In the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit,
A Merry Christmas to everyone, this morning we are following the readings for the second proper of the Nativity of the Lord. Traditionally the first would be celebrated at midnight, this one at dawn, and the third at some point during Christmas day. We pick up the story of the Nativity with the shepherds.
The angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds. This is now the third time that an angel has appeared announcing the birth of our Lord and Saviour. The first to Mary, the second to Joseph, and now finally to the shepherds. St. Ambrose comments,
“It doesn’t suffice that a messenger is sent once. For every word stands with two or three witnesses.1”
God desired that it’d be abundantly clear that his son was entering the world. He entered the world, what a mystery this is. What is more he entered the womb of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Think about this for a moment. Our God who cannot be contained by the heavens and has no spatial limitations, places himself in the confines of a womb. One of the Fathers, states about this,
“The Virgin is now more spacious than the heavens.”2
Our Saviour came to the Virgin’s womb and was born. The angel now announces him to the shepherds. The Venerable Bede focuses in on the word “today”. Although it was night, the angel did not say tonight a saviour is born, but today. As the shepherds were in darkness awaiting the coming day, so the world was in darkness awaiting salvation and deliverance from sin.
“‘A saviour has been born to you today.” So that being always advised by this word we may remember that the night of ancient blindness is past and the day of eternal salvation has arrived. Let us cast off the works of darkness. And let us walk as children of light for the fruit of the light is in all justice and holiness.3
He came not only to save us, but that we would also walk in a worthy manner.
Today we celebrate that our Saviour was born in time and space. However, we must remember that he was eternally born of the Father and was as the creed of Nicaea says , he is “God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made;” His eternal birth and his birth in time accomplished different objects. Let us listen to the words of St. Augustin,
“By the first nativity from the Father nature was preserved. By the second nativity from his mother the seeds of grace were sown. In the former he retained the majesty of the divine substance. In the latter he took on fellowship with us in our human mortality. And the reason that was prepared to come through this latter birth was so that he might become obedient to the death and by dying conquer death.”4
He was born of the Father that he might have the same nature and substance of the Father. We remember that each person of the Holy Trinity, has the same substance, nature, and will as the others. (The Son is begotten of the Father and the Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father to make this possible.)
However, if He were only born of the Father, then salvation cannot be accomplished. Christmas, the incarnation, is necessary for there to be a crucifixion and resurrection. I remember one of my professors in Bible School encouraging us to think a little more deeply about the incarnation, because without it our salvation is impossible. As we just heard from St. Augustin, he was born so that he might die and conquer death.
Another Father also testifies of this,
“Beholding him [Adam] who was in God’s image and likeness fallen through transgression, Jesus bowed the heavens and came down, without change taking up his dwelling in a virgin womb, that he might refashion Adam fallen in corruption, and crying out: glory to your epiphany, my Saviour and my God.”5
After hearing the news, the shepherds ran to see the child and then to proclaim the mysteries that they had seen. A few of the fathers saw parallels between the shepherds in our passage and the spiritual shepherds in the church. First the angels announced the coming of Christ to them, “[f]or unless that Shepherd comes, the shepherds will be unable to guard the flock well. Their custody is weak unless Christ pastures and guards along with them.”6
Also, in the words of the Venerable Bede,
The Shepherds did not keep silent about the hidden mysteries that they had come to know by divine influence. They told whomever they could. Spiritual shepherds in church are appointed especially for this, that they may proclaim the mysteries of the Word of God and that they may show to their listeners that the marvels which they have learned in the Scriptures are to be marvelled at.”7
While a special responsibility is place upon the spiritual shepherds in this function, we all need to proclaim the mystery of the gospel to those around us. Christ has come and is shepherding us from our midst enabling us to proclaim the mystery of the Gospel.
This wonderful event of our Lord and Saviour’s coming was foretold in the prophets. Let us take a closer look at Isaiah 62. There are sentinels upon the walls who are awaiting the establishment of Jerusalem by the Lord making it the praise of the earth. In the day that this happens, Jerusalem will receive the fruits of their toils, rather than their enemies.
According to Eusebius of Caesarea this is speaking of those who are worthy of the new age. He continues,
For they are correcting their lives in the direction of virtue and in godly manner are pursuing righteousness and enjoying their own harvest.8
As we have written before, the fathers often take a figurative understanding of passages. Here they understand that Jerusalem and the daughter of Zion as the Church, and this is even cited in the council of Carthage as the Church.
“cast up, cast up the highway; gather out the stones;” this is similar to what we read in the second week of Advent.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low; and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways shall be made smooth;
The meaning is the same as well. The stones that we remove are sin. In other words, before Christ can enter into our hearts we must remove sins from our lives and repent, so that he might not stumble over them as one would stumble over rocks on a path.
As we mentioned earlier, the shepherds figuratively speak of the spiritual shepherds in the Church. St. Cyril of Alexandria tells us that verse 11 speaks of the coming of our Saviour and our redemption, and remembering that the daughter of Zion refers to the Church he continues,
“For whom does he order to proclaim good news to Zion? Those holy spiritual guides, of course, who took on the leadership role in the Church and whose job it was to open the gates and remove the stones from their midst. And what were they to announce? “That the Saviour has come bringing his own reward and his work before his face.”9
This is quite encouraging. While we do personally have responsibility to remove sin from our lives and repent. God has appointed, our spiritual leadership to remove these stones from our midst. Through this preparation and the coming of Christ, God has and will produce a pure and holy church. This morning we look at the inception of this vision. Christ is born in Bethlehem and proclaimed to the shepherds but let us always keep in mind the end goal.
With this goal before us, take a look at the opening verse of Psalm 97. “The Lord is king; let the earth rejoice; let the many islands be glad.” St. Augustin tells us, “It is so indeed because the word of God hath been preached not in the continent alone, but also in those isles which lie in mid sea: even these are full of Christians, full of the servants of God.”10
Literally, we see Christians in the earth and islands all around the world, but figuratively St. Augustin tells us that the isles refer to the Church.
“[T]he waves of all temptations roar around [the churches]. But as an isle may be beaten by the waves which on every side dash around it, yet cannot be broken, and rather itself doth break the advancing waves, than by them is broken: so also the Churches of God, springing up throughout the world, have suffered persecutions of the ungodly, who roar around them on every side; and behold the isles stand fixed, and at last the sea is calmed”11
Christ has come and established his church. Nothing can stand against Him or the Church, and fire goes before Him. This is speaking of the fire that will burn after his advent. “What fire is this? …Believers in Him were set on fire, they received the flame of love;”12 Christ has come so that we might share his love to others, as Fr. Pat said in his message for the fourth week of Advent, “We are the ones now, to carry the life of God into the world”. He has come and we bear him.
This is not for Jews only but also us Gentiles as well. St. Augustin expounds verse eight in this light.
“What did Sion hear, and rejoice at? That the Gentiles had also received the word of God…The name Sion is here peculiarly given to the Church which was in Judea.”13
Salvation is for all, in our epistle reading, we see St. Paul’s praise for our salvation. We are saved through his mercy and not by our works of justice and it is all because this is what God has willed or desired. Why he desired to save us, we don’t know but we praise him.
St. Chrysostom tells us that we were so overcome by wickedness that we could not be cleansed. God had to restart on us. This is the renewal or regeneration. He has made us new and not merely repaired us. He also tells us,
“It is from both of these that the Church is sprung “through the bath of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit,” through baptism and the mysteries.14
St. Augustin and St. Ambrose say similar things as well. How the salvation process works we don’t know exactly. It is a mystery. We know baptism is involved and also the work of the Holy Spirit, and in another passage, Saint Paul says that we are saved by hope. Saint Augustin asks the question for us, are we saved through baptism and answers yes that is what it says then, He asks the question again and says no for other Scripture says there are other things involved as well. We are saved, and baptism seems to play a part in it. Let us praise God for our salvation, and not worry about the mechanics of it.
Today, let us rejoice that Christ has come and let us proclaim His life to the world. As we see family and friends this Christmas Season, may we look for opportunity to tell of the life of Christ to them. Let us purpose to walk in a worthy manner, rejoicing that through the incarnation, salvation has come to all both Jew and Gentile. Let us look at our lives, is there sin there that may be hindering Christ from fully dwelling in us? Are we carrying the love of Christ to those around us as the fire that goes out from God?
Dn. Fr. Matthew
1 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 40
2 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 41
3 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 40
4 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 41
5 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 41-42
6 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 40
7 Thomas C. Oden and Arthur A. Just Jr., Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament III (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2003), 42
8 Thomas C. Oden and Mark W. Elliot Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XI (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 247
9 Thomas C. Oden and Mark W. Elliot Editors, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture Old Testament XI (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2007), 248
10 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 8, Augustin: Expositions on the Psalms, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 475
12 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 8, Augustin: Expositions on the Psalms, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 475-476
13 Philip Schaff, D.D., LL.D Editor, Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, First Series Volume 8, Augustin: Expositions on the Psalms, originally published in the United States by the Christian Literature Publishing Company, 1888 (Peabody, MA: Hendrickoson Publishing Marketing, LLC), 478
14 Thomas C. Oden and Peter J. Gorday, Ancient Christian Commentary on Scripture New Testament IX (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2000), 304
Le Breton, Jacques ; Gaudin, Jean. Annunciation of Christ’s Birth to the Shepherds by Angels, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=29419 [retrieved January 4, 2019].
Giorgione, 1477-1511. Adoration of the Christ Child by the Shepherds, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN.http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=46735 [retrieved January 4, 2019]. Original source: www.yorckproject.de.