Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) on the Incarnation

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For the past few years during Advent or on Christmas day, I have been in the habit of reading and reflecting on Augustine’s famous sermon on the Feast of the Nativity, in which this immensely profound passage on Christ’s Incarnation can be found. For Christmastide this year, we reflect on a similar passage from Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) in his De Trinitate, II.24-25, on how the Incarnation and Christ’s life on earth – from Virgin birth to descensus ad inferos – was for our benefit and salvation:

The Virgin, the birth, the Body, then the Cross, the death, [the descent into] hell; these things are our salvation. For the sake of mankind the Son of God was born of the Virgin and of the Holy Ghost. In this process He ministered to Himself; by His own power—the power of God—which overshadowed her, He sowed the beginning of His Body, and entered on the first stage of His life in the flesh. He did it that by His Incarnation He might take to Himself from the Virgin the fleshly nature, and that through this commingling there might come into being a hallowed Body of all humanity; that so through that Body which He was pleased to assume all mankind might be hid in Him, and He in return, through His unseen existence, be reproduced in all. Thus the invisible Image of God scorned not the shame which marks the beginnings of human life, and, by his conception, birth, wailing, and cradle, he passed through all the successive humiliations of our nature.

What worthy return can we make for so great a condescension? The One Only-begotten God, ineffably born of God, entered the holy Virgin’s womb and grew and took the frame of poor humanity. He Who contains everything, within Whom and through Whom are all things, was brought forth by common childbirth; He at Whose voice Archangels and Angels tremble, and heaven and earth and all the elements of this world are melted, was heard in childish wailing. The Invisible and Incomprehensible, Whom sight and feeling and touch cannot gauge, was wrapped in a cradle. If any man deem all this unworthy of God, then the less such condescension befits the majesty of God, the greater must he own his debt for the benefit conferred. He by Whom man was made had nothing to gain by becoming Man; it was our gain that God was incarnate and dwelt among us, making all flesh His home by taking upon Him the flesh of One. His humiliation is our exaltation; his shame is our honour. He, being God, made flesh His residence, and we in return are lifted anew from the flesh to God.

Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) on “the fear of the Lord”

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The “fear of the Lord” is a biblical expression that has often been a cause of confusion and misunderstanding. “Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.” Hilary of Poitiers (c. 300–368) in his Treatise on the Psalms (Tractatus super Psalmos), Ps 127, 1-3, comments on what “fear of the Lord” means in Psalm 127, in the Book of Proverbs and elsewhere in the Psalms and Wisdom literature of the Old Testament Scriptures.  Perfect love of God brings the fear of the Lord to its perfection, and the Lord Jesus Christ is himself the way to this perfect, divine love:

“…’Blessed are those who fear the Lord, who walk in his ways.’ Notice that when Scripture speaks of the fear of the Lord it does not leave the phrase in isolation, as if it were a complete summary of faith. No, many things are added to it, or are presupposed by it. From these we may learn its meaning and excellence. In the book of Proverbs Solomon tells us: If you cry out for wisdom and raise your voice for understanding, if you look for it as for silver and search for it as for treasure, then you will understand the fear of the Lord. We see here the difficult journey we must undertake before we can arrive at the fear of the Lord.

We must begin by crying out for wisdom. We must hand over to our intellect the duty of making every decision. We must look for wisdom and search for it. Then we must understand the fear of the Lord.

‘Fear’ is not to be taken in the sense that common usage gives it. Fear in this ordinary sense is the trepidation our weak humanity feels when it is afraid of suffering something it does not want to happen. We are afraid, or made afraid, because of a guilty conscience, the rights of someone more powerful, an attack from one who is stronger, sickness, encountering a wild beast, suffering evil in any form. This kind of fear is not taught: it happens because we are weak. We do not have to learn what we should fear: objects of fear bring their own terror with them.

But of the fear of the Lord this is what is written: ‘Come, my children, listen to me, I shall teach you the fear of the Lord.’ The fear of the Lord has then to be learned because it can be taught. It does not lie in terror, but in something that can be taught. It does not arise from the fearfulness of our nature; it has to be acquired by obedience to the commandments, by holiness of life and by knowledge of the truth.

For us the fear of God consists wholly in love, and perfect love of God brings our fear of him to its perfection. Our love for God is entrusted with its own responsibility: to observe his counsels, to obey his laws, to trust his promises. Let us hear what Scripture says: ‘And now, Israel, what does the Lord your God ask of you except to fear the Lord your God and walk in his ways and love him and keep his commandments with your whole heart and your whole soul, so that it may be well for you?’

The ways of the Lord are many, though he is himself the way. When he speaks of himself he calls himself the way and shows us the reason why he called himself the way: ‘No one can come to the Father except through me.’

We must ask for these many ways, we must travel along these many ways, to find the one that is good. That is, we shall find the one way of eternal life through the guidance of many teachers. These ways are found in the law, in the prophets, in the gospels, in the writings of the apostles, in the different good works by which we fulfil the commandments. Blessed are those who walk these ways in the fear of the Lord.”