Christmas is almost upon us, and with it, the most popular Mass of the year. Priests will be preparing for their homilies like an NFL coach prepares for the Superbowl. One bishop has set the gold standard for concise, yet inspiring sermons to a congregation of thousands—St. John Chrysostom. He was the archbishop of Constantinople in the late 4th century and is now a Doctor of the Church. Known for his empowering homilies and exceptional rhetoric, he was given the nickname “Chrysostom,” meaning golden mouth.
He is most prominent in the Byzantine and Eastern Orthodox rites, as his Easter homily and Divine Liturgy are still read to this day. Another famous homily of his is known as the “Nativity Sermon.” As the Church awaits the coming of Jesus in Advent, there is a call to reflect on the impact of the nativity and incarnation. By reflecting on these mysteries, one can prepare one’s heart for Christmas in new and profound way. St. John Chrysostom’s homily provides the perfect guide for such reflection.
He opens with a cry of exaltation, “behold, a new and wondrous mystery.” On this holy feast the choirs of angels are belting melodious praise. All of the earth and heaven are unified in the celebration of the day God entered the world as a humble baby. He was “unashamed of the lowliness of our nature” and physically entered human existence through a humble virgin. This mystery of the incarnation is unfathomable, as St. John says “the manner of His conception I cannot comprehend.” To St. John, we should “ask not how” such a thing occurred, but realize that “where God wills, the order of nature yields.” To St. John, understanding the nativity is understanding the paradox that “God is now on earth, and man in heaven.”
St. John Chrysostom emphasizes the nativity as the essential moment in the redemption of humanity. Because God has come to earth, humanity can enter heaven. Instead of saying that salvation will come later in the year at Easter, he asserts that salvation has already arrived since God has reached down to earth. On Christmas day “the ancient slavery is ended [and] the devil confounded”, as Jesus Christ has brought divinity to humanity. God has unified himself with humanity by taking flesh. By this union, God gifted us the faculties to reach him. St. John elaborates, “He assumed my body, that I may become capable of His Word; taking my flesh, He gives me His spirit.” St. John recognizes all of his spiritual growth, all of his blessings, all of his abilities as a priest, are all derived from the nativity. On that day, the line between heaven and earth was blurred. God was no longer unreachable, but is now held in the arms of a virgin.
Throughout the sermon, St. John Chrysostom is telling us why we should be struck with awe and wonder. For him, we are in awe not because Jesus will eventually redeem us, but that in coming to earth as a baby, we are already redeemed. God physically entered the world to “lead us by the hand” to holiness. The nativity is the highest moment of intimacy between God and his creation, since God lowers Himself and enters his creation. In lowering Himself, he did not lose divinity, rather contained perfect humanity and divinity to reveal “a clear path, to Christ, to the Father, and to the Holy Ghost.” Every Christmas, St. John Chrysostom reminds us that on that day, God is victorious and has fully unified Himself with us.