January 7, 2019

Homily on Saint John the Baptist (St. Cyril of Alexandria)

By St. Cyril of Alexandria

(Sermon 10, Commentary on Luke 3:15-17)

3:15-17. But when the people were in expectation, and all men reasoned in their hearts concerning John, whether he were not the Christ, John answered, and said to them all, "I indeed baptize you in water, but there cometh He Who is mightier than I, Whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose: He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire, Whose fan is in His hand, and He shall purge His floor, and gather His wheat into stores, but the chaff He will burn in unquenchable fire."

It is written, that "a just father will bring up (his children) excellently." For those who are clad in the glory of the righteousness that is by Christ, and are acquainted with His sacred commands, will train up excellently and piously those who are their sons in the faith, giving them not the material bread of earth, but that which is from above, even from heaven. Of which bread the admirable Psalmist also makes mention, where he says, "Bread establisheth man's heart, and wine rejoiceth man's heart." Let us therefore now also establish our hearts: let our faith in Christ be assured, as we correctly understand the meaning of those evangelic writings now read unto us. For when the people, it says, were in expectation, and all reasoned in their hearts of John, whether he were not the Christ, he answered them in the words which we have just heard read.

They had beheld with admiration the incomparable beauty of John's mode of life: the splendour of his conduct, the unparalleled and surpassing excellence of his piety. For so great and admirable was he, that even the Jewish populace began to conjecture whether he were not himself the Christ, Whom the law had described to them in shadows, and the holy prophets had before proclaimed. Inasmuch therefore as some ventured on this conjecture, he at once cuts away their surmise, declining as a servant the honours due to the Master, and transferring the glory to Him Who transcends all, even to Christ. For he knew that He is faithful unto those that serve Him. And what he acknowledges is in very deed the truth: for between God and man the distance is immeasurable. "Ye yourselves, therefore," he says, "bear me witness that I said I am not the Christ, but that I am sent before Him." But where shall we find the holy Baptist thus speaking? In the Gospel of John, who has thus spoken concerning him: "And this is the testimony of John when the scribes and Pharisees at Jerusalem sent to ask him whether he were the Christ. And he confessed, and denied not, and said, that I am not the Christ, but am he that is sent before Him." Great therefore and admirable in very deed is the forerunner, who was the dawning before the Saviour's meridian splendour, the precursor of the spiritual daylight, beautiful as the morning star, and called of God the Father a torch.

Having therefore thus declared himself not to be the Christ, he now brings forward proofs, which we must necessarily consider, and by which we may learn how immeasurable the distance evidently is between God and man, between the slave and the Master, between the minister and Him Who is ministered unto, between him who goes before as a servant, and Him Who shines forth with divine dignity. What, therefore, is the proof? "I indeed baptize in water. After me shall come He Who is mightier than I, Whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose." As I said, therefore, the difference is incomparable, the superiority immeasurable, if, as is the case, the blessed Baptist, being so great in virtue, declares that he is not worthy even, as it were, to touch His shoes. And his declaration is true: for if the rational powers above, principalities, and thrones, and lordships, and the holy Seraphim themselves, who stand around His godlike throne, holding the rank of ministers, unceasingly crown Him with praises as the Lord of all, what dweller upon earth is worthy even to be nigh unto God? For though He be loving unto man, and gentle, and mild, yet must we, as being of slight account, and children of earth, confess the weakness of our nature.

And after this, he again brings forward a second proof, saying, "I indeed baptize you in water, but He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire." And this too is of great importance for the proof and demonstration that Jesus is God and Lord. For it is the sole and peculiar property of the Substance that transcends all, to be able to bestow on men the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, and make those that draw near unto It partakers of the divine nature. But this exists in Christ, not as a thing received, nor by communication from another, but as His own, and as belonging to His substance: for "He baptizes in the Holy Spirit." The Word therefore that became man is, as it appears, God, and the fruit of the Father's substance. But to this, it may be, those will object who divide the one Christ into two sons,----those I mean who, as Scripture says, are "animal, and dividers, and having not the Spirit,"----that He Who baptizes in the Holy Spirit is the Word of God, and not He Who is of the seed of David. What answer shall we make, then, to this? Yes! we too affirm, without fear of contradiction, that the Word being God as of His own fullness bestows the Holy Spirit on such as are worthy, but this He still wrought, even when He was made man, as being the one Son with the flesh united to Him in an ineffable and incomprehensible manner. For so the blessed Baptist, after first saying, "I am not worthy to stoop down and loose the thong of His shoes," immediately added, "He shall baptize you in the Holy Spirit and in fire;" plainly while having feet for shoes. For no one whose mind was awake would say, that the Word, while still incorporeal, and not as yet made like unto us, had feet and shoes, but only when He had become a man. Inasmuch, however, as He did not then cease to be God, He wrought even so works worthy of the Godhead, by giving the Spirit unto them that believe in Him. For He, in one and the same person, was at the same time both God and also man.

But yes, he objects, the Word wrought the works of Deity by means of Him Who is of the seed of David. If so then you argue, we will repeat to you in answer the words of John; for he somewhere said unto the Jews, "There cometh after me a man Who was before me, because He is before me, and I knew Him not, but He that sent me to baptize in water, He said unto me, 'Upon Whom thou seest the Spirit descending from heaven, and abiding upon Him, this is He that baptizeth in the Holy Spirit; and I saw, and bare witness, that this is the Son of God." Behold, therefore, while plainly calling Him a man, he says that He is prior to him, and was before him, in that He is first, evidently in His divine nature; according to what was plainly said by Himself to the Jewish populace, "Verily I say unto you, before Abraham was, I am."

Next, he says as well, that the Spirit also came down from heaven upon Him. Do they pretend that the Holy Spirit came down upon the Word of God while still abstract and incorporeal? and represent Him Who bestows the Spirit as made partaker of His own Spirit? Or rather is this their meaning, that having received the Spirit in His human nature, He in His divine nature baptizes in the Holy Spirit? For He is Himself singly, and alone, and verily the Son of God the Father, as the blessed Baptist, being taught of God, himself bare witness, saying, "And I saw, and bare witness that this is the Son of God!"

Would you have also a third proof, in addition to what have already been given? "His fan," he says, "is in His hand, and He shall purge His floor, and gather His wheat into His stores, but the chaff He shall burn with fire unquenchable." For he compares those upon earth to ears of corn, or rather to the threshing floor and the wheat upon it: for each one of us has grown like an ear of corn. And our Lord once, when speaking to the holy Apostles, made a similar comparison of our state: "The harvest indeed is great, but the labourers are few. Pray therefore the Lord of the harvest to send forth labourers into His harvest." We therefore, who are upon the earth, are called ears of corn and wheat, and the harvest. And this harvest belongs to God over all: for He is Lord of all. But behold! says the blessed Baptist, the threshing floor belongs to Christ as its owner; for as such He purges it, removing and separating the chaff from the wheat. For the wheat is the just, whose faith is established and assured, but the chaff signifies those whose mind is weak, and their heart easy to be ensnared, and unsafe and timorous, and blown about by every wind. The wheat, then, he says, is stored up in the granary, is deemed worthy, that is, of safety at God's hand, and mercy, and protection and love, but the chaff, as useless matter, is consumed in the fire.

In every way, therefore, we may perceive that the Word of God, even when He was man, nevertheless continued to be one Son. For He performs those works that belong to Deity, possessing the majesty and glory of the Godhead inseparable from Him. If so we believe, He will crown us with His grace: by Whom and with Whom to God the Father be glory and dominion with the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, Amen.