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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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.

Advent 4, Sarum: Raise up Thy power and come!

Walters Ms. W.34, Carrow Psalter (fol. 178r)

And so comes the final week of Advent. On Thursday, the season will climax and close with the arrival of Christmas, the Feast of the Nativity. Following the Use of Sarum, this Sunday’s collect is:

O Lord, raise up, we pray Thee, Thy power, and come, and with great might succour us; that whereas through our sins we are sore let and hindered, Thy bountiful grace and mercy may speedily help and deliver us. Who livest …

This is what the Advent longing is about — the coming of the Lord. There is a straining and a wrestling in it. A struggle. We feel the ache of life without Emmanuel (God-with-us) in Advent. This year, I have found this particularly true not only reflecting upon these Sarum collects with their crying out for God to give us his aid and be ever-present to us in time of need and in the face of sin, but also in my daily readings.

Although I don’t pray Vigils, I started reading the lessons for Vigils from Benedictine Daily Prayer partway through Advent this year. The Old Testament lesson was usually from Isaiah, and usually about the dread day of the Lord’s coming, or a weighty pronouncement about judgement. The New Testament lesson was usually from the epistles, usually more cheery, about Christ’s fulfilment of the Old and future coming in glory.

When you read such Bible passages regularly, combined with the average sorrows of daily life and the great burden of a world torn by strife, the Advent ache for a Saviour becomes much more pronounced. You feel with the liturgist the request for the Lord to succour us with His great might!

But it’s not mere, run-of-the-mill suffering the Sarum points us to. It is about the suffering we inflict on ourselves — through our sins we are sore let and hindered. St John Cassian, joining the Stoic ethical tradition, argues that the only evil inflicted upon you is the evil that you yourself commit. When someone else wrongs you, if you do not sin, no evil has been done to you; that person has done evil to himself.

The phrase ‘through our sins we are sore let and hindered’ is Englishing the Latin, ‘nostra peccata prepediunt’, ‘our sins shackle/bind/entangle/fetter’. I like ‘fetter’, myself.

And is not the bondage of the will, this human shackling to our sins, precisely what Jesus came to unloose? As the angel said to Joseph, ‘You shall call his name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.’ (Mt 1:21; NKJV)

To turn from Sarum to Cranmer (who sourced the Litany from ancient texts; below is Canada’s BCP, 1962):

From all evil and mischief, from sin, from the crafts and assaults of the devil; from thy wrath, and from everlasting condemnation,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all blindness of heart; from pride, vainglory, and hypocrisy; from envy, hatred, and malice, and all uncharitableness,
Good Lord, deliver us.
From all uncleanness in thought, word, and deed; and from all the deceits of the world, the flesh, and the devil,
Good Lord, deliver us.

By the mystery of thy holy Incarnation; by thy holy Nativity; by thy Baptism, Fasting, and Temptation,
Good Lord, deliver us.

Deliver us, O Lord.

Do you really believe the Nicene Creed?

Christ the Almighty -- as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)
Christ the Almighty — as so often with the Gospel in hand (by Theophan the Cretan, 15th c)

I just finished Dallas Willard’s book The Divine Conspiracy. I recommend it highly! In that book, he poses us the question — Do we truly believe that Jesus is who we say He is? If we really did, wouldn’t we act a bit differently?

Putting my own ‘classic Christian’ spin on Willard’s query, who is it that we say Jesus is? We believe

in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all ages, light from light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things came to be;

who, on account of us men and our salvation, came down from heaven and became flesh from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and became man; and he was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate and suffered and was buried and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures and ascended to the heavens and is seated on the right hand of the Father and shall come again with glory to judge the living and the dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end; (Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed)

Do you believe in the depths of your soul that Jesus is true God from true God, of one substance with the Father? Do you believe that through him all things were made? Most of us will immediately say, ‘Yes.’

Certainly, we give mental assent to the propositions of the Creeds and of our denominational confessions or the doctrinal statements of ecumenical councils. Yet shouldn’t such shocking, earth-shattering truths affect how we approach life to its deepest level?

Jesus is the creator of the world. How should we, then, approach his teachings? Clearly as the teachings of the greatest moral philosopher who ever lived! And we should take them to heart. We should try to understand what they mean and how we can live by them. We should spend time reading through the Scriptures, especially the Gospels, to have these teachings of His imprinted on our hearts.

Should we not memorise and meditate upon the Lord’s Prayer? Should we not read over and over the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is not an intellectual, theological proposition — although these can be made about Him.

He is the most wondrous, powerful, beautiful, intelligent person in the universe. He is so loving that he chose to set aside His natural form of godliness and take on our form, that of a slave. And His immediate followers tell us that our attitude, our life, should be modelled on his.

Is it?

Irenaeus and the Cross

Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)
Via Dolorosa Icon, Bellapais Abbey, Cyprus (post-1571 Orthodox icon; my photo)

One of the questions that arose in Cyprus was the place the Cross holds in the theology of St Irenaeus. The concern, and it is a not uncommon concern, is that Irenaeus has a very strong emphasis on the Incarnation and our salvation as a result of the Word having become flesh and having pitched his tent among us. This is a concern that Aulén addresses in Christuss Victor (itself a short book with an incisive chapter on Irenaeus), but I don’t have those notes with me in Firenze.

However, I have been trying to catch up with Read the Fathers. So here’s some of what’s been read tonight:

Since the Lord thus has redeemed us through His own blood, giving His soul for our souls, and His flesh for our flesh, and has also poured out the Spirit of the Father for the union and communion of God and man, imparting indeed God to men by means of the Spirit, and, on the other hand, attaching man to God by His own incarnation, and bestowing upon us at His coming immortality durably and truly, by means of communion with God — all the doctrines of the heretics fall to ruin. (Against the Heresies 5.1.1)

For blood can only come from veins and flesh, and whatsoever else makes up the substance of man, such
as the Word of God was actually made. By His own blood he redeemed us, as also His apostle declares, “In whom we have redemption through His blood, even the remission of sins.” And as we are His members, we are also nourished by means of the creation (and He Himself
grants the creation to us, for He causes His sun to rise, and sends rain when He wills1812). He has acknowledged the cup (which is a part of the creation) as His own blood, from which He bedews our blood; and the bread (also a part of the creation) He has established as His own body, from which He gives increase to our bodies. (5.2.2*)

And in every Epistle the apostle plainly testifies, that through the flesh of our Lord, and through His blood, we havebeen saved. (5.14.3; more anti-docetic than pro-crucifixion, but there it is)

Jeremiah also says to the same purport: “The word of God cleaveth the rock as an axe.” This word, then, what was hidden from us, did the dispensation of the tree make manifest, as I have already remarked. For as we lost it by means of a tree, by means of a tree again was it made manifest to all, showing the height, the length, the breadth, the depth in itself (5.17.4)

For indeed the creation could not have sustained Him [on the cross], if He had sent forth [simply by commission] what was the fruit of ignorance and defect. Now we have repeatedly shown that the incarnate Word of God was suspended upon a tree, and even the very heretics do acknowledge that He was crucified. (5.18.1)

And, from earlier readings in Against the Heresies:

Then, at last, He came on to death itself, that He might be “the first-born from the dead, that in all things He might have the pre-eminence,” the Prince of life, existing before all, and going before all.(2.22.4)

The main purpose of Against the Heresies is the refutation of the ‘Gnostic’ and other heterodox groups whom Irenaeus felt were a threat to the spiritual health of the Church. Therefore, he does not spend a lot of time on the Cross (although there is more about it than this; again, these are from the notes I have with me at present). Nonetheless, it is an inescapable fact that the Cross and death and saving blood of Jesus are an important part of Irenaeus’ theology.

As we enter Lent, let us ensure that the Cross is an important part of our own theology and, thus, of our lives.

*Here we see already in the second century the intimate link between Christology and the Eucharist, a link that was tied up in the fifth-century debates surrounding Nestorius, Cyril, and Leo.

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 Third Day of Christmas: A Sermon of Gregory of Nazianzus

For the Third Day of this Twelve-day Feast, I bring to you a sermon attributed to St Gregory of Nazianzus (aka ‘the Theologian’, c. 330-390). The more common Nativity sermon you will find in Orthodox books and floating around the internet is that of St John Chrysostom (347-407). I think this one is also well worth reading, and will mix things up a bit. Merry 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; 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.

Again, the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people who sat in the darkness of ignorance, let them see the great Light full of knowledge. Old things have passed away, behold all things have become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the truth comes in on them. Melchizedek is concluded. He who was without Mother becomes without Father (without mother of His former state, without father of His second). The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Let John cry, prepare the way of the Lord; I too will cry the power of this Day. He who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and forever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk until their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God – that putting off of the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. 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; 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. (Taken from www.ancient-future.net)