Sunday, December 20, 2009

Sententiae Patristicae: Christmas Vigil

The Fathers of the Church on the Readings of the Lectionary

As I'll be spending much of these holy days with family, I may not be able to get all the Christmas readings up in a timely fashion, but I'm going to try. Either way, there is enough overlap in the subject matter of the Gospel lessons that selections for one mass may apply to another.

First Reading Isaiah 62:1–5
Second Reading Acts 13:16–17, 22–25
Gospel Matthew 1:1–25 or Matthew 1:18–25

Tertullian compares the birth of the Second Adam from the virgin with the formation of the First Adam from the virgin soil:
What, then, is the sign? “Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” (Is 7:14) Accordingly, a virgin did conceive and bear “Emmanuel, God with us.” (Mt 1:23) This is the new nativity; a man is born in God. And in this man God was born, taking the flesh of an ancient race, without the help, however, of the ancient seed, in order that He might reform it with a new seed, that is, in a spiritual manner, and cleanse it by the re-moral of all its ancient stains. But the whole of this new birth was prefigured, as was the case in all other instances, in ancient type, the Lord being born as man by a dispensation in which a virgin was the medium. The earth was still in a virgin state, reduced as yet by no human labour, with no seed as yet cast into its furrows, when, as we are told, God made man out of it into a living soul. (Gen 2:7) As, then, the first Adam is thus introduced to us, it is a just inference that the second Adam likewise, as the apostle has told us, was formed by God into a quickening spirit out of the ground,—in other words, out of a flesh which was unstained as yet by any human generation. (Tertullian, On the Flesh of Christ, Ch. 17, ANF, vol. 3, pg. 536)

Rufinus explains how all three Persons of the Holy Trinity are at work in the Virgin Birth:
See here the Trinity mutually cooperating with each other. The Holy Ghost is spoken of as coming upon the Virgin, and the Power of the Highest as overshadowing her. What is the Power of the Highest but Christ Himself, Who is the Power of God and the Wisdom of God? Whose is this Power? The Power of the Highest. There is here then the Highest, there is also the Power of the Highest, there is also the Holy Ghost. This is the Trinity, everywhere latent, and everywhere apparent, distinct in names and persons, but inseparable in the substance of the Godhead. And although the Son alone is born of the Virgin, yet there is present also the Highest, there is present also the Holy Ghost, that both the conception and the bringing forth of the Virgin may be sanctified. (Rufinus, Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed, NPNF2, vol. 3, pg. 547)

St. John Damascene argues that Matthew's statement that Joseph did not know Mary "until" she gave birth to her first-born does not amount to denial of Mary's perpetual virginity:
The ever-virgin One thus remains even after the birth still virgin, having never at any time up till death consorted with a man. For although it is written, And knew her not till she had brought forth her first-born Son (Mt 1:25), yet note that he who is first-begotten is first-born even if he is only-begotten. For the word “first-born” means that he was born first but does not at all suggest the birth of others. And the word “till” signifies the limit of the appointed time but does not exclude the time thereafter. For the Lord says, And lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world (Mt 28:20), not meaning thereby that He will be separated from us after the completion of the age. The divine apostle, indeed, says, And so shall we ever be with the Lord (1 Th 4:17), meaning after the general resurrection.(John Damascene, De Fide Orthodoxa, Chapter XIV, NPNF2, vol. 9, pg. 86)

St. Ambrose compares the work of the Holy Spirit bringing about the conception of Christ with His work in bringing about the second birth of the believer through Baptism:
So, then, having obtained everything, let us know that we are born again, but let us not say, How are we born again? Have we entered a second time into our mother’s womb and been born again? I do not recognize here the course of nature. But here there is no order of nature, where is the excellence of grace. And again, it is not always the course of nature which brings about conception, for we confess that Christ the Lord was conceived of a Virgin, and reject the order of nature. For Mary conceived not of man, but was with child of the Holy Spirit, as Matthew says: “She was found with child of the Holy Spirit.” (Mt 1:18) If, then, the Holy Spirit coming down upon the Virgin wrought the conception, and effected the work of generation, surely we must not doubt but that, coming down upon the Font, or upon those who receive Baptism, He effects the reality of the new birth. (St. Ambrose, De Myst., 9.59, NPNF2, vol. 10, pg. 325)

I found St. John Chrysostom's reflections in his second homily on Matthew particularly beautiful. A short excerpt:
Think not, therefore, it is of small things thou art hearing, when thou hearest of this birth, but rouse up thy mind, and straightway tremble, being told that God hath come upon earth. For so marvellous was this, and beyond expectation, that because of these things the very angels formed a choir, and in behalf of the world offered up their praise for them, and the prophets from the first were amazed at this, that “He was seen upon earth, and conversed with men (Bar 3:37).” Yea, for it is far beyond all thought to hear that God the Unspeakable, the Unutterable, the Incomprehensible, and He that is equal to the Father, hath passed through a virgin’s womb, and hath vouchsafed to be born of a woman, and to have Abraham and David for forefathers. (Chrysostom, Hom. Mt. 2.2, NPNF1, vol. 10, pg. 9)

No comments: