Translation – Homily 67 of St Severus of Antioch


Concerning Mary, Holy Mother of God and Ever Virgin.

When I want to focus my attention on the Virgin Mother of God and touch simply on the thoughts that concern her, at the beginning of my steps it seems to me that a voice comes to me from God, and sounds loudly in my ears: Do not approach here, take the shoes from your feet, for the place where you are standing is holy ground. Truly, indeed, we must rid our mind of all mortal and carnal imagination as well as of our shoes when we seek to ascend to the contemplation of one of the divine things. What object can be contemplated that is more divine than the Mother of God or superior to her? Approaching her, is to approach holy ground and reach the heavens. She belonged to the earth, was part of humanity by its nature and was of the same essence as us, although it was pure from all defilement and immaculate, and she produced from her own womb as well as from heaven, God who was made flesh, because she conceived and bore in a very divine way: it is not that she gave the divine nature to the one who is born, for he possessed it before any beginning and before every age, but it is because she has given him human nature without experiencing change, and that by herself and by the ineffable and mysterious coming of the Holy Spirit. And if you want to learn how (this has happened), what you are looking for is arrested by the seal of virginity which this birth did not violate, and what is sealed is absolutely intangible, it remains secret and we can not to speak about it: also, astonished by this prodigy, someone will exclaim as Jacob: This place is terrible, it is the gate of heaven.

The God who is above all has descended beforehand, when he promulgated the Law on Mount Sinai. The appearance of the glory of the Eternal, as the sacred book says, was like a burning fire on the top of the mountain in front of the children of Israel. However it was not the appearance of the essence or substance, but of the glory of the Lord. This aspect was also accompanied by a cloud filled with darkness, the powerful voice of the trumpet, rapid lightening and all that could excite fear, and drive away and turn from the mountain all those who stood around, when they were sanctified and purified; for those who were animals by their nature, were threatened with stones and arrows: If an animal touches the mountain, it is said, it is to be stoned or pierced with arrows. All this took place to produce fear. (God) approached the children of Israel as individuals who were still the subjects and the servants of Egyptian idolatry and brutal passions, and everywhere he excited fear in them, because he wanted to frighten them by the sounds and terrify them and in this way make them very docile to the place of legislation. Paul was referring to this episode, when he also said to those who believed in the gospel: ‘You did not receive a spirit of servitude to be in fear again, but you have received a spirit of adoption’. In fact, God wished to teach them by fear and to correct them by the law, and once they had been raised above the condition of servants, to approach them as his children, by a more perfect and loving way.

However, they have not benefited at all from this anticipated lesson; but by the violence and the overflowing of their sins, as by a torrent, they caused the foundering of the help which came; thus in his immense goodness (God) also gives them his grace and his spirit of adoption with even more largesse and liberality. In this way, those whom he has not attracted by fear, he subdues them with love and, after they had been the detestable servants, he makes them children of choice. It was truly the word said by Paul with wisdom, ‘Where sin has abounded, grace has abounded even more’. But there, where the spirit of servitude was, it was a smoking mountain, because it received only the appearance of the glory of the Lord in the form of a burning fire, and Moses was the minister who had the office of a mediator. Here, on the contrary, where the grace of adoption is, it is a spiritual mountain, the Virgin, that shines forth and is resplendent in purity and the coming of the Holy Spirit. This is not the appearance of the glory of the Lord, but it is God himself, the Son, the Word, the image of the substance of the Father. He does not simply walk upon the summit of the mountain, but he is incarnated and is born of the (mountain) without change: ‘The Word indeed became flesh and he dwelt among us’. He acts in person and gives us his grace, and he does not use another minister; for it does not belong to a servant to dispense the grace of adoption: that is why he prides himself on the greatness of his divine help and exclaims: ‘I did not come to be served but to serve’ . He is first of all the Son of man, being in essence the Son of the invisible God, and so he declares to us, who are of the earth, that we are the children of the Heavenly Father according to grace; he takes what is small, to give that which is great, by restoring what is small by what is great, for he is born of a mother who does not know marriage.

This was the stone that the prophet Daniel saw detach itself from the mountain without the aid of any human hand, that is to say that it is without the seed and without the cooperation of man that he is incarnated of the Virgin. What, then, will surprise me? Will it be the mountain? According to external appearances, it occupies the lower part; but, as a result of virginity and the divine mystery which has been accomplished there, it is high and elevated. Will it be the stone? It is the highest point of the mountain, the top and the summit of all authority power and strength; but he wanted to become by the flesh a fragment of the mountain, in order to be placed as a foundation under all the Church: Nobody indeed, is it written, can lay another foundation apart from that which is established, meaning Christ Jesus. It is not because the descent of the Word, like the detachment of the stone, proves his love for men and is a pledge of peace, and that the mountain, far from exciting fear, is on the contrary easy to approach, (this is not why) we must cleanse ourselves, when we would have the audacity to present ourselves in this state. Who is it who, finding that the mountain does not receive God as the God of Sinai, but that she gives birth to God, does not conceive of astonishment, when he sees God descending on this mountain, of which he is made man without change?

That is why, after having hurried to the foot of this mountain, I want to say (after showing) the outward and superficial senses, that I fear to look inside, as if in the Holy of Holies; for I hear the book of the Law say concerning the high priest who entered into this place: He shall take a censer full of burning coals from the altar which is the Lord’s, and shall fill his hands with incense of fine composition. he will enter beyond the veil and put incense on the fire in front of the Eternel, the smoke of incense will cover the mercy seat of the testimony, and he will not die.

It is indeed necessary that the one who enters to see the interior should be engulfed and experience himself the burning coals taken from the altar of God, and following this that his hands be filled with incense of fine composition; it is known that all virtues form the purity of actions and that prayer gives birth to a penetrating intelligence, so that, mixed with fire, the latter leads to moderate revelations and can be understood, while, those which are above our strength, it covers them in the manner of smoke by a place of testimony above our souls and so it does not impose on us a burden that would exceed our strengths. Therefore, because I am neither prepared nor purified, and because I am neither endowed nor equipped with this fire and incense, I will stay outside of it and will not examine in detail what is in the interior of the room, for it is absolutely impossible for me to glance at it and to adore Christ, who was conceived by (the Virgin) and took the sin of the world.

However, in considering these things, I still see the remembrance of the Virgin Mother of God light up my heart, set it on fire and fill it, as if with incense, with a particularly sweet odor. From then on, as if I had forgotten myself and had been struck with astonishment, I am led, carried away and seized by my desire, and I am entirely inside. I am dazzled by the beauties and symbolic visions placed within the Holy of Holies and I consider Emmanuel is signified and indicated in numerous ways.

It is first of all by the ark, made of pure gold and wood that does not decay, gold being applied to the boards everywhere, inside and outside, and leaving absolutely no bare place and manifested by its own splendor. Is this not the way that Christ is presented? He is one of two, deity as gold resplendent and shining brightly, and humanity preserved from corruption as wood that does not decay, because of the conception of God the Word which is pure and without seed, worked by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, so that he did not unite himself only to the flesh which has no soul, but to that which is animated by an intelligent soul. This is what this word means: Gold was applied to the woods inside and out.

Note again in this the correctness of the symbol. In the same way, wood that does not decay is wood by its very nature and is of the same kind and essence as all the other woods that rot attacks and gnaws, but it has only special property, to be rot-proof; likewise the flesh of Christ animated by a reasonable soul was also of the same kind, of the same nature and of the same essence as ours, but it had this more, that it was free and exempt from the corruption of sin, because it was conceived of the Holy Spirit and of the Virgin and that it was united to the Word, ‘he who did not sin and in whose mouth he was found no guile’. However, just as the wood of the ark was above the decay of which they were exempt, but could be cut and burned; so, too, the whole pure body of Christ did not participate in sin or the corruption that resulted from it, but it nevertheless received torments, blows, division, death, and the same kind of suffering. For if he were not so, he would not have undergone the test of death by which he broke the one who had the power of death; and when he has come to the burial and descent into Hades, he has not yet known the corruption that is coming, because of his divine resurrection from the dead: for his soul did not remain in the Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption as it is written. In this way it follows that the body of Christ was incorruptible in everything, since it was not subject to the corruption that comes from sin, while being susceptible to that corruption which comes from death and burial, he has removed it without being taken by it, because of its union with the Word, because it is by nature incorruptible, impassible and immortal.

Let us leave above the comparison of the ark and the resemblance which concerns it. It is not in the same way that the gold which, once worked, adhered to the wood, that the Word of God was united to the flesh. For the shadow which is in the symbol is weak and can not represent the truth completely and entirely, and it departs from accuracy, after having produced in advance some marks of resemblance.

Paul gives us an (other) image of the divine union which was made concerning Emmanuel, when he says: ‘Because therefore the children have participated in the blood and in the flesh, he has also participated in the same things in the same way’. Thus the Word of God has shared in the same way as we do in the blood and the flesh; but we know that it is by a union in nature and in substance, as we can see, that our soul unites with the body without confusion.

But, continuing to make these considerations on the ark, here is the golden vessel in which the manna was located, it calls me and draws me to it, sending me some kind of intelligent rays and introducing me and showing me another image of Emmanuel. In the manner of a painter, the true service indeed painted by successive figures, as on a tablet, all the economy of the coming of Christ in the flesh, since different authors gather various considerations and one alone is not enough to show it all.

The manna, descended from heaven like rain and was enclosed in a vase here below, indicated the Word of God that came down from heaven and did not bring his flesh from above, but was incarnated from here below and from us without change. About the ark, the wood was the figure of the body, and the gold that of the divinity. But here it is the opposite: the golden vase presents the figure of the body, and the manna that of God the Word. This allegory indicated and meant that Christ, after offering himself for us as an offering and a sacrifice of a good odor, resurrected from the dead and henceforth to be given the name of bread from heaven for our life and our communion, no longer had a body subject to human diseases and liable to bear the same kind of infirmities, I mean hunger, fatigue, thirst, torment; for the economy, for which he had voluntarily endured this, was accomplished. But all, like this golden vessel, (the body) is holy, life-giving, indestructible, impassible, as the body of God, who is life by nature and adorned with a glory worthy of God; it has not changed and transformed into the nature of the deity, but it remains what it was, as it will be seen, as it is written, by those who pierced it, when he will come again from heaven. This was what Paul said: But if we have known Christ in the flesh, now we will know him no more.

But when I look into the Ark, I see the tables of the Law and the rod of Aaron, which after drying, bloomed in an amazing manner, and produced fruit of the almonds. This word means that Christ, as well as the Ark, after having contained in himself the Law and the Levitical priesthood, hid them and, when these latter were then weakened and dried up, he made them yield fruits by the germination of the evangelical life. Therefore he also said, Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I came not to abolish them, but to fulfill them. What were these fruits? Almonds. And it is very right, because the almond is the fruit of the legal and repressive staff; the shell of the almond, is external and appears very bitter and very acrid, but that which is within the preceding is healthy and firm; and this shell contains the tender part destined for food and taste. All punishment, according to Paul’s words, at the very moment, seems to be a subject not of joy, but of sadness; but, afterwards, it produces a peaceable fruit of justice for those who have been so exercised. He is at first a little sad and bitter because of the troubles (which it produces), but he preserves absolutely healthy that which was obtained with difficulty and, in this way, he is filled with a powerful charm because of this which has been obtained.

The rod that bloomed alone – because of the richness and abundance of the spiritual meanings – told us in another way of Christ, who was born of Jesse and David, and grew up according to the flesh; it is by him that our race, which languished by the effect of sin, sprouted, bloomed, and grew; it is of him that Isaiah prophesied in these terms: A branch will come out of the root of Jesse, and an offshoot will arise from his root.

The mercy seat, placed above the ark, on which none of those who exercised the legal priesthood performed his ministry, nor shed blood, and which was covered on both sides by the wings of the Cherubim, also signifies clearly Christ, whom God has pre-established as a propitiation by faith in His blood, as Paul says. – “He was placed above the ark.” By this, it was indicated that the whole reason for the coming of Christ in the flesh or incarnation would tend and end in same time to this, that he would be the propitiation for our sins, so that it is written. – “He was intangible to the priests.” For it belonged to no man, but only to him, to offer himself: that is what he did too, when he offered himself once to carry the sins of many; and when now we exercise the priesthood, we do not immolate (Christ) in advance, but by the fulfillment of the mystical rites we make the memory of the sacrifice which he has offered himself. – “It was covered by the Cherubims.” How does this word not clearly indicate that even after becoming the propitiation according to the economy, he is still God since he suffered for us in the flesh? that he is terrible and inaccessible to the higher powers, as he is before he suffers? that he is more worthy of respect and adorable, since he has shown his manifold wisdom: as Paul says, of the occasion of our salvation?

But in saying these things I see that the smoke of incense rises and ascends on high; it hides the fire from me and fills my eyes with darkness, it prevents me from going further and it advises me to go down without danger and to go back in a safe way and quietly, raising one foot and placing the other, and go out with attention. Yet the outward ornament of the Mother of God is abundant and rivals so to speak the inner wealth. It is indeed the leaven of our new creation, the root of the vine of which we have become branches by the same germination of baptism. This is the meaning of the reconciliation of God with men, on the occasion of which the angels sang: Glory to God in the heights, and on earth peace and benevolence.

‘Glory to God in the heights, and on earth peace and kindness towards men’. That is why the remembrance of the Virgin awakens our souls, by making them consider from what irreconcilable enmity and what condition of war, so to speak, to what peace, what divine familiarity, and to what society we have been called by her intervention.

How would they not greatly esteem the virgins who run towards this which is the honor of the Mother of God, Mary, and to the crown and the reward which is its consequence? And how are those who are under the yoke (of marriage) not chastely and with sanctity, in carnal union and commerce, regretting not the practice of virginity and following in a philosophical manner these words: Let everyone remain in the state to which he has been called because of the law of the Spirit? How could we not all lead a life for the glory of God, who became flesh and who has judged us worthy of so kind and so great a charity?

Therefore, when you have heard that I have given to the Mother of God the name of Holy of Holies – this is the tabernacle which is found behind the second veil, – you have also been filled with fervor in your hearts and you have longed for the time when his first tabernacle – I mean his house of prayer – would be enlarged by the addition of porticoes. What is missing, if not on our part, from wanting to put ourselves to work and to begin, and from yours to imitate, by a good and generous will, the children of Israel who, on the construction of the tabernacle of testimony, all happily brought all their property and the gift of their goods? God did not refuse to accept even the hair of the goats for the manufacture of horsehair ropes; it was he who also received the two quadrants of the widow and put them openly before any other more important gift, because the whole life of the one who gave them depended on it. Let no poor man, ashamed of his poverty, dispense with the offering himself, but whoever presents what he can; and if he is not so, let him be poor of hope; for he who receives this offering knows where it is from. In rejoicing in the spiritual fervor of this holy congregation and the honor of the Blessed Virgin, it seems to me that he is addressing to her and to the Church these words of Isaiah: Enlarge your tent, attach the veils of your home, do not spare, lengthen your rope and strengthen your stakes, stretch out even to the right and to the left. Therefore, by giving thanks, and by crowning you with the blessings of the Spirit, we say, “May the LORD, the God of our fathers, add to you, that you may be a thousand times more numerous, and he will bless you, as he has told you. We also offer him praise and honor, to the Father, to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, now, always, and in every age. So be it!

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