The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 7 (2)

Our faith is not founded upon empty words; nor are we carried away by mere caprice or beguiled by specious arguments. On the contrary, we put our faith in words spoken by the Word himself at God’s command. God wished to win us back from disobedience, not by using force to reduce us to slavery but by addressing to our free will a call to liberty.

Without protest he endured his passion, he submitted to death and revealed his resurrection. In all these ways he offered his own humanity as the firstfruits of our race to keep us from losing heart when suffering comes our way, and to make us look forward to receiving the same reward as he did, since we know that we possess the same humanity…We shall enter the kingdom of heaven, because while we lived on earth we acknowledged heaven’s King.

—Hippolytus, On the Refutation of All Heresies 10, 33-34

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 7

How could he have given himself if he had not worn flesh? He offered his flesh and gave himself for us, in order that undergoing death in it, “He might bring to nothing the one who held the power of death, that is, the devil.” For this reason we continually give thanks in the name of Jesus Christ. We do not bring to nothing the grace which came to us through him. For the coming of the Savior in the flesh has been the ransom and salvation of all creation.

—Athanasius, Letter to Adelphus

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 6 (2)

It is as if God the Father sent upon the earth a purse full of his mercy. This purse was burst open during the Lord’s passion to pour forth its hidden contents—the price of our redemption. It was only a small purse, but it was very full. As the Scriptures tell us: “A little child has been given to us, but in him who dwells with the fullness of the divine nature.” The fullness of time brought with it the fullness of divinity. God’s Son came in the flesh so that mortals could see and recognize God’s kindness. When God reveals his humanity, his goodness cannot possibly remain hidden…How could he have shown his mercy more clearly than by taking on himself our condition? We should stop thinking of our own sufferings and remember what he has suffered. The lesser he became through his human nature, the greater was his goodness; the more he lowered himself for me, the dearer he is to me…He has given us a most wonderful proof of his goodness by adding humanity to his own divine nature.

—Bernard of Clairvaux, Sermon 1 for Epiphany

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 6

When Isaac himself carried the wood for the sacrifice of himself, in this, too, he prefigured Christ our Lord, who carried his own cross to the place of his passion. On this mystery much had already been foretold by the prophets: “And his government shall be upon his shoulders.” Christ, then, had the government upon his shoulders when he carried his cross with wonderful humility. Not unfittingly does Christ’s cross signify government: by it the devil is conquered and the whole world recalled to the knowledge and grace of Christ.

—Caesarius of Arles, Sermon 84.3

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 4

He chose to lack for himself, that he may abound for all. The sobs of that appalling infancy cleanse me, those tears wash away my sins. Therefore, Lord Jesus, I owe more to your sufferings because I was redeemed than I do to works for which I was created. You see that he is in swaddling clothes. You do not see that he is in heaven. You hear the cries of an infant, you do not hear the lowing of an ox recognizing its Master, for the ox knows his Owner and the donkey his Master’s crib.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke: 2:41-42

Meditations on the Incarnation by Select Church Fathers and Doctors

Meditations read on Christmas 1B, Sunday, December 27, 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s mediations, click here.

The following sermon preached by St. John Chrysostom is the first extant Christmas sermon we have. It was preached in Antioch in 386, the same year Augustine became a Christian. Source:

Behold a new and wondrous mystery.

My ears resound to the Shepherd’s song, piping no soft melody, but chanting full forth a heavenly hymn. The Angels sing. The Archangels blend their voice in harmony. The Cherubim hymn their joyful praise. The Seraphim exalt His glory. All join to praise this holy feast, beholding the Godhead here on earth, and man in heaven. He who is above, now for our redemption dwells here below; and he that was lowly is by divine mercy raised.

Bethlehem this day resembles heaven; hearing from the stars the singing of angelic voices; and in place of the sun, enfolds within itself on every side, the Sun of justice. And ask not how: for where God wills, the order of nature yields. For He willed; He had the power; He descended; He redeemed; all things yielded in obedience to God. This day He who is, is Born; and He who is, becomes what He was not. For when He was God, He became man; yet not departing from the Godhead that is His. Nor yet by any loss of divinity became He man, nor through increase became He God from man; but being the Word He became flesh, His nature, because of impassability, remaining unchanged.

And so the kings have come, and they have seen the heavenly King that has come upon the earth, not bringing with Him Angels, nor Archangels, nor Thrones, nor Dominations, nor Powers, nor Principalities, but, treading a new and solitary path, He has come forth from a spotless womb.

Since this heavenly birth cannot be described, neither does His coming amongst us in these days permit of too curious scrutiny. Though I know that a Virgin this day gave birth, and I believe that God was begotten before all time, yet the manner of this generation [being born of a virgin] I have learned to venerate in silence and I accept that this is not to be probed too curiously with wordy speech.  

For with God we look not for the order of nature, but rest our faith in the power of Him who works. 

What shall I say to you; what shall I tell you? I behold a Mother who has brought forth; I see a Child come to this light by birth. The manner of His conception I cannot comprehend. 

Nature here rested, while the Will of God labored. O ineffable grace! The Only Begotten, who is before all ages, who cannot be touched or be perceived, who is simple, without body, has now put on my body, that is visible and liable to corruption. For what reason? That coming amongst us he may teach us, and teaching, lead us by the hand to the things that [humans] cannot see. For since [humans] believe that the eyes are more trustworthy than the ears, they doubt of that which they do not see, and so He has deigned to show Himself in bodily presence, that He may remove all doubt.

Christ, finding the holy body and soul of the Virgin, builds for Himself a living temple, and as He had willed, formed there a man from the Virgin; and, putting Him on, this day came forth; unashamed of the lowliness of our nature. 

For it was to Him no lowering to put on what He Himself had made. Let that handiwork be forever glorified, which became the cloak of its own Creator. For as in the first creation of flesh, man could not be made before the clay had come into His hand, so neither could this corruptible body be glorified, until it had first become the garment of its Maker. 

What shall I say! And how shall I describe this Birth to you? For this wonder fills me with astonishment. The Ancient of days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly Throne, now lies in a manger. And He who cannot be touched, who is simple, without complexity, and incorporeal, now lies subject to the hands of [humans]. He who has broken the bonds of sinners, is now bound by an infants bands. But He has decreed that ignominy shall become honor, infamy be clothed with glory, and total humiliation the measure of His Goodness. 

For this He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit; and so He bestowing and I receiving, He prepares for me the treasure of Life. He takes my flesh, to sanctify me; He gives me His Spirit that He may save me. 

Come, then, let us observe the Feast. Truly wondrous is the whole chronicle of the Nativity. For this day the ancient slavery is ended, the devil confounded, the demons take to flight, the power of death is broken, paradise is unlocked, the curse is taken away, sin is removed from us, error driven out, truth has been brought back, the speech of kindliness diffused, and spreads on every side, a heavenly way of life has been implanted on the earth, angels communicate with [humans] without fear, and [humans] now hold speech with angels. 

Why is this? Because God is now on earth, and man in heaven; on every side all things commingle. He became Flesh. He did not become God. He was God. Wherefore He became flesh, so that He whom heaven did not contain, a manger would this day receive. He was placed in a manger, so that He, by whom all things are nourished, may receive an infants food from His Virgin Mother. So, the Father of all ages, as an infant at the breast, nestles in the virginal arms, that the Magi may more easily see Him. Since this day the Magi too have come, and made a beginning of withstanding tyranny; and the heavens give glory, as the Lord is revealed by a star.

To Him, then, who out of confusion has wrought a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Spirit, we offer all praise, now and forever. Amen.

—John Chrysostom (d. 407), priest at Antioch and later Archbishop of Constantinople

Now hear this word from St. Athanasius.

The Word of God did not abandon the human race, his creatures, who are hurtling to their own ruin. By the offering of his body, the Word of God destroyed death which had united itself to them; by his teaching, he corrected their negligences; and by his power, he restored the human race.

Why was it necessary for the Word of God to become incarnate and not some other? Scripture indicates the reason by these words: “It was fitting that when bringing many heirs to glory, God, for whom and through whom all things exist, should make their leader in the work of salvation perfect through suffering.” This signifies that the work of raising human beings from the ruin into which they had fallen pertained to none other than the Word of God, who had made them in the beginning.

By the sacrifice of his body, he put an end to the law which weighed upon them, and he renewed in us the principle of life by giving us the hope of the resurrection. For if it is through ourselves that death attained dominance over us, conversely, it is through the incarnation of the Word of God that death has been destroyed and that life has been resurrected, as indicated by the Apostle filled with Christ: “Death came through one person; hence the resurrection of the dead comes through another person also. Just as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will come to life again.”

It is no longer as condemned that we die. Rather, we die with the hope of rising again from the dead, awaiting the universal resurrection which God will manifest to us in his own time, since he is both the author of it and gives us the grace for it.

—Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria (d. 373), On the Incarnation 10.14

And finally, a word from our own St. Augustine of Hippo. 

Awake! For your sake God has become human. “Awake, you who sleep, rise up from the dead, and Christ will give you light.” I tell you again: for your sake, God became human.

You would have suffered eternal death, had he not been born in time. Never would you have been freed from sinful flesh, had he not taken on himself the likeness of sinful flesh. You would have suffered everlasting unhappiness, had it not been for this mercy. You would never have returned to life, had he not shared your death. You would have been lost if he had not hastened to your aid. You would have perished, had he not come.

…Ask if this were merited; ask for its reason, for its justification, and see whether you will find any other answer but by sheer grace.

—Augustine, Bishop of Hippo (d. 430), Sermon 185

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 3

He was a baby and a child, so that you may be a perfect human. He was wrapped in swaddling clothes, so that you may be freed from the snares of death. He was in a manger, that you may be at the altar. He was on earth that you may be in the stars. He had no other place in the inn, so that you may have many mansions in the heavens. He, being rich, became poor for your sakes, that through his poverty you may be rich. Therefore his poverty is our inheritance, and the Lord’s weakness is our virtue.

—Ambrose, Exposition of the Gospel of Luke 2:41-42

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2020-Day 1

Once again this year, as my Christmas gift to you, I am going to post excerpts from the wisdom of the ancient commentators on the Incarnation of God. I will be posting each day until January 5. May you find them as edifying as I have. Merry Christmas!

Dearly beloved, today our Savior is born; let us rejoice. Sadness should have no place on the birthday of life. The fear of death has been swallowed up; life brings us joy with the promise of eternal happiness. No one is shut out from this joy; all share the same reason for rejoicing. Our Lord, victor over sin and death, finding no one free from sin, came to free us all.

—Prayer from Leo the Great

Christmas 2020: The Light Still Shines in the Darkness

Sermon delivered on Christmas Eve 2020 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of tonight’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; The Song of God’s Chosen One (from Isaiah 11); Hebrews 1.1-12; John 1.1-14.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen. 

Merry Christmas, St. Augustine’s! During this past Advent season we have encouraged you to look into the darkness of this world and our lives with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Continuing this theme in our gospel lesson tonight, St. John writes that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. But what does that mean for us as Christians living in 2020? This is what I want us to look at this evening.

To say that 2020 has been an awful year is understatement. Each of us comes here tonight with our muted fears, surrounded by a potentially deadly disease that shows no sign of letting up. Those of us who are here are wearing masks and we must distance from each other when in fact most of us long to embrace the other and be embraced. But we can’t do that for obvious reasons. Many of our parish family have stayed away tonight, concerned about their health and/or worried about spreading COVID, just like those of us are who are here. Many if not most of us will forgo our big family Christmas celebrations because of COVID along with many of our long-cherished Christmas traditions because we fear being infected or infecting those we love. Then there’s the larger societal issues that I don’t have the time here to address. During these long, dark days of winter we need most the human touch because we are programed for relationships. But because of this cursed and wicked virus, many of us will be denied that touch along with the fellowship that accompanies it. 

To make matters worse, some of our parish family have suffered the death of family members and friends recently. Others of us have actually been sickened by COVID, although thankfully not to the point where they needed hospitalization. What should be “that most wonderful time of the year” has turned into a living and sustained nightmare where we find ourselves alone, isolated, fearful, angry, depressed, and anxious, tempted to wonder (or wondering) where God is in it all. Put simply, we long with all our being for something better and for our cherished holidays like Christmas to return to “normal.” I suspect that is why so many of us love watching feel-good Christmas movies with all of their sentimental charm. There everything turns out just right. Old relationships are mended and/or new, meaningful ones are forged. Hope is kindled or reborn; everything turns out to be merry and bright, with family and friends gathered together, replete with splendid Christmas trees and dazzling holiday lights ablaze. Who among us doesn’t long for those kind of endings, especially living in the midst of this awful pandemic with its seemingly never-ending stream of bad news and myriad tragedies? In biblical language, we are being afflicted by a darkness that is produced by human sin and other forms of evil that result from living in a world that struggles under God’s just curse. Is it any wonder that we want our Christmases to be merry and bright with all our loved ones gathered around us and all our Christmas decorations blazing bright? But that’s not what most of us are getting this year. This year we are getting the darkness of pandemic and living in fear that we know all too well.

That is why we need to gather as God’s people in Christ and hear God’s word proclaimed and preached, even when lousy preachers like me are preaching. Just when the darkness threatens to overwhelm us and undo us completely, just when our muted fears are most intense and we are on the brink of despair (or have fallen over), we hear these words from St. John in our gospel lesson tonight: “The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it” (Jn 1.5). In other words, God’s light, the light of Christ born to us this very night, shines in our lives and on our sins and fears and broken dreams and shattered relationships to heal us and make God’s love and mercy and forgiveness known to us in real and tangible ways. It is the only light that can make a real difference. In proclaiming that God’s light in Christ shines in the darkness of our lives and God’s good but corrupted world, St. John is proclaiming to us the Good News that human beings—you and I in all our unloveliness—matter to God and that God intends, has always intended, even as he cursed his world in response to human sin and rebellion, to heal and restore us to himself. Tonight we celebrate the beginning of that Good News, the only news that has the power to heal our darkened and broken hearts and minds.

Human sin and the evil it has produced have always been the problem. It alienates us from God and each other and causes us to die because we are separated from our only Source of life. So to deal with human sin, God had to become human so that he could take the collective weight of our sin and the evil it produces on himself to judge and condemn our sin in the flesh and spare us from his good but terrible judgment on all the corrupts and despoils us and God’s world. God did this through the cross of Christ so that we no longer have to fear being God’s enemies or being alienated from God, either in this life or in the age to come. As St. Paul boldly pronounced in Romans 8.1, there is now no condemnation for those who have a living relationship with Christ because of what God has done for us in Christ crucified and raised from the dead. How all this works we are not told, and I suspect that is for our own good because I doubt any of us would be able to fully comprehend the power of God the Father at work in his crucified Son. Christmas is a time, therefore, to rejoice that humans matter to God and to be thankful that God has acted decisively on our behalf by becoming human so that he could die for us. As the old Christmas carol proclaims, “I wonder as I wander out under the sky,/ How Jesus, the Savior, did come for to die./ For poor, ornery people like you and like I/ I wonder as I wander/ Out under the sky.” This is what St. John means when he tells us the light shines in the darkness and the darkness did not (and cannot) overcome the light. Nothing is more powerful than God the Father whose love is made known to us in a very personal way in Jesus Christ. 

This of course is why Christmas will come this year as it does every year, even in the midst of this cursed pandemic and our muted fears and forced isolation, and this is the way it has always been. Our sentimental expectation that our Christmases will be all merry and bright is a sign of how richly God has blessed us because merry and bright is not the way of the world. If Christmas waited for all to be right with the world to shine Christ’s light on it and us, it would never have come at all. But Christmas came precisely to shine Christ’s light in the darkness. Think about it. Christmas shined its light on Joseph’s unfounded but reasonable suspicion and fear that Mary was an adulterer (Mt 1.18-20). It shined its light on King Herod’s wickedness even as he ordered the slaughter of the innocents in a futile attempt to kill the announced King of the Jews, God’s Messiah or Christ. It came even as Joseph and Mary and the Christ Child fled for their lives to the safety of Egypt to escape Herod’s wrath (Mt 2). And it shines on our Christmases darkened by the threat of COVID or by serious illness. Christ’s light shines on our grief over the death of a loved one as we mourn the fact that our Christmas celebrations will never be the same in this mortal life. Death is the ultimate dehumanizer and darkness, cruelly separating us from our beloved. But the light of Christ reminds us even in our grief that our loved ones who have died in Christ are not lost forever nor is our separation from them permanent, but only for a season. We know this because we know that in Christ Death itself is destroyed and will one day be abolished forever as God has promised. How do we know this? Well, because God has promised it, and because Christ is raised from the dead, confirming that when God dealt with our sin on the cross, God dealt with the ultimate evil of Death as well because the wages of sin is death (Rm 6.23). Destroy the power of Sin over us as Christ did on the cross and its wages are also destroyed, God be praised. The light of Christ shines in the darkness and the darkness did not overcome it. 

 But there’s more. Massively important as having our sins forgiven and our relationship with God the Father restored, God has saved us for a greater purpose. God has forgiven, healed, and restored us to himself so that we can once again take our rightful place as God’s image-bearing stewards who will run God’s renewed and healed world: the new heavens and earth. As our Canticle tonight from Isaiah 11 proclaims, God has promised to remove his curse and heal and restore his creation along with us so that there will be no more hostility or alienation or sorrow or sadness or death. In poetic language the prophet proclaims this wondrous announcement to us: the wolf will dwell with the lamb and a little child will lead them into this new reality. They shall not hurt or destroy in all [God’s] holy mountain for the earth shall be full of the knowledge of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Is 11.6, 9). In other words, God himself promises to dwell with us directly in ways we have never experienced, ways that heal us and make us whole so that we know and enjoy him in new and intimate ways, equipped to be the fully human beings God created us to be. After all, where God is there can be no evil! No wonder the prophet tells us elsewhere for the anxious not to fear because God himself is coming to judge his world and its peoples. Why should we not fear? Because in judging his world, God will destroy all the enemies of his people, enemies that sicken and corrupt and alienate and darken our lives and this world so that all sickness and brokenness and darkness will be healed and dispelled forever. The lame will walk, all of creation will be renewed and healed and made ready for human stewardship over it on God’s behalf. God is coming in judgment, proclaims Isaiah with all boldness. Coming with judgment to save you (Is 35). Not to condemn you but to save you. No wonder all of creation will rejoice (cf. Rm 8.18-25)! My beloved, listen to this glad proclamation and take hope and heart in the midst of the darkness that swirls around us. You are being reminded what God’s heart and love for you really look like. It is the light shining in the darkness and not even the gates of hell or death or COVID can overcome it.

So what are we to do in light of this reality (no pun intended)? Let me suggest the following to jumpstart your thinking this Christmastide and beyond. First, we need to remember who God is and be reminded of God’s love for us made known in Christ. When the darkness of your fear and anxiety and separation from others threaten to overwhelm you, go to Scripture to be reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Read St. John’s magnificent prologue that we read tonight. Read psalms like Psalm 103, 25, and 91 to be reminded of God’s love for you and his protection and mercy on us even with our sin-stained lives and hearts. Read passages like Isaiah 9, 11, 35, and 43 to be reminded of God’s promise to heal and restore. Be reminded of the promise of new creation contained in Revelation 21-22. Don’t try to do this on your own. Most of us won’t do it because we’re losers and ragamuffins. Get together with some of your parish family members, even if by phone, and read these passages and talk about them together so that you are reminded that the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. Take time to celebrate the 12 days of Christmas by remembering God’s love for made known in Christ and revealed in Scripture, in your baptism, in the holy eucharist, and the lives of his people. 

Being so reminded and refreshed, resolve to do your best to shine the light of Christ’s love and hope on others. Let your light be a beacon of hope to others and then tell them why you have that hope. The angels could not keep the Good News of Christ’s birth a secret as we shall be reminded in our dismissal gospel tonight so why should we? You have the Spirit and power of Christ in you, rely on him and proclaim him by your words and deeds. To be sure, we’ll all become afraid from time to time. We’ll all get discouraged. But we have Christ and we have each other. We have the word of God and we have Christ present with us in the Eucharist. Don’t ignore or neglect these precious gifts offered by God to sustain you in this mortal life. We can best avoid despairing over the darkness by worshiping together each Sunday, even if it be in exile from Zoom. These means of grace allow God’s light to shine in the darkness of our lives and this dark old world. We have God’s promise to be with us in Immanuel. That promise is God’s great light. Let it shine on you and those around you in the days, weeks, and years ahead by availing yourself of God’s gifts of light to you.

This is why we celebrate Christmas. God became human to die for us as our epistle and gospel lessons proclaim. This is the light of Christ shining in our darkness, healing us and promising us to make all things new and right in all its ambiguity and mystery and the messiness of our human condition in this mortal life and fully in the age to come. It is the only light that can truly heal and satisfy. Nothing else can; not our bright lights or money or power or toys. Only the light of Christ can truly save us from the darkness of this world and give us real purpose for living. Let us therefore resolve to rejoice tonight in the midst of our darkness, thanking God our Father for the great gift of himself to us so that we can be his forever. It is a precious and immeasurably valuable gift from our loving Creator and Father. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. May the light of Christ always shine brightly in our darkness. Merry Christmas, my beloved. 

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.