St Gregory Nazianzen (4th century), known in the Orthodox Tradition as Gregory the Theologian, composed 45 Orations, among which seven are dedicated to the church feasts: one to the Nativity of Christ, two to the Epiphany, two to Easter, one to the 1st week after Easter, and one to Pentecost. Each exerted enormous influence on the understanding of feasts in the Byzantine Church: throughout many centuries Gregory’s festal orations were read in the churches; certain passages from them even entered liturgical hymnography and became part of the worship.
Gregory’s Oration 38, dedicated to the Nativity of Christ, opens a series of four festal orations delivered in Constantinople between 379 and 380 AD. It begins with a solemn poetic declamation with many biblical quotations and allusions: ‘Christ is born, glorify Him. Christ from heaven, go out to meet Him. Christ on earth; be exalted. Sing to the Lord, all the earth (Ps. 96:1); and that I may join both in one word: Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad (Ps. 96:11), for Him who is of heaven and then of earth. Christ in the flesh, rejoice with trembling and with joy; with trembling because of your sins, with joy because of your hope. Christ of a Virgin; O matrons live as virgins, that you may be mothers of Christ… The people that sat in the darkness of ignorance, let it see the great light of full knowledge. The old has passed away, behold, the new has come (2 Cor. 5:17). The letter gives way, the Spirit comes to the front… He Who is not carnal is Incarnate; the Son of God becomes the Son of Man, Jesus Christ the Same yesterday, and today, and for ever.’
Gregory emphasizes the paradoxical, mystical and the miraculous character of God’s Incarnation. Every event in biblical history is a miracle: in remembering this we become part of it. The Nativity of Christ, is the miracle of an encounter between God and humanity; the heavenly man, Christ, meets earthly man, Adam, and by extension, all humanity comes to the Incarnate God. Celebrating the Nativity of Christ, we recognize the God who moved mysteriously from divine greatness to human misery, and who became one of us. We are called ascend in our intellect to heaven and to meet Christ. God’s path towards humans, and humanity’s path towards God. These are two principal motifs in Gregory’s sermon on the Nativity of Christ: ‘The present festival is the Theophany or Nativity, for it is called both, two titles being given to the one thing. For God was manifested to man by birth… The name Theophany is given to it in reference to His manifestation, and that of Nativity in respect of His birth. This is our present festival; it is this which we are celebrating today, the coming of God to man, that we might go forth, or rather… that we might go back to God—that putting off the old man, we might put on the new; and that as we died in Adam, so we might live in Christ, being born with Christ and crucified with Him and buried with Him and rising with Him.’
Gregory calls the Nativity of Christ a feast of ‘re-creation’, a mysterious ‘second communion’ of God with humankind. The history of humanity began with its creation by God, but its salvation began with the Incarnation of God. The main part of Gregory’s sermon contains a narration of the biblical history from the creation of the world to the coming of Christ on earth. Gregory also retells Jesus Christ’s biography; when speaking of particular events from it, he calls them ‘mysteries’, in that each one is concerned with the salvation of the world: ‘A little later on you will see Jesus submitting himself to be purified in the River Jordan for my Purification, or rather, sanctifying the waters by His Purification—for indeed He Who takes away the sin of the world had no need of purification (John 1:29)—and the heavens cleft asunder (Mark 1:10), and a witness was borne to him by the Spirit That is of one nature with Him; you shall see Him tempted and conquering and served by angels, and healing every sickness and every disease, and giving life to the dead… and driving out demons, sometimes Himself, sometimes through his disciples; and feeding vast multitudes with a few loaves; and walking dryshod upon seas; and being betrayed and crucified, and crucifying with Himself my sin; offered as a Lamb, and offering as a Priest; as a Man buried in the grave, and as God rising again; and then ascending, and to come again in His own glory. Why what a multitude of high festivals there are in each of the mysteries of the Christ; all of which have one completion, namely, my perfection and return to the primordial state of Adam.
Gregory speaks here of the annual cycle of church feasts and of how in the course of a single liturgical year, the life of Jesus Christ passes before the eyes of the believers. Gregory has a deeply personal relationship with Jesus: he calls Him ‘my Jesus’, ‘my God’, ‘my King’. He regards each event from Christ’s life as his personal feast and is convinced that all these events have a direct link with his own salvation, regeneration and deification. In this way every ‘mystery’ in Christ’s life becomes an event in Gregory’s personal spiritual biography: his own experience is completely identified with the experience of the Church, whereby Christ’s life becomes the personal story of each individual believer.
Every church feast, according to Gregory, must be a new step on one’s way towards perfection, a new insight into the life and economy of Christ the Saviour. We must celebrate ‘not after the manner of a heathen festival, but after a godly sort; not after the way of the world, but in a fashion above the world’. Church feasts consist neither in arranging dances, nor in decorating streets, nor in rioting and drunkenness, nor in ‘making tabernacles for the belly of what belongs to debauchery’, but rather in coming to church and venerating Christ.
The main aim of all church feasts is to teach Christians to imitate Christ at every stage in their lives. Suffering falls to everybody’s lot, but Christ’s life also consisted of suffering, from His flight to Egypt till His death on the cross. Suffering and death brought Christ to resurrection and glory. The same is true for the believer. If he imitates Christ in good deeds and ascetic struggle, if he suffers and is crucified together with Christ, this becomes for him a path towards deification. Having passed together with Christ through all of the stages on His way to the cross, Christians rise together with Him and enter the Kingdom of Heaven: ‘It is a grand thing to share the exile of the persecuted Christ. If He tarry long in Egypt, call Him out of Egypt by a reverent worship of Him there. Travel without fault through every stage and faculty of the Life of Christ. Be purified; be circumcised (Deut. 10:16); strip off the veil which has covered you from your birth. After this teach in the Temple, and drive out the sacrilegious traders. Submit to stoning if need be, for you will be hidden from those who cast the stones; you will escape even through the midst of them, like God. If you be brought before Herod, answer not for the most part. He will respect your silence more than most people’s long speeches. If you be scourged, ask for what they leave out. Taste gall for the taste’s sake; drink vinegar (cf. Matt. 27:48); seek for spittings; accept blows, be crowned with thorns, that is, with the hardness of the godly life; put on the purple robe, take the reed in hand, and receive mock worship from those who mock at the truth; lastly, be crucified with Him, and share His death and burial gladly, that you may rise with Him, and be glorified with Him and reign with Him. Look at and be looked at by the Great God, Who in Trinity is worshipped and glorified…’
From the book Vie et doctrine de saint Grégoire le Théologien (to be published in French by Les Éditions de l'Institut Saint-Serge, Paris).