December 2016 /January 2017 - Vol. 89
Sermons on the Incarnation
from the Early Church Fathers

Nativity by Duccio
                          di Buoninsegna (1255 - 1318)
Nativity by Duccio di Buoninsegna (1255 - 1318)

If Christ Had Not Been Born of Woman

by Proclus of Constantinople (died 446 AD)

But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, "Abba! Father!" So through God you are no longer a slave but a son, and if a son then an heir. - Galatians 4:4-7
A God who was not only God, and a man who was not simply man, was born of woman. 

By being born he formed the gate of salvation from what had at one time been the way in for sin. Where in fact the serpent by exploiting human disobedience had infused his poison, there the Word entered through obedience and built a living temple. From the womb of a woman had come forth the original son of sin, Cain; and from the womb of a woman, without seed, there came into the light the Christ, the redeemer of the human race. 

Let us not be ashamed that he was born of a woman. That birth was for us the beginning of salvation. 

If Christ had not been born of woman, he would not have died either, and would not 'by death have destroyed him who had the power of death, that is, the devil.' [Letter to the Hebrews 2:14] 

[from Homily on the Mother of God (PG6S, 679ff.)]

When Christ Comes, God Will Be Seen by Men

From a treatise Against Heresies by Irenaeus, 130-200 A.D.

There is one God, who by his word and wisdom created all things and set them in order. His word is our Lord Jesus Christ, who in this last age became man among men to unite end and beginning, that is, man and God.

The prophets, receiving the gift of prophecy from this same Word, foretold his coming in the flesh, which brought about the union and communion between God and man ordained by the Father. From the beginning the word of God prophesied that God would be seen by men and would live among them on earth; he would speak with his own creation and be present to it,
bringing it salvation and being visible to it. He would free us from the hands of all who hate us, that is, form the universal spirit of sin, and enable us to serve him in holiness and justice all our days. Man was to receive the Spirit of God and so to attain to the glory of the Father.

The prophets foretold that God would be seen by men. As the Lord himself says: Blessed are the clean of heart, for they shall see God. In his greatness and inexpressible glory no one can see God and live, for the Father is beyond our comprehension. But in his love and generosity and omnipotence he allows even this to those who love him, that is, even to see God, as the prophets foretold. For what is impossible to men is possible to God.

By his own powers man cannot see God; yet God will be seen by men because he wills it.  He will be seen by those he chooses, at the time he chooses, and in the way he chooses, for God can do all things. He was seen of old through the Spirit in prophecy; he is seen through the Son by our adoption as his children, and he will be seen in the kingdom of heaven in his own being as the Father. The Spirit prepares man to receive the Son of God, the Son leads him to the Father, and the Father, freeing him from change and decay, bestows the eternal life that comes to everyone from seeing God.

As those who see light are in the light sharing its brilliance, so those who see God are in God sharing his glory, and that glory gives them life. To see God is to share in life.

Life Itself Appeared in Human Form

from Augustine of Hippo's commentary on the first letter of St John, 5th century
‘That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes and touche with our hands, concerning the Word of Life'.  Who could touch the Word with his hands, were it not that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us?

 This Word, who became flesh in order that he could be touched by hands, began to be flesh in the Virgin Mary's womb.  But he did not hen begin to be the Word; for St John says, ‘That which was from the beginning'.  See how his letter corroborates his gospel, from which you heard a short time ago, ‘In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God'.

Possibly some may understand ‘concerning the Word of life' as a vague expression referring to Christ, not meaning that very body of Christ which was touched by hands.  But you must take into account what follow, ‘And life itself was made manifest'.  It is Christ, therefore, who is the Word of life.

 And how was life manifested?  It was from the beginning, but it had not been manifested to men; yet it had been revealed to the angels, as they saw it and were nourished by it as if it were their bread.  What does scripture say?  ‘Man has eaten bread of angels'.

 So the life itself was made manifest in the flesh, because it depended on ‘manifestation', that a reality only perceptible to the heart might also be visible to our eyes, and thus heal our hearts.  For the Word is seen only by the heart, but the flesh is seen also by bodily eyes.  There was in fact flesh which we could see, in order to heal the heart, the means by which we could see the Word.

‘And we are witnesses', he says, ‘and proclaim to you the eternal life, which was with the Father and was made manifest among us'; to make the text clearer it is permissible to read ‘was made manifest to us'.

‘That which we have seen and heard therefore we proclaim to you'.  My dear brethren in Christ, take note of this: ‘that which we have seen and heard therefore we proclaim to you'.  They - namely the writers - saw the Lord himself, present in the flesh and heard the words from the Lord's own lips, and proclaimed them to us.  So we also have heard, but we have not seen.

Is it to be concluded that we are less blessed than those who heard and also saw?  How then does the writer add, ‘that you say have fellowship with us'?  They saw, we have not seen; and yet we are in fellowship with them, for we hold a common faith.

‘And our fellowship is with God the Father and with his Son Jesus Christ.  And', he adds, ‘we are writing this that you joy may be complete'.  This complete joy of which he speaks is in that very fellowship itself, in that very love, in that very unity.

The Word Made Flesh Deifies Us

From the treatise of Hippolytus, 130-200 A.D.

We do not put our faith in empty phrases, we are not carried off by sudden impulses of the heart, we are not seduced by plausible and eloquent speech, but we do not refuse belief to words spoken by divine power.

These God committed to the Word. The Word spoke, and by these words he turned man away from disobedience, not enslaving him by force or necessity, but inviting him to choose freedom of his own accord.

In the last days the Father sent the Word. In his plan the Word was no longer to speak through the prophets. He was no longer to be a figure of  conjecture, announced in an obscure way.  He was to be manifested visibly, so that the world could see him and be saved.

We know that the Word assumed a body from a virgin and, through a new creation, put on our old nature. We know that he was a man, formed from the same substance as we are. If he were not of the same nature as ourselves, his command to imitate him as a master would be a futile one. If he was of a different substance, why does he command me, naturally weak as I am, to do as he did? How can he be good and just?

To show that he was no different from us, he undertook hard work, he went hungry and thirsty, he took rest and sleep, he did not shirk suffering, he revealed the resurrection. In all this he offered his own self, so that when you suffered you would not lose heart, but rather would recognize that you are a man, and would yourself expect to receive what he received from God.

When you have learned to know the true God, you will have a body immortal and incorruptible, like your soul; you will gain the kingdom of heaven, you who lived on earth and knew the king of heaven; freed from passion, suffering and disease, you will be a companion of God and a co- heir with Christ, for you have become a god.

All that you had to suffer as a man, God gave you, because you were a man.  All that belongs to God, he has promised to give you, because you have been deified and have become immortal.  This is what it means to know yourself, to recognize the God who made you; to know and to be known is the lot of the man called by God.

And so, men, do not be hostile to one another, do not hesitate to return. Christ who is God, supreme over all, has arranged to wash man clean of sin and to make our old nature new. From the beginning he called this old nature his image, and in this way gave you a sign of his love for you. If you obey his sacred commandments, if you become a good follower of him who is good, you will become like him, you will be honoured by him. God is not lacking in anything, and he made you also a god for his glory.

English translation by Thomas Spidlik, Drinking from the Hidden Fountain: A Patristic Breviary, Cistercian Publications, Kalamazoo, Michigan - Spencer, Massachusetts,1994
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