A Sermon by Pope Saint Leo the Great on the Nativity of Christ. This sermon is read from Volume 12 of Nicene and Post Nicene Fathers, Second Series. This work is in the public domain. The text of sermon read in this podcast is provided below. It has been slightly edited for ease of comprehension.
This Sermon is the Second of eight Sermons on the Nativity written by Pope Saint Leo the Great.
On the Feast of the Nativity II
Part 1. The Mystery of the Incarnation Demands Our Joy
Let us be glad in the Lord, dearly-beloved, and rejoice with spiritual joy that there has dawned for us the day of ever-new redemption, of ancient preparation, of eternal bliss.
For as the year rolls round, there recurs for us this commemoration of our salvation, which was promised from the beginning. Accomplished in the fulness of time this grace will endure for ever. On this feast we are bound with hearts up-lifted to adore the divine mystery: so that what is the effect of God’s great gift may be celebrated in the Church’s great rejoicing. For God the almighty and merciful, immeasurably good and all loving, whose will is power and whose work is mercy, as soon as the devil’s malevolence killed us by the poison of his hatred, foretold at the very beginning of the world the remedy His devotion had prepared for the restoration of us mortals. It was then he proclaimed to the serpent that the seed of the woman should come to crush his head by its power. This signified no doubt that Christ would come in the flesh, God and man. Born of a Virgin and through His uncorrupt birth the despoiler of the human stock was foiled. Thus in the whole and perfect nature of true man was true God born, complete in what was His own, complete in what was ours. And “ours” we call what the Creator formed in us from the beginning and what He undertook to repair. For the evil that the deceiver brought in and the sin that the deceived allowed had no trace in the Saviour. Nor did He share in our faults on account of him partaking of man’s weaknesses. He took the form of a slave without stain of sin, increasing the human while not diminishing the Divine. The “emptying of Himself” whereby the Invisible made Himself visible, and the Creator and Lord of all things took on fragile mortality itself was the condescension of His pity rather than a failing of His Power.
II. The new character of the birth of Christ explained.
Therefore, when the time came, dearly beloved, which had been fore-ordained for man’s redemption, there entered these lower parts of the world, the Son of God, descending from His heavenly throne and yet not quitting His Father’s glory, begotten in a new order, by a new nativity. In this new order, being invisible in His own nature He became visible in ours, and He whom nothing could contain, was content to be contained. He who abides before all time began to be in time. Though the Lord of all things, He obscured His immeasurable majesty and took on Himself the form of a servant. Being God and beyond all change and suffering, He did not disdain to be man, subjecting Himself to suffering and to death.
By a new nativity He was begotten, conceived by a Virgin, born of a Virgin, yet without carnal desire and without injury to the mother’s chastity. In this birth that knew no taint of human flesh came the One who was to be the Saviour of men, while at the same time possessing in Himself the nature of human substance. For since God was born in the flesh, God Himself was the Father, as the archangel witnessed to the Blessed Virgin Mary: “because the Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the most High shall overshadow thee: and therefore, that which shall be born of thee shall be called holy, the Son of God.”
The origin is different but the nature alike: not by intercourse with man but by the power of God was it brought about: for a Virgin conceived, a Virgin bore a child, and a Virgin she remained. Consider here not the condition of her that bore Christ but the will of Him that was born; for He was born Man as He willed and was able. If you inquire into the truth of His nature, you must acknowledge the matter to be human: if you search for the mode of His birth, you must confess the power to be of God. For the Lord Jesus Christ came to do away with not to endure our pollutions: not to succumb to our faults but to heal them. He came that He might cure every weakness of our corruptness and all the sores of our defiled souls: for which reason it behoved Him to be born by a new order, who brought to men’s bodies the new gift of unsullied purity. For the uncorrupt nature of Him that was born had to guard the primal virginity of the Mother, and the infused power of the Divine Spirit had to preserve in spotlessness and holiness that sanctuary which He had chosen for Himself. This same Spirit was determined to raise the fallen, to restore the broken, and by overcoming the allurements of the flesh bestow upon us in abundant measure the power of chastity. This was in order that the virginity which in others cannot be retained in conception and child-bearing, might be attained by them at their second birth in Christ.
III. Justice required that Satan should be vanquished by God made man.
And, dearly beloved, this very fact that Christ chose to be born of a Virgin does it not appear to be part of the deepest design? I mean, that the devil should not be aware that Salvation had been born for the human race, and through the obscurity of that spiritual conception, when he saw Him no different to others, should believe Him born in no different way to others. For when he observed that His nature was like that of all others, he thought that He had the same origin as all had: and did not understand that He was free from the bonds of transgression because he did not find Him a stranger to the weakness of mortality. For though the true mercy of God had infinitely many schemes to execute for the restoration of mankind, it chose that particular design which put in was aimed specifically at destroying the devil’s work, choosing rather than the efficacy of power the requirements of justice.
For the pride of the ancient foe not undeservedly made good its despotic rights over all men. The Deceiver, with a supremacy that was not unjustified acted as head of those who had been of their own accord lured away from God’s command, becoming slaves to his corrupt will. And so there would be no justice in his losing the ancient slavery of the human race, were he not conquered by that which he had subjugated. And to this end, without male seed Christ was conceived of a Virgin, who was impregnated not by human intercourse but by the Holy Spirit. And whereas in all mothers conception does not take place without stain of sin, this one received purification from the Source of her conception. For no taint of sin penetrated, where no intercourse occurred. Her unsullied virginity knew no lust when it received the divine substance. The Lord took from His mother our nature, not our fault. The slave’s form is created without the slave’s estate, because the New Man is so commingled with the old, as both to assume the reality of our race and to remove its ancient flaw.
IV. The Incarnation deceived the Devil and caused him to break the bond under which he held men.
When the merciful and almighty Saviour so arranged the commencement of His human course as to hide the power of His Godhead which was inseparable from His manhood under the veil of our weakness, the crafty foe was taken off his guard and he thought that the nativity of the Child, Who was born for the salvation of mankind, was as much subject to himself as all others are at their birth.
For the devil saw Him crying and weeping, he saw Him wrapped in swaddling clothes, subjected to circumcision, offering the sacrifice which the law required. And then he perceived in Him the usual growth of boyhood, and could have had no doubt of His reaching man’s estate by natural steps. Meanwhile, the deceiver inflicted insults, multiplied injuries, made use of curses, affronts, blasphemies, abuse, in a word, poured upon Him all the force of his fury and exhausted all the varieties of trial. The devil knew how he had poisoned man’s nature and he had no conception that Christ had no share in the first transgression. The unscrupulous thief and greedy robber persisted in assaulting Him Who had nothing of His own, and in carrying out the general sentence on original sin, went beyond the bond on which he rested, and required the punishment of iniquity from Him in Whom there was no fault to be found.
And thus the malevolent terms of the deadly compact were annulled, and through the injustice of an overcharge the whole debt is cancelled. The strong one is bound by his own chains, and every device of the evil one is spoiled. When the prince of the world is bound, all that he held in captivity is released. Our nature cleansed from its old contagion regains its honourable estate, death is destroyed by death, nativity is restored by nativity: since at one and the same time redemption does away with slavery, regeneration changes our origin, and faith justifies the sinner.
V. The Christian is exhorted to share in the blessings of the Incarnation.
Every person who would devoutly and faithfully claim the name Christian, appreciate the value of this atonement. For those who were castaway, banished from the realms of paradise, dying in weary exile, reduced to dust and ashes, without further hope of living, by the Incarnation of the Word were given the power to return from afar to thy Maker.
In this Divine Blessing man comes to to recognize his true parentage, to become free from slavery, to be promoted from being an outcast to divine sonship. This is such so that those born of corruptible flesh may be reborn of the Spirit of God and in so doing obtain through grace what they had not by nature. Even further he who acknowledges himself a son of God by this spirit of adoption, rightly dares to call upon God as Father. Freed from the accusations of a bad conscience, aspiring to the kingdom of heaven, seeking and doing God’s will supported by the Divine help, acting as angels upon earth, feeding on the strength of immortal sustenance, fighting fearlessly on the side of piety against hostile temptations, those who keep their allegiance in the heavenly warfare, are to be crowned for victory in the triumphant camp of the Eternal King when the resurrection that is prepared for the faithful has raised the faithful to participate in the heavenly Kingdom.
VI. The festival has nothing to do with sun-worship, as some maintain.
Having therefore so confident a hope, dearly beloved, abide firm in the Faith in which you are built: lest that same tempter whose tyranny over you Christ has already destroyed, win you back again with any of his wiles, and mar even the joys of the present festival by his deceitful art, misleading simpler souls with the pestilential notion of some to whom this our solemn feast day seems to derive its honour, not so much from the nativity of Christ as, according to them, from the rising of the new sun.
Such men’s hearts are wrapped in total darkness, and have no growing perception of the true Light: for they are still drawn away by the foolish errors of heathendom, and because they cannot lift the eyes of their mind above that which their carnal sight beholds, they pay divine honour to the luminaries that minister to the world. Let not Christian souls entertain any such wicked superstition and portentous lie. Beyond all measure are things temporal removed from the Eternal, things corporeal from the Incorporeal, things governed from the Governor. For though they possess a wondrous beauty, yet they have no Godhead to be worshipped. That power then, that wisdom, that majesty is to be adored which created the universe out of nothing, and framed by His almighty methods the substance of the earth and sky into what forms and dimensions He willed. Sun, moon, and stars may be most useful to us, most fair to look upon; but only if we render thanks to their Maker for them and worship God who made them, not the creation which does Him service. Then praise God, dearly beloved, in all His works and judgments. Cherish an undoubting belief in the Virgin’s pure conception. Honour the sacred and Divine mystery of man’s restoration with holy and sincere service. Embrace Christ born in our flesh, that you may deserve to see Him also as the God of glory reigning in His majesty, who with the Father and the Holy Spirit remains in the unity of the Godhead for ever and ever. Amen.
Translated by Charles Lett Feltoe. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 12. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1895.). Edited by Barry Schoedel.