Leo the Great, Sermon for the Nativity 1

 

St. George’s Anglican Church, Prince Albert SK

I. All share in the joy of Christmas.

Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today: let us be glad. For there is no proper place for sadness, when we keep the birthday of the Life, which destroys the fear of mortality and brings to us the joy of promised eternity. No one is kept from sharing in this happiness. There is for all one common measure of joy, because as our Lord the destroyer of sin and death finds none free from charge, so is He come to free us all. Let the saint exult in that he draws near to victory. Let the sinner be glad in that he is invited to pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fulness of time which the inscrutable depth of the Divine counsel has determined, has taken on him the nature of man, thereby to reconcile it to its Author: in order that the inventor of death, the devil, might be conquered through that (nature) which he had conquered. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness; for the Almighty Lord enters the lists with His savage foe not in His own majesty but in our humility, opposing him with the same form and the same nature, which shares indeed our mortality, though it is free from all sin. Truly foreign to this nativity is that which we read of all others, “no one is clean from stain, not even the infant who has lived but one day upon earth.” (Job 19:4) Nothing therefore of the lust of the flesh has passed into that peerless nativity, nothing of the law of sin has entered. A royal Virgin of the stem of David is chosen, to be impregnated with the sacred seed and to conceive the Divinely-human offspring in mind first and then in body. And lest in ignorance of the heavenly counsel she should tremble at so strange a result, she learns from converse with the angel that what is to be wrought in her is of the Holy Ghost. Nor does she believe it loss of honour that she is soon to be the Mother of God. For why should she be in despair over the novelty of such conception, to whom the power of the most High has promised to effect it. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attestation of a precursory miracle, and Elizabeth receives unexpected fertility: in order that there might be no doubt that He who had given conception to the barren, would give it even to a virgin.

II. The mystery of the Incarnation is a fitting theme for joy both to angels and to men.

Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who “in the beginning was with God,” through whom “all things were made” and “without” whom “was nothing made,” (John 1:1-3) with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: so bending Himself to take on Him our humility without decrease in His own majesty, that remaining what He was and assuming what He was not, He might unite the true form of a slave to that form in which He is equal to God the Father, and join both natures together by such a compact that the lower should not be swallowed up in its exaltation nor the higher impaired by its new associate. Without detriment therefore to the properties of either substance which then came together in one person, majesty took on humility, strength weakness, eternity mortality: and for the paying off of the debt, belonging to our condition, inviolable nature was united with passible nature, and true God and true man were combined to form one Lord, so that, as suited the needs of our case, one and the same Mediator between God and men, the Man Christ Jesus, could both die with the one and rise again with the other.

Rightly therefore did the birth of our Salvation impart no corruption to the Virgin’s purity, because the bearing of the Truth was the keeping of honour. Such then beloved was the nativity which became the Power of God and the Wisdom of God even Christ, whereby He might be one with us in manhood and surpass us in Godhead. For unless He were true God, He would not bring us a remedy, unless He were true Man, He would not give us an example. Therefore the exulting angel’s song when the Lord was born is this, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and their message, “peace on earth to men of good will.” (Luke 2:14) For they see that the heavenly Jerusalem is being built up out of all the nations of the world: and over that indescribable work of the Divine love how ought the humbleness of men to rejoice, when the joy of the lofty angels is so great?

III. Christians then must live worthily of Christ their Head.

Let us then, dearly beloved, give thanks to God the Father, through His Son, in the Holy Spirit, Who “for His great mercy, wherewith He has loved us,” has had pity on us: and “when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ,” (Eph. 2:4-5) that we might be in Him a new creation and a new production. Let us put off then the old man with his deeds: and having obtained a share in the birth of Christ let us renounce the works of the flesh. Christian, acknowledge thy dignity, and becoming a partner in the Divine nature, refuse to return to the old baseness by degenerate conduct. Remember the Head and the Body of which thou art a member. Recollect that thou wert rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God’s light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism thou wert made the temple of the Holy Ghost: do not put such a denizen to flight from thee by base acts, and subject thyself once more to the devil’s thraldom: because thy purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge thee in truth Who ransomed thee in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.

Translation from Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Series 2, Volume 12

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Ox and ass before him bow

One of the great delights that many people like myself have at Christmastide is using our knowledge of history and the Bible to ruin everyone’s fun. So my biblical studies friends will post a yearly thing about what exactly we can really say about the events of Luke’s Gospel based either solely on the text or with supporting knowledge from ancient history and archaeology.

All those things like numbering your wise men or even that the manger in question was in a stable — that’s all silly fluff, added by ahistorical medieval people who had no appreciation for a dry discussion of the social history of first-century Judaea.

I’m at a point where, while I enjoyed these things for a while, I’m not so into it anymore.

Take the beasts in the title of this post: ox and ass. One year during his run as Archbishop of Canterbury, Rowan Williams, in the midst of other matters of interest, mentioned that the beasts alongside the manger are really just legendary. No such mention comes in the Bible. And, indeed, they are an extrapolation by poor, ignorant late antique and medieval Christians who (logically enough) assume that, since mangers are usually found in stables, Jesus was born in a stable.

Not that Lord Williams of Oystermouth put it that way, thankfully.

Anyway, that ox and ass we all have with our Nativity sets, that are in Christmas pageants since the days of St Francis, that appear in Christmas carols (such as ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’) have been around for a while. I’m sure someone out there knows better than I do, but the earliest I’ve met them is carved into a fourth-century sarcophagus now in the Museo nazionale romano at Palazzo Massimo:

Now, even if the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem is not on the site of Jesus’ birth, even if Jesus was not born in a stable or if the Greek word doesn’t mean in, I think there is a fittingness to the ox and ass. And the more I learn about late antique and mediaeval Christianity, the more their world intersects mine, the more I read of their texts, the more I like this ox and ass.

The ox and ass are not just a potentially mistaken (but possibly true) historical detail.

I think they are theological.

The line from ‘Good Christian Men, Rejoice’ gets it:

Ox and ass before Him bow, for He is in the manger now

You see, when we’re not being pendantic about the historical details in the Bible, today we (especially the heirs of the Reformation) tend to collapse the entire significance of Jesus into his salvific substitutionary sacrifice on Calvary — even when we look upon the little town of Bethlehem.

But there is something powerful and dramatic and startling about Christmas. God demonstrates to us that he is not aloof. He is not a Platonic untouchable unmoved mover. He is not so transcendent that we will never encounter him. His holiness is not so delicate that he cannot mingle with us.

Fulfilling Isaiah 64:1, God has rent the heavens and come down amongst men. And, wonder of wonders, he has arrived not as the White Rider of Revelation, not as the suffering servant of Isaiah 54 (and the later chapters of the Gospels), but as a helpless, tiny infant. He who created Mary (reminds St Ephrem the Syrian) is fed by Mary’s milk.

God is Jesus.

God is the ruler of all creation. His coming to Earth as a human, the creator taking on the form of a creature, has cosmic implications. All of creation groans in expectation of the salvation being wrought through the power of the Incarnation. God has become a baby. The ox and ass in the pictures, the Nativity sets, the church plays, and the hymn — they represent creation. We all too often forget that we are part of the same creation as the beasts. But God is king of the beasts.

And so the beasts bow before him, lying in a manger.

Incarnation and Eucharist

I have observed an interesting phenomenon the past few years — the hymn, ‘Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence’, has been used as a Christmas carol. This is of note because the hymn itself is, in fact, a versified translation of a portion of the Divine Liturgy of St James, the traditional eucharistic liturgy of the Church of Jerusalem.

First the hymn as we know it:

1 Let all mortal flesh keep silence,
and with fear and trembling stand;
ponder nothing earthly minded,
for with blessing in His hand
Christ our God to earth descendeth,
our full homage to demand.

2 King of kings, yet born of Mary,
as of old on earth He stood,
Lord of lords, in human vesture –
in the body and the blood.
He will give to all the faithful
His own self for heavenly food.

3 Rank on rank the host of heaven
spreads its vanguard on the way,
as the Light of light descendeth
from the realms of endless day,
that the pow’rs of hell may vanish
as the darkness clears away.

4 At His feet the six-winged seraph,
cherubim, with sleepless eye,
veil their faces to the Presence,
as with ceaseless voice they cry,
“Alleluia, alleluia!
Alleluia, Lord most high!”

This is very clearly eucharistic — ‘Lord of lords, in human vesture / in the body and the blood. / He will give to all the faithful / His own self for heavenly food.’

Nonetheless, perhaps it is fitting for the season of the Nativity. Immediately after this hymn in the Divine Liturgy of St James, the priest is about to bring in the ‘holy gifts’ and pray over them this prayer:

O God, our God, who sent forth the heavenly bread, the food of the whole world, our Lord Jesus Christ, to be a Saviour, and Redeemer, and Benefactor, blessing and sanctifying us, do You Yourself bless this offering, and graciously receive it to Your altar above the skies

Thus, this divine liturgy makes explicit the connection between the physical bread on the table here present, and the coming of Jesus Christ as the heavenly bread in history. We normally associate the Eucharist with Christ’s death and resurrection (as well we should) and with the recapitulation of those glorious and life-giving events in symbols and rituals that are more than symbols and rituals.

Yet this hymn and the ensuing prayer break through our own historicised, symbolised view of the Eucharist. The kairos — the acceptable time — ruptures the chronos — the sequential time — and salvation history collapses into a single moment. Holy, eternal time is not restricted to linear movement — this is a point that, a bit East of Jerusalem, St Ephrem the Syrian will make (approximately contemporary with this liturgy).

Here in the Eucharist, we encounter not only ‘a perpetual memory of that his precious death … in remembrance of his death and passion’ (BCP) but, as ‘partakers of his most blessed Body and Blood’ (BCP again) we find ourselves meeting God as Jesus, and the Incarnation breaks through. The God-Man strides from Christmas to Easter to the communion table at your local church, all coalescing in the same moment.

Consider: God is truly transcendent. Utterly. He is holy because He is wholly other. There is an ontological divide between creature and creator. And then He rends the heavens and comes down (Is. 64:1) — not just once, at Bethlehem, but, somehow, every time and every place the Eucharist is celebrated. Somehow, mystically, He is incarnated and present unto us in the bread and wine.

In the Eucharist, space and time collapse, heaven and earth meet, and the cosmic power of Christ’s incarnation, death, and resurrection are made real to us in the elements of bread and wine.

Let all mortal flesh keep silence and in fear and trembling stand.

St Nicholas vs Santa Claus

I am not, by and large, anti-Santa. But this morning, I’ve been re-thinking him a bit (and not my thesis that Santa Claus is Jesus) and have decided to now pit him against St Nicholas of Myra (saint of the week here), whose feast day was a week ago.

My inspiration for this comes from a few things in my Facebook feed this morning. First, a great piece called ‘Why My Family Says “No” to the Santa Claus Myth‘ over at Sojourners, which gives spiritual and economic reasons to reject raising your children with a belief in Santa Claus. In the article, Tara C. Samples explains that, while the myth of a jolly elf bringing children presents may have served a purpose in Christianity’s past (although I doubt it, and get the sense she does too), today it only serves to reinforce economic disparity, consumerism, and commercialism.

In fact, Santa Claus has so become the focus of this, the most popular (though not the chief) feast of the Christian year, that two, admittedly awesome, brothers who have had their photo taken with Santa every Christmas for 34 years are Viral Nova’s Christmas heroes. I mean, it’s a cool tradition, and I like the idea of doing geeky, ‘kid’ stuff well beyond the acceptable age limit. But, really — Christmas heroes?

So then I watched an allegedly ‘heart-warming’ video of Westjet employees staging a Santa to buy gifts for people flying from Toronto to Hamilton.* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] It probably would have been have somewhat heartwarming if Sojourners hadn’t already warmed my heart in a different way. Instead, all I saw was consumerism being celebrated in the modern-day feast of stuff. People were crying over cameras. A kid who looked around 10-12 got an Android tablet (which strikes me as irresponsible on Westjet’s part; the parents may have already got him one OR have had a good, non-economic reason not to). One family got a ginormous TV and were weeping. Lots of people who have watched this video seem to have cried over it.

The only gift I thought was really great was the gift of plane tickets home for one lady. That’s better than just more crap to fill your house with.

And I get it. A fairly sizeable corporation spent its advertising money on making people happy instead of yet another billboard. People got what they wanted. Mind you, these are all people who seem to fly between Toronto and Hamilton,* [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.] so — unless family sprang for their tickets (as lovely, generous families do) — they are unlikely to be especially destitute.

So, 400 words in, here we go. Santa Claus has taken over Christmas.

And, with him, the cult of buying, of shopping, of consuming, of stuff, stuff, stuff. I want a choo-choo train. I want socks and underwear. I want a big screen TV. I want a new camera. I want, want, want. Me, me, me.

I still believe in gift-giving. I think it a lovely, happy tradition when friends, family, and loved ones choose to bless one another in the form of thoughtful gifts that reflect on that relationship. You know, wives who buy their husbands underwear the Lenten shade of purple. Or parents who pay for tickets for their children to go to live musicals which otherwise they would miss. Or friends who buy you that book you were dying to have  but couldn’t justify purchasing. Or you find that oddity that perfect for that one friend.

Gift-giving is an expression of love and caring.

But the cult of consumerism has gone too far when people in atheist countries go Christmas shopping and commit suicide over it all. And this is where Santa Claus drives us, because when he becomes the focus of Christmas, the gifts become the focus of Christmas, and thus the shopping and the conspicuous consumption, and the reinforcement of the unjust economic systems that we are all part of and none of us does anything about.

St Nicholas is far better.

St Nicholas of Myra is a bit of a tough character to untangle historically. As John Anthony McGuckin explains in his fantastic lecture on the saint (which I can no longer find), at some point all the Nicholases were put on the same date in the Byzantine calendar. As a result, their stories sort of blended into one another and he became a legendary figure of superholy proportions.

Here’s what we can say about St Nicholas the Wonderworker as an example for us, whether legend or fact:

  • He was on the Nicene side of the Arian-Nicene debate. St Nicholas upholds orthodoxy.
  • He was born wealthy but gave it all up (like so many Byzantine saints) to become a monk. He gave his wealth to the poor.
  • He was called out of monasticism to become Bishop of Myra (southern Turkey today). He was selfless and served his community as his spiritual discipline, not retreating from the world.
  • He gave dowries to young women to save them from being sold into sex-slavery, thus combatting an unjust socio-economic system (even if he could not change it at large, he changed it for them).
  • He saved young people from drowning — once again, selfless sacrifice serving others.

Whom would you rather take as your inspiration this holiday season? An elf who reinforces our greed, instilling it in our children when very young, or a saintly bishop who gave up his wealth to dedicate his life to God and the service of the poor?

And then, let us ask ourselves: Are we seeking to live in the example of Christ, our king and leader, and his saints through the ages?

*Who flies from Toronto to Hamilton? Maybe Toronto was their layover. I hope so. Seriously, people. Take the GO Train. [CORRECTION: They were flying from Toronto & Hamilton to Calgary.]

Christmas Day 11: ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’ by St Ambrose

Amongst the many delights of Christmas gifts this year, such as the 6-DVD box set for Avengers Assemble and a toy pirate and Hobbitus Ille, I received two volumes of the Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library from my uncle — Miracle Tales from Byzantium, ed. and trans. Alice-Mary Talbot and Scott Fitzgerald Johnson (including ‘Miracles of Saint Thekla’, ‘Anonymous Miracles of the Pege’, and ‘Miracles of Gregory Palamas’) and One Hundred Latin Hymns: Ambrose to Aquinas, ed. and trans. Peter G. Walsh with Christopher Husch.

The Dumbarton Oaks Medieval Library is an exciting venture, like unto the Loeb Classical Library, original language with an English facing-page translation. Its scope is medieval literature, Latin, Greek, vernacular. I already own the series’ Rule of St Benedict, and if I knew Old English, I would go for The Beowulf Manuscript — including not only Beowulf but the other texts therein.

And so, here on the penultimate day of Christmas, I present to you One Hundred Latin Hymns, Hymn 5, ‘Intende, qui regis Israel’. Although not cited as being by Ambrose when quoted by Augustine, fifth-century sources tell us that this hymn is by the Bishop of Milan. Walsh affirms the likelihood of Ambrose establishing 25 December the feast of the Nativity in Milan, a practice already occurring in Rome at the time:

Give ear, O king of Israel,
seated above the Cherubim,
appear before Ephraim’s face,
stir up thy mightiness, and come.

Redeemer of the Gentiles, come;
show forth the birth from virgin’s womb;
let every age show wonderment;
such birth is fitting for our God.

Not issuing from husband’s seed,
but from the Spirit’s mystic breath,
God’s Word was fashioned into flesh,
and thrived as fruit of Mary’s womb.

The virgin’s womb begins to swell;
her maidenhead remains intact:
the banner of her virtues gleam;
God in his temple lives and stirs.

From his chamber let him come forth,
the royal court of chastity,
as giant of his twin natures
eager to hasten on his way.

First from the Father he set forth,
then to his Father he returns;
he sallies to the realms below,
then journeys back to God’s abode.

You are the eternal Father’s peer;
gird on your trophy of the flesh,
and strengthen with your constant power
the frailties of our bodies’ frame.

Your manger now is all aglow,
the night breathes forth a light unknown;
a light that never night may shroud,
and that shall gleam with constant faith.

For more on Ambrose the hymn-writer, see my posts here and here.

Christmas Day 8: The Significance of the Incarnation

Happy New Year!

I’ve been writing these in advance, which means that what I post today is something I’ve known about for days but really only just read around the time of writing. Just to keep it real, right?

And today, as Epiphany draws ever nearer, we need to reflect, as I have had us do a few times already, on what Christmas is all about. And it’s all about the birth of God as a Man-child. The Incarnation of the Creator of all that is, has been, and ever shall be. The Alpha and the Omega. He became one of us, that we may become like Him.

Over at Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea, a very good post has gone up on this topic: ‘Wright Was Wrong: The Significance of the Incarnation.’ I recommend you read it. And enjoy 2013!

The Seventh Day: New Year’s Eve, Queen Elizabeth, the BCP, and hospitality

As 2012 turns into 2013, let us remember to memorable anniversaries of this year: HM Queeen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee and the 350th anniversary of the 1662 Book of Common Prayer. In the spirit of this Christmastide, I would like to turn your attention to the Queen’s Christmas Message of this year.

Every year, HM Elizabeth gives a lovely Christmas message, which goes through the major news for the monarchy and the Commonwealth, and then concludes with a reflection upon Christmas itself, tying the theme into a popular Christmas carol. Last year, Her Majesty focussed upon the importance of forgiveness, which is at the centre of the Christmas story, for God sent us a Saviour, not a statesman or a philosopher. This year, she turned our attention to community and bringing people together to celebrate this feast, just as the angels called the shepherds to join Mary and Joseph at the manger.

Queen Elizabeth called us to bring into our homes those who are alone this Christmastide. For the first time, my wife and I actually took heed of this very Christian vision of hospitality at what has become yet another festival of the modern pagan Cult of the Family. I can actually say that I practise what I preach, here! We had a Canadian friend who studies in Glasgow come over from Christmas Eve until Boxing Day, and for the dinner on Christmas itself we invited over an Italian girl we’d met at church on the 16th. She was working on Christmas until 5:00 and had no plans that day. And so we opened up our home and invited in two friends, one from our days in undergrad, one of just over a week.

This sort of hospitality is common to many cultures and should imbue the fabric of Christian community. At Christmas, as Christina Rossetti says ‘love come down.’ As John 1 puts, God the Word ‘became flesh and pitched His tent among us.’ We were not left alone in the darkness and sorrow of our sin, but brought into relationship with the living God. Therefore, in light of the Incarnation, we should open up our hearts and homes and lives to those around us, even when it makes us uncomfortable. What is the point of a sacrifice for which you do not suffer?

Furthermore, the revelation of Jesus Christ led to a long meditation upon Scripture that resulted in a vision of God as three-person’d. If we pray with John Donne, ‘Batter my heart, Three-person’d God’, we should realise that communion, koinonia, lies at the heart of the Godhead, of the unmoved mover, of the one who made everything — including ourselves. And with God as our true Father, all fellow-Christians — if not, indeed, all the human race — are siblings. Therefore, these festivals in the Cult of the Family call us to open up our doors and kitchens and dining tables to the much wider family that is bound by more than blood, in remembrance of the Trinity who reorders our hearts and loyalties beyond the merely human.

All of this I have thought for a while, and I actually, finally acted upon it! And there was HM Queen Elizabeth II exhorting us all to do likewise in light of the Incarnation of God as an infant.

Therefore, in remembrance of the 350th anniversary of the 1662 BCP, let’s say a prayer for the Queen, a woman not young with a busy and important job:

Almighty God, whose kingdom is everlasting, and power infinite; Have mercy upon the whole Church; and so rule the heart of thy chosen Servant Elizabeth, our Queen and Governor, that she (knowing whose minister she is) may above all things seek thy honour and glory: and that we, and all her subjects (duly considering whose authority she hath) may faithfully serve, honour, and humbly obey her, in thee, and for thee, according to thy blessed Word and ordinance; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who with thee and the Holy Ghost liveth and reigneth, ever one God, world without end. Amen.