Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The Midnight Cave, Part 2

Wherever we look---to Rome, to Greece, to Jewry, to China, or to the Barbarians---the picture is the same. There is everywhere a fearful indifference to the things of God, everywhere an unconsciousness of His vicinity, an unsuspectingness that His marvellous interference was so near at hand. Each hour of that night was being laden by men with its own tremendous burden of malignant sin. As the sands of the glass or the drops of the water-clock ran through, the nations of earth were unthinkingly filling up the foreseen measure of iniquity, which the sole virtue of Mary's Immaculate heart is precipitately cutting short, through her having merited that the hour of the Incarnation should have been anticipated. Perhaps the secret few, those whom Simeon and Anna represent, have sweet unwonted perturbations in their prayers, those Divine perturbations which so strangely deepen inward peace. It is thus that His servants often know when God is drawing nigh, and from what quarter He will come. Moreover, the prayers of the Saints are the nearest approach to a disclosure of the secret operations of God. He inspires them to pray for the coming of those things which He Himself is on the point of revealing. Perhaps all men in earnest prayer are more inspired than they suppose. If we could at any time see the hearts of the Saints, we should come nearest to a sight of the Invisible God, the Beatific Vision excepted. So doubtless on that night images of the mysteries of Bethlehem were mirrored on the souls of some, who knew not the significance of the heavenly beauty which was alluring and fortifying their inward lives. Meanwhile birth and death were going on as usual, and the passing souls were judged, as usual, by the unborn Child.

But there is one feature of the scene which must not be omitted. It is the quiet order of the elements, and their uninterrupted sameness. It is like God that it should be so. The night-wind rose among the low hills as it always rose. The stars leapt into their places, one by one, the brightest first, as the darkness of the night increased. The dusky features of the landscape wore the same physiognomy as usual, in the indistinctness of the quiet night. There was a look of unmovedness, of independence, of want of sympathy, in the face of nature, which was out of harmony with the expectation of the creature or the near approach of the Creator. The scenery was unconcerned. It was as if nature stood on one side, and let God pass, and made no obeisance and altogether had nothing to do with what was going on---as if it was a world by itself, and did not interest itself in the worlds of spirit and of will. Has not this sometimes happened to ourselves in life? When a friend has died in the night, we may have opened the casement and looked out into the clear darkness. Our hearts are full. It seems as if all hearts were in our one heart. We almost dream that at that moment we monopolize in our single selves and in our new sorrow all the interests on earth. We look out upon earth, as if its silence would answer what we are feeling. But the moon is mockingly bright; there is the not unmusical moaning of the night wind; the birds are restless upon their roosts. Who ever knew them not so in moonlight? All is as usual. The lineaments of nature are expressionless. There is plainly no sympathy there with our sorrows, our fears, our hopes, or our regrets. We look to nature; but her blank, unresponsive face, happily, yet not without some unexpected rudeness, flings us back on God. There was an earthquake upon Calvary; but all is still, careless, uniform, regardless, in the winter night of Bethlehem. Earth shows herself expressively inanimate, painfully so. It is not the look of death, for that is full of mute disclosures. It is like a fair face with the mind gone from within. It is below the eyeless beauty of the sculptured marble, a kind of stolid beauty, making the heart heavy that looks upon it. To me there is something quite awful in the silent drifting of the stars over Bethlehem that night.

But let us turn from earth's fair material landscapes, and from its dismal spiritual scenery, to the sights and occupations of Heaven in that momentous night. At the moment of the Incarnation had the Angels seen any thing in the Vision, any thing which was almost like a change? Had they seen the Sacred Humanity lying in the lap of the Holy Trinity? Now, on the night of this twenty-fourth of December, was there any visible movement in God? Was there any stir upon the broad ocean of His adorable tranquillity? Did the shadow of the Babe rest on His sea of silent fire? How deeply must they have seen into God to behold that the Incarnation was in truth no change, but that, like all God's external works, it flowed naturally, so to speak, from His perfections, and was in fact the original, exemplary model-work of all God's outward works! How intensely beautifying must the science be which accompanies such a Vision as this! All eternity is one present point to God. But, in our way of thinking, if He could have had memory, how would He have pondered then the old silence before creation, and this night's fulfillment of visible creation eternally predestined! If there could be successive thoughts in the great God, how adorably wonderful would have been the thoughts of the Divine mind at that midnight hour! Such must have been the sight which the Angels, the eldest-born of time, must have seen that night. It would appear to them as a beautiful procession, a procession of the Divine Decrees, seeming to climb their successive heights and shine, like risen suns, upon the angelic spirits. It is these Decrees, which men make the subject of so much controversy, but which seem fitter matter for devotion, to whose sweet fires they minister abundantly. Controversy does but desecrate their silent sovereignty. How the intelligence of the heavenly hosts must have thrilled with magnificent worship and ecstatic delight, as they watched these eternal Decrees, slow, gigantic, venerable, yet sweet-faced exceedingly. as though they had the countenances of children, come up one after another out of the abysses of God and shine forth into their victorious accomplishment! Each sun, as it rose over some immaterial mountain-height discernible by the Angels in the Divine ocean of essence, poured its golden effulgence into their vast spirits, and filled them with throbbing tides of joy. Each sun flung its grand dawn over them like a new world of light, each seeming more beautiful than its predecessor, each indeed appearing to exhaust all that was beautiful in God, until it was presently outshone by another yet more incredible grandeur, quietly and noiselessly streaming out of the plenitude of God, as the speechless sun rises from the ocean. Next to the Uncreated Procession of the Holy Ghost, the procession of those Divine Decrees which represent creation and its consequences is the glorious pageant which makes eternal festival for the blissful understandings of Angels and of men. One of the most dazzling of its sinuous bends was passing before the raptured gaze of the angelic hierarchies on that night of the twenty-fourth of December.

In all that assembly, in all the courts of highest Heaven that night, there was, except the shadow of the Babe, no figure or form of man, no shape of human soul. The thousands and tens of thousands of the redeemed Saints were waiting elsewhere, to be delivered only when the Babe had died, and risen again, and to enter Heaven only when He first of all had triumphantly ascended thither. Surely we may say, with all reverence, that, if God had been less than God that night, His providence could not then have been mindful of the countless details of His vast creation. His Own personal concurrence to every action, inward and outward, rational and irrational, throughout the wide world, would have been unequal and irregular. Nature would have fallen into the hands of its blind laws, like a child deserted by its mother, and confusion and ruin would have ensued. The equability of God's power and presence is most adorable; and when we see it acting in its even, calm, unwithdrawn extent even at the moment of such great mysteries as those of Nazareth and Bethlehem, we get some faint idea of the grandeur of His majesty, because, unworthy as even that comparison may be, mysteries of such surpassing wonder seem to be no more to Him than the common actions, which we are eliciting hourly with only a half-consciousness of them, are to us. As we read, and know not that we are actually spelling while we read, so, from one point of view, Creation, Incarnation, and Grace seem to flow out of God without His moving; while, from another point of view, we see Him bending over a mystery like an intensely studious artist, or over an individual soul, with all the anxious minute fondness of a mother or a nurse. There was not a rude Briton in the weald of Kent, nor a Gaulish Druid at His vigil on the seaward looking promentories, but God was assiduously attending to Him that night, without an appearance of His attention being distracted by other things. There were thousands of villages, in hollows or on hills, upon which the quiet moonlight was as softly falling and calm Providence as noiselessly busying itself as at Bethlehem. The sleep, the food, the health, the pulses, of all the multitudinous beasts and birds, were being looked to in all places and at each moment by our heavenly Father. He was dexterously saving animal life among the grinding floes of the polar seas. He was measuring the progress and weighing the falling out-most masses of the glaciers amidst the reverberating mountains. He was guiding with rudders of intervening love the lava-streams of Southern volcanoes. He was intimately occupied with each voiceless coral-insect that was laying the foundations of new worlds, or crowning with rough diadem the craters of a sunken world, in many an ocean far and wide. He was concurring in His omnipresence to a whole world of fantastic dreams, that hovered on the wings of night over countless sleepers, civilized or savage. Yet so tremendous was the mystery of Bethlehem, that had He been less than God he must have been caught and stayed by its excessive beauty, and His complacency abstracted and absorbed in its ministrations to His glory.
Let us descend beneath the earth, and see how that night passed there, in the world of spirit which fills the planet, as well as in that world which peoples its crust and that which encompasses its atmosphere. If we look into the limbus of the fathers, there are surely silver flakes of light falling even there. As there are degrees in sleep, and one sleep is sweeter than another, so doubtless there were degrees in that repose within Abraham's bosom. There might be more contentment in their expectation, more sweetness in their conformity to the will of God, more jubilee in their tranquil, patient love. Their life was as the lives of Saints in ecstasy, and so they waited. Their faith had become attainment, although they had not yet attained; for it was turned into joy, although it had not yet come to sight. There were pulses doubtless in that realm of peaceful caves; there was a heart, and but one heart, in Abraham's bosom. There were times when expectation trembled, and its tremulousness was an increase of its joy. Adam and Eve were there, Abel and Noe too, Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob, Joseph also and Daniel, Moses and Aaron and Josue and Samuel, the Christ-like David, the good kings, the grand prophets, the brave Machabees, Job and the multitude of the sanctified heathen, and the penitents who had swum for life in the great deluge and had found a better life through penance even while they lay in the lap of God's judgment. Perhaps there were angelic visitations there that night to tell them the glad tidings of Bethlehem, the village of the favorite Benjamin, who thus had his peculiar joy that hour.
There was also the painless limbus of the children, souls who had gone through no probation, and so had never stained themselves with actual sin, and yet whom no sacrament had brought into supernatural covenant with God. Perhaps in their dimness there might be additional light that night, something more like a shining in the pearly softness of their perpetual dawn. There might be thrills in their unintelligible beatitude, a quickening in the low-lying contentment of their undeveloped lives.

Why do the fires of Purgatory all at once sink so low, and why does the bitterness of their taste seem so diluted? In that realm it is a night of universal relief, perhaps also of abundant release. Souls look at each other in astonishment. The release of the others is a joy even to those who remain; for it is an abode of consummate charity, although in exquisite suffering. But now the Precious Blood is about to appear upon the earth, where it can be shed, and in eight days will be shed in fact. That Blood is the cooling dew of Purgatory. It fulfills an office there which nothing but itself can fill. For nine months a stream of divinest satisfactions has flown out from the unborn Babe, and worked wonders among those holy souls. The breath of those satisfactions has passed over that sea of fire like a refreshing air, wafting balm and coolness to the prisoners and exiles there. But now these satisfactions are to find a wider outlet, and to flow in a vaster channel, pouring their magnificent infinities over all creation; and Purgatory is thronged with releasing Angels, waiting the midnight hour. In that subterranean realm of spiritual suffering and refining fire St. Michael will display his exulting devotion to the Babe of Bethlehem. O king Solomon! art thou so happy as to be there? The true Solomon, the wise Prince of peace, is coming: will He bring rest to thee, who wert the chosen type both of his wisdom and his peace? It is a night in Purgatory the very opposite of the night of the slaying of Egypt's first-born upon earth, a night truly to be "much remembered before the Lord," but remembered for that Grand Pardon, which has only been equalled and surpassed by that other Pardon three-and-thirty years later, when the Soul of the Babe left the body upon Calvary.
Even in Hell we must believe there was some stir. The whole spiritual creation of God, even where it goes down under the darkness in the inextricable eternal swamps, must have felt such a mystery as the temporal Nativity of the Incarnate Word. The mystery of Hell is in close connection with the mystery of Bethlehem. The latter recounts the history, explains the significance, and justifies the difficulties of the former. Doubtless there was an increased oppression there, a nameless fear among the proud terrified spirits, obstinate but horror-stricken, remorseful yet not repentant, coveting God as the miser covets gold, and yet turning away from Him with a scared loathing and only worshipping Him with the wicked worship of their curses. It is a world of ruined grandeurs, a realm of blighted intelligences and tortured lives, a multitudinous chaos which the vindictive justice of the All. seeing and All-holy alone can disentangle or understand, and yet which that justice has marvellously sorted, named, and numbered. When the midnight struck on earth. and was told by watchmen in its streets, there must have run from the Cave of Bethlehem, swifter than the vivid lightning, into the depths of Hell a panic which stunned the rebel hosts and made them cower. It would increase perchance the hatred of the devils to the souls of men, which now became exasperating monuments to them of what they vainly try to think is a Divine injustice. The grand conspiracy of Hell, the very malice of which had something gorgeous about it, something which perhaps horridly fascinated the guilty, is now baffled, baffled by the quiet, gentle might of the Incarnation, disclosed, frustrated, put to scorn, by the speechless look of an Infant's eye in the deep midnight at Bethlehem. He has come, Whom His Mother now addresses by that musical yet potent Name which had clashed all the bars and bolts of Hell, a while ago, when Gabriel first pronounced it.


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