Zeno of Verona, On the Lord's Birth II

Translation by Andrew S. Jacobs

Zeno was the ascetic bishop of the Italian city of Verona in the 360s. Little reliable accurate biographical information about him survives. We know, from a letter of Ambrose of Milan, that he was dead by the 380s. Among his many surviving homilies is this short sermon preserved as the second de navitate domini. While it may have been delivered on a feast of the nativity, Zeno doesn't refer here specifically to a commemoration; it may have been an occasional or exegetical homily, or specific festival references may have been edited out when it was collected into Zeno's books of treatises (Tractatus; this sermon is numbered as Tractatus II.8). This homily is especially notable for its early and robust defense of the perpetual virginity of Mary and its unselfconscious reliance on so-called apocrypha. For more on Zeno and the debate over Mary's virginity, see the work of David Hunter. I have translated the text from the Patrologia Latina edition (PL 11:412-415). You may link to, share, or reproduce this translation with attribution. You may not make any commercial use of this work. Any suggestions for corrections or additions to the text or annotations are more than welcome: andrew [at] andrewjacobs [dot] org.

I. How surprising it is to understand the hidden and venerable majesty, not to recognize God unless he is God. Nothing more fully should be asked of him than that someone might know his will, for without it one cannot serve him legitimately, nor be pleasing to him. To want some proposition about God's foresight to be asserted, through empty arguments about God, is not to worship but to be insane.  Zeno seems to be arguing against Arian opponents who devolve into "empty arguments" about the nature of God rather than trying to find the truth. Especially if God, as the argumentative suppose, should be subject to a proposition! Indeed, if for even a short time the names of "Father" and "Son" were taken away, you wouldn't know which one suffers injury—unless it is the case that both suffer, since the one name "God" is applied to both. Learn, heedless Christian, that there are two virgin births nativitates...rudis, literally "inexperienced births." Later in the homily Zeno uses rudis to describe the "virgin" Mary, emphasizing her sexual inexperience. of our Lord Jesus Christ, or else you'll be deceived by some error! One, which is not fitting for you to ask about, another, which legitimately, if you are able, you are permitted to learn. Indeed the first birth of our Lord remains only in the knowledge of the Father and Son, and has no sort of intermediary or witness, because he proceeded from the Father's presence oris, literally, "from his mouth" or "face." Possibly Zeno has in mind the Greek term πρόσωπον, which can mean presence or person or countenance, and was at times used in fourth-century Trinitarian discourse to distinguish the "persons" of the Trinity. from affection, in one will. But the second, which is carnal, was revealed by divine witnesses, so we find that it can be considered.

II. Indeed God who is the Son of God, at a designated time, set his majesty aside for a period and came forth from his heavenly throne; he measured out for himself an encampment in the preordained Temple of the Virgin, in which, secretly, he poured himself into the human being about to be born, and in that very place alone he set about to be that which he was and that which he was not. Mixed with human flesh he formed himself into a baby. Mary's proud belly burst out, not from a marital duty, but from faith; by the Word, not from seed. For ten months she did not experience nausea, of course, because she carried the creator of the world inside her. She gave birth not in pain, but in joy. Marvel at the matter! Exulting, she brought forth a baby greater in antiquity than all of nature! While giving birth the virgin girl did not groan. Not clean, as is usually the case, is the baby being born and coming forth, spontaneously he begins with the preceding tears of crawling life. His mother was not exhausted by giving birth to such a weight, and she did not lie pallid, weakened in her guts. And the mother's son was not smeared with any of her filth; nor indeed could he have anything really unclean around him, who had come to purify the human race of sins, filth, and stains. Then no purgings, which are dangerous at the end, were condemned to follow after the child from his mother's internal organs. No poultice, typical by custom, was applied to the pregnant virgin; indeed, brothers, there could be no need of these for she who was deemed worthy to receive in her womb the Son, the Savior of all souls! O great mystery! Mary, incorrupt virgin, conceived; after conceiving as a virgin she gave birth; and after giving birth she remained a virgin! The hand of the unbelieving midwife, testing the woman who just gave birth, burned as a witness of the virginity that she had discovered; when the baby touched it, right away that devouring flame was stilled. So that luckily curious healer, then marveling at the virgin woman, marveling at God as a baby, exulting with great joy, she who came to treat him withdrew having been treated. Zeno refers to a story included in the second-century Proto-Gospel of James (chapter 20), in which a midwife named Salome tests Mary's virginity after giving birth, and her hand is withered until healed by touching the newborn Jesus. See here for more information, including links to English translations. So Christ had himself born a person, but could not born born like any old person. Then resplendent with his own light his whole body was borne without shadow; humble in flesh, but exalted by his omnipotent majesty. He plainly then deemed it worthy to assume flesh, so that no one could, when the Day of Judgment came, make an excuse for himself through flesh.

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