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December 25, 2020

Discourse on the Birth of our Savior in the Flesh (St. Cyril of Alexandria)

Discourse on the Birth of our Savior in the Flesh

(Sermon 2 on the Gospel of Luke)

By St. Cyril of Alexandria
Luke 2:8-18 -- And there were shepherds in that country, watching and keeping guard by night over their flock: and the angel of the Lord came unto them, and the glory of God shone upon them, and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, "Fear not: for lo! I bring unto you good tidings of great joy, which, shall be to all the people: that there is born unto you today, in the city of David a Saviour, Who is Christ the Lord. And this is your sign; ye shall find a babe wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger." And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly hosts, praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and among men good will." And it came to pass that when the angels had gone from them unto heaven, the shepherds said unto one another, "Let us go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which hath come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us." And they came with haste, and found Mary and Joseph, and the babe laid in the manger. And when they had seen, they made known the word that was spoken unto them concerning the child. And all that heard wondered at what was told them by the shepherds.

Let me begin my discourse to you with that which is written in the book of Psalms, "Come let us praise the Lord, and sing unto God our Saviour:" for He is the Head of our feast-day, and therefore let us tell His noble doings, and relate the manner of that beautifully contrived dispensation, by means of which He has saved the world, and having placed on each one of us the yoke of His kingdom, is justly the object of our admiration. The blessed David therefore says in the Psalms, "All ye people clap your hands;" and again adds thereto, "Sing with understanding, God hath set a king over all the heathen." For this holy mystery was wrought with a wisdom most befitting Christ, if it be true, as true most certainly it is, that the Lord, though He is God, appeared unto us, and though He is in the form of God the Father, and possesses an incomparable and universal preeminence, took the likeness of a slave. But even so He was God and Lord; for He did not cease to be that which He had been.

The company of the holy prophets had before proclaimed both His birth in the flesh, and His assumption of our likeness as about in due time to come to pass: and inasmuch as this hope had now reached its fulfilment, the rational powers of heaven bring the glad tidings of His manifestation and appearance in this world, to shepherds first of all at Bethlehem, who were thus the earliest to receive the knowledge of the mystery. And the type answers to the truth: for Christ reveals Himself to the spiritual shepherds, that they may preach Him to the rest, just as the shepherds also then were taught His mystery by the holy angels, and ran to bear the glad tidings to their fellows. Angels therefore are the first to preach Him, and declare His glory as God born in the flesh in a wonderful manner of a woman.

But perchance some one may object to this; "that He Who was now born was still a child, and wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger: how then did the powers above praise Him as God?" Against such our argument stands firm. Understand, O man, the depth of the mystery! God was in visible form like unto us: the Lord of all in the likeness of a slave, albeit the glory of lordship is inseparable from Him. Understand that the Only-begotten was made flesh; that He endured to be born of a woman for our sakes, to put away the curse pronounced upon the first woman: for to her it was said, "In pains shalt thou bring forth children:" for it was as bringing forth unto death, that they endured the sting of death. But because a woman has brought forth in the flesh the Emmanuel, Who is Life, the power of the curse is loosed, and along with death have ceased also the pains that earthly mothers had to endure in bringing forth.

Wouldst thou learn also another reason of the matter? Remember what the very wise Paul has written of Him. "For as to the powerlessness of the law, wherein it was weak through the flesh, God having sent His Son in the likeness of sinful flesh, and because of sin, has condemned the sin in His flesh, that the just requirement of the law might be fulfilled in us, who walk not according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit." What then is the meaning of his saying that the Son was sent "in the likeness of sinful flesh?" It is this. The law of sin lies hidden in our fleshly members, together with the shameful stirring of the natural lusts: but when the Word of God became flesh, that is man, and assumed our likeness, His flesh was holy and perfectly pure; so that He was indeed in the likeness of our flesh, but not according to its standard. For He was entirely free from the stains and emotions natural to our bodies, and from that inclination which leads us to what is not lawful.

When therefore thou seest the child wrapped in swaddling-clothes, stay not thy thought solely upon His birth in the flesh, but mount up to the contemplation of His godlike glory: elevate thy mind aloft: ascend to heaven: so wilt thou behold Him in the highest exaltation, possessed of transcendent glory; thou wilt see Him "set upon a throne high and lifted up;" thou wilt hear the Seraphim extolling Him in hymns, and saying that heaven and earth are full of His glory. Yea! even upon earth this has come to pass: for the glory of God shone upon the shepherds, and there was a multitude of the heavenly armies telling Christ's glory. And this it was which was proclaimed of old by the voice of Moses, "Rejoice, ye heavens, with Him, and let all the sons of God worship Him." For very many holy prophets had been born from time to time, but never had any one of them been glorified by the voice of angels: for they were men, and according to the same measure as ourselves, the true servants of God, and bearers of His words. But not so was Christ: for He is God and Lord, and the Sender of the holy prophets, and, as the Psalmist says, "Who in the clouds shall be compared unto the Lord, and who shall be likened unto the Lord among the sons of God?" For the appellation of sonship is bestowed by Him as of grace upon us who lie under the yoke, and are by nature slaves: but Christ is the true Son, that is, He is the Son of God the Father by nature, even when He had become flesh: for He continued, as I have said, to be that which He had ever been, though He took upon Him that which He had not been.

And that what I say is true, the prophet Isaiah again assures us, saying, "Behold the virgin shall conceive and bear a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel; butter and honey shall He eat: before He knoweth or chooseth the evil, He shall prefer the good: for before the Child distinguisheth good or evil, He is not obedient to evil in that He chooseth the good." And yet how is it not plain to all, that a new-born babe, as yet unable, from its youth and tenderness, to understand anything, is unequal to the task of distinguishing between good and evil? For he knows absolutely nothing. But in our Saviour Christ it was a great and extraordinary miracle: for He ate while yet a babe both butter and honey. And because He was God, ineffably made flesh, He knew only the good, and was exempt from that depravity which belongs to man. And this too is an attribute of the supreme Substance; for that which is good by nature, firmly and unchangeably, belongs specially to It, and It only; "for there is none good, but one God," as the Saviour has Himself said.

Wouldst thou see another virtue of the Child? Wouldst thou see that He is by nature God, Who in the flesh was of woman? Learn what the prophet Isaiah says of Him: "And I drew near unto the prophetess, and she conceived, and bare a male; and the Lord said unto me, Call His name, Quick take captive, and spoil hastily. For before the Child shall know to call father or mother, He shall take the strength of Damascus." For contemporaneously with the birth of Christ the power of the devil was spoiled. For in Damascus he had been the object of religious service, and had had there very many worshippers; but when the holy Virgin brought forth, the power of his tyranny was broken; for the heathen were won unto the knowledge of the truth; and their first-fruits and leaders were the Magi, who came from the East to Jerusalem; whose teacher was the heaven, and their schoolmaster a star.

Look not therefore upon Him Who was laid in the manger as a babe merely, but in our poverty see Him Who as God is rich, and in the measure of our humanity Him Who excels the inhabitants of heaven, and Who therefore is glorified even by the holy angels. And how noble was the hymn, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, and among men good will!" For the angels and archangels, thrones and lordships, and high above them the Seraphim, preserving their settled order, are at peace with God: for never in any way do they transgress His good pleasure, but are firmly established in righteousness and holiness. But we, wretched beings, by having set up our own lusts in opposition to the will of our Lord, had put ourselves into the position of enemies unto Him. But by Christ this has been done away: for He is our peace; for He has united us by Himself unto God the Father, having taken away from the middle the cause of the enmity, even sin, and so justifies us by faith, and makes us holy and without blame, and calls near unto Him those who were afar off: and besides this, He has created the two people into one new man, so making peace, and reconciling both in one body to the Father. For it pleased God the Father to form into one new whole all things in Him, and to bind together things below and things above, and to make those in heaven and those on earth into one flock. Christ therefore has been made for us both Peace and Goodwill; by Whom and with Whom to God the Father be glory and honour and might with the Holy Spirit, forever and ever, Amen.