September 23, 2020

Homily on the Conception and Birth of Saint John the Baptist (Leontios of Constantinople)

Homily 1
On the Conception and Birth of Saint John 
the Prophet and Forerunner

By Leontios, Presbyter of Constantinople

(Delivered in 557 A.D. in either September or December, 
the day after an earthquake.)
1. "Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because he has visited and redeemed his people" (Lk. 1:68); for today too "dawn has visited us from on high" (Lk. 1:78). We were sleeping in idleness, and he awakened us with his love of human beings; he made the houses shake, in order that he might make us firm by healing our wounds; he whipped what has no soul, in order to chasten what has a soul; he threw the earth into disorder, in order that those in command might be convinced. He shook, he did not destroy; he visited, he did not reveal. "For the one whom the Lord loves, he chastens, and he whips each son whom he accepts" (Prov. 3:12; Heb. 12:6). It was an earthquake that freed Peter from prison; it was an earthquake that freed Paul from fetters; it was an earthquake that Elijah "was lifted up, as it were into heaven" (4 Kings 2:11); it was an earthquake that anticipated the Master's resurrection. Why an earthquake? Where there is a movement of the divinity, there is also an uproar of the elements. Have mercy on your neighbor, and an earthquake will not harm you. Abstain from evil and God will not become angry. You, too, must say diligently in prayer the words of David: "Lord, in your anger do not rebuke me, in your wrath do not chasten me" (Ps. 6:2). Do not overwhelm me as you did the giants, nor have me burnt like the Sodomites, but pity me as you did the Ninevites.

2. It is fitting, therefore, that those who experience the chastisement of the Lord utter the words of the prophet: "The chastisement of the Lord opens my ears" (Is. 50:5). Those, then, who demand that the divine word be vigorous have themselves too an obligation to lend an ear which is obedient, so that those who speak piously and those who listen sincerely may be able to reap the sheaf of faith, which is rich in ears of corn. Without faith, neither is the echo of what is heard amplified, nor is the door of the lips opened, nor does the plectrum of the tongue move, nor are the pipes of the vocal chords dilated. And the priest Zechariah witness to this, the one who was chastised on account of his disbelief in order to be a lesson to disbelievers, the one who desired a sign of the archangel's revelation, the one who demanded a guarantor of the Master's disclosure.

3. When the Archangel Gabriel said to Zechariah, as you heard just yesterday: "Do not be afraid, Zechariah, because your prayer has been heard, and see, your wife Elizabeth will bear you a son" (Lk. 1:13). Zechariah answered and said, as you know: "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her days" (Lk. 1:18). The words of the old man were truly disbelieving, and laden with great offense, saying "How shall I know this?" corresponds to "What kind of proof do you give me as an assurance of what has been said?"  
"How shall I know this? For I am an old man. How shall I be found the father of a legitimate child? Age repulses faith; for the rest the matter is beyond nature, my genitals have become weak, I go about with a stick in my hand, and are you bringing the experience of a newly-married man to the boil for me? When there is the grave, is there then a birth? How shall I know this? Tell me, mighty Gabriel."

4. Those who are unaware of it should also know that Gabriel mean "man of God", so that he serves the one who has become human, so that he precedes the one who appeared, so that he brings the good news not only to the barren women but to the Virgin as well. This is the Gabriel who both caused Daniel to understand, and manifested the arrival of the Lord at the right time, and transported Habbakuk by his hair, and subjected the lions in the den to Daniel like ascetics.

5. What, then, did Zechariah say? It is good never to shirk the sequel. "How shall I know this? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her days."

"How shall I know this?" he said. "See, the trembling of my limbs, and the old age of both of us bent to the ground. If one were young and one had grown old, there would be a glimmer of hope in what was said. But, as it is, both our bodies have become feeble, we expect nothing other than the sickness of death, as if we were ripe ears of corn. Are you telling the truth, master Gabriel?
6. Give clear indications, entrust me with a sign as a pledge. I shall not accept the message unless I see a miracle.
How shall I know this? Aaron wouldn't have believed unless the rod had flowered. Moses wouldn't have been assured, unless his hand had become leprous. And Gideon wouldn't have understood, unless the shower of dew had fallen on the fleece alone.
How, then, shall I know this? Give a sign, and I shall dance like a young man. Give a sign, lest Elizabeth laugh prematurely like Sarah. 
How shall I know this? If I am show to be a second Abraham, righteousness and distinction will be mine, as in the case of Abraham. Go into my house; I shall wash your feet; as you set out on your journey I shall provide you with a table full of the mystical; Elizabeth will knead "three measures of meal" (Mt. 13:33; Lk. 13:21), prefiguring the Church; I shall search out a calf, so that she may present me with a child.

7. How shall I know this? Why do you tell me in advance the name of the child, and make an inventory of his virtues when he is not here? Show me something beyond nature, so that I may believe the supernatural?

If heaven is vaulter again, I shall also be young again. If the sea is measured, my wife will also be delivered. If the sun is captured, the withered breasts will also flow with milk. if the moon is fortified, the withered womb will also become moist. How, then, shall I know this marvelous mystery? For I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in her days."
8. The angel said to Zechariah: "Are you demanding a pledge from God? Are you testing an archangel on earth? By determining physical weakness is stronger than the Lord's message, you aren't afraid to inquire: 'How shall I know this?' Surely you're not being sent to Egypt, so that you may fear the majesty of the Pharaoh, and demand an exemption with the words: 'Select another, for I am thin-voiced and slow of tongue' (Ex. 4:10). How will you know this, Zechariah? Does God accomplish nothing supernatural? Or are you looking for what is in accordance with nature, and not a miracle'working of the divinity?

9. Tell me, the pillars of the earth, where are they fixed? The vault of heaven, where is it established? Vaults of clouds, where are they devised? Drops of rain, where are they threaded together? Flakes of snow, where are they quarried? The course of the sun, who directs it? The waning of the moon, who fixes it? The multitude of stars, who counts them? The raging sea, how does it stand in awe of sand? Rivers which stream hot, where are they blended? The fog of darkness, where is woven? A human being in the womb, how is it molded? The female sex, why is it found more cowardly than the male? The godlike soul, how is it found to be crowded all at once in the body? Esau and Jacob, whom the whole world could not contain, how did the dark womb of Rebecca hold them without cramping them?

10. 'How,' you ask, Zechariah, 'shall I know this?' Are you looking for what is in accordance with nature, where the working of the divinity is present? Do you disbelieve that the barren woman has given birth? What if you heard about the Virgin? Didn't Samson the Nazirite smite thousands of aliens with the jawbone of an ass, and, distressed by parchedness and thirst and having almost perished, didn't he cry out sincerely to God, and immediately God opened up the hollow place of the ass and made the water into a lake, and made the Nazirite drink? If, then, he displayed such a sign in the jawbone of an ass, and from dry bone released rivers of water, will he shrink from calling the aged in days to child-bearing?

11.How will you know, Zechariah? Don't you have the example of Abraham and Sarah? Wasn't he too an old man? Wasn't she barren and finished with regular purgations because her body had been wasted by age? Didn't you hear Anna boasting: 'The barren woman has borne seven, but she who has many children is sick?" (1 Kings 2:5). Didn't you hear the prophet saying, Zechariah: 'Signs are for the disbelievers?' Surely you ought not to have denied what was said, Zechariah, as one who obtained a greater ministry than the office of prophet?
12.  But since you seek signs from God like a disbeliever, give heed to a sign in your own limbs which bears a scourge. 'You will be silent and unable to speak' (Lk. 1:20). Where there is the boldness of rashness, there too is the rein of chastisement. You will be silent. Where insolence is spoken, there is the denial of criticism. God wanted you, Zechariah, to become a herald of this great marvel. A military commander of the heavenly king will be born, a man who will purify in advance the deliverance of the world from sin. Since you have determined that the weakness of the body is stronger than the message of the Master, 'you will be silent and unable to speak until the day that these things come to pass, because you did not believe my words, which will be fulfilled in their time' (Lk. 1:20). You see that without faith nothing of what must happen happens.

13. As soon as Zechariah heard these words he went out of the temple immediately, bearing the muzzling as the wages of his disbelief. He had gone in to free others, and he went out himself condemned. By bearing the ceremonial censer, he carried about a mark of his banishment. The people waited to see if they would hear something good from him, and he made signs to them: "Let no one approach me; I am carrying the horror of the Master's vexation."

14. What marvelous actions! Zechariah is muzzled, and Elizabeth rejoices; the tongue is blocked, and the womb swells; the tongue is barren, and the barren woman is becomes a mother - the suffering of the womb moves to the tongue; the voice is bridled, and the offspring is set free; Zechariah is silent, and John leaps.

15. As soon as the barren woman saw the Virgin, the morning star recognized the sun; John made a great leap in the womb of his mother, complaining of the slowness of nature. "I am the Master's herald," he said. "Why have I been bound by the laws like my fellow slaves? Shan't I lose the race by waiting to be born? Won't the Master take in advance the slave wrapped in labor pains? Won't what is in conformity with nature become a transgression of the order? I realize who is present and I cannot bear to be silent. I make the bonds of nature shake, for I am in a hurry to a herald; I become a concise sign of two marvelous deeds: I trumpet forth the coming of God and free the tongue of my father."

16. This is the interest on the capital which we had left over yesterday. All capital bears interest, which is why the child is called "tokos": the man lends his seed, like capital, to the woman - "for the man is the head of the woman" (1 Cor. 11:3) - but it is the woman who bears the interest on the capital.