Gregory of Nazianzus’ Christmas Sermon (Oration 38)

Church Father Friday is the ongoing curation of Patristic texts. These short selections from church history remind us of where we’ve been, and what God has done throughout history for the Church. I pray these excerpts are a blessing to you.

 

One of the blessings of studying church history is reading accounts about the grand arc of redemption being played out by the power of the Spirit following the ascension of Christ. To say that Christianity has humble beginnings is quite an understatement. God chose Israel and set them apart as holy and it “was not because you were more in number than any other people that the LORD set his love on you and chose you, for you were the fewest of all peoples” (Deut 7:7, ESV). And even more humbling than that is when the fullness of time came Christ was born in a manger. The King of Kings, very God of very God, was born next to livestock. That’s worth celebrating.

There are modern voices that argue we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas. They even go so far as to say it is a violation of the Regulative Principle of Worship, and by extension, idolatry. Since this is Church Father Friday, I will not engage in a polemic against that position. Instead, we will look at what Gregory Nazianzen had to say about celebrating Christmas. 

The following excerpts come from Oration 38 (link below) and in this sermon, Gregory masterfully proclaims the nature of God (1) and how we are to celebrate the birth of our Lord and Savior. I have chosen a few of the more pointed sections of the oration, but I strongly recommend you take 10 minutes this evening to read through this piece. 

On the Theophany, Oration 38

 O clap your hands together all you people, because unto us a Child is born, and a Son given unto us, Whose Government is upon His shoulder, for with the Cross it is raised up. 

– Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38.2

In the opening of the sermon, Gregory succinctly reminds the congregation of why they are celebrating the incarnation. It is interesting to note that Gregory acknowledges, to a degree, that there is indeed some carry-over between the Christian way of celebrating Christmas and the pagan celebrations that happened at the same time (2). Here’s how Gregory opened the sermon:

This is our present Festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the Coming of God to Man, that we might go forth, or rather (for this is the more proper expression) that we might go back to God — that putting off the old man, we might put on the New; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him. For I must undergo the beautiful conversion, and as the painful succeeded the more blissful, so must the more blissful come out of the painful. For where sin abounded Grace did much more abound; and if a taste condemned us, how much more does the Passion of Christ justify us? Therefore let us keep the Feast, not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world; not as our own but as belonging to Him Who is ours, or rather as our Master’s; not as of weakness, but as of healing; not as of creation, but of re-creation.

— Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38.4

Gregory doubles down on his push to ignore the pagan rituals and embrace the truth of the incarnation:

Let us leave all these to the Greeks and to the pomps and festivals of the Greeks, who call by the name of gods beings who rejoice in the reek of sacrifices, and who consistently worship with their belly; evil inventors and worshippers of evil demons. But we, the Object of whose adoration is the Word, if we must in some way have luxury, let us seek it in word, and in the Divine Law, and in histories; especially such as are the origin of this Feast; that our luxury may be akin to and not far removed from Him Who has called us together. Or do you desire (for today I am your entertainer) that I should set before you, my good Guests, the story of these things as abundantly and as nobly as I can, that you may know how a foreigner can feed the natives of the land, and a rustic the people of the town, and one who cares not for luxury those who delight in it, and one who is poor and homeless those who are eminent for wealth? 

— Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38:6

Near the end of the sermon, after pontificating on the divine nature, Gregory closes with a summary of Christ’s “humiliation” and exultation. 

 He was sent, but as man, for He was of a twofold Nature; for He was wearied, and hungered, and was thirsty, and was in an agony, and shed tears, according to the nature of a corporeal being. And if the expression be also used of Him as God, the meaning is that the Father’s good pleasure is to be considered a Mission, for to this He refers all that concerns Himself; both that He may honour the Eternal Principle, and because He will not be taken to be an antagonistic God. And whereas it is written both that He was betrayed, and also that He gave Himself up and that He was raised up by the Father, and taken up into heaven; and on the other hand, that He raised Himself and went up.

—  Gregory of Nazianzus, Oration 38.15

Again, a short post like this cannot capture the genius of The Theologian. This is simply a small piece of the ongoing curation of early church texts. This is done with the hopes that it encourages you to read the Church Fathers.

You can read the whole sermon here – https://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310238.htm

Merry Christmas! 

David

 

Notes:

 

1 – Gregory writes deeply on the eternity of the Godhead (7), the doctrine of Divine simplicity (12), the Hypostatic union, (15), and more.

 

2 – There are some today who say we shouldn’t celebrate Christmas because it coincided with the Winter Solstice, and to do so is pagan or idolatrous. Notice, however, that the church effectively eradicated that pagan practice through celebrating the incarnation.

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