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Commentary on the Nativity St. Cyril of Alexandria
from Chapter Two of:
Commentary of the Gospel of Saint Luke
by St. Cyril Patriarch of Alexandria
translated by R. Payne Smith
Studion Publishers 1983
Christ, therefore, was born in Bethlehem at the time when Augustus Cesar gave orders that the first enrollment should be made. But what necessity was there, some one may perhaps say, for the very wise Evangelist to make special mention of this? Yes, I answer: it was both useful and necessary for him to mark the period when our Savior was born; for it was said by the voice of the Patriarch: The head shall not depart from Judah, nor a governor from his thighs until He come, for Whom it is laid up: and He is the expectation of the Gentiles. Gen. 49:10 That we might learn that the Israelites then had no king of the tribe of David, and that their own native governors had failed, with good reason he mentions the decrees of Cesar, as now having Judea and the rest of the nations beneath his scepter, for it was as their ruler that he commanded the census to be made.
verse 4 Because he was of the house and lineage of David.
The book of the sacred Gospels referring the genealogy to Joseph, who was descended from David's house, has proved through him that the Virgin also was of the same tribe as David, inasmuch as the Divine law commanded that marriages should be confined to those of the same tribe; and the interpreter of the heavenly doctrines, the great apostle Paul, clearly declares the truth, bearing witness that the Lord arose out of Juda. Heb. 7:14 The natures, however, which combined unto this union were different, but from the two together is one God the Son, without the diversity of the natures being destroyed by the union. For a union of two natures was made, and therefore we confess One Christ, One Son, One Lord. And it is with reference to this notion of a union without confusion that we proclaim the holy Virgin to be the mother of God, because God the Word was made flesh and became man, and by the act of conception united to Himself the temple that He received from her. For we perceive that two natures, by an inseparable union, met together in Him without confusion, and indivisibly. For the flesh is flesh, and not deity, even though it became the flesh of God; and in like manner also the Word is God, and not flesh, though for the dispensation's sake He made the flesh His own. But although the natures which concurred in forming the union are both different and unequal to one another, yet He Who is formed from them both is only One; nor may we separate the One Lord Jesus Christ into man severally and God severally, but we affirm that Christ Jesus is One and the Same, acknowledging the distinction of the natures, and preserving them free from confusion with one another.
verse 5 With Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child.
The sacred Evangelist says that Mary was betrothed to Joseph, to show that the conception had taken place upon her betrothal solely, and that the birth of the Emmanuel was miraculous, and not in accordance with the laws of nature. For the holy Virgin did not bear from the immission of man's seed. And what, therefore, was the reason for this? Christ, Who is the first-fruits of all, the second Adam according to the Scriptures, was born of the Spirit, that he might transmit the grace (of the spiritual birth) to us also; for we too were intended no longer to bear the name of sons of men, but of God rather, having obtained the new birth of the Spirit in Christ first, that he might be foremost among all Col. 1:15, as the most wise Paul declares.
And the occasion of the census most opportunely caused the holy Virgin to go to Bethlehem, that we might see another prophecy fulfilled. For it is written, as we have already mentioned, And thou Bethlehem, house of Ephratah, art very small to be among the thousands of Judah: from thee shall come forth for me to be Ruler in Israel! Mich. 5:2
But in answer to those who argue that, if He were brought forth in the flesh, the Virgin was corrupted; and if she were not corrupted, that He was brought forth only in appearance, we say, the prophet declares, the Lord, the God of Israel, hath entered in and gone out, and the gate remaineth closed. Ezek. 44:2 If, moreover, the Word was made flesh without sexual intercourse, being conceived altogether without seed, then He was born without injury to her virginity.
verse 7, 8 [And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.] And she brought forth her firstborn Son, [and wrapped him in swaddling clothes.]
In what sense then her firstborn? By firstborn she here means, not the first among several brethren, but one who was both her first and only son; for some such sense as this exists among the significations of 'first-born.' For sometimes also the Scripture calls that the first which is the only one; as I am God, the First, and with Me there is no other. Esaias 44:6 To show then that the Virgin did not bring forth a mere man, there is added the word firstborn; for as she continued to be a virgin, she had no other son but Him Who is of the Father; concerning Whom God the Father also proclaims by the voice of David, And I will set Him Firstborn high among the kings of the earth. Psalm 88:27 Of Him also the all-wise Paul makes mention, saying, But when He brought the First-Begotten into the world, He saith, And let all the angels of God worship Him. Heb. 1:6 How then did He enter into the world? For He is separate from it, not so much in respect of place as of nature; for it is in nature that He differs from the inhabitants of the world; but He entered into it by being made man, and becoming a portion of it by the incarnation. For though He is the Only-begotten as regards His divinity, yet as having become our brother, He has also the name of the Firstborn; that, being made the first-fruits as it were of the adoption of men, He might make us also the sons of God.
Consider, therefore, that He is called the Firstborn in respect of the economy; for with respect to His divinity He is the Only-begotten. Again, He is the Only-begotten in respect of His being the Word of the Father, having no brethren by nature, nor being co-ordinate with any being; for the Son of God, consubstantial with the Father, is One and Alone; but He becomes the Firstborn by descending to the level of created things. When, therefore, He is called the Only-begotten, He is so with no cause assigned by reason of which He is the Only-begotten, being the Only-begotten God into the bosom of the Father John 1:18; but when the divine Scriptures call Him Firstborn, they immediately also add of whom He is the first-born, and assign the cause of His bearing this title; for they say, Firstborn among many brethren; and Firstborn from the dead Rom. 8:29, Col. 1:18; the one, because He was made like unto us in all things except sin; and the other, because He first raised up His own flesh unto incorruption. Moreover, He has ever been the Only-begotten by nature, as being the Sole begotten of the Father, God of God, and Sole of Sole, having shone forth God of God, and Light of Light; but He is the Firstborn for our sakes, that by His being called the Firstborn of things created, whatever resembles Him may be saved through Him; for if He must of necessity be the Firstborn, assuredly those must also continue to exist of whom He is the Firstborn. But if, as Eunomios argues, He is called God's Firstborn, as born the first of many; and He is also the Virgin's Firstborn; then as regards her also, He must be the first as preceding another child; but if He is called Mary's Firstborn, as her only child, and not as preceding others, then is He also God's Firstborn, not as the first of many, but as the Only One born.
Moreover, if the first are confessedly the cause of the second, but God and the Son of God are first, then the Son is the cause of those who have the name of sons, inasmuch as it is through Him that they have obtained the appellation. He, therefore, who is the cause of the second sons may justly be called the Firstborn, not as being the first of them, but as the first cause of their receiving the title of sonship. And just as the Father being called the first – for I, He saith, am the first, and I am after these things Esaias 41:4 – assuredly will not compel us to regard Him as similar in nature to those that are after Him; so also, though the Son be called the first of creation, or the Firstborn before all creation, it by no means follows that He is one of the things made; but just as the Father said I am the first, to show that He is the origin of all things, in the same sense the Son also is called the first of creation. For all things were made by Him. John 1:3 As the Creator and Maker of the world, He is the beginning of all created things.
verse 7 And she laid him in the manger [because there was no room for them in the inn.]
He found man reduced to the level of the beasts; therefore is He placed like fodder in a manger, that we, having left off our bestial life, might mount up to that degree of intelligence which befits man's nature; and whereas we were brutish in soul, by now approaching the manger, even His own table, we find no longer fodder, but the bread from heaven, which is the body of life.
ON THE BIRTH OF OUR SAVIOR IN THE FLESH
verses 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 Savior, 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 Savior; 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. All ye people clap your hands; and again adds thereto, Sing with understanding, God hath set a king over all the heathen. Psalm 46:1,7 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. Angel, 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; Gen. 3:16 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. Rom. 8:3,4 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; Esaias 6:1 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. Deut. 32:43 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? Psalm 88:6 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 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. Esaias 7:14 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 Savior 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, Luke 18:19 as the Savior 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 Esaias 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. Esaias 8:3 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 firstfruits and leaders were the Magi, who came from the East to Jerusalem; whose teacher was the heaven, and their schoolmaster a star.
• The fathers constanty refer this name, Maher-shalal-hash-baz, to our Lord, and explain it off the overthrow of Satan. Another instance of St. Cyril's use of it will be found in his 17th Paschal Homily, as follows: "The prophetessis the holy Virgin; and the name given to the child suiteth not man, but God; for, saith He, call His name Spoil quickly: hastily plunder. For at His birth the heavenly and supernatural infant, while yet in swaddling bands and on His mother's bosom, because of His human nature, stripped forthwith Satan of his goods by His ineffable might as God; for the Magi came from the East to worship Him..."
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. Eph. 2:14 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, Eph. 1:10 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, unto ages of ages. Amen.