A homily for the Feast of the Nativity by St Leo the Great (d.461)
Paraphrased from two of his homilies by Nathan Nettleton
I am indebted tonight to St Leo, who preached the original version of this sermon during his time as leader of the Church in the middle of the fifth century.
Dearly-beloved, on this night our Saviour was born: let us celebrate! Indeed, sadness finds itself crowded out when we celebrate the birthday of Life. For this is the life which swallows up our fear of death. This is the life which sets us dancing with joy as we taste the first fruits of eternity.
No one is excluded from this joyous celebration, for indeed everyone has exactly the same reason to celebrate. Our Lord, the destroyer of sin and death, did not find anyone free of corruption, and so he comes to free us all. Let those who have faithfully followed him exult, for the victory dais is in sight. Let those who have rejected his ways be glad, because here again they find themselves invited to receive pardon. Let those who have not even encountered him take courage, for now his voice is heard, calling all to life. For now at the right time, as determined in the unfathomable depths of God’s wisdom, the Son of God has taken on himself the nature of a human being, and he has done so in order to reconcile human life to its Author; and in order that the author of death might be conquered.
Today the Maker of the world was born of a virgin’s womb. The One who made all natures, became the child of one whom he had first created. Today the Word of God was written in human flesh. That which had never been visible emerged in a new way, not only able to be seen with our eyes, but able to be touched with our hands as well. Today the shepherds learned from angels’ voices that the Saviour was born, a being of flesh and spirit, just like us.
God’s Son did not recoil from the extraordinary humility required to give up his majesty and become a fragile infant. And while it is true that he subsequently left behind that infancy, growing to mature adulthood, and then passing through his passion and resurrection to reclaim his full majesty, it is also true that this festival brings him to us as an infant again, born of the Virgin Mary.
In adoring the birth of our Saviour, we find we are celebrating the beginning of our own life too. For the birth of Christ is the source of life for all who follow him. Indeed the birthday of the Head is the birthday of the Body. Although every person who is called is a unique individual, and although those individuals who make up the Church are scattered across the globe and across the centuries, yet they are one body, born this night. For just as the entire body of God’s faithful people was born from the waters of baptism, being crucified with Christ in his suffering, raised again in his resurrection and seated at God’s right hand in his ascension, so too this entire body is born with him in this nativity.
For wherever people are in the world or in the span of time, when they believe and are re-born in Christ, they turn their back on the track they were set on as children, and pass into the new humanity by being re-born with the New Human. No longer are they defined as the offspring of their parents, but as the seed of the Saviour, who became the child of humans in order that we might be able to become the children of God. For unless he had humbled himself and come down to us, no one would ever have had what it takes to make it into his presence.
So then, dear friends, in this nativity we witness the Power of God and the Wisdom of God. Indeed we see them made flesh in the Christ. We see him become one with us in our humanity in order to set us on the path to becoming one with him in his godliness. For if he had not been truly God, he could not have brought us the remedy we required; and if he had not been truly human, he could not have set an example for us to follow. And so, as the Lord is born, the angels sing in joy, “Glory to God in the Highest,” and they announce the news of peace on earth to everyone of good will. For they can see that the heavenly Jerusalem, the holy city of God, is being built from all the nations of the world. And if this indescribable work of God’s love sends the angels into such rapturous celebration, how much more reason to celebrate does it give us ordinary people who are its direct beneficiaries?
So then, dear friends, let us give thanks to God the Father, through his Son, in the Holy Spirit, because in great love, God looked on us with compassion, and when we were as good as dead in our addiction to sin, God delivered us into a new life in Christ Jesus, so that together with him we might be an entirely new creature. So let us sever all ties with the life we previously lived and the things we previously did. Now that we have been born with Christ and in Christ, let us disown everything that is motivated by selfishness and greed.
Christian people, remember your dignity, acknowledge your dignity, and live out your dignity. Now that you have begun to share God’s own nature, stand your ground and resist any temptation to dabble again in those things that once corrupted and degraded you. Always remember who your Head is and whose Body you are a member of. Never forget that you have been rescued from the power of darkness and brought out into the light of God’s kingdom.
Born with Christ in the mystery of Baptism, you have become the temple of the Holy Spirit, so do not drive away so great a guest by conducting yourselves in ways more fitting to the house of the devil. For your freedom was purchased with the blood of Christ, and he who ransomed you in mercy will judge you in truth.
Christ, who was conceived by God, first in the mind of Mary, and then in her body, is delivered to us this night, clothed in her blood; and in his infant body — so seemingly fragile and helpless — is born the whole Church, conceived of the Spirit to be the children of God, and to be offered to the world and for the world as light and grace and truth and peace; born to be one with Christ, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit reigns for ever and ever. Amen.