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Christmas Night

A homily by Fr. Athanasius Mitilinaios, delivered on Christmas Day in the year 2000.

When God the Word was creating the universe, my dearly beloved, he designated a moment in time when He Himself would visibly visit it. This great visit is the Incarnation of God the Word. His presence on Earth rendered it the center of the created, visible world. The Incarnation is the greatest event in the visible and invisible created world, before which even the angels were astonished. All these wondrous things took place in the quiet of one night. If at the beginning of His creation God said, “Let there be light!” and there was light (cf. Gen. 1:3), yet in the darkness of his resolves there was the great intention of the Incarnation.

Christmas Night. The greatest and holiest night of all the nights of creation. At night the Son of God appeared on Earth. But why at night? Because night proved to be the great framework and the great setting of the individual events of the Incarnation. Because the delivery, the laying down in the manger, the announcement of the good news by the angel to the shepherds, the hymn of the angels in mid-sky, the visit of the shepherds, all this happened at night. Why then at night? If light is sweet, darkness is full of mysteries. Light reveals, night conceals. Night creates an atmosphere in man. Saint John of Damascus gives an etymology for the word “νύξ”, “night”, saying, “It is called ‘night’ [νύξ] because it pierces [νύττει] man; for night is compunction [κατανυγή]”, a piercing of the heart.1 I do not know, of course, whether Saint John’s rendering of the etymology is accurate – I do not know – but that all this actually occurs is true.

In any case, the birth of Christ took place at night. The evangelist Luke informs us saying, “And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night.”2 One man, of course, could not stay up all night watching the sheep, so they had watches. All this maintenance of the flock was happening at night. It is known that in warm countries the sheep do not graze by day since it is hot, and so they graze usually by night — you know this. We must examine, however, why the childbirth took place at night. Saint Ignatius of Antioch says that “three mysteries of renown, which were wrought in [the] silence [of] God.”3 He says that there are three mysteries of renown, three things of God, which were realized in the quiet and in particular the quiet of night, in the quiet generally, without publicity. Which are these? He says: “[It] was hidden from the prince of this world,” – who is the prince of this world? The Devil. What was hidden from the prince of this world? “The virginity of Mary, as was also her delivery and the death of the Lord”4. These three mysteries of renown took place in quiet. Let me briefly analyze something. It makes an impression on us that, when God was judging Adam and Eve, he addressed the woman, Eve, and said to her, “From thy seed will He be born who shall save you.”5 In the first place, who is speaking? God the Word is speaking, He who would personally come to become incarnate; what an amazing thing! But why does He address Eve? It is known that He should have addressed Adam. Woman has no seed, yet He says, “From thy seed”. It is Adam that has seed. Here He is hinting at the virgin birth of the same one Who speaks, of God the Word. Since that time the Devil was searching among the virgins to discover which one could it be that would give birth to a son and crush the head of the serpent, that is, of the Devil. Therefore this (the virginity of Mary) came about in the quiet of God. The Devil did not learn of it. Yes.

The death also of the Lord means here not Christ’s death itself on the cross but the Resurrection of Christ, for when did the Resurrection take place? Who knows? My dear beloved, since the Lord said that he would rise on the third day and the twenty-four-hour cycle starts on the evening with the setting of the sun, with what we call Vespers, it follows that the Lord was in the tomb on Saturday evening. When then did the Lord rise? To be sure, we have passed into Sunday so that the three days in the tomb may be completed: Friday, all of Saturday, and Sunday – but at what time did Christ rise? That is unknown. Conventionally, we say, “After twelve,” in order to have three days.

Thus, my dear ones, night becomes the symbol of the mysteries of God and of the silence of God, and the principal mystery is the Incarnation. It is the “mystery which was kept secret”6, as Saint Paul says in his epistle to the Romans, which means that it was not made public. “Since the world began,” in the former years, it was not made public. It was hinted at, but there was no clear knowledge. “But now [it] is made manifest”7, says Saint Paul; now it has been revealed. And which is this “mystery kept secret”? The Incarnation of God the Word. It is, as Saint Ignatius says, a mystery kept secret yet vociferous8. Another mystery which took place at night is, as I already told you, the Resurrection of Christ from the dead. At night did Christ come out both of the womb of the Virgin and of the noetic womb of the tomb to grant unto us the new man, the refashioned, the immortal, the eternal and blissful man.

Night is also the symbol of the present age but also of the present life, in opposition to the future, bright age of the kingdom of God. The present age is the age of uncertainty and doubt. For this reason, so that we may one day overcome all these doubts and become certain, Faith is introduced. If I were to speak about Faith, I would be speaking for a long time. It is enough for me to say that Abraham was saved, as it is considered, not because he was a patriarch – Adam was a patriarch too – but because he believed, as Scripture tells us. Saint Paul too uses this passage unchanged, saying that “faith was reckoned to Abraham for righteousness”9. It was reckoned a virtue; what a great thing! Faith gives birth to obedience and expectation. “God said so; it will happen.” Since God said so, there’s no problem. He said to Abraham, “You will leave behind a descendant”. Do you know when He told him so? When Abraham was seventy-five years old. He waited for another twenty-five years, too. Where is the descendant? Nowhere to be seen. Yet Abraham was rich, had many belongings, and was wondering, “Lord, to whom will I leave these things?” And in particular, God said, “I will give to you all this land,” Palestine. “What will you give me, Lord? I am old, I am dying and you say you will give me all these things? Since I have no heir, who will inherit this from me?” No: God said it, that’s it. And when God grants Isaac, the son of promise, Abraham was a hundred years old and Sarah ninety. The Scripture does not omit telling us that “it ceased to be with Sarah after the manner of women”10; she no longer had fertility. This is true faith. I just gave you a small sample so that you might understand.

Is perhaps the resurrection of the dead not a matter of faith? “Christ said so”, we would say. “Since Christ said so, that’s it.” We therefore believe what we do not see. Why do we not see it? Because it is night, that is, a noetic night. We have ignorance, and at night there is no sight. To understand this, listen to a beautiful passage from St. Paul in 2 Corinthians: “For we walk by faith, not by sight”11. We do not have the objects visible before us. It is sufficient for me to say that Plato, Plato the Greek, the philosopher, also expresses this when he wishes to show that knowledge is enigmatic, referring to what is called the dark cave. It’s worth a brief retelling. Pay attention. He says that man is turned toward the inner end of a cave. He is near the entrance of the cave but always turned toward the inside. Behind man is a fire and events pass before the fire. As the events pass, they cast their shadows onto the deeper end of the cave without man ever being able to turn around and see the events themselves. He can see neither those that are nor those that will be. What then does he see? He dimly sees only the shadows of the objects, the shadows of the events. To return to Christianity and revelation, this shows that in the present world we know only a few things, whatever God reveals to us. The ancient world, on the other hand, experienced the night of ignorance, the night of the ignorance of God. Clement of Alexandria writes, “Had the sun not been in existence, night would have brooded over the universe; so, had we not known the Word and been illuminated by Him, we should have been nowise different from fowls that are being fed”.12 If God the Word had not revealed Himself to us, we would know as much as our chickens in the chicken coop. What do our chickens know? They know nothing. He continues: “…fattened in darkness, and nourished for death.”13 This is reality. We can know nothing if God the Word Himself is not revealed to us. Christ, who is the light of men and came into the darkness of our age, wants to become light in our eyes and life so that we may see and understand, but always through Faith. For this reason Clement exclaims: “Receive Christ, receive sight, receive your light”!14

Hades is dark, too, my dear ones, and as Christ came to Earth at night, thus he also descended into dark Hades that he might turn it, for the righteous only, into light, into Paradise. All of Earth was dark, too, because of idolatry. Unfortunately we are returning to idolatry, even we Greeks, the Orthodox Christian Greeks. We are returning to idolatry. At some point let us realize it. These neopagans are proselytizing, too. I am not speaking of Masonry, which is entirely a hundred percent idolatry. Even outside Masonry there is an attempt to rekindle idolatry, that is, the twelve gods of Olympus. Do you understand? Our Earth was all dark once; it became Christian, and now it returns into darkness. St. Matthew notes, “That it might be fulfilled which was spoken by Esaias the prophet, saying, the land of Zabulon, and the land of Nephthalim, by the way of the sea, beyond Jordan, Galilee of the Gentiles;” — As you know, some descendants of Alexander the Great lived in Galilee of the Gentiles. I tell you this for the sake of History. — “The people which sat in darkness saw great light; and to them which sat in the region and shadow of death light is sprung up”15. This prophesy refers to Jesus Christ. “From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say, Repent: for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”16 There is darkness everywhere, night everywhere, and so the Son of God came at night to make us realize that we are in darkness.

But there is something deeper here. Jesus wanted to show that He was the Creator not only of Light but also of Darkness. Let not that impress you, for what does darkness mean? The absence of light. We say it simply now, but then men believed that light and darkness were two different things. They had introduced a diarchy: the god of light (Apollo) and the god of darkness. In all the Mediterranean lands we see this diarchy; I will not say more. And yet Isaiah says, “I am he that prepared light, and formed darkness”17. I, the one God. I told you, today we can express it very simply: darkness is an absence of light. “I am the Lord God, that doth all these things”18, says God Himself in the forty-fifth chapter of Isaiah. For us today it is completely comprehensible, but still, it was not comprehensible to the men of old. Night too belongs to God, it is His; it does not belong to some other god. Night means the mirror of the starry sky, and on the night of the Nativity this sky glorifies its Maker. Stars are works of His fingers. At night we see all those wonders, especially the starry sky. They too, and in particular the great star of the Nativity, needed to give their glorifying witness, so that the psalmist might say, “Thine is the day and Thine is the night”19, and, “Night unto night proclaimeth knowledge”20.

Let me explain what this star was. Perhaps you wonder about this, unless you have read it somewhere. The star of the Nativity was a star, my dear ones, but it was not a natural star. Matthew’s description is such that we cannot say that it was some star, as the astronomers say to this day, to this day, namely, that we have a “meeting of stars” — what does this mean, a “meeting of stars”? — “which it produced much brightness”. It was nothing of all these. The description shows that it was not like this. It says that the star vanished when the Magi entered Jerusalem and it re-appeared when they exited it. They were saying, “Now where do we go, where do we go?” since they had had the star as guide, but at some point they saw the star again. The Evangelist says in particular that “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy”21. Otherwise their trip would have been to waste. The Magi, you know, came after one year to venerate the King, seeing the rising [ανατολή] of the star. It is not that they were in the East [Ανατολή], “anatole” here meaning “dawn”. All stars, all heaven – that is, because the Earth is turning – have a rising and a setting, because the Earth is turning, I repeat. So, when they arrived at Bethlehem, it says that the star stood over the house. Christ was no longer in the stable, for they had found a place to stay after the census. The star stood over the house where Jesus, the Infant, was. Well, this is it: what sort of a star stands over the terrace of a house? You cannot determine its location when it is very high up. So what was this star? It was not a star, as the astronomers attempt to explain it to this day. It was an angel in the form of a star. The Fathers of our Church say so.

My dear ones, at night the soul searches for Him Whom it has loved. As the Song of Songs says, “By night on my bed I sought him whom my soul loveth”22. Night, both for God and for man, is an important element. Christmas Night likewise constitutes an essential element. For this reason on the feast of Christmas our Church retains the night. Did you see at what time we started? At five in the morning, as did all churches. This shows that, even though twenty centuries have passed, darkness is still retained in men and in particular in our uncatechized Christians. For this reason darkness reminds us that we ought always to search for Christ. “Come, ye faithful,” says a troparion of the days, “let us see where Christ the Saviour hath been born; let us follow with the kings, even the magi from the East”23 Our Saviour is born, yet for so many of our Christians it is as if He were not born. They have transformed the feast of the Nativity into an opportunity for consumerism and sinful entertainment. What a pity, truly! What injustice! These men do injustice to themselves. Let us cry out in all the tones, “Christ is Born!” God the Word became man and came among us and came to save us. His love brought Him to Earth. “And the Word was made flesh,” John will later record, “and dwelt”, put up His tent, His dwelling, “among us … And as many as received Him, to them He gave the power to become the sons of God”24. My dear ones, I wish to all of you a true Christmas.

Translated by Gregory Heers

1 Translator’s note: This phrase may be found in the treatise of Severian, Bishop of Gabala, ‘On the Creation of the World’, First Lecture, in the sixth section. It is likely that St. John of Damascus re-used this phrase in one of his own works without clear citation, where Fr. Athanasius then found it. This lack of citations is typical of the Holy Fathers (and of Fr. Athanasius), as Severian’s phrase, which Fr. Athanasius seems to be quoting, shows: “‘And God called the light Day, and the darkness He called Night.’ Why night? Because by night He brings the sleeping man to a remembrance of death, all but saying, ‘O man, learn who you are. You are mortal, you serve sleep; why do you imagine things above yourself?’ For night is compunction; wherefore does David say, ‘Feel compunction upon your beds for what ye say in your hearts’” (P.G. 56, column 436-437; my translation). The biblical verses for the above are Gen. 1:5 and Ps. 4:5f

2 Luke 2:8

3 St. Ignatius the Godbearer, Epistle to the Ephesians, Chapter 19: “Now the b

4 Ibid.

5 Cf. Genesis 3:15.

6 Romans 16:25

7 Ibid. 16:26

8 This is a paraphrase of St. Ignatius’s first quoted saying.

9 Romans 4:9

10 Gen. 18:11.

11 2 Corinthians 5:7

12 Exhortation to the Heathen, Chapter 11

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid.

15 Matthew 4:14-16

16 Ibid. 4:17

17 Isaiah 45:7

18 Ibid.

19 Psalms 73:17

20 Ibid. 19:2

21 Matthew 2:10

22 Song of Songs 3:1

23Kathisma after the first reading of the Psalter on December 25th.

24 John 1:14,12

Posted on December 21st, 2019

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