By St. John Chrysostom
A feast is approaching which is the most solemn and awe- inspiring of all feasts. If one were to call it the metropolis of all feasts, one wouldn’t be wrong. What is it? The birth of Christ according to the flesh.
In this feast the Epiphany, holy Pascha, the Ascension and Pentecost have their beginning and their purpose. For if Christ hadn’t been born according to the flesh, he wouldn’t have been baptized, which is Epiphany. He wouldn’t have been crucified, which is Pascha. He wouldn’t have sent the Spirit, which is Pentecost. So, from this event, as from some spring, different rivers flow – these feasts of ours are born. But not only on this account would it be right to give precedence to this day, but also because what happened on it is much more awe-inspiring than all other days. I say this because the fact that Christ died after becoming human was the consequence of that: even if he didn’t commit sin, still he assumed a mortal body. And that too was an amazing fact: that, although God, he was willing to become human and to condescend to take so much on himself that not even the imagination can embrace. It’s this that is most awe- inspiring, and completely perplexing. Even Paul said in amazement: “Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of our piety” (1 Tim. 3:16). How great? “God was manifest in the flesh” (1 Tim. 3:16). And again, he says elsewhere: “For surely, it’s not with angels that God is concerned, but with the descendants of Abraham. Therefore, he had to be made like his brethren in every respect” (Heb. 2:16-17).
On this account especially, I embrace and love this day, and put my ardent love on show to make you share in my affection for it. On this account I beg and entreat all of you to be present with much zeal and enthusiasm, each having vacated your own house, so that we may see our Master lying in the manger, dressed in swaddling-clothes – that awe-inspiring and miraculous sight. What kind of defense could we have, what kind of excuse, when he came down from heaven for our sake while we can’t even leave the house to go to him? Or when the Magi, who were barbarians and foreigners, hurried from Persia to see him lying in the manger? But you, a Christian, can’t be bothered to travel even a short distance in order to enjoy this blessed sight? For if we’re present in faith, we’ll certainly see him lying in the manger: this table fulfills the role of the manger.
Indeed, here lies the body of the Lord, not wrapped in swaddling- clothes as formerly, but attired completely with the Holy Spirit. Those who are initiated know what I’m saying. The Magi merely worshiped him, whereas you, if you approach to communicate with a clear conscience, we permit to consume him and go back home. Approach, then, bringing gifts – not gifts like the Magi brought but ones that are much more solemn. They brought gold; you must bring temperance and virtue. They brought incense; you must bring pure prayers which are spiritual incense. They brought myrrh; you must bring humility and a humble heart and love. If you approach with these gifts, with great confidence you’ll enjoy this holy table. For my part, I’m saying this now because I know quite well that on that day many of you will come forward and fall on this spiritual sacrifice. So that we don’t do this to the detriment or condemnation of our soul but for our salvation, I’m calling you to witness beforehand, and I’m begging you to approach the holy mysteries after you’ve cleansed yourselves in every respect.
Please don’t let anybody say to me: “I’m full of shame, I have a conscience crammed with sins, I’m carrying a very heavy burden.” If you’re sober, and pray and keep vigil, the appointed period of five days is sufficient to trim away your many sins. Don’t look at how short the time is, but consider the point that the Master is loving. The Ninevites were able to beat off God’s considerable anger in three days, and the time-constraint was no hindrance, but their readiness of spirit captured the Master’s generosity and was able to affect everything (cf. Jon. 3). The prostitute, too, coming to Christ in a brief critical moment washed away all her offenses (cf. Lk. 7). When the Jews made the accusation that Christ had admitted her and had given her so much confidence, he silenced them, and freed her from all evils, and, having approved her enthusiasm, he sent her away. What’s the message? That she came with an ardent mind and a burning soul and a fervent faith, and she touched those holy and sacred feet, when she had let down her hair, let tears flood from her eyes, and poured out the perfume.
The objects by which she bewitched people, she used to prepare the drugs of repentance. The objects by which she excited the gaze of the licentious, she used to weep tears. The locks of hair by which she tripped up many people so they fell into sin, she used to wipe Christ’s feet. The perfume by which she enticed, she used to anoint his feet. And you too therefore must placate God in turn by using the objects by which you provoked him. Did you provoke him by stealing money? Win him over by giving away what you stole to those who’ve been unjustly treated, and give other things in addition; say in the words of Zacchaeus: “I give back four times everything I’ve stolen” (cf. Lk. 19:8). Have you provoked him with your tongue and your abuse, by insulting many people? Propitiate him in turn with your tongue, by sending up pure prayers, by blessing those who abuse you, by praising those who speak badly of you, by thanking those who wrong you. These actions don’t require days or the passing of many years, but only right purpose, and they can be accomplished in one day. Keep aloof from wickedness, embrace virtue, desist from evil; promise to commit these sins no longer, and this will be sufficient for your defense. I testify and guarantee that, if each of us that has sinned keeps aloof from their former evil ways and promises God truthfully that they won’t touch them anymore, God will require nothing else for a substantial defense. I say this because he is generous and merciful, and just as a woman in labor longs to give birth, so he too longs to dispense his mercy – it’s our sins that interfere with this.
Let’s pull down the wall, then, and right from that time begin the feast, renouncing all activities for these five days. “Farewell to the law courts, farewell to the council chambers – a plague on daily business, with its contracts and transactions. I want to save my soul.” “What does it profit a person if they gain the whole world and lose their own soul?” (Matt. 16:26). The Magi came away from Persia; you must come away from daily business and travel towards Jesus. The distance isn’t great, if we’re willing. The point is that you don’t have to cross the sea, or traverse mountain peaks, but if you sit at home, exhibiting piety and much compunction, you can see the wall being completely broken down, you can remove the obstacle, you can cut the length of the journey. “For I am a God at hand,” it says, “and not a God far off” (Jer. 23:23), and “The Lord is near to all who call on him in truth” (Ps. 145:18).
But as it is, many of the faithful have arrived at such a degree of silliness and neglect that, although they are full of countless evils, and because they take no thought whatsoever for themselves, they approach this table on feast days in a random and frivolous fashion. They don’t know that the time of communion doesn’t consist of a feast and a celebration, but of a clear conscience and a life full of reproach. Just as the ordinary person who has nothing on their conscience ought to approach communion every day, so it’s unsafe for the person who is overpowered by sin and does not repent to approach even on a feast day. For approaching once, a year isn’t going to free us from reproach, if we approach unworthily; but it’s precisely this that damns us all the more, namely that when we approach on that one occasion, we’re not even then approaching with a clear conscience.
That’s why I beg all of you not to touch the divine mysteries in a negligent manner because you have to celebrate the feast. If, however, you’re ever going to partake of this holy offering, you must purify yourselves for many days beforehand through repentance and prayer and almsgiving and devotion to spiritual matters, and not “return like a dog to its own vomit” (Prov. 26:11). Isn’t it absurd to take so much care over bodily concerns, so that many days before the feast approaches you get your best clothes out of their chests and get them ready, and you buy shoes, and enjoy a more lavish table, and over and above that you take thought for many provisions from all quarters, and in every respect you clean yourself up and make yourself look good? On the other hand, you take no account of your soul, which is neglected, dirty, squalid, wasted from hunger and still unclean. Isn’t it absurd that while you take your clean body to church, you overlook your soul, which is naked and disgraced? Yet whereas your fellow servant sees your body and no harm results no matter how it’s dressed, the Master sees your soul and will put in place a most serious punishment for its neglect.
Don’t you know that this table is full of spiritual fire, and just as springs gush forth the force of water, so too does the table contain a certain mysterious flame? So, don’t approach it if you’re carrying stubble, wood or dry grass, in case you cause a bigger blaze and you burn your soul as it takes communion. But bring precious stones, gold, silver, in order to make the material purer, in order to go back home having derived a great deal of profit. If you’ve got something wicked in you, get rid of it, banish it from your soul. Is it the case that someone has an enemy, and is suffering grievous wrongs at their hands? Let them bring the enmity to an end, let them restrain their inflamed and swollen attitude, so that internally they experience no tumult or disturbance. I say this because in communicating you are going to welcome a king. But if it’s a king coming into your soul there must be abundant tranquility, abundant silence and a deep peace for your thoughts. But your suffering grievous wrongs, and you can’t stop being angry? Why, then, do you visit much greater wrongs and difficulties on yourself? Whatever the person does, your enemy won’t inflict on you the kind of harm you inflict on yourself by not being reconciled with them but rather trampling God’s laws under your feet. Did your enemy insult you? Is it on this account, tell me, that you then insult God? Refusing to be reconciled with the one who hurt you isn’t so much a sign of taking revenge on them as of insulting God, who laid down these laws.
So, don’t look at your fellow servant, nor at the magnitude of the wrongs they have done, but when you have put God and the fear of God into your mind, consider the following point. The excessive wrenching that you feel internally when, after countless evil acts, you force yourself to be reconciled with the one who hurt you, will be commensurate with the increased esteem which you will enjoy in the eyes of God, who ordered this course of action. And just as here on earth you will welcome God with great honor, so too will he receive you in heaven with great glory, as he pays you back ten-thousandfold for your obedience. May all of us attain this through the grace and love for mankind of our Lord Jesus Christ, with whom to the Father, together with the Holy Spirit, be glory, honor, power and worship, for ever and ever. Amen.