Nativity of the Lord

November 19 2015 | by

LIFE IS filled with opposites. Light and dark. Soft and hard. Quiet and loud. When these are mixed together in the same creature, we often do a double take. St. Francis of Assisi knew this, which is why, before his conversion, he sometimes sought attention by wearing a jester-like outfit which he had sewn from pieces of cheap, old cloth and swaths of rich fabric.

We all remember the nursery rhyme, ‘Jack Spratt could eat no fat. His wife could eat no lean. And so between the two of them they licked the platter clean.’ Most of us have seen married couples who fit this description!

The duckbill platypus is a creature whom God seems to have created from opposites. With a bill like a duck and the ability to lay eggs, one would associate this animal with birds, yet the platypus is a furred mammal which nurses its young.


The demigods


Like many of the saints, Anthony was enamored by God joining two opposites, humanity and divinity, in His Son Jesus Christ. His sermon for the Nativity of the Lord is replete with opposites. Anthony begins at the beginning, with the conception of Jesus.

“She brought forth a son. What son? God the Son of God” (Sermons for Sundays and Festivals, Edizoni Messaggero Padova, Volume IV, pp. 5-6).

This truth, which we all accept, would have been difficult for pagan peoples to understand. Their religions held that gods sometimes fathered demigods, children of human mothers. Demigods shared characteristics of both parents, while not fully being either one. However, Jesus was fully God and fully man. Moreover, he was begotten by the overshadowing of the ever-Virgin Mary by the Holy Spirit, whereas demigods were conceived when male gods had physical relations with human women.


Emperor Frederick II


St. Anthony marveled in the mystery of God made man. Of the Blessed Mother, he writes, “O happiest of the happy, who has given a Son to God the Father. What an honor it would be for some poor woman to give a son to a mortal Emperor! How far, far greater the glory of the Virgin who gave a Son to God the Father!” (Sermons IV, p. 6)

St. Anthony’s analogy would be powerful to the Christian populace of his time. Should a “mortal Emperor” marry a “poor woman,” their child would be heir to the kingdom. During Anthony’s lifetime, Emperor Frederick II was a popular topic of gossip. Frederick’s first wife, Constance of Aragon, died in 1222, arousing speculation as to who would be the Emperor’s next bride. Despite many possible candidates, Frederick married, by proxy, Yolande of Jerusalem in 1225. After giving birth to her second child by Frederick, Yolande died in 1228. People speculated again when Frederick began courting Agnes of Bohemia as wife number three. However, Agnes was much more spiritual than Frederick, and spurned his advances. In 1236, five years after St. Anthony’s death, Agnes entered the Poor Clare monastery in Prague, which she had established. Here Agnes grew so solidly in the virtues of poverty, chastity, obedience, and faith in Christ, that St. Clare called her the other half of Clare’s soul. Today the Catholic Church honors this holy woman as Saint Agnes of Prague.

In Anthony’s Sermon notes for the Nativity of the Lord, he first invokes the idea of a worldly emperor in the minds of his listeners. Emperor Frederick had fathered children with noble wives. Anthony contrasts Frederick’s noble children with the Son of God who was born of a “poor virgin.” In the Emperor’s case, both parents were royalty. Not so with the Son of God: “The Father gave deity, the mother humanity; the Father gave majesty, the mother weakness” (Sermons IV, p. 6).


Nebuchadnezzar’s dream


The Bible spoke of the joining of opposites in the statue in Nebuchadnezzar’s dream (Dan. 3:31-45). This statue was a mixture of metals with the feet being a combination of iron and clay, two substances that do not mix; rather, they break away from one another. The statue personifies the reality that opposites in any creature generally weaken it.

However, this is not the case in the Son of God. Jesus was no mixture of man and god. He was at the same time fully human and fully divine. In the Son of God, God’s divine power is revealed under the disguise of weak, human flesh. Anthony recognized this: “She brought forth her son, Emmanuel – God-With-Us. Who then is against us? [Rom 8.31]… Oh glorious Virgin, because through you God is with us. She brought forth his firstborn son, begotten of the Father before all worlds (Sermons IV, p. 6).

Anthony has presented us the image of a glorious God on earth. But what a contrast between expected and actual treatment of Divinity! There follows: And she wrapped him up in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger [Lk 2.7]. O poverty! O humility! The Lord of all is wrapped in a scrap of cloth! The King of angels lies down in a stable! (Sermons IV, p.6)

The people listening to the sermon would have immediately made a mental visual connection. They would have seen the children of nobility and royalty wrapped in fine cloth and expensive furs. They would also have seen beggars’ children swaddled in ragged, dirty scraps. They would have walked beside the towering castles of the nobility, exquisite with stone sculptures and draped with expensive fabrics. These were a far cry from the stark caves and tumble down hovels which housed horses, cattle, pigs, and sometimes people among them.

Imagine a royal baby laid in a hay trough! Anthony expands the contrast: “‘This shall be a sign unto you: You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger’ [Lk 2.12]. Note these two things: humility and poverty… What do the words, You shall find the infant, mean, if not: You will find wisdom babbling, power made weak, majesty laid low, the immense made small, the rich made poor, the Lord of angels lying in a stable, and the Food of angels made like the fodder of animals, the unlimited confined to a narrow manger? This, then, will be a sign to you…”’(Sermons IV, pp. 8-9).


Worldly values


In another sermon, Anthony again points out contrasts, using the metals and elements in the statue of Nebuchadnezzar as symbols of worldly values: “Gold represents worldly wisdom, silver is eloquence, resounding brass is vainglory, iron is obstinancy, clay is love of temporal things.” (Sermons III, p. 124-5) He then contrasts the insignificant-appearing Christ with these expensive metals and elements.

“‘A little stone, Jesus Christ, strikes the statue; which, as Daniel says, was cut out of the mountain without hands, being born of the Blessed Virgin without the intervention of a man. ‘And it struck the statue upon the feet thereof that were of iron and clay and broke them in pieces. Then was the iron, the clay, the brass, the silver and the gold broken to pieces together, and became like the chaff… carried away by the wind: and there was no place found for them’ (Dan. 2.34-35)” (Sermons III, p. 125).

Anthony concludes, “So Christ in his first coming struck the statue of the world, though not entirely; in the day of judgement, it will be utterly destroyed” (Sermons III, p. 125).

Updated on October 06 2016