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12 days with the paradoxical Word

Perhaps the most surprising thing about many pre-Reformation sermons written for the 12 days of Christmas is their tendency not to focus on the gritty details of the Incarnation: the travels of Mary and Joseph, the manger, the shepherds, the birth itself. This is partly due to their liturgical placement. For example, the Gospel reading assigned for Christmas Day for the past 1400 years has been John 1:1-14, which opens with those majestic words:

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning.

St. Bonaventure (ca. 1221-1274), in a sermon that was likely preached before a university congregation or a group of learned Franciscans on Christmas Day, focused primarily upon the difference between the Word conceived and the Word uttered, an image indebted to Augustine of Hippo. He compares the eternal begetting of the Son of God to a human thinking of a word in their mind, while the Incarnation is like the speaking of a word. Just as a word remains in our mind until its sound appears in the air through the vibration of our vocal cords, so the Word remained in the bosom of the Father until he was made man by the Holy Spirit from the Virgin Mary.

Similarly, the Venerable Bede (672-735) spent much of his time investigating “the eternity of the Word” and arguing against various heresies and “haters of the truth.” Both Bede and Bonaventure (and many others) had usually, by Christmas Day, already preached other sermons on the birth in time of the Son of God: sermons for Christmas Vigils, for instance.

Only a few preachers manage to handle well both the temporal birth and the eternal begetting of the Son of God. One of them passed on to us several dozen sermons in Latin, likely written in the middle of the fifth century, yet without passing along his name. Throughout the Middle Ages, the sermons went under the name of Bishop Maximus of Turin, a famous preacher of the late 4th and early 5th centuries, and many were read during the 12 days of Christmas in churches throughout medieval Europe. I am currently translating these anonymous sermons into English, hopefully for an eventual publication, but I include one of them below.

The sacrament of today’s mystery, dearly beloved brethren, is the restoration of human wholeness (salus), the birth of the virtues, the ruin of the vices. For today Jesus Christ our Lord, in whom is the fullness of divinity, is a new-born man in his assumption of the weakness of our flesh. Today, that second Adam pours forth light, not as the resident of paradise, but as its Lord. The beauty of the forbidden tree does not beguile him, the serpent does not deceive him, the woman does not seduce him. Today, light has dawned in the shadows. Today, what the heaven and the heavens above the heavens rejoice to have, the world receives yet does not know.

For it is not that someone temporal or someone who “before was not” emerges suddenly from a woman for us;[1] but he who “was always with the Father,”[2] (that is, with God), he who has always reigned, wished to appear to mortals in a new mystery through the Virgin: a new man indeed, but the eternal Lord; a new Christ, but the king of all the ages. He was born at the end of the ages from Mary, he who had proceeded from the Father as “the only-begotten … before all ages.”[3] He was spoken of beforehand by the patriarchs and prophets, announced by the angels, and openly shown by the apostles, from one and the same statement of the Law: “In the beginning was the Word … and the Word was made flesh” (John 1:1, 14).

Therefore, let all the converted nations now rejoice and exult in your Lord. You have received the gift that Abraham himself rejoiced to see in the spirit; you have merited, through Christ, what the formerly elect nation of the Hebrews was not able to merit. For Israel marveled in fear and trembling, as we read, because Moses, the prince of the people, when hidden in a cloud, spoke with God alone upon the peak of the highest mountain.

But Christ was born to you in such a way and he condescended to us in such a worthy manner, that he spoke to all and was seen by all. Before, whoever came out of the people to Mount Sinai was punished with immediate destruction (Exod. 19:12-13). But whoever does not come to this mountain, to him who was born in the world today, dies (cf. Heb. 12:22).

And at that time, a particular, single people was given knowledge of the faith, but now every nation is summoned to life. Our venerable fathers saw innumerable, great wonders. The heaven dropped down angelic food like dew (Exod. 17); the hardest stone proffered sweet drinks to them (Exod. 19). The Jordan turned its normal course back to its font (Josh. 3); the strongest walls of the enemy collapsed at the peal of trumpets (Josh. 6:1-27); the sun also tarried in the heaven, providing a longer day for a triumphant people (Josh. 10:13). But it was never given to the previous age to see this: that the Only-begotten of the Most High, whom the trembling powers of the archangels receive, might show himself to men as a man, and the flesh which he assumed from man, he transforms into God.

Therefore, act worthily of the eternal majesty, and do not peer into the secret will of God: for Christ was born for all and he gives salvation to the faithful. For if it seems less worthy to the fragility of your senses to believe that the Son of God was born of a woman, know that a virgin bore him. If, to you, the rags in which he was wrapped are common, wonder at the angels singing harmonious praises and wonder at “the multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:14). If you despise the manger in which the infant lay, lift your eyes for just a moment  and behold the new star in the heaven, shouting to the world about the Lord’s nativity. If you believe the birth to be common, believe it is wondrous. If you object to those things pertaining to humility in his birth, venerate what is lofty and heavenly. From the same references, from the same authors, you have learned what is humble about the Lord Savior and what is glorious. Everything that pertains to the mystery of salvation, the sacred Gospels give to you. You have in them the reason why you believe the Lord Jesus was born as a man, and you cannot doubt he is God.

Zachary Guiliano’s other posts may be found here. The featured image is from Pixabay. 

[1] “There was a time when he was not” was a phrase of Arius.

[2] Origen, Princ 1.4.4.

[3] Either a quote or paraphrase of the Nicene Creed.

[4] Exodus 19.


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