Nativity Homily Metr. Philaret of Moscow
HOMILY ON THE NATIVITY OF CHRIST
(Delivered in 1826 in the Chudov Monastery, Moscow.)
Metropolitan Philaret of Moscow
Let this mind be in you, which was also in Christ Jesus, Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, and took upon Him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men (Phil. 2:5-7).
If, according to the word of Solomon, to every thing there is a season (Eccl. 3:1), then is it not now the season to philosophise with the Apostle on the awesome self-abasement of our great God and Saviour, Jesus Christ, when we see Him abasing Himself even to the state of infancy, lowering Himself even to a manger?
People, infatuated with earthly greatness, have not infrequently been scandalised by the self-abasement of Jesus Christ. But now, when by the experience of so many centuries it has been realised that God hath highly exalted Him (Phil. 2:9-10), that at His name indeed every knee hath bowed, of things in heaven. and things in earth, and things under the earth, for, since the day of His resurrection and ascension, thousands of witnesses have seen how the heavenly powers slavishly fulfilled His commands, how, on the other hand, the powers of hell by His name were cast down into the abyss; and millions of the earthly-born find their blessedness in worship of His name. After this, especially before people who have congregated in order to bow down before the name of Jesus, we can free ourselves from the labour of defending and justifying His self-abasement; and nothing bars us from gazing on His abasement with the same reverence as on His greatness.
Oh, how the Son of God abased Himself in His incarnation! This abasement must be all the more stunning for us in that it comes in a certain inverse correspondence with the original exaltation of man himself. For it is not without a purpose that the Word of God employs the same term for the expression of these opposites: image and likeness. Let us create man, spake God the Creator, in our image and likeness. And the Apostle says of the incarnation of the Son of God: and took upon Him the image of a servant, and was made in the likeness of man. Another master need not lower himself much so as to appear in the form of a servant. But when the Lord, great and high, Who gives even unto His servants the image of master, Himself appears in the image and likeness of a servant, that is in the condition of complete servitude, and deep, as is natural for servitude, meanness [shabbiness -jh], then one cannot look on such an extraordinary self abasement of One so great without a special feeling of awe, extending to compunction, or to horror. And it was in this manner that the Son of God abased Himself in His incarnation of His earthly birth!
But how much more did He abase Himself in the circumstances of His earthly birth! A people had to be chosen in which He would be born, and He chose for Himself, from all the peoples of the earth, the smallest, which did not have its own government, many times enslaved and close to a new enslavement, formerly blessed, but now almost rejected. A city had to be chosen, and He chose Bethlehem, so small that even the Prophet who favored it could not conceal this reproach against it, and found no other means to magnify it, except by the name of the self-abasing Jesus born therein. But thou, Bethlehem Ephratah, though thou be little among the thousands of Judah, yet out of thee shall He come forth unto me That is to be ruler in Israel: Whose goings forth have been from of old, from everlasting (Mic. 5:22). A mother had to be chosen, and in order to conceal until the proper time the mystery of the incarnation from the unbelieving, a seeming father had to be joined to her by the bonds of the law but not of the flesh; and now, so that the promises and prophesies be fulfilled, the chosen ones, although of Royal lineage, are but a worker of wood and the other a poor orphaned virgin. And what else? If the Lord had been born in the small, private dwelling of Joseph, and Mary had placed Him in a poor cradle, the appearance of a servant, adopted by Him, perhaps would not have had all the features that it did; for there could be found a servant’s dwelling smaller than Joseph’s and a cradle poorer than Mary’s. What then does He Who is endlessly Great contrive, so to say, in seeking endless self-abasement? By the Command of Augustus all the world must be enrolled (Luke 2:1). He puts into motion the entire population of the land of Judah, so that it was impossible for Joseph either to remain in his own dwelling in Nazareth or to find a rented one in Bethlehem, when the time came for the true Lord of the universe to be born, and in this manner abasing Himself even unto infancy, He lowers Himself even to a manger, in place of a cradle. She laid Him in a manger, for there was no room for them in the inn (Luke 2:7).
If, from the self-abasing God, we extend our gaze further across the expanse of the world in which and for which He is abasing Himself, the miracle of abasement presents us new, stunning sights. Here there comes to my mind the picture of the descent of the Word of God from heaven into the land of Egypt portrayed by the writer of the book of Wisdom. For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven and out of Thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction (Wis. of Sol. 18:14-15). And in the passing of the incarnate Word of God into the land of Israel, was not night likewise in the midst of her swift course, when during the very minutes of His birth, there were shepherds in that same country keeping watch over their flocks by night (Luke 2:8)? Did not the same quiet silence hold all upon the earth, when only the voice of the Angel was heard, and heard by a few shepherds in the wilderness? Terrible is the obscurity in which the punishing Word of God descended on the Egyptian land of destruction, so as to fill all things with death (Wis. of Sol. 13:16) by striking down the first-born of Egypt! Yet this obscurity did not lessen but all the more magnified the glory of God the Avenger, Who without visible means, without sensual actions, by an unheard command alone, or, one might say, by the silence alone of the Word Which spake forth life for all, He accomplishes the punishment of the evil. In another way, but no less terrible, is that obscurity in which the saving Word of God, born in the flesh, comes to visit the whole earth, a land of destruction, because, of the earthly-born all have sinned and come short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23); He comes not as a fierce man of war, threatening all things living with death, but as a newly born babe, bringing the hope of rebirth and life into the entire realm of death; He comes — but the land of destruction does not meet, does not embrace, does not praise, does not even see its Saviour, and does not hear the Word of God keeping silence in a manger. Virtually in vain does the glory which Jesus Christ had with God the Father before the world was (John 17:5) on the lips of Angels follow Him descending into the world and pursuing Him, attain even unto the earth. In the land of destruction there is virtually no ear undeafened by vanity and capable of hearing that glory.
Virtually in vain the wisest and most illustrious of stars makes its extraordinary path, so as to point out the Sun of righteousness shining amid the deep night; capable of grasping this indication and prepared to follow it can be found scarcely two or three persons, and they — among those sitting in the darkness and deathly shadow of paganism and astrology. And Judea, where God is known (Ps. 75:2)? — It does not know that God was manifest in the flesh (I Tim. 3:16). And Jerusalem, the city of God (Ps. 86:3)? — It does not rejoice with the Christ Who came to save, but is troubled with Herod, who seeks to destroy. And the High Priests and Scribes, who should have been especially close to God and His mysteries through prayer and understanding of the law? They magnificently solve the learned question: Where Christ should be born? (Matt. 2:4) and are so satisfied, that they do not even find it necessary to trouble themselves further to find out whether or not He is in fact born. Thus, not only in the midnight of physical time, but in a likewise deep night of men’s ignorance and forgetting of Thee and Thy Judgements, Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of Thy royal throne into the midst of a land of destruction, and in spite of the fact that virtually no one glorifies Him, no one knows or seeks to know, He does not utter a punishing command, but keeps silence in a long-suffering which is salutary for the perishing! Thus not only did He abase Himself Who is in the image of God and equal to God and is God, but even accepted a new form of abasement from the ignorance and carelessness of those for whom out of love He abased Himself!
Let us marvel, O Christians, at the voluntary self-abasement for us of our great God and Saviour; but this is still too little. Let us stand in growing reverence before this self-abasement of His; but even this is not sufficient. Let this mind be in you, the Apostle teaches us, which was in Christ Jesus. You also come to have the same feelings as Jesus Christ had; be disposed just as He was disposed. What does this mean? — The Apostle himself explains this, stating prior to the cited quotation: Let nothing he done through strife or vainglory: but in lowliness of mind let each esteem the other better than himself (Phil. 2:3). From this can be seen that he teaches us in the example of Jesus Christ not to place ourselves on high and not to exalt ourselves with any prerogatives, but to humble ourselves, both within ourselves and before others.
He who has servants, let him remember Him Who took on the form of a servant, and let him not lower with disdain those lowered by their lot, and let not him who is raised above them by God exalt himself with pride.
He who lives in a magnificent house, sleeps on down, and dresses in silk, let him remember the cave and manger and, like unto them in crudeness, the swaddling clothes; and let him not abase those who dwell in huts, sleep on straw, dress in coarse clothing, and who, not only in their external, but also in their internal state, are perhaps more like unto Christ. Let the rich rejoice, teaches the Apostle James, let the rich rejoice in his humility (Jas. 1:10).
And he Who, according to the expression of the Apostle, resteth in the law, and maketh his boast of God, and knoweth His will, and approveth the things that are more excellent, being instructed out of the law (Rom. 2:17-18) — ah! and he that glorieth, let him glory in the Lord (ICor. 1:31). Let him that thinketh he standeth take heed lest he fall (ICor. 10:12)! In particular, let no one judge the ignorant, let no one laugh at the falling! Christ is the Light which lighteth every man that cometh into the world (John 1:9); perhaps he, whom you see sitting in the darkness and shadow of death, soon will shine brighter than you with this light, or even is already beginning to shine internally, in the realm of spirit. Perhaps, the magi of the pagan east are seeking more zealously than you, and will precede you in finding Christ; perhaps the publicans and harlots will go into the kingdom of God before you (Matt 21:31).
Meekness, simplicity, humility, condescension to the poor, equaling yourself to the least of them, calmness in belittlement, patience, conquerable by no insults whatsoever – let this mind be in you even as in Christ Jesus. Amen.