Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The Bosom of Mary, Part 1

THE Incarnation lies at the bottom of all sciences, and is their ultimate explanation. It is the secret beauty in all arts. It is the completeness of all true philosophies. It is the point of arrival and departure of all history. The destinies of nations, as well as of individuals, group themselves around it. It purifies all happiness, and glorifies all sorrow. It is the cause of all we see, and the pledge of all we hope for. It is the great central fact both of life and immortality, out of sight of which man's intellect wanders in the darkness, and the light of a Divine life falls not on his footsteps: Happy are those lands which are lying still in the sunshine of the faith, whose wayside crosses, and statues of the Virgin Mother, and triple angelus each day, and the monuments of their cemeteries, are all so many memorials to them that their true lives lie cloistered in the single mystery of the Incarnation! We too are happy, happy in thinking that there are still such lands, few though they be and yearly fewer, for the sake of Him Whom we love and Who reaps from them such an abundant harvest of faith and, love. Yet who is there that does not love his own land best of all? To us it is sad to think of this western island, with its world-wide empire, and its hearts empty of faith and the true light gone out within them. Multitudes of Saints sleep beneath its sod, so famous for its greenness. No land is so thickly studded with spire and tower as poor mute England. In no other kingdom are noble churches strewn with such a lavish hand up and down its hill and dale. Dearest land! thou seemest worth a martyrdom for thine exceeding beauty! It must be the slow martyrdom of speaking to the deaf, of explaining to the blind, and of pleading with the hardened.

Time was, in ages of faith, when the land would not have lain silent, as it lies now, on this eve of the twenty-fifth of March. The sweet religious music of countless bells would be ushering in the vespers of the glorious feast of the Incarnation. From the east, from central Rome, as the day declined, the news of the great feast would come, from cities and from villages, from alpine slope and blue sea-bay, over the leafless forests and the unthawed snow-drifts on the fallow uplands of France. The cold waves would crest themselves with bright foam as the peal rang out over the narrow channel: and if it were in Paschal-time, it would double men's Easter joys; and if it were in Lent, it would be a very foretaste of Easter. One moment, and the first English bell would not yet have sounded; and then Calais would have told the news to Dover, and church and chantry would have passed the note on quickly to the old Saxon-mother church of Canterbury. Thence, like a storm of music, would the news of that old eternal decree of God, out of which all creation came, have passed over the Christian island. The saints "in their beds" would rejoice to hear Augustine, Wilfrid, and Thomas where they lie at Canterbury, Edward at Westminster, our chivalrous protomartyr where he keeps ward amidst his flowery meads in his grand long Abbey at St. Alban's, Osmund at Salisbury, Thomas at Hereford, Richard the Wonderful at Chichester, John at Beverley, a whole choir of Saints with gentle St. William at York, onward to the glorious Cuthbert, sleeping undisturbed in his pontifical pomp beneath his abbey fortress on the seven hills of Durham. With the cold evening wind the vast accord of jubilant towers would spread over the weald of Kent, amid its moss-grown oaks and waving mistletoe. The low, humble churches of Sussex would pass it on, as day declined, to Salisbury, and Exeter, and St. Michael's fief of Cornwall. It would run like lightning up the Thames, until the many-steepled London, with its dense groves of city churches, whose spires stand thick as the ship-masts in the docks, would be alive with the joyous clangor of its airy peals, steadied as it were by the deep bass of the great national bell in the tower of Old St. Paul's. Many a stately shrine in Suffolk and Norfolk would prolong the strain, until it broke from the sea-board into all the inland counties, sprinkled with monasteries, and proud parish churches fit to be the cathedrals of bishops elsewhere, while up the Thames, by Windsor, and Reading Abbey, and the gray spires of Abingdon, Oxford with its hundred bells would send forth its voice over wold and marsh to Gloucester, Worcester, and even down to Warwick and to Shrews- bury, and its southern sound would mingle with the strain that came across from Canterbury, amid the Tudor churches of the orchard-loving Somerset, at the foot of Glastonbury's legendary fane, and on the quays of Bristol, whose princely merchants abjured the slave-trade at the preaching of St. Wulstan. In the heart of the great fen, where the moon through the mist makes a fairy-land of the willows and the marsh-plants, of the stagnant dikes and the peat embankments and the straight white roads, the bells of the royal sanctuary of Ely would ring out merrily, sounding far off or sounding near as the volumes of the dense night-mist closed or 'parted, cheating the traveller's ear. A hundred lichen-spotted abbeys in those watery lowland would take up the strain; while great St. Mary's, like a precentor, would lead the silvery peals of venerable Cambridge, low-lying among its beautiful gardens by the waters of its meadow-stream. Lincoln from its steep capitol would make many a mile of quaking moss and black-watered fen thrill with the booming of its bells. Monastic Yorkshire, that beautiful kingdom of the Cistercians, would scatter its waves of melodious sound over the Tees into Durham and Northumberland, northward along the conventual shores of the gray North Sea, and westward over the heath-covered fells and by the brown rivers into Lancashire, and Westmoreland, and Cumberland, whose mountain-echoes would answer from blue lakes, and sullen tarns, and the crags where the raven dwells, and the ferny hollows where the red deer couches, to the bells of Carlisle, St. Bees, and Furness. Before the cold white moon of March has got the better of the lingering daylight, the island, which seemed to rock on its granite anchors far down within the ocean, as if it tingled with the pulses of deep sound, will have heard the last responses dying muffled in the dusky Cheviots, or in the recesses ot gigantic Snowdon, and by the solitary lakes of St. David's land, or trembling out to sea to cheer the mariner as he draws nigh the shore of the Island of the Saints. Everywhere are the pulses of the bells beating in the hearts of men. Everywhere are their hearts happier. Everywhere, over hill and dale, in the street of the town, and by the edge of the fen, and in the rural chapels on the skirts of the hunting-chase, the Precious Blood is being out-poured on penitent souls, and the fires of faith burn brightly, and holiest prayers arise; while the Angels, from the southern mouths of the Arun and the Adur to the banks of the brawling Tweed and the sands of the foaming Solway, hear only, from the heart of a whole nation, and from the choirs of countless churches, and from thousands of reeling belfries, one prolonged Magnificat.

These things are changed now. Let them pass. Yet not without regret. It is the Feast of the Incarnation. God is immutable. Our jubilee must be in Him. We must nestle deeper down in His Bosom, while science, and material prosperity, and a literature which has lost all echoes of Heaven, are thrusting men to the edge of external things, and forcing them down the precipice. It may be a better glory for us, if our weakness fail not in the wilderness, that our faith should have to be untied from all helps of sight and sound, and left alone in the unworldly barrenness where God and His eagles are. Poor England! Poor English souls! But it is the Feast of the Incarnation. God is immutable. Our jubilee must be in Him.

God is incomprehensible. When we speak of Him, we hardly know what we say. Faith is to us instead both of thought and tongue. In like manner those created things, which lie on the edges of His intolerable light, become indistinct through excess of brightness, and are seen confusedly as He is Himself. Thus He has drawn Mary so far into His light, that, although she is our fellow-creature, there is something inaccessible about her. She participates in a measure in His incomprehensibility. We cannot look for a moment at the noonday sun. Its shivering flames of black and silver drive us backward in blindness and in pain.

Who then could hope to see plainly a little blossom floating like a lily on the surface of that gleaming fountain, and topped everywhere by its waves of fire? So is it with Mary. She lies up in the fountain-head of creation, almost at the very point where it issues from God; and amid the unbearable coruscations of the primal decrees of God she rests, almost without color or form to our dazzled eyes; only we know that she is there, and that the Divine light is her beautiful clothing. The longer we gaze upon her, the more invisible does she become, and yet at the same time the more irresistible is the attraction by which she draws us toward herself. While her personality seems to be almost merged in the grandeur of her relationship to God, our love of her own self becomes more distinct, and our own relationship to her more sweetly sensible.

It was a wonderful life which the Eternal Word led in the Bosom of the Father. It fascinates us. We can hardly leave off speaking of it. Yet behold! He seeks also a created home. Was His eternal home wanting in aught of beauty or of joy? Let the raptured Seraphs speak, who have lain for ages on the outer edge of that uncreated Bosom, burning their immortal lives away in the fires of an insatiable satiety, fed ever from the vision of that immutable Beatitude. There could be nothing lacking in the Bosom of the Father. God were not God, if He fell short of self-sufficiency. Yet deep in His unfathomable wisdom there was something which looks to our eyes like a want. There is an appearance of a desire on the part of Him to whom there is nothing left to desire, because He is self-sufficient. This apparent desire of the Holy Trinity becomes visible to our faith in the Person of the Word. It is as if God could not contain Himself, as if He were overcharged with the fullness of His Own essence and beauty, or rather as if He were outgrowing the illimitable dimensions of Himself. It seems as He must go out of Himself, and summon creatures up from nothing, and fall upon their neck, and overwhelm them with His love, and so find rest. Alas! how words tremble, and grow wild, and lose their meanings, when they venture to touch the things of God! God's love must outflow. It seems like a necessity; yet all the while it is an eternally pondered, eternally present, freedom, glorious and calm, as freedom is in Him Who has infinite room within Himself. What looks to us so like a necessity is but the fullness of His freedom. He will go forth from Himself, and dwell in another home, perhaps a series of homes, and beatify wherever He goes, and multiply for Himself a changeful incidental glory, such as He never had before, and scatter gladness outside Himself, and call up world after world, and bathe it in His light, and communicate His inexhaustible Self inexhaustibly, and yet remain immutably the Same, awfully reposing on Himself, majestically satiating His adorable thirst for glory from the depths of His Own Self. Abysses of being are within Him, and His very freedom with a look of imperiousness allures Him into the possibilities of creation. Yet is this freedom to create, together with the free decree of creation, as eternal as that inward necessity by which the Son is ever being begotten, and the Holy Spirit ever proceeding. All this becomes visible to us in time, and visible in the Person of the Word, and only visible by supernatural revelation, which reason may corroborate, but never could discover.

The Word in the Father's Bosom seeks another home, a created home. He will seem to leave His uncreated home, and yet He will not leave it. He will appear as though He were allured from it, while in truth He will go on filling it with His delights, as He has ever done. He will go, yet He will stay even while He goes. Whither, then, will He go? What manner of home is fit for Him, Whose home is the Bosom of the Father, and Who makes that home the glad wonder that it is? All possible things lay before Him at a glance, as on a map. They lay before Him also in the sort of perspective which time gives, and by which it makes things new. His home shall be wonderful enough; for there is no limit to His wisdom. It shall be glorious enough; for there is no boundary to His power. It shall be dear to Him beyond word or thought; for there is no end to His love. Yet even so, nothing short of an infinite condescension can find any fitness for Him in finite things. Nevertheless such as a God's power and a God's wisdom and a God's love can choose out of a God's possibilities, His created home shall be. Who then shall dream, until he has seen it, what that thrice infinite perfection of the Holy Trinity shall choose out of His inexhaustible possibilities? Who, when he has seen it, shall describe it as he ought? The glorious, adorable, and eternal Word, in the ample range of His unrestricted choice, predestinated the Bosom of Mary to be His created home, and fashioned, with well-pleased love, the Immaculate Heart which was to tenant it with Himself. O Mary, O marvellous mystical creature, O resplendent mote, lost almost to view in the upper light of the supernal fountains! who can sufficiently abase himself before thee, and weep for the want of love to love thee rightly, thee whom the Word so loved eternally?

There were no creatures to sing anthems, in Heaven, when that choice was made. No angelic thunders of songs rolled round the Throne in oceans of melodious sound, when the Word decreed that primal object of His adorable predilection. No creations of almost Divine intelligence were there to shroud their faces with their wings, and brood in self-abasing silence on the beauty of that created Home of their Creator. There was only the silent song of God's Own awful life, and the eternal voiceless thunder of His good-pleasure.

 Forthwith----we must speak in our own human way---the Holy Trinity begins to adorn the Word's created home with a marvellous effluence of creative skill and love. She was to be the head of all mere creatures, having a created person as well as a created nature, while her Son's created nature, with the Uncreated Person, was to be the absolute Head of all creation, the unconfused and uncommingling junction of God and of creation. She was to be a home for the Word, as the bosom of the Father had been a home for Him, realized and completed in unity of nature. The materials which the Word was to take for His created nature were once to have been actually hers, so that the union between the Word and herself should be more awful than words can express. Each Person of the Holy Trinity claimed her for His Own by a special relationship. She was the eternally elected daughter of the Father. There was no other relationship in which she could stand to Him, and it was a reflection of the eternal filiation of His uncreated Son. She was the Mother of the Son; for it was to the amazing realities of that office that He had summoned her out of nothing. She was the Spouse of the Holy Ghost; for He It was Who was wedded to her soul by the most transcendent unions which the kingdom of grace can boast, and it was He Who out of her spotless blood made that undefiled Flesh which the Word was to assume and to animate with His human Soul. Thus she was marked with an indelible character by each of the Three Divine Persons. She was Their eternal idea, nearest to that idea which was the cause of all creation, the idea of Jesus; she was necessary, as They had willed it, to the realization of that idea; and she came before it in priority of time and in seeming authority of office. Such is the bare statement of the place which Mary occupies in the decrees of God. All we could add would be weak compared with this. Words cannot magnify her whom thought can hardly reach; and panegyric is almost presumption,----as if what lies so close to God could be honored by our approval. our praise of Mary, in this one respect like our praise of God, of which it is in truth part, is best embodied in our wonder and our love.

Was it as if God lost something, when He realized His beautiful ideas, and so creatures came in some way to share with Him in the enjoyment of their beauty? Was it as if, when His idea thus escaped Him in act, He was bereaved of His treasures, and was less rich a God than He was before? Surely not; for what was all creation, but the immensity of His communicative love finding undreamed-of outlets into unnumbered worlds? Yet the Divine Persons seem----again it is seeming of which we must speak, we whose tenses and moods are always dishonoring the inexplicable present of eternity----to brood, and wait, and ponder, and feed upon the wisdom and loveliness which lay hid in Their idea of the Word's created home. To create was to unveil the sanctuary, and they appeared to pause. At length, after an eternity which could have no afterward, actual creation began. Angels, and matter, created together that spirit might be humble in its precedence, and then men, were as three enchanting preludes to Jesus and Mary, preludes of surpassing sweetness, full of types and symbols and shadows cast forward from what was yet to be in act, though it was prior and supreme in the Divine decrees. The Fall has come, and still God waits. The sun has set on the now tenantless Eden, but the decrees make no haste. They quicken not their pace. Four thousand years are truly as nothing, even in the age of the planet; yet they are long when souls are sinning, and hearts are pining, and the footsteps of generations fainting, because of the delay of the Messias. God still lingers. His glory seems to stoop and feed on the desires of the nations and the ages, while the shadows of doubt and the sickness of deferred hope gather round them so disconsolately. As the Sacred Humanity is the head of creation and the fountain of grace both to Angels and to men, and perhaps to other species of rational creations still unborn, so was it meet, in the Divine dispensations, that the Precious Blood of Jesus should merit all the graces necessary to ornament the Word's created home. Now that the Incarnate Word was to come as a Redeemer, His Mother must be redeemed by Him with a singular and unshared redemption. Beautiful as she was in herself, and incalculable as were her merits, her greatest graces were not merited by herself, but by that Precious Blood which was to be taken from her own. The first white lily that ever grew on that ruddy stem was the Immaculate Conception; and when the time for Mary's advent came, that was the first grace with which the Divine Persons began Their magnificent work of adorning. It was a new creation, though it was older in the mind of God, as men would speak, than the first-born Angels, or the material planet, which, if we are to credit the tales of science, so many secular epochs and millenniums had at last matured for the Incarnation.

It was on the eighth of December that those primeval decrees of God first began to spring into actual fulfillment upon earth.

Like all God's purposes, they came among men with veils upon their heads, and lived in unsuspected obscurity. Yet the old cosmogony of the material world was an event of less moment far than the Immaculate Conception. When Mary's soul and body sprang from nothingness at the word of God, the Divine Persons encompassed their chosen creature in that selfsame instant, and the grace of the Immaculate Conception was their welcome and their touch. The Daughter, the Mother, the Spouse, received one and the same pledge from All in that single grace, or well-head of graces, as was befitting the grandeur of her predestination, and her relationship to the Three Divine Persons, and the dignity she was to uphold in the system of creation. In what order her graces came, how they were enchained one with another, how one was the cause of another, and how others were merely out of the gratuitous abundance of God, how they acted on her power of meriting, and how again her merits reacted upon them,---all this it is beside our purpose to speak of, even if we could do so fittingly. But the commonest grace of the lowest of us is a world of wonders itself, and of supernatural wonders also. How then shall we venture into the labyrinth of Mary's graces, or hope to come forth from it with any thing more than a perplexed and breathless admiration? It was no less than God Who was adorning her, making her the living image of the August Trinity. It was that she might be the mother of the Word and His created home, that omnipotence was thus adorning her. To the eye of God her beautiful soul and fair body had glided like stars over the abyss of a creatureless eternity, discernible amid the glowing lights and countless scintillations of the angelic births, across the darkness of chaos and the long epochs of the ripening world, and through the night of four thousand years of wandering and of fall. How must she have come into being, if she was to come worthily of her royal predestination, and of the decrees she was obediently to fulfill, and yet with free obedience!

Out of the abundance of the beautiful gifts with which God endowed her, some colossal graces rose, like lofty mountaintops, far above the level of the exquisite spiritual scenery which surrounded them. The use of reason from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception enabled her to advance in grace and beautiful is the sanctity which it implies! Fifteen years went on, with those huge colossal graces, full of vitality, uninterruptedly generating new graces, and new correspondences to grace evoking from the abyss of the Word new graces still, and merits multiplying merits, so that if the world were written over with ciphers it would not represent the sum. It seems by this time as if her grace were as nearly infinite as finite thing could be, and her sanctity and purity have become so constrainingly beautiful that their constraints reach even to the Eternal Word Himself, and He yields to the force of their attractions, and anticipates His time, and hastens with inexplicable desire to take up His abode in His created home. This is what theology means when it says that Mary merited the anticipation of the time of the Incarnation.

But let us pause for a moment here.