The festival of Christ's birthday

St. Gregory Nazianzos
"Christ is born, glorify Him! Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing unto the Lord all the whole earth; and that I may join both in one word, Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad, for Him Who is. of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O you Matrons live as Virgins, that you may be Mothers of Christ. Who does not worship Him That is from the beginning? Who does, not glorify Him That is the Last?"

Again the darkness is past; again Light is made; again Egypt is punished with darkness; again Israel is enlightened by a pillar. The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the Great Light of full knowledge. Old things are passed away, behold all things are become new. The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front. The shadows flee away, the Truth comes in upon them. The laws of nature are upset; the world above must be filled. Christ commands it, let us not set ourselves against Him. O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, Whose government is upon His shoulder (for with the Cross it is raised up), and His name is called The Angel of the Great Counsel of the Father. Prepare the way of the Lord: I too will cry the power of this day. He Who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the same yesterday, and today, and for ever. Let the Jews be offended, let the Greeks deride; let heretics talk till their tongues ache. Then shall they believe, when they see Him ascending up into heaven; and if not then, yet when they see Him coming out of heaven and sitting as Judge.

Of these on a future occasion; for the present the Festival is the Theophany or Birthday, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth. On the one hand Being, and eternally Being, of the Eternal Being, above cause and word, for there was not word before The Word; and on the other hand for our sakes also Becoming, that He Who gives us our being might also give us our Well-being, or rather might restore us by His Incarnation, when we had by wickedness fallen from well-being. The name Theophany is given to it in reference to the Manifestation, and that of Birthday in respect of His Birth.

Celebrating the birthday of Christ

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God -that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For where sin abounded grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own, but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master's; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

And how shall this be? Let us not adorn our porches; nor arrange dances, nor decorate the streets; let us not feast the eye, not enchant the ear with music, nor enervate the nostrils with perfume, not prostitute the taste, nor indulge the touch, those roads that are so prone to evil and entrances for sin; let us not be effeminate in clothing soft and flowing, whose beauty consists in its uselessness, nor with the glittering of gems or the sheen of gold or the tricks of colour, belying the beauty of nature, and invented to do despite unto the image of God. Not in rioting and drunkenness, with which are mingled, I know well, chambering and wantonness, since the lessons which evil teachers give are evil. Let us not appraise the bouquet of wines, the kickshaws of cooks, the great expense of unguents; and let us not strive to outdo each other in temperance, and this while others are hungry and in want, who are made of the same clay and in the same manner.

Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomp and festivals of the Greeks. But we, the object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far remove from Him Who has called us together. Or do you desire (for today I am your entertainer) that I should set before you, my good guests, the story of these things as abundantly and as nobly as I can, that you may know how a foreigner can feed the natives of the land, and a rustic the people of the town, and one who cares not for luxury those who delight in it, and one who is poor and homeless those who are eminent for wealth?

We will begin from this point; and let me ask of you who delight in such matters to cleanse your mind and your ears and your thoughts, since our discourse is to be of God and Divine; that when you depart, you may fade not away. And this same discourse shall be at once both very full and very concise, that you may neither be displeased at its deficiencies, nor find it unpleasant through wearisomeness.

The Divine nature of God

God always was, and always is, and always will be. Or rather, God always is. For was and will be are fragments of our time, and of changeable nature, but He is Eternal Being.

And this is the Name that He gives to Himself when giving the Oracle to Moses in the Mount. For in Himself He sums up and contains all Being, having neither beginning in the past nor end in the future; like some great Sea of Being, limitless and unbounded, transcending all conception of time and nature', only adumbrated by the mind, and that very dimly and scantily . . . not by His Essentials, but by His Environment; one image being gotten from one source and another from another, and combined into some sort of presentation of the truth, which escapes us before we have caught it, and takes to flight before we have conceived it, blazing forth upon our Master-part, even when that is cleansed, as the lighting flash which will not stay its course, does upon our sight . . . in order as I conceive by that part of it which we can comprehend to draw us to itself (for that which is altogether incomprehensible is outside the bounds of hope, an not within the compass of endeavour), and by that part of it which we cannot comprehend to move our wonder, to, become more an object of desire, and being desired to purify, and by purifying to make us like God.

The Divine Nature then is boundless and hard to understand; and all that we can comprehend of Him is His boundlessness; even though one may conceive that because He is of a simple nature He is therefore either wholly incomprehensible, or perfectly comprehensible. And when drawing a conclusion from the whole it calls Him Eternal. For Eternity is neither time nor part of time; for it cannot be measured. But what time, measured by the course of the sun, is to us, that Eternity is to the Everlasting, namely, a sort of time-like movement and interval co-existence with their existence. This, however, is all I must not say about God; as my present subject is of the Incarnation. But when I say God, I mean Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This then is the Holy of Holies, which is hidden even from the Seraphim, and is glorified with a thrice repeated Holy, meeting in one ascription of the Title Lord and God.

When His first creation was in good order, He conceives a second world, material and visible; and this a system and compound of earth and sky, and all that is in the midst of them an admirable creation indeed, when we look at the fair form of every part, but yet more worthy of admiration when we consider the harmony and the unison of the whole, and how each part fits in with every other, in fair order, and all with the whole, tending to the perfect completion of the world as a Unit. This was to show that He could call into being, not only a Nature akin to Himself, but also one altogether alien to Himself. For akin to Deity are those natures which are intellectual, and only to be comprehended by mind. Perhaps some one who is too festive and impetuous may say, What has all this to do with us? Talk to us about the Festival [the Birth of Christ], and the reasons for our being here today. Yes, this is what I am about to do, although I have begun at a somewhat previous point, being compelled to do so by love, and by the needs of my argument.

The fashioning of man

Mind, then, and sense, thus distinguished from each other, had remained within their own boundaries, and bore in themselves the magnificence of the Creator-Word, silent praisers and thrilling heralds of His mighty work. Not yet were the whole riches of Goodness made known. Now the Creator-Word, determine to exhibit this, and to produce a single living being out of both - the visible and the invisible creations, I mean - fashions Man; and taking a body from already existing matter, and placing in it a breath taken from Himself which - the Word knew to be an intelligent soul and the Image of God, as a sort of second world. He placed him, great in littleness on the earth; a new Angel, mingled worship- per, fully initiated into the visible creation, but only partially into the intellectual; king of all upon the earth, but subject to the King above; earthly and heavenly; temporal and yet immortal; visible and yet intellectual; half-way between greatness and lowliness; in one person combining spirit and flesh; spirit, because of the favour bestowed on him; flesh, because of the height to which he had been raised; one that he might continue to live and praise his Benefactor, the other that he might suffer, and by suffering be put in remembrance, and corrected if he became proud of his greatness. For to this, I think, tends that Light of Truth which we here possess but in measure, that we should both see and experience the Splendour of God, which is worthy of Him Who made us. and wilt remake us again after a loftier fashion.

This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honoured him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil's malice and the woman's caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandment which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from the Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.

And having been first chastened by many reasons (because his sins were many), by word, by law, by prophets, by benefits, by threats, by plagues, by waters, by fires, by wars, by victories, by defeats, by signs in heaven and signs in the air and in the earth and in the sea, by unexpected changes of men, of cities, of nations, at last he needed a stronger remedy, for his diseases were growing worse; mutual slaughters, adulteries, perjuries, unnatural crimes, and that first and last of all evils, idolatry and the transfer of Worship from the Creator to the creatures. As these required a greater aid, also they obtain a greater.

The Word Himself

And that was that the Word of God Himself - Who is before all worlds, the Invisible, the Beginning, the Light of Light, the Source of Life and Immortality, the Image of the Archetypal Beauty, the immoveable Seal, the unchangeable Image, the Father's Definition and Word, came to His own Image, and took on Him flesh for the sake of our flesh, and mingled Himself with an intelligent soul for my soul's sake, purifying like by like; and in all points except sin was made man. Conceived by the Virgin, who first in body and soul was purified by the Holy Spirit (for it was needful both that childbearing should be honoured, and that virginity should receive a higher honour, He (Christ) came forth then as God with that which He had assumed, One Person in two Natures, Flesh and Spirit, of which the latter defied the former.

O new commingling; O strange conjunction; the Self Existent comes into being, the Uncreated is created, that which cannot be contained is contained, by the intervention of an intellectual soul, mediating between the Deity and the corporeity of the flesh. And He Who give riches becomes poor, for He assumes the poverty of my flesh, that I may assume the richness of His Godhead. He that is in full empties Himself, for He empties Himself of His glory for a short while, that I may have a share in His fullness. What is the riches of His Goodness? What is this mystery that is around me? I had a share in the image; I did not keep it; He partakes of my flesh that He may both save the image and make the flesh immortal. This is more godlike than the former action, this is loftier in the eyes of all men of understanding.

To this what have those cavillers to say, those bitter reasoners about the Godhead, those detractors of all that is praiseworthy, those darkeners of light, uncultured in respect of wisdom, for whom Christ died in vain, those unthankful creatures, the work of the Evil One? Do you turn this benefit into a reproach to God? Will you deem Him little on this account, that He humbled Himself for you; because the God Shepherd, He who lays down His life for His sheep, came to seek for that which had strayed upon the mountains and the hills, on which you was then sacrificing, and found the wanderer; and having found it, took it upon His shoulders on which He also took the Wood of the Cross; and having taken it, brought it back to the higher life; and having carried it back, numbered it among those who have never strayed. Because He lighted a candle - His own Flesh - and swept the house, cleansing the world from sin. And He calls together His Angel friends on the findings of the coin, and makes them sharers in His joy, whom He had made to share also the secret of the Incarnation?

He (Christ) was sent, but as man, for He was of a twofold Nature; for He was wearied, and hungered, and was thirsty, and was in an agony, and shed tears, according to the nature of a corporeal being. And if the expression be also used of Him as God, the meaning is that the Father's good pleasure is to be considered a Mission, for to this He refers all that concerns Himself; both that He may honour the Eternal Principle, and because He will not be taken to be an antagonistic God. And whereas it is written both that He was betrayed, and also that He gave Himself up and that He was raised up by the Father, and taken up into heaven; and on the other hand, that He raised Himself and went up. Are you then to be allowed to dwell upon all that humiliates Him, while passing over all that exalts Him, and to count on your side the fact that He suffered, but to leave out of the account the fact that it was of His own will? See what even now the Word has to suffer. By one set He is honoured as God, but is confused with the Father, by another He is dishonoured as mere flesh and severed from the Godhead. With which of them will He be most angry, or rather, which shall He forgive, those who injuriously confound Him or those who divide Him? For the former ought to have distinguished, and the latter to have united Him; the one in number, the other in Godhead. Do you disbelieve in His Godhead? This did not even the demons, O you who are less believing than demons and more stupid than Jews.

A little later on you will see Jesus submitting to be purified in the River Jordan for my Purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by His Purification (for indeed His had no need of purification Who takes away the sin of the world) and the heavens cleft asunder, and witness borne to him by the Spirit that is of one nature with Him; you shall see Him tempted and conquering and served by Angels, and healing every sickness and every disease, and giving life to the dead (O that He would give life to you who are dead because of your heresy), and driving out demons, sometimes Himself, sometimes by his disciples; and feeding vast multitudes with a few loaves; and walking dryshod upon seas; and being betrayed and crucified, and crucifying with Himself my sin; offered as a Lamb, and offering as a Priest; as a Man buried in the grave, and as God rising again; and then ascending, and to come again in His own glory. Why what a multitude of high festivals there are in each of the mysteries of the Christ; all of which have one completion, namely, my perfection and return to the first condition of Adam.

Christ's Conception

Now then I pray you accept His Conception, and leap before Him; if not like John from the womb, yet like David, because of the resting of the Ark. Revere the enrolment of account of which you were written in heaven, and adore the Birth by which you were loosed from the chains of your birth, and honour little Bethlehem, which has led you back to Paradise; and worship the manger through which you, being without sense, was fed by the Word . . . If you are one of those who are as yet unclean and uneatable and unfit for sacrifice, and of the gentile portion, run with the Star, and bear your Gifts with the Magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a King, and to God, and to One Who is dead for you. With Shepherds glorify Him; with Angels join in chorus; with Archangels sing hymns. Let this Festival be common to the powers in heaven and to the powers upon earth. For I am persuaded that the Heavenly Hosts join in our exultation and keep high Festival with us today . . . because they love men, and they love God ... just like those whom David introduces after the Passion ascending with Christ and coming to meet Him, and bidding one another to lift up the gates.

One thing connected with the Birth of Christ I would have you hate ... the murder of the infants by Herod. Or rather you must venerate this too, the Sacrifice of the same age as Christ, slain before the Offering of the New Victim. If He flees into Egypt, joyfully become a companion of His exile. It is a grand thing to share the exile of the persecuted Christ. If He tarry long in Egypt, call Him out of Egypt by a reverent worship of Him there. Travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the Life of Christ. Be purified; be circumcised; strip off the veil which has covered you from your birth.

After this teach in the Temple, and drive out the sacrilegious traders. Submit to be stoned if need be, for well I want you shall be hidden from those who cast the stones; you shall escape even through the midst of them, like God. If you be scourged, ask for what they leave out. Taste gall for the taste's sake; drink vinegar; accept blows, be crowned with thorns, that is, with the hardness of the godly life; put on the purple robe, take the reed in hand, and receive mock worship from those who mock at the truth; lastly, be crucified with Him, and share His Death and Burial gladly, that you may rise with Him, and be glorified with Him and reign with Him. Look at and be looked at by the Great God, Who in Trinity is worshipped and glorified, and Whom we declare to be now set forth as clearly before you as the chains of our flesh allow, in Jesus Christ our Lord, to Whom be the glory for ever. Amen.

edited by Fr George Mastrantonis,
Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America
and published by OLOGOS

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