St Gregory the Theologian on the Nativity
Christ is born, give glory; Christ is from the heavens, go to meet Him; Christ is on earth, be lifted up. “Sing to the Lord, all the earth,” and, to say both together, “Let the heavens be glad and let the earth rejoice,” for the Heavenly One is now earthly. Christ is in the flesh, exult with trembling and joy; trembling because of sin, joy because of hope. Christ comes from a Virgin; women, practice virginity, that you may become mothers of Christ. Who would not worship the One “from the beginning”? Who would not glorify “the Last”?
Again the darkness is dissolved, again the light is established, again Egypt is punished by darkness. Again Israel is illumined by a pillar. Let the people siting in the darkness of ignorance see a great light of knowledge. “The old things have passed; behold, all things have become new.” The letter withdraws, the spirit advances; the shadows have been surpassed, the truth has entered after them. Melchizedek is completed, the motherless One becomes fatherless; He was motherless first, fatherless second. The laws of nature are dissolved. The world above must be filled. Christ commands, let us not resist. “All nations, clap your hands,” “for to us a Child is born, and to us a Son is given, the power is on His shoulder,” for He is lifted up along with the cross, and He is called by the name “Angel of great counsel,” that of the Father. Let John proclaim, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” I myself will proclaim the power of this day. The fleshless One takes flesh, the Word is made coarse, the invisible One seen, the impalpable One is touched, the timeless One makes a beginning, the Son of God becomes a Son of Man, “Jesus Christ, the same yesterday and today and for the ages.” Let Jews be scandalized, let Greeks mock, let heretics talk till their tongues ache. They will believe when they see Him ascend into heaven, and if not then, at least when they see Him coming from heaven and sitting as Judge.
These things come later. Now is the Feast of the Theophany, and so also of the Nativity; for it is called both, since the two names are ascribed to one reality. For God appeared to human beings through birth. On the one hand He is and is eternally from the eternal Being, above cause and principle, for there was not principle higher than the Principle. On the other hand for us He later comes into being, that the One who has given us being might also grant us well-being; or rather that, as we fell from well-being through evil, He might bring us back again to Himself through incarnation. The name is Theophany, since He has appeared, and Nativity, since He has been born.
This is our festival, this is the feast we celebrate today, in which God comes to live with human beings, that we may journey toward God, or return—for to speak thus is more exact—that laying aside the old human being we may be clothed with the new, and that as in Adam we have died so we may live in Christ, born with Christ and crucified with Him, buried with Him, and rising with Him. For it is necessary for me to undergo the good turnaround, and as painful things came from more pleasant things, so out of painful things more pleasant things must return. “For where sin abounded, grace superabounded,” and if the taste of forbidden fruit condemned, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify? Therefore we celebrate the feast not like a pagan festival but in a godly manner, not in a worldly way but in a manner above the world. We celebrate not our own concerns but the One who is ours, or rather what concerns our Master, things pertaining not to sickness but to healing, not to the first shaping, but to the reshaping.
And how will this be? Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assembe troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets. Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing, or pamper the sense of smell, or prostitute the sense of taste, or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin. Let us not be softened by delicate and extravagant clothing, whose beauty is its inutility, or by the transparency of stones, or the brilliance of gold, or the artificiality of colors that falsify natural beauty and are invented in opposition to the divine image; nor by “revelries and drunkenness,” to which I know “debauchery and licentiousness” are linked, since from bad teachers come bad teachings, or rather from evil seeds come evil harvests. Let us not build high beds of straw, making shelters for the debauchery of the stomach. Let us not assess the bouquet of wines, the concoctions of chefs, the great cost of perfumes. Let earth and sea not bring us as gifts the valued dung, for this is how I know to evaluate luxury. Let us not strive to conquer each other in dissoluteness. For to me all that is superfluous and beyond need is dissoluteness, particularly when others are hungry and in want, who are of the same clay and the same composition as ourselves.
But let us leave these things to the pagan Greeks and to Greek pomps and festivals. They name as gods those who enjoy the steam rising from the fat of sacrificial animals and correspondingly serve the divine with their stomachs, and they become evil fashioners and initiators and initiates of evil demons. But if we, for whom the Word is an object of worship, must somehow have luxury, let us have as our luxury the word and the divine law and narratives, especially those that form the basis of the present feast, that our luxury may be akin and not foreign to the One who has called us.
Would you like me—for I am your host today—to set before you, my good guests, a discourse as abundant and lavish as possible, that you may know how a stranger can feed the local inhabitants, and a rustic the city dwellers, and one without luxury the luxurious, and one poor and homeless those brilliant in wealth? I will begin from this point; and purify for me your mind and hearing and thoughts, you who enjoy luxuries of this kind, since the discourse is about God and divine things, that you may depart having truly received the luxuries that are not empty. This discourse will be at the same time very full and very concise, so as neither to sadden you by its poverty nor cause distaste through satiety.
God always was and is and will be, or rather always “is,” for “was” and “will be” belong to our divided time and transitory nature; but He is always “He who is,” and He gave Himself this name when He consulted with Moses on the mountain. For holding everything together in Himself, He possesses being, neither beginning nor endingl He is like a kind of boundless and limitless sea of being, surpassing all thought and time and nature. He is only sketched by the mind, and this in a very indistinct and mediocre way, not from things pertaining to Himself but from things around Him. Impressions are gathered from here and there into one particular representation of the truth, which flees before it is grasped and escapes before it is understood. It illumines the directive faculty in us, when indeed we have been purified, and its appearance is like a swift bolt of lightning that does not remain. It seems to me that insofar as it is graspable, the divine draws us toward itself, for what is completely ungraspable is unhoped for and unsought. Yet one wonders at the ungraspable, and one desires more intensely the object of wonder, and being desired it purifies, and purifying it makes deiform, and with those who have become such He converses as with those close to Him,—I speak with vehement boldness—God is united with gods, and He is thus known, perhaps as much as He already knows those who are known to Him.
So shortly you will also see the purification of Jesus in the Jordan for my purification; or rather He is cleansed for the purification of the waters, for He indeed did not need purification, who takes away the sin of the world. The heavens are parted and He receives the testimony of the Spirit, who is akin to Him. He is tempted and conquers the tempter and is served by angels. He heals every sickness and every infirmity, and gives life to the dead. Would that He would give life to you who are dead through your false doctrine. He drives out the demons, some by Himself and others through His disciples. With a few loaves He feeds tens of thousands, and He walks on the sea. He is betrayed and crucified and crucifies my sin with Himself. He is offered as a lamb and offers as a priest, He is buried as a human being, raised as God, then also ascends, and He will return with His own glory. How many celebrations there are for me corresponding to each of the mysteries of Christ! Yet they all have one completion, my perfection and refashioning and restoration to the state of the first Adam.
Now welcome for me His conception and leap for joy, if not indeed like John in the womb, then like David when the ark came to rest. Be awed at the census record through which you have been recorded in heaven, and revere the birth through which you have been released from the bonds of birth, and honor little Bethlehem, which has brought you back to paradise, and bow before the manger through which you who were without reason have been fed by the Word. Know, like the ox, your owner—Isaiah exhorts you—and like the donkey know your master’s crib, whether you are among those who are pure and under the law and chew the cud of the Word and are prepared for sacrifice, or whether up to now you are among the impure and unfit for food or sacrifice and belong to the Gentiles. Run after the star, and bring gifts with the magi, gold and frankincense and myrrh, as to a King and a God and one dead for your sake. With the shepherds give glory, with the angels sing hymns, with the archangels dance. Let there be a common celebration of the heavenly and earthly powers. For I am persuaded that they rejoice and celebrate with us today, if indeed they love humankind and love God, just as David represents them ascending with Christ after His Passion as they come to meet Him and exhort each other to life up the gates.
You should hate only one of the events surrounding the birth of Christ, Herod’s murder of children; but rather, revere this sacrifice of those of the same age as Christ, who are sacrificed before the new victim. If He flees to Egypt, be willingly banished with Him. It is good to flee with the persecuted Christ. If Christ delays in Egypt, call Him forth from Egypt, where He is worshipped well. Travel blamelessly through all the stages of Christ’s life and all His powers, as a disciple of Christ. Be purified, be circumcised, that is remove the veil that has surrounded you since birth. After this teach in the temple, drive out the traders in divine things, be stoned if it is necessary that you suffer this; you will escape from those throwing the stones, I know well, and you will flee through the midst of them like God. For the Word is not stoned. If you are brought before Herod, do not answer for the most part. He will revere your silence more than the long discourses of others. If you are scourged, seek the other tortures. Taste the gall because of the taste of the forbidden fruit. Drink the vinegar, seek the spittings, accept the blows, the beatings; be crowned with thorns through the harshness of a life in accord with God. Put on the scarlet robe, accept the reed, and the worship of those who mock the truth. Finally, be crucified with Him, die with Him, be buried with Him willingly, so as also to be resurrected with Him and glorified with Him and reign with Him, seeing God as far as is possible and being seen by Him, who is worshipped and glorified in the Trinity, whom even now we pray to be manifest to us as clearly as is possible to prisoners of the flesh, in Christ Jesus our Lord, to whom be glory and sovereignty unto the ages of ages. Amen.
The above is excerpted from a homily (Festal Oration 38) given by St Gregory the Theologian while Archbishop of Constantinople, on the Feast of the Nativity in the year 380