God on Earth, and Man in Heaven
By Saint John Chrysostom (c. 347-407), Archbishop of Constantinople and Doctor of the Church
The patriarchs of old travailed in pain in search of it, the prophets spoke of it, and the just earnestly desired to see it. These things are now come to pass…. God is both seen on earth through the flesh, and is conversant with men! Let us, therefore, my beloved, rejoice, and be exceeding glad! For if John, "while he was yet in his mother's womb, leaped for joy, when Mary came to Elizabeth," how much more ought we, who have seen not Mary, but our Savior Himself, born as on this day, "to leap for joy, and be exceeding glad!" To marvel, and be struck at every sense of the sovereign greatness of this dispensation! For consider how great a thing it was, to see the sun descending from the heavens, abiding upon the earth, and sending from hence its rays upon all! Now, if at the sense of this luminary, it has happened so to strike all who have seen it, let me consider now and think, how great a thing it is to see "the sun of righteousness" of our own flesh, sending His ray, and enlightening our souls!
This, of all festivals…hath filled the world with gladness! This feast is the summit of all good things! The fountain and root of good things among us! By which Heaven is opened! The Spirit is sent down! The partition-wall is taken away! The hedge is broken down! Things at variance are united! The darkness is extinguished! The light hath shined! Heaven hath received that nature which was from earth! Earth, Him, “that sitteth upon the cherubims!” The bond are become free! Enemies, sons! And strangers, heirs! By it…a long war is dissolved; and peace, which, of old, has been so much desired both by angels and just men, is now come among us! Thus Paul saying, cries out, “Christ is our peace, who hath made both of one, and hath broke down the middle wall of partition, even the enmity in his flesh!” By it, the conversion of the Cross stands celebrated and remarkable: as also the spoils of Christ our King, the first-fruits of our nature!
What then has even been made equal to this festival? God on earth! Man in Heaven! Angels rejoice together with men! Men communicate with angels and other powers on high! Devils flee away! Death is dissolved! Paradise is opened! The curse is vanished! Sin is put at a distance! Error is driven away! Truth is returned! And nature, by which the cherubims kept Paradise, is this day united to God! Be not oppressed, therefore, with doubt, hearing of these things! For it is a thing full of astonishment, and beyond all hope and expectation, that God should become Man! --
When the spring shines forth after the dreary winter, then does the earth put forth the green herb; the trees are made beautiful by their flower-bearing branches; the air, enlightened by the sun, is made glad, and the whole feathered choir flying above in the air, makes it resound with their melodious voices! Then do the cow-herds and shepherds dwelling in the mountains, and coming forth from their cottages, correct their looks by the beauty of the air; and by the harmony of their various-sounding pipes rival the chantings of the sweet-voiced birds; and gladdening the senses of the dumb sheep, draw forth the lambs upon the grass with soft and gentle motions! Then also, does the husbandman, who had sharpened his pruning-hook in his cottage by the rock, go forth into the vineyard to prune the unfruitful branch of the vine! Then also, the sailors who love the deep, beholding the sea, leave the continent, and trusting their lives to the ship, water, and wind, availing themselves of the winds of the sea, scud away without fear! And, in general, (that I may not be tedious) every profession and occupation designed among men for the service of life, at the serenity of the air shining upon them, has a free motion towards carrying on its work.
Come then, and since our heavenly spring is risen upon us from the Virgin’s womb, and hath dispersed the cold and stormy clouds of the devil, and hath awakened the sleepy hearts of men by his divine rays from the fruit of ignorance unto heavenly and blessed glory, let us sharpen our understanding! -- But the birth of Christ stops the course of my tongue, and attracts the glittering divinity itself! For when I consider the wonderful mystery of the birth of Christ, I am much perplexed at it! And not finding the manner of it, I seal it with faith. For how? Is it not truly wonderful and surpassing all understanding, that a virgin should bring forth, and be a virgin after delivery?
Behold, therefore, a visible and invisible mystery! Comprehensible and incomprehensible! That may be felt, and yet not found! For who hath not seen and apprehended both the Child and the Mother? And yet, whoever does see the Virgin Mother, and the Babe, a child of the Virgin, findeth a mystery much perplexing him! O truly a mystery! Heavenly and earthly! Seen, and yet doth not appear! For so great was Christ, who was born this day! Heavenly, as to his divine nature, earthly, as to his human! Visible, as to the flesh; invisible, as to the spirit! Comprehensible, as to the body, incomprehensible as to reason! But Christ indeed, being God, is all-powerful! O Virgin Mother, of the virgin Babe! O holy Child of the unmarried Mother! O bush, which Moses saw burning on the mount, and yet not burnt up! O stone, which Daniel saw hewn out of the mountain, without the hand of man!...
“The sun of righteousness” has this day risen, and revealed Him that was before rising! I have been redeemed from darkness, but I am not able to bear His rays! -- The light again is brought forth to me, though I vanish away with fear! I rejoice at the birth, though I am amazed at the manner of it. I see a new fountain springing up before me, and an old wound disappearing. I see a babe bringing forth, and Heaven inclining to the adoration of Him! A parent without a husband, and a son without a father. A savior brought forth, and a star created! An infant wrapt in swaddling clothes, and yet bearing immensity about him -- a manger formed into a heavenly throne! And cattle resembling a representation of cherubims…. Angels proclaiming beforehand, and shepherds prophesying! Wise men speaking of divine things, and priests fighting against God. Herod falling, and Death lamenting! Adam freed! Eve rejoicing! And the serpent mourning. Captives delivered, and tyrants in punishment! A babe…carried about with hands, and yet bearing her that beareth! The Creation acknowledged, and all nature terrified.
Wherefore I also am in an ecstasy at the miracle, trembling at the mystery. I will be bold through Gabriel, and drive away my fear. --
The words which he spoke unto Mary, interpreting wonders! -- For he says:
Hail thou that art highly favored!
The ungathered field of a Heavenly ear of corn
The real Virgin Mother of the true vine
The sage net of the immutable Godhead
Hail thou that art highly favored!
The spacious dwelling of an immense nature!
O bride of a widowed world!
A crown woven without hands in a formed creation
The holy habitation of fire!
The return again of a world from banishment
The inexhaustible treasury of a famished creation…
The unextinguished and most splendid light of the sun…
O intelligible ark of glory!
The golden pot having the heavenly manna
Thou that fillest the thirsty with the sweet drink of an everlasting fountain
The sea, that hath the heavenly pearl, Christ --
That hath within herself God whom the heavens cannot contain!
The cloud, like a pillar, that hath God who led Israel though the wilderness.
And what shall I say, or what shall I speak? How do I felicitate the glory which contained the whole root?... “And she was troubled at the speech,” saying within herself, “what manner of salutation should this be?... I know not what I shall say at this awful vision! If I understand not him who is sent, how shall I know Him who sends? If he who declares this is tremendous, how much more so is He that is declared? If his shining thus dazzles my understanding, with what sort of body shall I hide the ‘sun of righteousness’? If the thing created thus disturbs me, how shall I bear the Creator if I am terrified at the servant, how shall I bring forth the master?”
And the angel said unto her, “Fear not, Mary! Thou dost not supplant mankind as Eve thy mother did -- by her, death, but by thee, life immortal! By her, the fruit of dying, but by thee, fruit which giveth eternal life. By her, a separation of God from men, but by thee, a wonderful connection between God and Man! By her, a dark sleep of the grave -- but by thee, a shining light of the world! By her, a curse, but by thee, a blessing! By her, tears, but by thee, rivers of living water! By her, fatigues, but by thee, rest. By her, brotherly hatred, but by thee, a general love of mankind. By her, a deluge -- but by thee, an ocean of immortality! By her, murders, but by thee, regeneration! By her, slaughters of animals, but by thee, a raising of the dead!... By her, a fall, but by thee, a resurrection.
“Fear not, Mary! For thou hast found favor with God: and behold! Thou shalt conceive in thy womb ‘Him, in the Father and in the flesh.’ And thou shalt bring forth a son older than Adam!... Higher than Heaven! Far above the cherubims! A builder of the worlds! Co-eternal with the Father and the Holy Spirit! By whom are all things!...”
Now when Christ…was born in Bethlehem of Judaea, behold! Wise men came from the east to Jerusalem, saying, “Where is He that is born King of the Jews? Where is He that was not sown, and yet born? Who sent his star before Him! Where is he, that by a foreign ray drew us to an unknown light, who with an unmeasurable hand encompassed the world with a wall? Who appeareth everywhere, and yet is hid in the flesh? Who hath freed us from error, and led us unto grace? Who appeared under the oak among the three angels to Abraham?... Who dried up the Red Sea, and watered the earth? Who smote Pharaoh, and was concealed from Herod? Who slew the dragon and yet was laid in swaddling clothes? Whom archangels saw not, and yet men see?
Let us glorify God, who is come in the flesh, for so great a condescension. And, as far as we are able, let us return Him worthy honor and recompense. Let us not be ungrateful to our best Benefactor, but bring to him faith, hope, charity, temperance, alms, hospitality! And as I have before exhorted you, so I do now, and ever shall, that as ye are about to draw near to this awful and divine table, and holy Supper of the Lord, ye do it with fear and trembling, with a clean conscience, fasting, and prayer! Let us draw near with a contrite heart, that having made our Lord Jesus Christ our propitiation, we may obtain those good things which are promised us, through his grace and love for mankind.
To whom with the Father and the Holy Ghost, be all glory, power, and honor, both now and forever! Amen.
Nota bene: This text is adapted from one of the first English translations of Saint John Chrysostom's homilies, and is in fact a literary compilation of parts of four different homilies in the saint's collected writings. Cf. Rev. William Scott, A.M., A Panegyric, or Sermon, in Honour of Christmas-Day, Almost Fourteen Hundred Years Old, of that most famous Father of the Church (London: S. Crowder, G. Robinson, J. Bew, 1775). For a modern translation of Chrysostom's best known Christmas homily, quoted in abbreviated form on many websites and blogs, see M.F. Toal, ed., The Sunday Sermons of the Great Fathers, vol. 1 (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2000), 110-117.