A CHRISTMAS STORY BY LEO TOLSTOY
THE FOURTH WISE MAN
THE THEOTOKOS AS MYSTICAL THEOLOGIAN: ST. GREGORY PALAMAS’ SERMONS ON THE VIRGIN MARY
by Manuel Sumares
"Along with being the creaturely mirror of the Most High, she [the Mother of God] is our mediator in conjunction with the divine Mediator, who came into creation through her. As such, we could say, in accordance with that “eternal law in heaven,” that, while we aspire to the holiness that she expresses to a greater degree, she herself has the root of her holiness in her greater Son that she mirrors and transmits to us."
In his account of “the last flowering of Byzantine Orthodoxy,” Jaroslav Pelikan characterised it as the advent of “the mystic as new theologian.” In more precise terms, this refers to the convergence of a heightened development of Hesychasm between the 11th and 14th centuries and the composition of the Triads in Defence of the Holy Hesychasts by St. Gregory Palamas in the face of Barlaam of Calabria’s damning criticism of a spiritual practice with deep roots in Orthodox Tradition (1). Indeed, the complicity that prayer has with theology received its early formulation by Evagrius ((c 345 – 399), who proposed in 61st chapter of his treatise “On Prayer: One Hundred and Fifty-Three Texts,” “If you are a theologian, you will pray truly. And if you pray truly, you are a theologian.”(2) The theo-logian is to be taken literally as the one who is immersed in the Word (Logos) who is God (Theos), and can say so from personal experience, for he has, in truth and by grace, attained spiritual knowledge, or gnosis, through it. Otherwise said, theologia, inseparable from prayer and practiced “truly,” is attained in the strictest sense of the word: the vision of divine glory that is reserved for the age to come but made available to the saints in the present life as well. In the subsequent development of the monastic tradition, intellectualist character of Evagrius’ doctrine of prayer was challenged by an older wisdom concerning the deifying experience of God, one closer in time to the first generations of Christians. Late in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyon seems to have set the measure for Christian spirituality by advancing his famous dictum: “If the Word is made man, it is that men might become gods.” The spiritual knowledge attained in theology, to the extent it denotes a loving relationship with the living God, cannot but have the reality of the Incarnation at its very centre. It is thus that Evagrius’ teachings that accentuate the perpetual prayer of the mind will be assimilated and transformed into a prayer focused on the Person of Jesus Christ, the Word Incarnate, the true standard for Christian thinking and the rule for hesychasm. In the words of John Meyendorff, /…/ the “intellectualist prayer” of Evagrius became in the East the “prayer of the heart,” a personal prayer explicitly addressed to the Incarnate Word, the ‘Jesus Prayer’ in which the ‘recollection of the Name’ holds essential place (3). In view of St Gregory Palamas’ Sermons dedicated to the Mother of God, Meyendorff’s formulation of the mystical theologian’s communion with the Person of Christ and the utter intimacy that it implies is particularly helpful. In the case of Gregory Palamos, Theotokos is manifestly a model for the hesychastic way of life, as well as a personal inspiration (4). But, on the basis of his Sermons, she can also be seen as the eminent mystical theologian whose knowledge of the Word is not only uniquely personal, but, even as a creature, actually mirrors the reality of her divine Son. In conformity with “an eternal law in heaven,” according to which Palamas affirms that, “the lesser shall share by means of the greater in what lies beyond,” the Mother of God is the summit and full expression of all things holy that can be known in creation (5). Along with being the creaturely mirror of the Most High, she is our mediator in conjunction with the divine Mediator, who came into creation through her. As such, we could say, in accordance with that “eternal law in heaven,” that, while we aspire to the holiness that she expresses to a greater degree, she herself has the root of her holiness in her greater Son that she mirrors and transmits to us. For Palamas, “She alone forms the boundary between the created and uncreated nature, and no one can come to God except through her and the mediator born of her, and none of God’s gifts can be bestowed on angels or men through her.”(6) What is striking in Gregory’s understanding of Theotokos, to which we shall now turn, is how she bypassed the stages of praktiki (the practice of the virtues, or purification) and of physiki (the contemplation of God in nature, or illumination) and moved directly into theologia (the contemplation of God Himself, or glorification). As such the Mother of God is the foremost mystical theologian that embodies and precedes all others in excellence. Her privileged access to the knowledge of God is more than noetic, for knowing God is also to have loving communion with Him and to pray that all creation be restored and glorified in Him. In this she is the true theologian who prays truly. And, for this, she was carefully prepared in God’s providence. Nevertheless, her election required her free consent in faith and obedience to live as one who is elect in consonance with the truth of her existence, namely, to magnify the divine presence throughout creation. The Divine Election of Theotokos: “For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name.” (Luke 1: 48-49) Nobility in accordance with nature and the flesh is one thing; nobility by God’s grace is quite another. The notion of literally being high born through grace is thematically central throughout Palamas’ meditations on the Mother of God. It will also say a great deal about the monastic vocation and the way to divine adoption, about those who are pure of heart and are able to discern that which comes from God. “The Virgin /…/ has a soul synonymous with everything good and truly noble, which she guards in a perfectly pure body and which appears from without to those who see as we do, but is known from within to the discerning spirit of prophecy.”(7) In his sermons “On the Nativity of the Mother of God” and the first one dedicated to the Virgin’s entry into the Holy of Holies, Palamas centres much of his attention on the special kind of noble lineage of which she is the culminating figure: since a tree is known by its fruit and since the Virgin Mary is good beyond compare, then the “tree” that bore her would also have its roots in the living God, who is goodness itself. This goodness, having the character of holiness, is most immediately situated in the persons of Mary’s own parents, Joaquim and Anna. Descendents of David, they were childless into old age, but, due to their devotedness to the Lord and in consonance with a pattern well established in Hebrew Scripture, they were granted the special blessing of parenting a child who will be decisive in God’s plan of salvation. In describing Joaquim and Anna as being “superior in virtue” and having “nobility of character,” Palamas draws on the Protoevangelium of James to bring to the fore their spiritual worthiness as parents of the Mother of God. Here again, the intent is to bring into focus the eternal law of heaven, operative and namely in relation to the virtues associated with the sanctity sought after in the monastic context (chastity, ascetical practices, prayer). Palamas presents his idea in a daring conceit, by which the virginity that Mary would eventually exemplify stands as a reflection of that of God the Father: So those without children were preferred to those with many, that the Daughter with all virtues might be born of highly virtuous parents, the All-pure of those who were exceedingly chaste, and that chastity, conceiving through prayer and asceticism, might as a consequence become the mother of virginity, virginity which would bring forth without corruption the divinity begotten of the virgin Father before all ages (8). It is, however, in the first sermon “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies I,” that we find a more explicit presentation of “the starting-point of God’s election” of the Virgin’s preparation to receive the Incarnate Word and to become the new Eve for humankind. Indeed, the line stemming from the first couple has to be reconstituted and given a new consistency. Once again, the new humanity that will come forth by, in and through the Virgin’s divine Son will possess those qualities that will appear in the Mother of God and is cultivated in the monastic life. These will serve as criteria for all followers of Christ who wish to attain theologia. In following the descending genealogy that Luke provides for Jesus, Palamas locates the point from which God will reinitiate the restoration of creation in the birth of the “excellent” Seth. Now, Seth is distinguished by “his orderly conduct, his control over his senses and his magnificent virtue,” i.e., his dispassion (apatheia) and watchfulness (nepsis).”(9) However badly matters provisionally turned (cf. Genesis 6), Seth, who was God’s compensation to Adam and Eve for the loss of Abel, is a type of Christ’s Resurrection, for he overcomes the violent way of Cain (10). But whilst Christ will raise up Adam, Seth did not do the same for Abel. Nevertheless in anticipation of those things that will happen through Mary, a son was born to Seth, Enos, who hoped in the Lord and called upon Him. Thus, situated in the line of Seth’s descendents, “worthy, in hope, of divine adoption,” and in accordance with God’s foreknowledge, God’s providential grace saw to it that the hope of Israel will progress discretely through the king and prophet David unto Joaquim and Anna: “They were childless, but lived chastely together and were more virtuous than all those who traced back their noble descent and character to David.” Pre-ordained in God’s plan to restore creation and, thus, a gift from God even before she was born, she was received by Joaquim and Anna as a gift in answer to their prayers for a child. But they would make of Mary a gift in return, i.e., a gift of the gift, for she was given over to the Temple at three years of age, shortly after being weaned. Always interweaving the narrative details of the Protoevangelium with implicit references to the high calling to the monastic life and hesychastic spirituality, Palamas underscores Mary’s preference for the Temple and to its High Priest in lieu of her parents and the distracting joys of the natural world. Indeed, he comments that her exemplariness is such that she can be noted to be the first and only person who willingly forsake the world – for the sake of the world -- from an infant age and to dedicate herself entirely to unceasing prayer, turning within herself, dwelling in holy quietness, and in “our life’s upper room.”(11) It is, again, as if the child Mary passed immediately into theologia, into having a direct knowledge of God without any concern of acquiring that purity of heart that would enable her to contemplate the presence of the Creator in the order of nature: “The Virgin /…/ could not turn her eyes upon any of these natural wonders (she was not old enough), yet she understood God, and rejoiced as she was brought to Him.”(12) If this distinguishes the Virgin from all those elected by God throughout the ages, she also serves as pointing to a divine knowledge that is beyond that contemplated in philosophy and the recourse to analogical reasoning. With some parallel to one of the themes that provoked the controversy he had with Barlaam, Palamas grants that first philosophy, which seeks to discern universal principles, even a first principle, free from the contingency of matter, has some merit, but it still ignores a higher, mystical vision of God, one that transcends mere discursive speculation. “Saying something about God is not the same as encountering God.”(13) For our purposes, we acknowledge that the Mother of God enjoyed such an encounter of the most immediate kind; her purity made her a perfect human vehicle for the Incarnate Word, whom she will know as such; and her knowledge of God takes the form of a living communion. The Exultation of Theotokos: “My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Saviour.” (Luke: 1:46-47) The Virgin’s entry into the Holy of Holies, into the innermost sanctuary, the place where God is encountered, is conjoined with the paradox that she herself becomes the antitype of the temporal Holy of Holies as conceived by Israel. Everything about her is magnified, because the God who makes His abode in her also makes her the Holy of Holies in whom humankind might find her motherly comfort and protection. In order to describe the nature of this intimacy between Mother and Son, Palamas advances a striking image in regard to the Virgin’s conception of the Son of God by the Holy Spirit: “There was nothing between the One overshadowing and the one overshadowed, not air, either earthly or heavenly, nor anything perceptible or beyond our perception.”(14) And precisely because there is nothing between the Holy Spirit and the Virgin, what takes shape in the womb of the Virgin is the Word of God that is being communicated by the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father. Mother of God, she contains God in her human body. We have seen how God fashioned her through is providential grace; now she fashions God in a human form and flesh that will be physically present for men to see and touch the immaterial reality of the Son in His bodily matter. In explicating the divine reality being magnified in the Virgin Mary, Palamas conceives of God establishing her as “an icon of everything good,” an expression of such beauty on display for both the angels in heaven and mankind on earth that both dimensions of reality are thereby enhanced. She becomes a true manifestation of the same creative light through which He instituted the first day of creation. However, in God’s second creation, the light will pass through her so that the human soul may be touched by it and, thereby, be transformed: she is the “lampstand of the divine, ineffable light of everything virtuous.”(15) Just as the material with which lamp filters the light that is produced with it, it is through the materiality of the Virgin that those who seek communion with God may approach His light and truly know Him, “those who long for the outpouring of light and the granting of indescribable divine graces which come through her.”(16) The model for the theologian who prays truly, the Virgin sought God in the inner sanctuary, the spiritual Holy of Holies, having freed herself from the seduction of the exterior world. Thinking in terms of the hesychastic method of prayer, Palamas proposes that she “united her mind with its inclination to turn within itself, with attention and unceasing holy prayer.”(17) Otherwise put, the mind is guided into the heart that directs the entire organism and, through unceasing prayer and allows grace to gain possession of the heart. Grace (or the uncreated energies) reigns over all thoughts and members of the body; subject to the Spirit, a power is recalled from within the purified heart becoming itself a dwelling (Ark, Tabernacle, etc..) of God, who is at once circumscribed and magnified in it. In conclusion Throughout the sermons that Palamas dedicates to Theotokos. hesychasm, as a way to enter into an unmediated communion with God, provides the context of how she is to be best understood. On the other hand, as the one who, without ever being other than a human creature, did eminently realise such a communion, she becomes the model for the hesychasts in particular and, generally, for Christian holiness. In this ambit, she can be seen as actually living theologia. And theology as it is conceived by the hesychasts does not proceed analogically and indirectly to God, (as Barlaam proposed), but is a direct vision of God’s glories in the form of His uncreated energies. Thus, for Palamas, the Virgin Mary is not the eminent mystical theologian because of any special intellectual prowess. Rather it consists in her humility (“Behold the maidservant of the Lord!”) and faithful obedience (“Let it be according to your word.” (Luke 1:38)), for these are the virtues that prepared her entry before us into the Holy of Holies, namely, the hypostatic reality of the living God, and, whilst interceding for us in prayer, awaits us. Endnotes (1) Pelikan recognises an immediate and a more distant context for Palamas’ articulation of a new theology in conjunction with the life of prayer. The more immediate guide in that direction was Simeon the New Theologian who emphasised the primacy of personal experiences of God and His divine light, i.e., communion with the Incommunicable One that is granted through the Incarnation who delivers from sin and grants divine life. The theme of the divine light in relation to the Transfiguration will also play an important role in Palamas’ mystical theology, as will his development of the ancient distinction between (unknowable) divine essence and the uncreated energies permeating all things. In relation to the wider tradition, Pelikan writes, “The novelty of Palamite theology consisted in the fundamental reinterpretation of emphases going back to Origen and Dionysius the Areopagite; despite a continuing reverence for Dionysius, this issued in a ‘new theology’, for it brought about a further development in the Eastern doctrine of God.” The Christian Tradition: The Spirit of Eastern Christendom (600-1700) volume 2 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974), 262. (2) Evagrius the Solitary, Philokalia volume 1. The number of one hundred and fifty-three refers that great catch of fish brought in by the apostles upon being instructed by the risen Christ to cast their nets to the right of where they were in the boat. Hitherto, they had caught nothing. (cf., John 21:6-11) The suggestion is that Evagrius has likewise obeyed the Lord and has acquired wisdom in his doctrine of prayer that he now shares with his reader(s). Also, the fact that the net did not break under the weight can be thought to mean the wholeness of his doctrine of prayer. (3) John Meyendorff, St Gregory Palamas and Orthodox Spirituality (Crestwood: St Vladimir’s Seminary, 1974), p. 25. (4) Metropolitan Hierotheos of Nafpaktos writes that, “Throughout his life /Saint Gregory Palamas/ was convinced that he had the protection and help of the Theotokos, and therefore he struggled with strength and courage, expounded the theology of the Church in an Orthodox way and defeated the heresies of his time.” Quote taken from Hierotheos of Nafpaktos’ work, Saint Gregory Palamos as a Hagiorite. Such a personal devotion is expressed in the second sermon “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies,” in which he speaks of settling a debt with her and of the grace he has received due to her (p. 17). (5) Saint Gregory Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holies of Holy II” in Mary the Mother of God: Sermons by Saint Gregory Palamos edited by Christopher Veniamin (South Canaan, PA.: Mount Thabor Publishing, 2005), p. 37. Palamas also sees her role a mediating the old carnal Israel and the new spiritual one, the Church, i.e., the created natural and the uncreated supernatural. “She alone was shown to be the natural mother of God in a supernatural way.” (p. 19). (6) St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” p. 35. (7) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons …, p. 25. (8) St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Nativity of the Mother of God” in Sermons …, p. 4. Much of the Sermons are marked by recourse to chiasmus, the reiterating at the end of sentence a conceit that is at the beginning. Here we have virginity referring to the Mother of God and then God Himself. This rhetorical strategy accentuates the mirroring of the Virgin and the reality of God through the Son, granted the different status – one created, the other uncreated. Just to cite another example: “/…/ she made God the Son of man, and men the sons of God.” (p. 19). (9) St. Gregory Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies I,” in Sermons .. p. 12. (10) “The name Seth can be interpreted to mean ‘resurrection’, or, ‘a rising up from’, which actually refers to the Lord, Who promises and gives everlasting life to those who believe in Him.” Sermons, p.12. (11) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons…, p. 42-43. (12) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons…, p.30. (13) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons … p. 42. In the short passage in which he deals with this theme, Palamos traces the phases of purification towards contemplation of the living God. Revealing of his teachings on the matter and the place that apophaticism as in it, he concludes, “/…/ we attain to that unknowing which lies beyond knowledge, that is to say, above every kind of much-vaunted philosophy, even though the purpose of the most excellent part of philosophy is knowledge.” p. 43. (14) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons ..., p. 39. (15) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons..., p. 22. (16) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,“ Sermons….,p. 36. (17) Palamas, “On the Entry into the Holy of Holies II,” Sermons...., p. 47
Sermons on the Feast of the Nativity of Christ
by St Leo the Great
All share in the joy of Christmas
Our Saviour, dearly-beloved, was born today (Christmas day): 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 the charge, so He comes 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 being pardon. Let the gentile take courage in that he is called to life. For the Son of God in the fullness 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. And in this conflict undertaken for us, the fight was fought on great and wondrous principles of fairness.
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." 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: she learns from 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. Her implicit faith is confirmed also by the attesting of a 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.
Therefore the Word of God, Himself God, the Son of God who "in the beginning with God," through whom "all things were made" and "without" whom "was nothing made," with the purpose of delivering man from eternal death, became man: The 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." 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?
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," had pity on us: and "when we were dead in sins, has quickened us together in Christ," 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 your 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 you are a member. Remember that you were rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into God's light and kingdom. By the mystery of Baptism you were made the temple of the Holy Ghost: and do not subject yourself once more to the devil; because your purchase money is the blood of Christ, because He shall judge you in truth Who ransomed you in mercy, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.
The mystery of the Incarnation demands our joy.
Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly-beloved, and rejoice with spiritual joy that there has dawned for us the day of every-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss. For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us the commemoration of our salvation, which promised from the beginning, accomplished in the fullness of time will endure for ever; on which we are bound with hearts up-lifted to adore the divine mystery: so that what is the effect of God's great gift may be celebrated by the Church's great rejoicing. For God the almighty and merciful, Whose nature is goodness, Whose will is power, Whose work is mercy: as soon as the devil's malignity killed us by the poison of his hatred, foretold at the very beginning of the world the remedy His piety had prepared for the restoration of us mortals: proclaiming to the serpent that the Seed of the woman should come to crush the lifting of his baneful head by its power, signifying no doubt that Christ would come in the flesh, God and man, Who born of a Virgin should by His incorrupt birth condemn the despoiler of the human stock. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And "ours" we call what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For what the deceiver brought in and the deceived admitted has no trace in the Saviour. Nor because He partook of man's weaknesses, did He therefore share our faults. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human and not diminishing the Divine: because the "emptying of Himself" whereby the Invisible made Himself visible and Creator and Lord of all things as He was, wished to be mortal.
Therefore, when the time came, dearly beloved, which had been fore-ordained for men's redemption, the Son of God enters these lower parts of the world, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting His Father's glory, begotten in a new order, by a new nativity. In a new order, because being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained: abiding before all time He began to be in time: the Lord of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took on Him the form of a servant: being God, that cannot suffer, He did not disdain to be man that can, and immortal as He is, to subject Himself to the laws of death. And by a new nativity He was begotten, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, without paternal desire, without injury to the mother's chastity: because such a birth as knew no taint of human flesh, became One who was to be the Saviour of men, while it possessed in itself the nature of human substance. For when God was born in the flesh, God Himself was the Father, as the archangel witnessed to the Blessed Virgin Mary: "because the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee: and therefore, that which shall be born of thee shall be called holy, the Son of God." The origin is different but the nature like: not with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bare, and a Virgin she remained.
Consider here not the condition of her that bare but the will of Him that was born; for He was born Man as He willed and was able. If you inquire into the truth of His nature, you must acknowledge the matter to be human; if you search for the mode of His birth, you must confess the power to be of God. For the Lord Jesus Christ came to do away with not to endure our pollutions: not to succumb to our faults but to heal them. He came that He might cure every weakness of our corruptness and all the sores of our defiled souls: for which reason it behaved Him to be born by a new order, who brought to men's bodies the new gift of unsullied purity. For the incorrupt nature of Him that was born had to guard the primal virginity of the
Mother, and the infused power of the Divine Spirit had to preserve in spotlessness and holiness that sanctuary which He had chosen for Himself: that Spirit (I say) who had determined to raise the fallen, to restore the broken, and by overcoming the allurements of the flesh to bestow on us in abundant measure the power of chastity; in order that the virginity which in others cannot be retained in child-bearing, might be attained by them at their second birth.
Justice required that Satan be vanquished by God made man. And, dearly beloved, this very fact that Christ chose to be born of a Virgin does it not appear to be part of the deepest design? For though the true mercy of God had infinitely many schemes to hand for the restoration of mankind, it chose that particular design which put in force for the destroying of the devil's work, not the efficacy of might but the dictates of justice. For the pride of the ancient foe not undeservedly made good its despotic rights over all men, and tyrannised over those who had been of their own accord lured away from God's commands to be the slaves of his will. And to this end, without male seed Christ was conceived of a Virgin, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And whereas in all mothers conception does not take place without stain of sin, this one received purification from the Source of her conception. Her unsullied virginity knew no lust when it ministered the substance. The Lord took from His mother our nature, not our fault.
Then, therefore, the merciful and almighty Saviour so arranged the commencement of His human course as to hide the power of His Godhead, the crafty foe was taken off his guard and he thought that the nativity of the Child, Who was born for the salvation of mankind, was as much subject to himself as all others are to their birth. For he saw Him crying and weeping, he saw Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, subjected to circumcision, offering the sacrifice which the law required. Meanwhile, he inflicted insults, poured upon Him all the force of his fury. The unscrupulous thief persisted in assaulting Him, and went beyond the bond, and required the punishment of iniquity from Him in Whom he found no fault. The strong one is bound by his own chains, and every device of the evil one recoils in his own head. When the prince of the world is bound, all that he held in captivity is released. Our nature cleansed from its old contagion regains its honourable estate, death is destroyed by death, nativity is restored by nativity: since at the one and the same time redemption does away with slavery, regeneration changes our origin, and faith justifies the sinner.
Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same temper whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art. Such men's hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light; for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors, because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds. Let not Christian souls entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie. That power then, that wisdom, that majesty is to be adored which created the universe out of nothing, and framed by His almighty methods the substance of the earth and sky into what forms and dimensions He willed. Sun, moon, and stars may be most useful to us, most fair to look upon; but only if we render thanks to their Maker for them and worship God who made them, not the creation which does Him service. Then praise God, dearly beloved, in all His works and judgments. Cherish an undoubting belief in the Virgin's pure conception. Honour the sacred and Divine Mystery of man's restoration with holy and sincere service. Embrace Christ born in our flesh, that you may deserve to see Him also as the God of glory reigning in His majesty, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit remains in the unity of the Godhead for ever and ever. Amen.
Christmas morning most appropriate time for thoughts on Nativity
On all days at all times, dearly beloved, does the birth of our Lord and Saviour from the Virgin-mother occur to the thoughts of the faithful, who meditate on divine things, that the mind may be aroused to the acknowledgment of its Maker, may employ its spiritual insight on the fact that God the Son of God, begotten of the co-eternal Father, was born by a human birth. But this Nativity which is to be adored in heaven and on earth is suggested to us by no day more than this when, with the early light still shedding its rays on nature, there is borne in upon our senses the brightness of this wondrous mystery. For the angel Gabriel's converse with the astonished Mary and her conception by the Holy Ghost as wondrously promised as believed, seem to recur not only to the memory but to the very eyes. For to-day the Maker of the world was born of a Virgin's womb, and He, who made all natures, became Son of her, whom He created. To-day the Word of God appeared clothed in flesh, and That which had never been visible to human eyes began to be tangible to our hands as well. To-day the shepherds learned from angels' voices that the Saviour was born in the substance of our flesh and soul; and to-day the form of the Gospel message was prearranged by the leaders of the Lord's flocks, so that we too may say with the army of the heavenly host: "Glory in the highest to God, and on earth peace to men of good will."
Although, therefore, that infancy, which the majesty of God's Son did not disdain, reached mature manhood by the growth of years and, when the triumph of His passion and resurrection was completed, all the actions of humility which were undertaken for us ceased, yet to-day's festival renews for us the holy childhood of Jesus born of the Virgin Mary; and in adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the commencement of our own life. For the birth of Christ is the source of life for Christian folk, and the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the body. Although every individual that is called has his own order, and all the sons of the Church are separated from one another by intervals of time, yet as the entire body of the faithful being born in the font of baptism is crucified with Christ in His passion, raised again in His resurrection, and placed at the Father's right hand in His ascension, so with Him are they born in this nativity. For any believer in whatever part of the world that is re-born in Christ, quits the old paths of his original nature and passes into a new man by being re-born; and no longer is he reckoned of his earthly father's stock but among the seed of the Saviour, Who became the Son of the man in order that we might have the power to be the sons of God. For unless He came down to us in this humiliation, no one would reach His presence by any merits of his own. At the end of the ages is fulfilled that which was ordained from all eternity; and in the presence of realities, when signs and types have ceased, the Law and prophecy have become Truth; and so Abraham is found the father of all nations, and the promised blessing is given to the world in his seed. We with Abraham believe in God and "waver not through unbelief," but "know most assuredly that what the Lord promised, He is able to perform."
Peace with God is His Best gift to man.
The Saviour then, dearly beloved, is born not of fleshly seed but of the Holy Spirit, in such wise that the condemnation of the first transgression did not touch Him. For, as the blessed Apostle teaches, "we have received not the spirit of the world but the Spirit which is of God, that we may know the things which are given us by God." The Apostle says "being justified therefore by faith let us have peace towards God."
The mystery of this boon is great, dearly beloved, and this gift exceeds all gifts that God should call man son, and man should name God Father: for by these terms we perceive and learn the love which reached so great a height. If it is gain the praise of men that the father's glory should shine again in their descendants, how much more glorious is it for those who are born of God to regain the brightness of their Maker's likeness and display in themselves Him Who begat them, as the Lord says: "Let your light so shine before men that they may see your good works and glorify your Father who is in heaven?" We know indeed, as the Apostle John says that "the whole world lies in the evil one," and by the deception of the Devil and his angels numberless attempts are made either to frighten man in his struggle upwards by adversity or to spoil him by prosperity, "but greater is He that is in us, than he that is against us," and they who have peace with God and are always saying to the Father with their whole hearts "thy will be done" can be overcome in no battles, can be hurt by no assaults.
Secure a peace with God that nothing can destroy, by accepting His gracious service, in order that we may not only surrender ourselves in obedience to our King but also be united to Him by our free-will. For if we are like-minded, if we wish what He wishes, and disapprove what He disapproves, He will finish all our wars for us, He Who gave the will, will also give the power: so that we may be fellow-workers in His works, and with the exultation of Faith may utter that prophetic song: "the Lord is my light and salvation: whom shall I fear? The Lord is the defender of my life: of whom shall I be afraid!"
The birthday of the Lord is the birthday of peace: for thus says the Apostle, "He is our peace, who made both one;" since whether we be Jew or Gentile, "through Him we have access in one Spirit to the Father," And it was this in particular that He taught His disciples before the day of His passion which He had of His own free-will fore-ordained, saying: "My peace I give unto you, My peace I leave for you." He added, "not as the world give I unto you." But the peace of the spiritual coming down from above and leading upwards refuses to hold communion with the lovers of the world, resists all obstacles and flies from pernicious pleasures to true joys, as the Lord says, "Where thy treasure is, there will thy heart be also", that is, if what you love is below, you will descend to the lowest depth; if what you love is above, you will reach the topmost height. There may the Spirit of peace lead and bring us, whose wishes and feeling are at one, and who are of one mind in faith and hope and in charity: since "as many as are led by the Spirit of God these are sons of God" Who reigns with the Son and Holy Spirit for ever and ever. Amen.
The Divine goodness, dearly beloved, has indeed always taken thought for mankind in diverse manners, and in many portions, and of His mercy has imparted many gifts of His providence to the ages of old. But in these later times has exceeded all the abundance of His usual kindness, when in Christ the very Mercy has descended to sinners, the very Truth to those that are astray, and very Life to those that are dead; so that the Word, which is co-eternal and co-equal with the Father, might take our humble nature into union with His Godhead, and, being born God of God, might also be born Man of man. This was indeed promised from the foundation of the world, and has always been prophesied by many facts and words. For the Lord says to Abraham: "In thy seed shall all nations be blessed;" hence the Lord again says through Isaiah: "behold a virgin shall conceive in her womb, and shall bear a Son, and His Name shall be called Emmanuel, which is interpreted, God with us," and again, "a rod shall come forth from the root of Jesse, and a flower shall arise from his root."
Let the righteous, then rejoice in the Lord, and let the hearts of believers turn to God's praise, and the sons of men confess His wondrous acts. That after His great gift to mankind in making us after His image, He contributed far more largely to our restoration when the Lord Himself took on Him "the form of a slave." For the first man received the substance of flesh from the earth, and was quickened with a rational spirit by the in-breathing of his Creator, so that living after the image and likeness of his Maker, he might preserve the form of God's goodness and righteousness as in a bright mirror. But because he trusted the envious deceiver, not only did that one man, in him all that came after him also hear the verdict: "earth thou art, and unto earth, shalt thou go," "as in the earthy," therefore, "such are they also that are earthy," and no one is immortal, because no one is heavenly....
But you, dearly beloved, whom I address in no less earnest terms than those of the blessed Apostle Peter, "a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for God's own possession," built upon the impregnable rock, Christ, and joined to the Lord our Saviour by His true assumption of our flesh, remain firm in that Faith, which you have professed before many witnesses, and in which you were born through water and the Holy Ghost, and received the anointing of salvation, and the seal of eternal life. But "if any one preach to you any thing beside that which you have learned, let him be anathema;" refuse to put wicked fables before the clearest truth, and what you may happen to read or hear contrary to the rule of the catholic and Apostolic creed, judge it altogether deadly and diabolical. Be not carried away by their deceitful keepings of sham and pretended fasts, to the destroying of men's souls.
A mighty bulwark is a sound faith, a true faith, to which nothing has to be added or taken away: because unless it is one, it is no faith, as the Apostle says, "one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in us all." Cling to this unity, dearly beloved, with minds unshaken, and in it "follow after" all "holiness," in it carry out the Lord's commands, because "without faith it is impossible to please God," and without it nothing is holy, nothing is pure, nothing alive: "for the just lives by faith," and he who by the devil's deception loses it, is dead though living, because as righteousness is gained by faith, so too by a true faith is eternal life gained, as says our Lord and Saviour. And this is life eternal, that they may know Thee, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom Thou has sent. May He make you to advance and persevere to the end, Who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit, for ever and ever. Amen.
edited by Fr George Mastrantonis,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and published by OLOGOS