rather the harvest from worthless seeds is worthless.

Let us not set up high beds of leaves, making shrines for the belly of what belongs to debauchery. Let us not toast with fragrant wines, the specialties of cooks, the great expense of perfumes. Let not sea and land bring us as a gift their precious refuse – for this is how I have learned to estimate luxury – and let us not strive to outdo each other in intemperance (for to my mind every superfluity is intemperance and everything which goes beyond absolute need) and this while others, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner, are hungry and in want.

VI. What is the Difference Between Pagan and Christian Celebrations?

Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomp and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the stench of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly–evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the divine Law, and in histories, especially those that are the origin of this feast, so that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him who has called us together.

Or do you desire (for today I am your host!) that I should set before you, my good guests, the story of these things as abundantly and as nobly as I can, so that you may know how a foreigner can feed the natives of the land, and a rustic the people of the town, and one who cares not for luxury those who delight in it, and one who is poor and homeless those who are eminent for wealth?

We will begin from this point; and let me ask you who delight in such matters to cleanse you mind and your ears and your thoughts, since our discourse is to be of God and divine, so that when you depart you may have enjoyed delights that really do not fade away. And this same discourse shall be at once both very full and very concise, so that you may neither be displeased at its deficiencies, nor find it unpleasant through excessiveness.

VII. First, On God

A) His Incomprehensible Being.

God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always is. For was and will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is eternal being. And this is the name that He gives to Himself when giving the oracle to Moses on the mountain. For in Himself He sums up and contains all being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great sea of being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature, only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily … not by His essentials, but by His environment–one image being got from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth, which escapes us before we have caught it, and takes to flight before we have conceived it, blazing forth upon our master-part, even when that is cleansed, as the lightning flash which will not stay its course, does upon our sight, in order, as I conceive, by that part of It which we can comprehend to draw us to itself (for that which is altogether incomprehensible is outside the bounds of hope, and not within the compass of endeavor), and by that part of It which we cannot comprehend to move our wonder, and as an object of wonder to become more an object of desire, and, being desired, to purify, and by purifying to make us like God, so that, when we have thus become like Himself, God may, to use a bold expression, hold converse with us as gods, being united to us, and that perhaps to the same extent as He already knows those who are known to Him.

The divine nature, then, is infinite and hard to understand, and all that we can comprehend of Him is His infinity, even though one may conceive that because He is of a simple nature He is therefore either wholly incomprehensible, or perfectly comprehensible. For let us further enquire what is implied by “is of a simple nature.” For it is quite certain that this simplicity is not itself its nature, just as composition is not by itself the essence of compound beings.

B) God is Without Beginning, Eternal, and Trinity

And when Infinity is considered from two points of view, beginning and end – for that which is beyond these and not limited by them is Infinity – when the mind looks to the depth above, having nowhere to stand, and leans upon phenomena to form an idea of God, it calls the infinite and unapproachable which it finds there by the name of unoriginate. And when it looks into the depths below, and at the future, it calls Him immortal and imperishable.

And when it draws a conclusion from the whole it calls Him eternal. For eternity is neither time nor part of time, for it cannot be measured. But what time, measured by the course of the sun, is to us, that eternity is to the everlasting, namely, a sort of time-like movement and interval co-extensive with their existence. This, however, is all I must now say about God, for the present is not a suitable time, as my present subject is not the doctrine of God, but that of the Incarnation.

But when I say God, I mean Fr., Son and Holy Spirit. For Godhead is neither diffused beyond these, so as to bring in a multitude of gods; nor yet is it bounded by a smaller compass than these, so as to condemn us for a poverty-stricken conception of Deity, either Judaizing to save the unity (monarchia), or falling into paganism by the multitude of our gods. For the evil on either side is the same, though found in contrary directions. This then is the Holy of Holies (i.e., the Holy Trinity), which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription of the title “Lord and God,” as one of our predecessors has most beautifully and loftily pointed out (St. Athanasius?).

IX. Second, the Creation

A)Of the Angles

But since this movement of self-contemplation alone could not satisfy Goodness, but Good must be poured out and go forth beyond Itself to multiply the objects of its beneficence, for this was essential to the highest goodness, He first conceived the heavenly and angelic powers. And this conception was a work fulfilled by His Word, and perfected by His Spirit. And so the secondary splendors came into being, as the ministers of the primary Splendor, whether we are to conceive of them as intelligent spirits, or as fire of an immaterial and incorruptible kind, or as some other nature approaching this as near as may be.

I should like to say that they were incapable of movement in the direction of evil, and susceptible only of the movement of good, as being about God, and illumined with the first rays from God – for earthly beings have but the second illumination, – but I am obliged to stop short of saying that, and to conceive and speak of them only as difficult to move because of him, who for his splendor was called Lucifer, but became and is called Darkness through his pride, and the apostate hosts who are subject to him, creators of evil by their revolt against good, and our instigators.

B)The Creation of the Visible, Material World

Thus, then, and for these reasons, He gave being to the world of thought, as far as I can reason upon these matters, and estimate great things in my own poor language. Then when His first creation was in good order, He conceives a second world, material and visible; and this a system and compound of earth and sky, and all that is in the midst of them – an admirable creation indeed, when we look at the fair form of every part, but yet more worthy of admiration when we consider the harmony and the unison of the whole, and how each part fits in with every other, in fair order, and all with the whole, tending to the perfect completion of the world as a unit.

This was to show that He could call into being not only a Nature akin to Himself, but also one altogether alien to Himself. For akin to deity are those natures which are intellectual, and only to be comprehended by mind, but all of which sense can take cognizance are utterly alien to it, and of these the furthest removed are all those which are entirely destitute of soul and of power of motion. But perhaps some one of those who are too festive and impetuous may say, “What has all this to do with us? Spur your horse to the goal. Talk to us about the Festival, and the reasons for our being here today!” Yes, this is what I am about to do, although I have begun at a somewhat previous point, being compelled to do so by love, and by the needs of my argument.

C)The Creation of Humanity

Mind, then, and sense, thus distinguished from each other, had remained within their own boundaries, and bore in themselves the magnificence of the Creator-Word, silent praisers (Ps. 19:1,3) and thrilling heralds of His mighty work. Not yet was there any mingling of both, nor any mixtures of these opposites, tokens of a greater Wisdom and Generosity in the creation of natures; nor as yet were the whole riches of Goodness made known. Now the Creator-Word, determining to exhibit this, and to produce a single living being out of both – the visible and the invisible creations, I mean – fashions the man, and taking a body from already existing matter, and placing in it a breath taken from Himself (Gen. 2:7) which the Word knew to be an intelligent soul and the image of God, as a sort of second world. He placed him, great in littleness (microcosm) on the earth; a new Angel, a mingled worshipper, fully initiated into the visible creation, but only partially into the intellectual, king of all upon earth, but subject to the King above, earthly and heavenly, temporal and yet immortal, visible and yet intellectual, half-way between greatness and lowliness, in one person combining spirit and flesh, spirit because of the favor bestowed on him, flesh because of the height to which he had been raised, the one that he might continue to live and praise his Benefactor, the other that he might suffer, and by suffering be put in remembrance and corrected if he became proud of his greatness. A living creature trained here, and then moved elsewhere, and, to complete the mystery, deified by its inclination to God. For to this, I think, tends that Light of Truth which we here possess but in measure, that we should both see and experience the splendor of God, which is worthy of Him Who made us, and will remake us again after a loftier fashion.

D)Humanity’s Place in Paradise and Fall

He placed this being in Paradise – whatever the Paradise may have been – having honored him with the gift of Free Will in order that God might belong to him as the result of his choice, no less than to Him who had implanted the seeds of it, to till the immortal plants, by which is meant perhaps the divine conceptions, both the simpler and the more perfect, naked in his simplicity and non-artificial life, and without any covering or screen; for it was fitting that he who was from the beginning should be such.

Also He gave him a Law, as a material for his free will to act upon. This Law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge, not, however, because it was evil from the beginning when planted, nor was it forbidden because God grudged it to us – let not the enemies of God wag their tongues in that direction, or imitate the Serpent – but it would have been good if partaken of at the proper time, for the tree was, according to my theory, Contemplation, upon which it is only safe for those who have reached maturity of habit to enter, but which is not good for those who are still somewhat simple and greedy in their habit, just as solid food is not good for those who are yet tender, and have need of milk (Heb. 5:12).

But when through the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, and which she brought to bear upon the man, as she was the more apt to persuade, alas for my weakness! (for that of my first father was mine) he forgot the Commandment which had been given to him (Gen. 3:5); he yielded to the forbidden fruit, and for his sin he was banished at once from the Tree of Life and from Paradise and from God, and put on the coats of skins–that is, perhaps, the coarser flesh, both mortal and contradictory. This was the first thing that he learned – his own shame (Rom. 1:22-31); and he hid himself from God. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus his punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.

XIII. Third, the Salvation of Humanity

A)The Preparatory Stage

And having been first chastened by many means (because his sins were many, whose root of evil sprang up through divers causes and at sundry tithes), by word, by Law, by prophets, by benefits, by threats, by plagues, by waters, by fires, by wars, by victories, by defeats, by signs in heaven and signs in the air and in the earth and in the sea, by unexpected changes of men, of cities, of nations (the object of which was the destruction of wickedness) at last he needed a stronger remedy for his diseases were growing worse; mutual slaughters, adulteries, perjuries, unnatural crimes, and that first and last of all evils, idolatry and the transfer of worship from the Creator to created things. As these required a greater aid, so also they obtained a greater…

B)God’s Incarnation as the Salvation of Humanity

[And that] was that the Word of God Himself, who is before all worlds, the Invisible, the Incomprehensible, the Bodiless, Beginning of Beginning (Ps. 110:3), the Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of the Archetypal Beauty, the immovable Seal, the unchangeable Image, the Fr.’s Definition and Word, came to His own Image, and took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul’s sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin became human.

Conceived by the Virgin (Luke 1:35), who first in body and soul was purified by the Holy Spirit (for it was needful both that childbearing should be honored, and that virginity should receive a higher honor), He came forth then as God with that which He had assumed, One person in two natures, flesh and Spirit, of which the latter deified the former.

O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self-Existent comes into being, the Uncreated is created, the Uncontainable is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of the flesh. And He Who gives riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead. He that is full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His Fullness. What are the riches of His goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. He communicates a second Communion far more marvelous than the first, inasmuch as then He imparted the better Nature, whereas now Himself partakes of the worse. This is more godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.

C)Objections of Human Logic to the Divine Incarnation

To this what have those revilers to say, those bitter reasoning thinkers about godhead, those detractors of all that is praiseworthy, those darkeners of light, uncultured in respect of wisdom, for whom Christ died in vain, those unthankful creatures, the work of the Evil One? Do you turn this benefit into a reproach to God? Will you deem Him little on this account, that He humbled Himself for you? Because the Good Shepherd (John 10:11), He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek for that which had strayed upon the mountains and the hills, on which you were then sacrificing, and found the wanderer; and having found it (Luke 15:4ff), took it upon His shoulders – on which He also took the wood of the Cross; and having taken it, brought it back to the higher life, and having carried it back, numbered it amongst those who had never strayed?

Because He lighted a candle – His own flesh – and swept the house, cleansing the world from sin, and sought the piece of money, the royal image that was covered up by passions – and calls together His angel friends on the finding of the coin, and makes them sharers in His joy (Luke 15:8,10), whom He had made to share also the secret of the Incarnation? Because on the candle of the Forerunner there follows the light that exceeds in brightness, and to the voice the Word succeeds; and to the Bridegroom’s friend the Bridegroom, to him that prepared for the Lord a peculiar people, cleansing them by water in preparation for the Spirit? Do you reproach God with all this?

Do you on this account deem Him lessened, because He girds Himself with a towel and washes His disciples’ feet, and shows that humiliation is the best road to exaltation? Because for the soul that was bent to the ground He humbles Himself, that He may raise up with Himself the soul that was tottering to a fall under a weight of sin? Why not also charge Him with a crime because He eats with tax-gatherers and at the publicans’ tables (Luke 5:29), and that He makes disciples of tax-gatherers, that He too may gain something – and what? – the salvation of sinners. If so, we must blame the physician for stooping over sufferings, and enduring evil odors so that he may give health to the sick; or one who as the Law commands bent down into a ditch to save a beast that had fallen into it (cf. Luke 13:15, 14:5)!

D)The Logic of the Divine Incarnation: An Answer to Heretical Reasoning.

He was sent, but as man, for He was of a twofold Nature; for He was wearied, and was hungry, and was thirsty, and was in an agony, and shed tears, according to the nature of a bodily being. And if the expression be also used of Him as God, the meaning is that the Fr.’s good pleasure is to be considered a Mission, for to this He refers all that concerns Himself; both that He may honor the eternal Principle, and because He will not be taken to be an antagonistic God. And whereas it is written both that He was betrayed, and also that He gave Himself up [Liturgy of St. Mark] and that He was raised up by the Fr., and taken up into heaven; and on the other hand, that He raised Himself and went up, the former statement of each pair refers to the good pleasure of the Fr., the latter to His own Power.

Are you then to be allowed to dwell upon all that humiliates Him, while passing over all that exalts Him, and to count on your side the fact that He suffered, but to leave out of the account the fact that it was of His own will? See what even now the Word has to suffer. By one set He is honored as God, but is confused with the Fr. [Sabellian heresy]; by another He is dishonored as mere flesh and severed from the godhead [Arianism]. With which of them will He be most angry, or rather, which shall He forgive, those who injuriously confound Him or those who divide Him? For the former ought to have distinguished, and the latter to have united Him, the one in number, the other in godhead. Do you stumble at His flesh? So did the Jews. Or do you call Him a Samaritan, and – I will not say the rest.

Do you disbelieve in His Godhead? This not even the demons did, O less believing than demons and more stupid than Jews. Those did perceive that the term ‘son’ implies equality of rank; these did know that He who drove them out was God, for they were convinced of it by their own experience. But you will admit neither the equality nor the godhead. It would have been better for you to have been either a Jew or a demoniac (if I may utter an absurdity), than in uncircumcision and in sound health to be so wicked and ungodly in your attitude of mind.

XVI. Fourth, the Saving Work of the God-Man.

A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the Jordan River for my purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by His purification (for indeed He had no need of purification, who takes away the sin of the world) and the heavens cleft asunder, and witness borne to him by the Spirit that is of one nature with Him (Matt. 3:13, 17); you shall see Him tempted and conquering and served by angels (Matt. 4:1-11), and healing every sickness and every disease (Matt. 4:23), and giving life to the dead (O that He would give life to you who are dead because of your heresy) and driving out demons (Matt. 9:33), sometimes Himself, sometimes by His disciples, and feeding vast multitudes with a few loaves (Matt. 9:14), and walking upon seas without wetting His feet (Matt. 9:25), and being betrayed and crucified, and crucifying with Himself my sin, offered as a Lamb, and offering as a Priest, as a man buried in the grave, and as God rising again, and then ascending, and to come again in His own glory. Why what a multitude of high festivals there are in each of the mysteries of the Christ; all of which have one completion, namely, my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.

XVII. Final Invitation to Celebrate Christmas.

Now then I pray you accept His conception, and to leap before Him, if not like John from the womb (Luke 1:41), yet like David, because of the resting of the Ark (2 Sam. 6:14). Revere the enrolment on account of which you were inscribed in heaven, and adore the birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth (Luke. 2:1-5), and honor little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise; and worship the manger through which you, being without sense, were fed by the Word. Know as Isaiah bids you, your Owner like the ox, and like the donkey your Master’s crib (Is. 1:3), if you are one of those who are pure and lawful food, and who chew the cud of the word and are fit for sacrifice. Or if you are one of those who are as yet unclean and uneatable and unfit for sacrifice, and of the gentile portion, run with the star, and bear your gifts with the Magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a king, and to God, and to One who has died for you.

With shepherds glorify Him; with angels join in chorus; with archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers in heaven and to the powers upon earth. For I am persuaded that the heavenly hosts join in our exultation and keep high Festival with us today, because they love humankind, and they love God just like those whom David introduces after the Passion ascending with Christ and coming to meet Him, and bidding one another to lift up the gates.

XVIII. Conclusion

One thing connected with the birth of Christ I would have you hate – the murder of the infants by Herod. Or rather you must venerate this too, the sacrifice of the same age as Christ, slain before the offering of the New Victim. If He flees into Egypt, joyfully become a companion of His exile. It is a great thing to share the exile of the persecuted Christ. If He tarries long in Egypt, call Him out of Egypt by a reverent worship of Him there. Travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the Life of Christ. Be purified; be circumcised; strip off the veil which has covered you from your birth. After this teach in the Temple, and drive out the sacrilegious traders. Submit to be stoned if need be, for well I know you will be hidden from those who cast the stones; you will escape even through the midst of them, like God. If thou be brought before Herod, answer not for the most part. He will respect your silence more than most people’s long speeches. If you are scourged, ask for what they leave out. Taste gall for the taste’s sake; drink vinegar; seek for spittings; accept blows, be crowned with thorns, that is, with the hardness of the godly life; put on the purple robe, take the reed in hand, and receive mock worship from those who mock at the truth; lastly, be crucified with Him, and share His death and burial gladly, so that you may rise with Him, and be glorified with Him and reign with Him. Look at and be looked at by the Great God, who in Trinity is worshipped and glorified, and Whom we declare to be now set forth as clearly before you as the chains of our flesh allow, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom be the glory for ever. Amen

 

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