[Of the phoenix] The phoenix is a bird of Arabia, so called either because its colouring is Phoenician purple, , or because there is only one of its kind in the whole world. It lives for upwards of five hundred years, and when it observes that it has grown old, it erects a funeral pyre for itself from small branches of aromatic plants, and having turned to face the rays of the sun, beating its wings, it deliberately fans the flames for itself and is consumed in the fire. But on the ninth day after that, the bird rises from its own ashes.
Our Lord Jesus Christ displays the features of this bird, saying: ‘I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again’ (see John, 10:18). If, therefore, the phoenix has the power to destroy and revive itself, why do fools grow angry at the word of God, who is the true son of God, who says: ‘I have the power to lay down my life and to take it again’? For it is a fact that our Saviour descended from heaven; he filled his wings with the fragrance of the Old and New Testaments; he offered himself to God his father for our sake on the altar of the cross; and on the third he day he rose again. The phoenix can also signify the resurrection of the righteous who, gathering the aromatic plants of virtue, prepare for the renewal of their former energy after death.
The phoenix is a bird of Arabia. Arabia can be understood as a plain, flat land. The plain is this world; Arabia is worldly life; Arabs, those who are of this world. The Arabs call a solitary man phoenix. Any righteous man is solitary, wholly removed from the cares of this world. The phoenix also is said to live in places in Arabia and to reach the great age of five hundred years. When it observes that the end of its life is at hand, it makes a container for itself out of frankincense and myrrh and other aromatic substances; when its time is come, it enters the covering and dies. From the fluid of its flesh a worm arises and gradually grows to maturity; when the appropriate time has come, it acquires wings to fly, and regains its Previous appearance and form.
Let this bird teach us, therefore, by its own example to believe in the resurrection of the body; lacking both an example to follow and any sense of reason, it reinvests itself with the very signs of resurrection, showing without doubt that birds exist as an example to man, not man as an example to the birds. Let it be, therefore, an example to us that as the maker and creator of birds does not suffer his saints to to perish forever, he wishes the bird, rising again, to be restored with its own seed. Who, but he, tells the phoenix that the day of its death has come, in order that it might make its covering, fill it with perfumes, enter it and die there, where the stench of death can be banished by sweet aromas?
You too, O man, make a covering for yourself and, stripping off your old human nature with your former deeds, put on a new one. Christ is your covering and your sheath, shielding you and hiding you on the evil day. Do you want to know why his covering is your protection? The Lord said: ‘In my quiver have I hid him’ (see Isaiah, 49:2). Your covering, therefore, is faith; fill it with the perfumes of your virtues – of chastity, mercy and justice, and enter in safety into its depths, filled with the fragrance of the faith betokened by your excellent conduct. May the end of this life find you shrouded in that faith, that your bones may be fertile; let them be like a well-watered garden, where the seeds are swiftly raised. Know, therefore, the day of your death, as Paul knew his, saying: ‘I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness’ (2 Timothy, 4: 7-8). And he entered, therefore, into his covering like the worthy phoenix, filling it with the sweet odour of martyrdom. In this way, therefore, the phoenix is consumed by fire but from its ashes is born or brought forth again. When it dies, it is also born again from its ashes. The point of this example is that everyone should believe in the truth of the resurrection to come. Faith in the resurrection to come is no more of a miracle than the resurrection of the phoenix from its ashes. See how the nature of birds offers to ordinary people proof of the resurrection; that what the scripture proclaims, the working of nature confirms.