Early Church Fathers
On the words of the gospel, Matt. x. 16, "Behold, I send you forth as sheep in the midst of wolves," etc.Delivered on a Festival of Martyrs.
1. When the Holy Gospel was read, Brethren, ye heard how our Lord Jesus Christ strengthened His Martyrs by His teaching, saying, "Behold, I send you forth as lambs in the midst of wolves."1 Now consider, my Brethren, what he does. If but one wolf come among many sheep, be they ever so many thousands, they will all be put to confusion by one wolf in the midst of them: and though all may not be torn, yet all are frightened. What manner of design is this then, what manner of counsel, what manner of power, not to let in a wolf amongst the sheep, but to send the sheep against the wolves! "I send you," saith He, "as sheep in the midst of wolves;" not to the neighbourhood of wolves, but "in the midst of wolves." There was then at that time a herd of wolves, and but few sheep. For when the many wolves killed the few sheep, the wolves were changed and became sheep.
2. Let us hear then what advice He hath given, who hath promised the crown, but hath first appointed the combat; who is a spectator of the combatants, and assisteth them in their toil. What manner of conflict hath He prescribed? "Be ye," saith He, "wise as serpents, and simple as doves."2 Whoso understandeth, and holdeth to this, may die in assurance3 that he will not really die. For no one ought to die in this assurance, but he who knows that he shall in such sort die, as that death only shall die in him, and life be crowned.
3. Wherefore, Beloved, I must explain to you, though I have often spoken already on this subject, what it is to be "simple as doves, and wise as serpents." Now if the simplicity of doves be enjoined us, what hath the wisdom of the serpent to do in the simplicity of the dove? This in the dove I love, that she has no gall; this I fear in the serpent, that he has poison. But now do not fear the serpent altogether; something he has for thee to hate, and something for thee to imitate. For when the serpent is weighed down with age, and he feels the burden of his many years, he contracts and forces himself into a hole, and lays aside his old coat4 of skin, that he may spring forth into new life. Imitate him in this, thou Christian, who dost hear Christ saying, "Enter ye in at the strait gate."5 And the Apostle Paul saith to thee, "Put ye off the old man with his deeds, and put ye on the new man."6 Thou hast then something to imitate in the serpent. Die not for the "old man," but for the truth. Whoso dies for any temporal good dies "for the old man." But when thou hast stripped thyself of all "that old man," thou hast imitated the wisdom of the serpent. Imitate him in this again; "keep thy head safe." And what does this mean, keep thy head safe? Keep Christ with thee. Have not some of you, it may be, observed, on occasions when you have wished to kill an adder, how to save his head, he will expose his whole body to the strokes of his assailant? He would not that that part of him should be struck, where he knows that his life resides. And our Life is Christ, for He hath said Himself, "I am the way, and the truth, and the life."7 Here the Apostle also; "The Head of the man is Christ."8 Whoso then keepeth Christ in him, keepeth his head for his protection.
4. Now what need is there to commend to you in many words the simplicity of the dove? For the serpent's poison had need to be guarded against: there, there was a danger in imitation; there, there was something to be feared; but the dove may you imitate securely. Mark how the doves rejoice in society; everywhere do they fly and feed together; they do not love to be alone, they delight in communion, they preserve affection; their cooings are the plaintive cries9 of love, with kissings they beget their young. Yea even when doves, as we have often noticed, dispute about their holes, it is as it were but a peaceful strife. Do they separate, because of their contentions? Nay, still do they fly and feed together, and their very strife is peaceful. See this strife of doves, in what the Apostle saith, "If any man obey not our word by this epistle, mark that man, and have no company with him." Behold the strife; but observe now how it is the strife of doves, not of wolves. He subjoined immediately, "Yet count him not as an enemy, but admonish him as a brother."10 The dove loves even when she is in strife; and the wolf even when he caresses, hates. Therefore having the simplicity of doves, and the wisdom of serpents, celebrate the solemnities of the Martyrs in sobriety of mind,11 not12 in bodily excess, sing lauds to God. For He who is the Martyrs' God, is our Lord God also, He it is who will crown us. If we shall have wrestled well, we shall be crowned by Him, who hath crowned already those whom we desire to imitate.