St Severus of Antioch – Homily 21

A Catechesis which was given, according to the custom, on the Wednesday of the Great Week of Pascha, that is to say of the Passion, addressed to those who were to be judged worthy of the Holy Baptism.

The term catechesis produces great fear in me, and with good reason. In fact, I consider in myself, not so much what to say, as when to keep silent; and I will not trust new ears, which are not trained in hearing divine dogmas and which still need milk and not solid food as the wise Paul says. This is why, in fact, this very kind of teaching is called catechesis or resonance; for it accustoms the very ears of the listeners by a certain ringing, that is to say by the sound of the trumpet which introduces the words. So that, even approaching the thunder of theology without having been trained, and even more, being shaken by this voice which expresses itself thus, being unable to bear its intensity, they will not be troubled and upset.

We can find this already transmitted in the sacred books Indeed, when Moses was going to receive from God the divine Law – and thanks to him all the multitude of the people of Israel. On the one hand he alone went up on the mountain, because he had received the order, on the other hand, he arranged the people who had been already purified at the foot of the mountain of Sinai, as it is written, and, as much as possible, he had in purified himself in advance. And, before the words and revelations of the Law were proclaimed, trumpets sounded like a powerful and terrifying bell, at the same time that the mountain itself was covered with a dark cloud and surrounded by lightning and inspired awe in those who saw and heard.

Such is the mountain of theology; on the one hand, it is accessible to those like Moses who are in perfection – and this when God calls him, because when the divine call does not open the way and does not encourage even those who are in his condition, it is quite Incomprehensible. On the other hand, for those who have only really been purified in a mediocre way, as was then the case for the children of Israel who were only purified for a time, it is not only incomprehensible, but also inaccessible and unapproachable.

However, it is not entirely inaccessible, for they are allowed to stand nearby, to hear the trumpet which prepares for the hearing of the words which are introduced in stages, that is to say the dogmas, and to receive somewhat obscurely the first words of the teaching, like lightning which coming from the cloud illuminates and races at the same time; and it is by ascents in perfection that they will approach, reach to it, and be lifted up at the same time by hearing. The Divine Book confirms that this is so, saying: There were the sounds of horns coming forth and becoming much louder. Moses spoke and God answered him with a raised voice.

We must therefore first sound the horn, then strain the power of breath, and thus question God, speak to him and hear what comes from him, transmit and pass the words on to others. But because I am not strong enough to sound the horn, let alone speak to God, to be the minister of his words, I use the pastoral horn of the Fathers and Teachers of the Church, just as in the same way the son of an experienced shepherd, who is far below the skill of his father, and who has inherited the instruments of the trade. These lived for God until they departed and now stand around us and look upon us together with the spiritual and incorporeal armies. And it is from these doctrines which they have laboured upon that I will sound the horn and say what has been told them by God.

They themselves, in fact, by clinging to the Law, the Prophets, the Gospels and the Apostles, taught us to “believe in One God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth and of all things visible and invisible.” On the one hand, because they said: “One God”, they are shown to have rejected the error of the pagans and they brought down to the ground the great crowd of false gods, that – I do not know how – the fables which are current among them have introduced, and, so to speak, made to dwell in the heavens, saying with the prophet Jeremiah: Let these gods who made neither the heavens nor the earth, perish from the earth and from below these skies.

On the other hand, because they have professed the Father, they have shown manifestly that he himself is the beginning and the source of existence and the support of what is. But he is not without the Son, equal in eternity, who made this universe at the same time with him. In fact, how would he have been called Father properly speaking, if there is no perfect and true Son, having together with him the same essence and the same nature, thanks to which he is also called Father of all creatures, inasmuch as they were created through his beloved Son? For, of the latter as begotten, he is Father by nature, and of these, as created, he is said to be Father by grace, granting them existence by creation.

When therefore you believe in one God the Father, you who hear this preliminary teaching, or from the beginning of the initiation, profess further that he is also Almighty, and renounce the evil principle of the Manichaeans. The origin of evil according to their reasoning, is a principle that these fools also called Uncreated Darkness and that they have said to be an autonomous essence – while it is without existence and without hypostasis, – and that they have opposed like a tyrant to him who is the only principle and who holds everything, I mean, to the true and spiritual and essential light; and it is from him as from a putrid source that they say that evils flow.

But, if they pose as certain that the evil principle is uncreated and without beginning, they will insist that it is also infinite; for that which is uncreated and without beginning has its own infinite being. What place, then, will be his, as well as that of the good principle, when he himself also is infinite as uncreated and fills everything? Indeed, either each of them will be limited, and they will cease to be God, because truly being limited is foreign to the Godhead; or if they are infinite, it is not possible that they are infinite at the same time, while they are divided both in will and in essence; and indeed there is no community between light and darkness in Paul’s opinion and in truth itself. That if we grant as if by indulgence that they are both infinite and uncreated, it is necessary that we put between these principles a third, which is also uncreated, placed as in the middle of the extremes, separating the two principles from each other and holding them back.

But those who forge these impure abominations of old wives tales – for they are not dogmas – say that the evil principle has burned with desire for the good, that he ran like a lover towards its light, that he plucked out some of it and devoured it, and that “this is how creatures happen to be, having a mixture of all of them. O inconsistent and stupid nonsense, full of unreason and madness! How, in fact, could that which is essentially evil burn with desire for good? For the properties of essences are fixed, I think, in whatever way, and immutable; and this is also certain according to the definitions of nature, because in truth the good God also, while he is good in essence, is fixed, firm and without mixture, and without inclination towards what is opposite.

And what then is this voracity, by which evil has devoured a part taken from the good? Did he, like the carnivorous beasts, cut it with his teeth and thus devour it, like Kronos in the fable, who, as the story relates, devoured his children? And himself, the principle of good, is he tamed as if weak and cut in half, when he has been deprived of a part which was his, so that he is no longer intact nor whole, like those who are wounded in the foot or whose arm is cut off?

But it is primarily because of this that the good principle will have a bellicose disposition towards the evil principle, this rapacious and voracious one, and who has devoured its prey like the whale. So, the good itself will be left without action as weak; and the evil principle alone will prevail and will create and precede this visible world. Therefore, we are subject to a single principle which has prevailed and been victorious; and the fabulous fiction of the two principles turns out to be something vain even for the wicked themselves.

For its part, also, the evil principle, or evil itself, and the uncreated Darkness cannot subsist in itself, if it has within itself a part taken from the good, which it has devoured, it will be a subject of confusion. Indeed, it is not changed because it has been devoured, passing to the essence of evil; from then on, he is confused and opposed. But the disorder will never be a source of support for being. Therefore, the foolishness of the Manicheans is destroyed like a spider’s web. And we must profess one almighty God, essential light and enduring goodness, who enlightens every man who comes into the world as it is written.

“From where then, they say, are the evils?” Whence? Free will! Indeed, it is in his image that God made us when he gave a reasonable soul that bears in itself a divine character, because it is incorporeal, because it extends and directs itself by intellectual operations towards all that it wants, as much as it is possible, and that it is not limited to a place, and because it can acquire virtues, for example justice and the rest.

For on the one hand, it is in essence that God alone is just and justice itself, but it is by participation that we are raising ourselves up to imitate him. That is why we have been honoured also with the primacy on earth; we have heard, indeed, increase and multiply and fill the earth and reign over it, and rule over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the air and over all beasts and over all the earth and over every reptile that crawl on the earth.

And it was granted to men, by liberality, to be also masters of themselves and free; and God has given us the reins of our life. Indeed, the image itself would limp very badly, if we were led by any force, instead of being, according to the model in the image of which we were made, rich in free will and freedom; but we did not use this honour properly; and, when the man was in honour, he did not understand as it is written.

And indeed, we were bound to desire spiritual and divine beauty, to obey its laws and to turn the energy of our free spirit towards it. After we turned away from it, we were brought down to sin, which is spiritual blindness. Just as, on the one hand, God created an eye for us which can receive the light and direct the steps of our feet. On the other hand, if of our own free will we obscure this eye, it is we ourselves who are the cause of this blindness. In the same way, on the one hand, he has made, like an eye, the intelligence that is in us, which can understand divine things and shine with the light that comes from thence, and, on the other hand, if we obscure this intelligence, immediately the darkness of sin is found in in us like a blindness.

Now blindness is the deprivation of light, and God is not the author of a deprivation; for he is the creator of essences, and not of nothingness and non-existence. So, sin and evil are nothingness and non-essence; for they are a change of the good will.

“But, they say, we should have been created immutable in relation to sin.” These are certainly words of people who would lay down the law; but it does not fall to the clay vessel, as the Apostle says, to say to the one who shaped it: Why did you do this to me. And those who say this seem to me, on the one hand, to despise what is reasonable, on the other hand, to prefer, instead of being men, rather to be woods and stones, which are indeed immutable in relation to sin.

As for the angelic armies, they are not immutable natures, but divine grace has seized them at the same time as the perpetual contemplation of the Holy Trinity, or rather of the illumination which comes from it. After the Slanderer, of his own free will, looked away from this vision, while being part of these hosts of good, he himself became the instigator of darkness. Also, the spirits endowed with intelligence who revolted at the same time as him, suffered the same fate, and then became evil, and moreover out of jealousy undertook war against man. But we can say with Paul: The love of Christ seizes us and by the conflict which takes place against these evil spirits it makes us more proven, but only on condition that we ourselves do not deprive ourselves of love and of grace. When in truth Adam did this, on the one hand he was deceived by the Evil One and on the other hand he became an exile from Paradise.

We must therefore believe that God the Father is Almighty and that he has absolutely no opposite principle before him, according to the ungodliness of the Manicheans, and that in truth he is “the Creator of all visible and invisible things.” Let us not draw up different gods, according to the difference of the visible elements. And do not think that one is the author of fire and the other of water. This world is made up of things which are opposed brought together in harmony and in a single good order, and because of this it is called ordered. Let us praise the one who thus ordered and harmonized what seems without harmony. Because, when we see that a lyre is rightly made of disparate strings and performs a single melody with harmonious notes, we congratulate the zither player.

Now, when you believe in one God the Father, also believe “in one Lord Jesus Christ, his only begotten Son, who was begotten of his essence, who is consubstantial with the Father, who is light from light and true God from the true God”, the Word, the Life, the image of the invisible God, the imprint of the Father’s hypostasis.

For it is by all these names that he is designated, because a single formula cannot encompass what he contains, but each of them designates a single attribute suitable for God. Even when comparing him to other people it is inadequate and is found to be inadequate. In fact, when you hear the Son, understand by this only that he is consubstantial with his Father; for every son is of the same essence and the same nature as his father, according to how he has begotten him.

So do not lower your thought from there also to bodily births, and do not have in mind the union of bodies, the emission of seed and passion. But from the designation of Son pass to that of the Word, and you will find that it is without emission of seed and in an impassive and incorporeal way that he was engendered, like a word. For just as the word which is ours is engendered in an impassive way by the intelligence which is in us and as it leaves, it shows and makes known by the emission of a sound – and as if it represented – the very thought which is in the depth of the intelligence. So, it is also that it is from God the ineffable Father, this intelligence which is above all, that the Word represents and who came out of him by generation. And indeed, it is written that he is the angel of the high council and the image of the invisible God who says: He who has seen me has seen the Father. This is why, in fact, it is also said the only Son, because he came out of the Father alone and in a unique and totally different way from all other births. In this too there is no common point.

But this word which is ours, coming out of the changing intelligence, spreads in the air and vanishes, while the Living Word of the Father, the unchanging intelligence, which is above all, is itself also alive, subsisting and also perpetual.

Indeed, it is written, In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Do you hear that in the beginning was the Word and that he was God? How then will you say he is not subsisting, like this word of ours, which is emitted? But if the Word was and if he was God and if he was with God, he was so perpetually; for he was in the beginning. Now, at a beginning without time, it is not possible to find a limit. Through the Son, in fact, as it is written, the Father also made the ages. To say that the author of ages and times is posterior to time is madness. So, the Son is equal to the Father in eternity, and he did not come into existence at the end.

It is he who became incarnate for us in the last days, and he became man of the Holy Spirit and of the Holy Mother of God and Ever-Virgin Mary. And the cause of the in-humanation, what is it? It is that man, made in his image, who, because of his own folly and the deceit of the Slanderer, as it is written previously, was excluded from the blissful and painless life of Paradise.

Indeed, it was appropriate for him who is in essence the image of the invisible Father, the living Word, to come and seek man endowed with reason, after he had turned to corruption, made in the image of God by participation and by grace, and whom he had sentenced to death saying: You are earth, and you will go to the earth. Not only that, but this one whose existence he had also judged and condemned by carrying out this decree on Eve: It is in pain that you will give birth to children.

This is why, without change, he participated in the carnal condition and endured death according to the flesh for us, wanting to abolish these two sentences. Indeed, it was not in the power of any man to make them inoperative, when all had been subjected to the net and to the trap of death.

“But it was better,” they say, “for him to allow one of the spirits who perform the office of ministers to accomplish a salvation of this kind, and not for God to stoop to it.” But first, on the one hand, no one could bring this about and untie the bonds of corruption, except the one who by nature is incorruptible and immortal, the almighty force of the invisible God; on the other hand, it was not befitting for an angelic and created power to perform such a correction which befitted God, lest men themselves fall again from the truth and serve the creation instead of the Creator.

But it is for him who could, it is for him for whom it was appropriate, to support the Economy that concerns us, so that those who would be saved would worship him who is both Saviour and adorable God by nature. This is why, in fact, the prophet Isaiah also cried out: It is not a messenger nor an angel, but it is the Lord himself who has saved us.

We will therefore not divide him after the union according to the duality of natures; otherwise, we would run the risk of being accused of being idolaters, adoring at the same time as God, according to the folly of Nestorius, the man who subsists by himself. But we will profess him one and the same of two natures, of divinity and of humanity; and, by worshiping him, we will be beyond reproach. In the same way as us, in fact, the Word of God participated in the flesh and the blood which is animated by an intelligent soul. But if it is in the same way as us, the argument thus presented in public, gives rise to a conflict of polemics.

In fact, just as, as far as we are concerned, when the soul has been hypostatically united to the body, it perfects the man as one of two, without the soul itself having been changed into a body, nor the body in its turn being transformed into a soul, so that the living being is said and understood only to be one nature, without it having diminished or changed or transformed these elements from which it was naturally formed. So also the Word of God, when he was united according to nature and according to hypostasis to the humanity which comes from us, which is perfect according to its own manner, so that he was born of the Blessed Virgin according to the flesh and so that he was named Emmanuel, also shows that these elements from which the union was made, are not confused, since on the one hand they remain in their natural quality, although, on the other hand, the properties which remain, no longer exist in their own right, as if they were still disjointed by duality; for there is only one hypostasis from the two elements.

Therefore we must anathematize those who say that this one Christ after the ineffable union constitutes two prosopa or two hypostases or two natures, with the operations of these and their properties, and do not confess it as one prosopon, one hypostasis, one incarnate nature of God the Word, or who deny that he was incarnated by taking a true flesh which is consubstantial with us, or conceive it as without soul or without intelligence, and who by these opinions make our salvation false or imperfect.

Believe, therefore, that God himself who was incarnate endured the cross according to the flesh for us, that he was buried, that he destroyed the corruption which is in the tombs, that he descended into Sheol, that he broke the unbreakable and strengthened doors, that he untied the indissoluble bonds and that he brought out the captives, that he rose from the dead on the third day, that he ascended into heaven, and that he is seated at the right hand of the Father. And this is said, not because there is something of the Father which is to the right or to the left; for how would these properties belong to one who is infinite and incorporeal and who fills all? But it is according to the words which are used by us when the divine Book shows the royal majesty of the Son and the equality of honor that he has in relation to the Father.

We must also believe in the Holy Spirit, who proceeds from the Father. In fact, this is how the breath also comes out at the same time as our own word. However here it is the breath which still spreads in the air, and there it is the Spirit alive and hypostatic. For the Spirit is the Spirit of life, which is consubstantial with the Father and the Son and who is reckoned at the same time because of his possessing the same praise, divinity, kingship and eternity. Go, he said, teach all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. He also made, at the same time as the Father and the Son, the creation, both visible and invisible. It is written, in fact: By the Word of the Lord the heavens were established, and by the Spirit of his mouth all their host. Through this you will receive the gift of adoption.

When therefore you have believed in one God, who is known in one essence, in three hypostases, renounce the slavery of the tyrant, I mean of Satan, and of the evil and disastrous armies which are subject to him, saying: Let us break their bonds, and loosen their yoke from us. And do this, looking towards the West. Then, turning yourselves likewise Eastwards, proclaim the covenant with Christ, not because the West side has fallen by lot to the Slanderer and evil demons – for it is the Lord’s to whom belongs the earth and its fullness – but in order to manifest by this attitude that on the one hand you have fled the darkness of sin, that, on the other hand, you have run towards the spiritual light and that you hasten towards your paternal home, the Paradise which is planted on the Eastern side.

Because therefore you have cast away from yourselves until now, by the word alone which has invincible strength, the tyranny of the evil and rebellious demon, a tyranny which is overwhelming because of wickedness, but weak because of deceit – and the Slanderer has shown himself to be elusive and has been scattered like smoke among those who cleave to him – and because you have taken refuge at the invincible right hand of Christ, when by a word, which completely ignores the fraud and marks with good will, you have confessed his lordship, hence the Lord himself, who in the beginning fashioned from the earth, seeing his creation defiled by the transgression of Adam, will himself, I say, will form you again by the water and by the Spirit.

And, when the jealous and shameless Slanderer sees you walking down the path that leads to the water, recovering himself, he will pursue you again, and he will say to his demons, like Pharaoh to the Egyptians: Why have we done this, sending the children of Israel away, so that they are no longer in slavery to us? But have confidence; the waters will go forward, and he who broke the heads of the dragons in the waters will swallow them up. But formerly the waters were mortal and bitter, before the heads of those who vomited poison that bears death were broken; but when the sign of the cross was made upon them, he made those waters sweet and life-giving.

And it is quite obvious, by a very, very clear figure, that Moses formerly signified this in advance in the Exodus. For he wrote in these words: Now they came to Murath, and they could not drink the waters of Murath, for they were bitter. That is why the name of this place was called Bitterness. And the people murmured against Moses, saying, What shall we drink? And Moses cried to the Lord; and the Lord showed him a stick, and he threw it into the waters, and the waters became sweet.

For whom, then, even among those who are very perverse, is it not certain that this wood represented in advance the life-giving cross and the baptism which is accomplished by it? For this is what he said: He showed him a stick, and made known the revelation of the mystery which was hidden, and on the other hand he added afterwards, when he said: He fixed there observances and judgments, which shows in advance nothing else except the perfect laws of the gospel.

The prophet Ezekiel also saw in advance these waters which vivify and heal, and which give spiritual health; and he shows this, writing in these terms:

And he said to me: These waters which go to Galilee which is on the East side, and which descend to the land which is not inhabited, and which come to the sea, to the waters of the passage of the sea, will give health to the waters. And it will come to pass that every soul of the animals which swarm there, all of them upon whom the river itself will come there, will live, and there will be very great dust there, and because those waters come there it will be healed and will live.

Now these waters which flow in Galilee and cross the sea, it is the Jordan, in which the seed of holy baptism was sown by our Savior. These waters which descend towards the land which is not inhabited, which represents us, who are deserted and uninhabited by all divine grace, we who were idle and empty according to the word of the Gospel where seven spirits lived who were very evil.

And this word also: They descend, shows the mercy of a charitable God, whereby such grace has come down on us who were not worthy. And it will come to pass that every soul of the animals, he says, which swarm, all of them upon which the river itself will come there, will live. He calls “animals” those who, in the diversity of animal passions, have become like animals of every kind, they whom the sea of ‚Äč‚Äčthis salty and murky life made swarm. But yet, after the Jordan came upon them, he granted life also to those, to them who had once died in the salty waves.

The prophet himself added after this: And there will be a very great dust, because the waters come there, and she will be healed and live; whatever the river comes there on will live. This clearly shows the renovation and re-creation of the old man, made of dust. For the first man taken out of the earth is made of dust, as Paul says. And the divine David also sings about the God of the universe:

Remember that we are dust Indeed, since it is in the mud that we have buried the reasonable image of the soul. It is from what is inferior that we are termed “of the dust” rather than “reasonable” since we are of the same dust.

But the prophet Ezekiel, when he saw from afar the large crowd of those who were to come to baptism, said that on the one hand they were made of dust and that they were dead in the mud and on the other hand however they were to be healed and live by those waters: And there will be very great dust there, because these waters come there, and she will be healed and live; everything upon which the river will come there will live.

So, I will leave aside many other things that would have been necessary, because the homily would result in an excessive and disproportionate length.

But you, as you go towards the life-giving river, remember me, I ask you and I beg you; for until now I am overwhelmed by the salty waves of sufferings, and you cannot grant me another grace greater than this. And the Triune God will give you what you ask for, because he is understood and praised as the One, in whose name you are going to be baptized. To him also befits praise and glory and power, now and forever and forever and ever. Amen!

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