The Twelve Days of Christmas 2022-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 2022-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 2022-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 2022-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 2022-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

The Twelve Days of Christmas 2022-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 2022-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 2022: Meditations on the Incarnation by Select Church Fathers and Doctors

Below is a sermon from Saint John Chrysostom, believed to be the first Christmas sermon ever preached. Whether it was, this sermon is the first extant Christmas sermon we have. Preached in Antioch in 386 AD, the year St. Augustine of Hippo converted to Christianity.

Notice the theological richness and depth of this sermon. It is clear that the early Church had done a tremendous amount of theological reflection on the mystery of the Incarnation and the nature and person of Jesus Christ. Enjoy. Merry Christmas!

Source: http://antiochian.org/node/21955

From the The Nativity Sermon of St. John Chrysostom

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

Next we have this reflection on the Incarnation 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 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

Christmas Eve Sermon 2022: Why “Rejoice and be Merry” at Christmas?

From the sermon archives.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 52.7-10; 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 my beloved! During this past Advent season we looked into the darkness of this world and your lives with the eyes of faith. We preached on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell, and also invited you to meditate on these things with faith in the goodness of God’s justice and power to act on our behalf. Tonight we begin the great Christmas celebration. But why do we celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent? Why “rejoice and be merry”? This is what I want us to look at this evening.

We celebrate Christmas on the heels of Advent because Christmas announces definitively what the prophets proclaimed long ago: That God would come into the world to rescue all creation from the Curse, and us from his terrible but just judgment on our sins, that although we all must endure death and stand before the judgment seat of Christ because of our sins, eternal separation from God the Father, i.e. Hell, is no longer our destination because we are covered by the Blood of the Lamb shed for us. Christmas announces in no uncertain terms what Isaiah and the writer of Hebrews proclaim in our OT and epistle lessons tonight: God’s salvation has begun in the birth of our Savior. This is God’s light and power shining in the darkness of our lives, not human power that inevitably must fail. This is God coming to rescue us from Death, Judgment, and Hell so that we can live with him forever in heaven, the promised new creation. Christmas announces that creation matters to God our Creator, that humans are supremely important to God because God became human to rescue us from that seeks to destroy us. Christmas begins to reveal in ways the OT prophets could not the character and heart of God the Father because God chose to reveal himself to us in ways our puny and fallible minds could finally understand so that we could begin to obey him and love him in ways we simply couldn’t before Christ was born. This too is the light shining in the darkness as St. John announces in his gospel, and try as the dark powers will to snuff out Christ’s light, they will fail utterly because nothing is more powerful than the power of God.

But the birth of Christ this night at Bethlehem is not what we really celebrate, lovely and sentimental as we have made it. No, Christmas points us inevitably to Good Friday and Easter, because on Calvary Evil was defeated and our sins dealt with forever, and the empty tomb proclaims that Death is shattered, one day to be abolished permanently when our Lord Jesus returns to finish his saving work. This is the light shining in the darkness, the power of God at work, but in ways we never expected or even wanted. Being the proud, fallen creatures we are, we would have preferred that God left us alone so that we could fix ourselves. But since we know in our heart of hearts that is not possible, we instead preferred God to defeat our enemies in ways we are used to, with shock and awe (while sparing us in the process, of course). But this is not God’s way of salvation because to save us by shock and awe would be to participate in evil itself by imitating its ways. Christmas announces that our God has indeed come to bare his mighty arm so that all the nations will see God’s salvation. But because it is God and because of the Father’s eternal love for us, God chose to defeat Sin, Death, and Evil without using the weapons preferred by the world and the dark powers and principalities. Instead, God chose to take on our flesh and die a most foul and shameful death so as to condemn our sin in the flesh without having to condemn us. God continually surprises by giving us so much more than we can ask or desire. Why should we not rejoice and be merry, even in the face of darkness?

This requires faith, of course, but not a blind faith. It requires a faith that is informed by the overarching story of God’s rescue plan, a plan announced when God called Abraham to be the father of God’s people to bring God’s healing to the world, and ultimately in the coming of God himself as a human being to seal the deal. And because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead we have no good reason to doubt God’s narrative contained in Scripture and proclaimed by Christ’s body the Church. God’s rescue is not yet consummated but it is complete because it is God himself who is the chief actor and agent of salvation. This is why we light candles and sing God’s praises. This is why a weary world rejoices and can find merriment in the midst of desolation. God himself has announced his mighty rescue by becoming a baby born of a Virgin in fulfillment of ancient prophecy that God is with us, Emmanuel, in any and every circumstance of this mortal life, especially in the darkness of our lives.

In this dark age heightened by fear and uncertainty due to the rapid breakdown of our culture with its increased strife, crime, inflation and other economic woes, as well as personal loss and hurts many of us have suffered and/or continue to suffer, we need to pause and set our minds on the light, on things that matter most. Christmas allows us to do just that. Christmas announces that the darkness does not have the final say. We remember the promises of God we looked at during Advent, that God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and destroy Death forever, that God will end all strife and alienation and every form of evil forever. None of this would be possible had God not chosen to insert himself into our history as a human being to deal with the darkness on his own terms. We look forward to the new heavens and earth but we also celebrate tonight that we have been given a preview of heaven touching earth. Jesus Christ was born to die for us so that we no longer have to fear Death and Judgment and Hell. God has declared in his actions that he loves us despite the fact that we are essentially unlovable because of our sin-sickness and ongoing rebellion against God. Christmas proclaims that we no longer have to be afraid despite the darkness that swirls around and in us. In Christ, God has conquered the darkness for us so that we have a legitimate chance to live in God’s light, now in this mortal life and in the age to come when we will enjoy unimaginably sweet and ecstatic fellowship with God by being granted the privilege of living in God’s direct presence forever. Christmas invites us anew to remember our baptismal vows and put on our Lord Jesus Christ, i.e., to imitate Christ in all our thinking, speaking, and doing, shedding our own filthy rags in the process because we come to realize those rags lead us to poverty, sickness, alienation, loneliness, death, and judgment. Christmas invites us to walk with the risen Christ all our days and in doing so to find joy and purpose and meaning that are based not on the circumstances and chances of life but on the tender love of God the Father for us. We believe all this because we believe Christ really is risen from the dead and therefore we also believe he is busy putting his fallen world and creatures to rights, even as he is available to each of us in the power of the Spirit, just as the NT promises.

In practical terms, then, how might we live in the light of Christ so that the darkness does not overcome it? As we have seen, to learn to live in the light of Christ we must first and most importantly learn to recognize its (or more precisely his) presence and power in our life. We learn this chiefly by engaging the Scriptures regularly, studying them and listening to faithful preaching, regular worship, and partaking in the sacraments of the Church, especially holy Eucharist. When we do these things regularly and intentionally we are trained by the Spirit to recognize, for example, that Christ was born even as a bloodthirsty tyrant, Herod, sought to exterminate his life almost immediately after he was born but failed. Children tragically were slaughtered but the evil of this world did not end Christ’s life before its time and so the world had a chance to live. The darkness could not overcome the light because God the Father is in charge. This in turn helps us deal with the darkness in our lives equipped with the eyes and heart and mind of faith that have been trained for spiritual warfare that inevitably is waged against us. Without a firm conviction that Christ’s light and power shines brightly in his world to heal and rescue it (and us) from the iron grip of Sin, Evil, and Death, we will never be able to imitate him on a regular and ongoing basis because we will lose heart and hope. 

But when we are equipped with a life-changing faith that is centered on Christ we are able to imitate his light. Every time we refuse to submit to the zeitgeist and disordered values of this age that dehumanize and destroy people’s lives in the name of “liberty” or identity, Christ’s light shines through us, even when we are called haters and bigots (how wanting people to give themselves to God’s order, i.e., to the light of Christ, is hatred while insisting that we follow our own disordered desires to our eternal destruction is never explained to us; funny how the darkness sometimes works). Every time we choose to forgive rather than retaliate when we are wronged or spoken about harshly or unfairly, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we are willing to forgive ourselves, refusing the darkness’s invitation and our own fallen inclination to self-condemn, instead repenting and going forward convinced that Christ still loves us no matter how egregious our sin or failure [insert your sin], Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we continue to confess Christ as our Lord and remain convinced that he still is in charge, no matter how great the darkness that swirls in and around us, Christ light shines through us. Every time we seek to imitate God’s generous heart and share ourselves, our time, and our resources with those in need or who suffer for various reasons, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we talk to others about our faith in Christ and how it makes a difference for us, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we grieve as people with hope rather than in hopelessness, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we choose to love instead of hate, to be selfless rather than selfish, to seek to honor Christ in all we do, Christ’s light shines through us. Every time we love each other as a real and true parish family despite our mutual annoyances and fallibilities—things that have the ability to separate and alienate and destroy relationships—Christ’s light shines through us and the darkness that inevitably arises to crush us will never succeed. We may lose our life for the sake of Christ but even then we gain it, and eternally. None of this is for the faint of heart, but it is for those of us who realize that without Christ’s light we are dead men and women walking and we are therefore willing to give ourselves and way of living to Christ.

This is why we celebrate Christmas and can rejoice and be merry. God became human to die for us. It is the beginning of the fulfillment of St. Paul’s bold and astonishing claim in Romans 11.32 that, “God imprisoned everyone in disobedience so he could have mercy on everyone”! If that is not worthy of our highest praise and thanksgiving, not to mention our best celebration, I don’t know what is. This is the light of Christ shining in our darkness, healing us and promising to make all things new and right, ambiguous and mysterious and messy as it looks in this mortal life, but ours fully, clearly, and unambiguously 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 gift-giving or parties 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 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. 

Grieving at Christmas

Merry Christmas!

I suspect many who have lost loved ones to death or alienation or suffered from illness or other kinds of brokenness or loss will struggle with this greeting/sentiment. I’m one of those people and know first-hand (again) that our emotions and grief don’t always put us in sync with a happy and festive holiday spirit. If you too are one of those folks who are dealing with grief or loss or brokenness this Christmas I would like to offer you my sincere condolences because I know something of your pain and sorrow. But I also want to offer you some real Christian (Christmas) cheer to help you grieve as those who have hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—this Christmastide.

The Church has just finished observing the season of Advent with its hope and promise of the Lord’s return to finish the saving/reclaiming work he started at his First Coming (think Christ’s mighty works, teaching, Death, Resurrection, and Ascension). When that day arrives and our Lord Jesus returns with great power and glory, we believe that God’s perfect justice will finally be fulfilled, including most importantly the abolition of death. What can be a more just solution to the massive injustice of death than resurrection and eternal bodily life lived directly in God’s loving Presence? Living in God’s direct Presence ensures that we will enjoy perfect communion with God, which means complete bliss, free from sorrow or separation or illness or brokenness or death, the likes of which we have never experienced before because the human race (with the exception of Christ) has not lived directly in God’s Presence since our first ancestors got expelled from Paradise (Genesis 2-3). Nothing in all creation can ever produce the kind of healing God’s Presence produces.

And of course tonight we begin to celebrate the 12 days of Christmastide. Christmas, among its many promises, reminds us that we humans—body, mind, and spirit, the whole package—matter to God. We know this because God became one of us to rescue us from our slavery to Sin and Death. Without Christ’s birth we would be people with no future and ultimately no hope. But Christmas announces the historical reality of God’s intervention in human history for our sake and thus announces that we who believe in Christ ARE people with a hope and a future (cp. Jeremiah 29.11). Christmas is the visible and historical manifestation of God’s love for us his image-bearing creatures and indeed all of creation.

So if you are one who struggles to be merry this Christmastide because you are dealing with significant loss or brokenness in your life, remember this: As you simultaneously celebrate Christmas and grieve your own loss, whatever that loss may be, please remember the above promises and take hope in the midst of your grief. By all means grieve, but grieve as one who has real hope because you belong to Christ. I can tell you all this with confidence because Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. You can stake your life (and joys and sorrows) on that and I urge you to do so if you haven’t already.

Listen and understand if you have ears to hear. Merry Christmas!