Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The Midnight Cave, Part 1

CHILDHOOD is a time of endless learning. It learns at play, as well as at school. Its lessons hardly teach it more than its idleness. It observes without knowing that it observes, and imitates without suspecting that it is not original. It is the strangest mixture of the restless and the passive, always moving, yet always brooding also. There are few men who will ever in after-life be half so contemplative as they were amidst the changeful and capricious activities of childhood. There are many harvests in a lifetime, but there is only one seed-time; and all the crops are sown in seeming confusion at once, yet come up in an orderly succession which betokens law, not uninfluenced by circumstances. Afterlife is the theatre on which childhood produces its spectacles one after another, like so many dramas, whose lightness or sadness, beauty or harshness, tell recognizable tales of birthplace and its scenery, of early schools with their dark and bright, of the impress of a father's mind, or the molding of a mother's skillful love, of the grave touches of a brother's affectionate influence, or the ineffaceable memories of an idolatrous sister's touching partisanship. But, as life goes on, it is above all things the father's influence which manifests itself more and more. The voice takes his tone, the gait his peculiarity. Many little ways unconsciously develop themselves, which have never been remarked in past years, and can now be hardly an intentional imitation of one who has been in his grave for a quarter of a century. The old family home is renewed, and they that remember old times look on with smiles and tears, both of which are at once painful and pleasant, because they raise the dead and put new life and color into memories that were fading away in gray time.

Now, all this may be applied to the subject of religion. What childhood is to after-life, so far as this world is concerned, this life is to the life to come. We are always learning, and learning more than we suspect. If we are earnestly striving to serve God, we are observing Him when we do not think of it. Our likeness to Him is growing, like a family likeness in a child, sleeping or waking; and its progress is hardly noted. We are only conscious of it at intervals. Our nature is becoming secretly and painlessly supernaturalized, even at moments when the painful efforts of mortification may happen to be comparatively suspended. God's ways are passing into ours, though for the present it is all under the surface; and not infrequently appearances are even the other way. Sometimes, as we advance in the spiritual life, we are taken by surprise at finding how much more deeply heavenly principles have sunk into us than we had supposed, and how almost intuitively we put ourselves on God's side, take His view of things, and even, in a far-off way, imitate what we may reverently term His style of action. Long daily intimacy with our Heavenly Father is beginning to tell upon us. Habits of childlike reverence are almost implicitly habits of filial imitation. Great results follow even on this side the grave; but surely much greater ones will follow on the other. The degree of our likeness to God there may depend more than we suppose on the secret undergrowth of that likeness here. As childhood's best harvests are those which come latest in life, so may it be that our imitation of God may not merely secure our bliss hereafter, but may give a character to our blessedness, and exercise no little influence over it forever. At any rate, the mere observation of God is of immense importance to our sanctification. To see Him at work, even without our endeavoring to imitate Him, is in itself a sanctifying process, and one, too, which, as a matter of fact, will never rest in itself, but sooner or later will issue in real imitation. Principles of celestial beauty grow into us, and mould us with quiet vehemence, just as exquisite models make artists; and time and love are all the while doing a joint work deeper down in us than we can see ourselves. To watch God seems to put a new nature into us. We grow like Him by seeing Him, even in the twilight of this arctic world. We turn away from the sight of Him for a moment, and, lo! all things look unbeautiful, because God is not there. We have already watched Him bring forth His decrees from their eternal hiding-place in His mind, and gently lead them to execution; let us now see how He will fling open the doors of His Own concealment, and take visible possession of His kingdom. This must be the one idea of the present chapter, God's way of manifesting Himself after being so long invisible---nay, from the first invisible----invisible till now. A filial creature can hardly see His Heavenly Father's behavior in critical circumstances, and at a solemn time, and not Himself grow heavenly thereby.
There have been many wonderful pictures on this earth. The sorrows and the joys of men have brought about many pathetic occurrences, while their virtues and their vices have led to many catastrophes of the most thrilling dramatic interest. Indeed, the constantly-intersecting fortunes of men are daily acting tragedies in real life, which, like the too faithful sunset of the painter, would seem in fiction to be unreal and exaggerated. There have been many mysteries, too, on earth, in which man was comparatively passive, and God acted by Himself; times when the Creator Himself has been pleased to fill the whole theatre of His Own creation; times also, as in the cool evenings of Eden or at the door of Abraham's tent, when He has mingled with marvellous condescension among His creatures. But earth has seldom witnessed such a scene as Mary, and Joseph, and the Eternal Word, in the streets of Bethlehem at nightfall. The cold, early evening of winter was closing in. Mary and Joseph had striven in vain to get a lodging. St. Joseph was such a Saint as the world had never seen heretofore. Mary was above all Saints, the first in the hierarchy of creatures, the Queen of Heaven, whose power was the worthiest similitude of omnipotence, and who was the eternally predestinated Mother of God. Within her Bosom was the Incarnate God Himself, the Eternal Word, the Maker and Sovereign of all in Bethlehem, the actual Judge of every passing soul that hour. But there was no room for them. The village was occupied with other things, more important according to the world's estimate of what is important. The imperial officers of the census were the great men there. Rich visitors would naturally claim the best which the inns could give. Most private houses would have relations from the country. Everyone was busy. This obscure group from Nazareth---that carpenter from Galilee, that youthful Mother, that hidden Word---there was no room for them. They did not even press for it with enough of complimentary importunity. It is not often that modesty is persuasive. A submissive demeanor is not an eloquent thing to ,the generality of men. If God does not make a noise in His Own world, He is ignored. If He does, He is considered unseasonable and oppressive. Here in Bethlehem is the true Caesar come, the monarch of all the Roman Caesars, and there is no room for Him, no recognition of Him. It is His Own fault, the world will say. He comes in an undignified manner. He makes no authentic assertion of His claims. He begins by putting Himself in a false position; for He comes to be enrolled as a subject instead of demanding homage as a sovereign. This is His way; and He expects us to understand it, and to know where to look for Him and when to expect Him. There was even a shadow of Calvary in the twilight which gathered round Bethlehem that night. Just as no one in Jerusalem would take Him in during Holy Week, or give Him food, so that He had each night to retire to Bethany, in like manner no one in Bethlehem will take Him in, or give Him a shelter beneath which He may be born.

To all but its Creator the world makes no difficulty of at least a twofold hospitality---to be born and to die, to come into the world and to go out of it. Yet how did it treat Him in both these respects? He was driven among the animals and beasts of burden to be born. That little village of the least of tribes said truly, it had no room for the Immense and the Incomprehensible. Bethlehem could not indeed hold her who held within herself the Creator of the world. There was an unconscious truth even in its inhospitality. He was to be born outside the walls of Bethlehem, as He died outside the walls of Jerusalem. Thus He had truly no native town. The sinless cattle gave Him ungrudging welcome; and an old cavity in the earth, fire-rent or water-worn, furnished Him with a roof somewhat less cold than the starry sky of a winter's night. So far as men were concerned, it was as much as He could do to get born, and obtain a visible foothold on the earth. So He was not allowed to die a natural death. His life was trampled out of Him, as something tiresome and reproachful, or rather dishonorable and ignominious. He was buried swiftly, that His body might not be cumbering the earth, polluting the sunshine, or offending the gay city on the national festival. And all the while He was God! These are old thoughts; but they are always new. They grow deeper, as we dwell upon them. We sink further down into them, as we grow older. Every time we think them, they so take us by surprise that it is as if we were now thinking them for the first time. No words do justice to them. The tears of the Saints are more significant than words; but they cannot express the astonishing mystery of this inhospitable Bethlehem, which will not give its God room to be born within its walls.

Alas! the spirit of Bethlehem is but the spirit of a world which has forgotten God. How often has it been our own spirit also! How are we through churlish ignorance forever shutting out from our doors heavenly blessings! Thus it is that we mismanage all our sorrows, not recognising their heavenly character, although it is blazoned after their own peculiar fashion upon their brows. God comes to us repeatedly in life; but we do not know His full face. We only know Him when his back is turned, and He is departing after our repulse. Why is it that with a theory almost always right our practice should be so often wrong? It is not so much from a want of courage to do what we know to be our duty, although nature may rebel against it. It is rather from a want of spiritual discernment. We do not sufficiently, or of set purpose, accustom our minds to supernatural principles. The world's figures are easiest to count by, the world's measures the most handy to measure by. It is a tiresome work to be always looking at things from a different point of view from those around us; and, when this effort is to be lifelong, it becomes a strain which cannot be continuous; and it only ceases to be a strain by our becoming thoroughly supernaturalized. Thus it is that a Christian life, which has not made a perfect revolution in man's worldly life, becomes no Christian life at all, but only an incommodious unreality, which gets into our way in this life without helping us into the life to come. Hence it is that we do not know God when we see Him. Hence it is that we so often find ourselves on the wrong side, without knowing how we got there. Hence it is that our instincts so seldom grasp what they are feeling after, our prophecies so often come untrue, our aims so constantly miss their ends. God is always taking us by surprise, when we have no business to be surprised at all. Bethlehem did not in the least mean what it was doing. No one means half the evil which he does. Hence it is a grand part of God's compassion to look more at what we mean than what we do. Yet it is a sad loss for ourselves to be so blind. Is it not, after all, the real misery of life, the compendium of all its miseries, that we are meeting God every day, and do not know Him when we see Him?

Nothing can trouble the inward peace of those who are stayed on God. If a gentle sadness passed over Joseph, as he was repulsed from house after house, because he thought of Mary and of the Child, he doubtless smiled with holy peacefulness when he looked into her face. The unborn Babe was rejoicing in this foretaste of His coming humiliations. Each unsympathetic voice that spoke, the noise each door made as it was closed against them, was music in His ear. This was what He had come to seek. This, almost more than the virginal purity of Mary's Bosom, was what had drawn Him down from Heaven. It was the want of this which had made the Father's Bosom lacking in something which He craved. Doubtless Mary and Joseph, who knew Him so well already, and were versed in His unearthly ways, shared somewhat in this His exultation. It was plain there was to be no home there. They knew how to excuse each refusal. They, in their unselfishness, were almost ashamed to ask a hospitality which the exquisite considerateness of their charity made them see might be thought unseasonable in the crowded condition of the town. They would be pained to put others to the pain of refusing them. They would only ask because it was a duty to ask, and they would not ask twice anywhere. Oriental hospitality is common as the flowers of the field; but we have seen enough of the world now to know that even the commonest services are more than God is expected to demand, and that what is common for others is rare for Him. They quit the town, therefore, in sweetness, patience, and love, leaving a blessing, as unbought as it was unsuspected, behind them. It is not infrequent for God to leave a blessing even when He is rejected; for His anger is so gentle that sin must have gone far indeed before His unrequited love becomes dislike. Yet His blessings are strange, and sometimes wear the aspect of a punishment---as perhaps the women of Bethlehem thought when they became the mothers of Martyrs and were ennobled by their children's blood.

The twilight deepens. Mary and Joseph descend the hill. They find the Cave---a Stable-Cave---a sort of grotto, with an erection before it, so common in those lands, by which depth and coolness are both attained. The Arab builds by preference in front of a cave, because half his dwelling is thus built for him from the first. The cavern seems to draw them, like a spell. Souls are strangely drawn, and to strangest things and places, when once they are within the vortex of a Divine vocation. There are the lights and songs and music of the crowded village above them, turning into festival the civil obligation which has brought such unwonted numbers thither. Beneath that gay street a poor couple from Nazareth have sought refuge with the ox and ass in the stable. What is about to happen there! It must be differently described according to the points of view from which we consider it. Angels would say that some of God's eternal decrees were on the eve of being accomplished in the most Divine and beautiful of ways, and that the invisible King was about to come forth and take visible possession of a kingdom not narrower than a universe, with such pomp as the spiritual and godlike Angels most affect. The magistrate in Bethlehem would say that, at the time of the census, a pauper child had been added to the population by a houseless couple who had come from Nazareth---noting, perhaps, that the couple were of good family but fallen into poverty. This would be the way in which the world would register the advent of its Maker. It is a consistent world---only an unteachable one. It has learned nothing by experience. It registers Him in the same manner this very day.

Let us go forth upon the slopes, and watch the night darkening, and think of the great earth that lies both near and far away from this new and obscure sanctuary, which God is about to hallow with such an authentic consecration. Much of earth is occupied with Roman business. Couriers are hastening to and fro upon the highways of the empire. The affairs of the vast colonies are giving employment and concern to many statesmen and governors. The great city of Rome itself is the centre of an intellectual and practical activity which makes itself felt at the farthest extremities of the empire. Upon some minds, and especially those of a more philosophical cast, the growth of moral corruption, and other grave social questions, are weIghing heavily. There are lawyers also, intent upon their pleadings. Huge armies, which are republics of themselves, are fast rising to be the lawless masters of the world. But nowhere in the vast world of Roman politics does there seem a trace of the Cave of Bethlehem. No prophetic shadows are cast visibly on the scene. All things wear a look of stability. The system, ponderous as it is, works like a well-constructed machine. No one is suspecting any thing. It would not be easy for the world to be making less reference to God than it was making then. No one was on the lookout for a Divine interference---unless it were that here and there some truth-stammering oracle perturbed a narrow circle, whose superstition was the thing likest religion of all things in the heathen world. In the palace of the Caesars, who suspected that unborn Caesar in His Cave? How often God seems to give nations a soporific just when He is about to visit them, and the appearance of it is not so much that of a judgment upon them as of a jealous desire to secure His Own concealment!

There is a Greek world also lying within that Roman world. It is a world of intellect and thought and disputation---the honorable trifling of the conquered, the refuge of those whose national independence has passed away. Many a brain is spinning systems there. Many find life full and satisfactory in the interest of a barren eclecticism. There is a populous world of countless thoughts, and yet how few of them for God! Everywhere there is a grandeur of disfigured truth, everywhere magnificent tokens of what reason can achieve, coupled with sad indications of what it fails to do. But the strongest systems are to be broken into a thousand pieces by the unborn Sage Who is hidden in that Cave. His philosophy will be antagonist to theirs. The Christian child of modem Bethlehem has more in his catechism than Plato ever could Divine, together with a practical wisdom which the Stoic might envy and admire. The world of philosophy needed the Babe of Bethlehem. But it was not conscious of its need; neither did it suspect His coming; neither, though it had sought truth these hundreds of years, would it know Truth when He came and looked it in the face. The wind is sighing through the leafless plains on the borders of the Ilyssus; but who dreams there that, when midnight comes, the Unknown God of the dissatisfied schools of Athens will be a speechless child upon the earth?

Round about, there is a nearer and a narrower world of Jewish uneasiness. A conquered nation is a tiresome spectacle. But never is it so disheartening as when it is tossing in unhelpful and inefficacious sedition without rising to the heroism of a crusade for freedom. So was it with the Jewish world that night. The census would doubtless let loose much futile talk about the Machabees, among those who did not enjoy the incomes of Roman office. There was ungraceful obedience to the foreigner, and the burning heat of old memories. There were the intrigues of domestic factions, and the littleness of a shadowy nationality, to which a grievance was more precious than the manly patience that waits the right hour to strike the blow for liberty. Like all uneasy nations, the Jews were looking out for a deliverer, and dreaming every moment that they had found Him. But their discernment was gone. They were blinded by the very spiritual magnificence of their ancient prophecies. They were looking in all directions rather than toward the Cave of Bethlehem; and, when Messias came, He was their scandal rather than their hope; and, while they shed their own blood for pretenders, they spilled the blood of their true King in disappointment and disgust. The gorgeous martial procession, which was to go forth to conquer and redeem the world, will issue from the Cave of Bethlehem when forty days are passed; but the fallen people have no eye to recognize the celestial splendor of that new manner of warfare, whose triumphs are in the depths of its abasement. The new Machabee is not according to their reading of the national traditions.

Or let us take another scene. The nations of the earth have greatly changed since then. But look at that unchanging empire, that highly-wrought and yet ungrowing civilization, of the Chinese---the empire that as if in sport had taken to itself the title of celestial because its genius is so eminently and so exclusively material. Look along those brimming rivers which are made to irrigate a myriad gardens and to spread incessant verdure over plains almost tapestried with ornamental patterns of minutest cultivation. Look at those quaint mountains delved into slopes and terraces, with every basketful of earth economized and every trickling moisture curiously hoarded. See how the realm teems with human life, till there is scarcely any room left for any other life than that of men, and how imperiously, and yet how grotesquely, tradition, law, and custom have parcelled out and organized and perfected that human life! The very throng of the thickly congregated bodies drives our minds painfully on the thought of such innumerable souls, densely-crowded souls that are single to the eye of God, souls perishing for the lack of the Precious Blood. China has bred in our little faith and little love more hard thoughts of God than all the other nations of the earth besides. We ponder in a puzzled way over that enormous hive of human life, where age has followed age and God is still unknown. How little did it feel the need of a Redeemer on that December night! how little does it feel it now! Perhaps no nook of earth has changed less than that huge empire seething and surging with incredible masses of population. As it was then, so is it now---wise and yet so ignorant, strange and yet so practical, civilized and yet so crude, promising and yet so hopeless, so far advanced and yet so singularly backward, so undecaying and yet in such irrecoverable decadence. Blood has flowed there for Christ: yet is it the only blood of Martyrs which has not yet been visibly the seed of a future church. If anywhere on earth we can see unaltered what we might have seen that first Christmas Eve, it is in that strange, attractive, vexatious, disappointing land. As the winter stars shone unconsciously that night on the hurrying currents of those turbid rivers or in the stagnant pools of the rice fields, so were the hearts of the dwellers there unconscious then, so are they almost unconscious now. It is chiefly the speechless unconscious babes [1] of China that are the sweet prey of the Babe of Bethlehem, an artifice of grace which almost looks as if it stooped to suit itself to the condition of the land it fain would bless.

There was the world also of the barbarians, wandering or fixed. The rude cradles of modern civilization were already seething with numbers by the Sea of Azof, or beyond the Danube, or amid the pine-woods of Sarmatia. There were nations which were evermore at war, nations sunk almost to the level of the lower animals, nations with a hundred religions, all of them fierce, sanguinary, abominable, degrading. Our own ancestors, stained with deep dyes, were in their earthen huts that night amid the withered fern and moonlit hollies of their native chases. That very night of the twenty-fourth of December, the Mexican tribes near the Gulf of California were wandering about the woods and sandy dunes, dressed in the skirts of beasts and the plumage of large birds, and imitating their voices, keeping the eve of the grand festival of the Sun's nativity on the twenty-fifth, at whose first beams they would fling off their savage masquerade, and bless the god of the sun who had raised them above the beasts of the field and the birds of the air, and made them men. When the first cry of the Infant Jesus sounded in the cave, the melancholy splashing of those far-western waters was mingled with the imitated howls of beasts in that strange typical festival of heathenism. There was need for the Babe of Bethlehem among these unshepherded multitudes of God's dear creatures, who were trying to draw near to Him in these dark, wild ways. But they heard not that angelic music in the skies, which was one day to charm them from their ferocity, and bow their heads in childlike awe at the name of Jesus, and make their strong frames tremble at the gentle shock of the baptismal waters.

1. In allusion to the work of the Sainte Enfance for the Baptism of Chinese children.


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