Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The Midnight Cave, Part 3

But let us return to the Cave. If places are consecrated in the eyes of whole generations by having been the birthplaces of great men, or the spots where they have produced immortal works of genius, what shall we say of the spot where the Incarnate God was born? Surely it must be a place of pilgrimage to the end of time. They who cannot visit it in the body must make their pilgrimage to it in spirit. It is not merely devout curiosity which we shall thus gratify, or even fresh fuel for the fires of meditation which we shall lay up; but, according to our usual way of regarding things, we shall learn much about God, His character and His way, by our study of the Cave of Bethlehem. When we enter it, and attentively consider its furniture, it seems to set before us the whole mystery of the Incarnation. It lights up entire regions of the mind of God, and discloses it to us with a mixed representation of symbols and realities. For what is it which the red wind-shaken lantern-light of St. Joseph reveals to us? The centre of the Cave is as yet hidden from us. It is the Word made flesh, the unborn Babe, around Whom all the other things are grouped. He is the centre of all worlds, and for the most part invisible. His very creatures form a screen around Him, as His Mother did at that moment. Yet from time to time He discloses Himself, as He will not do at midnight, remaining this time obscurely visible for three-and-thirty years. But, even when hidden, He is still the attraction, the unity, the life, the significance, the success, and the sublime repose, of all the worlds of which he is the centre.

Round Him, as if it were the cloister of His sanctuary, are the beauty and the strength of created holiness, guarding His ineffable purity from the contact and the neighborhood of common creatures. In the midst of the cavern Mary is at prayer. There was nothing commanding or persuasive at first sight in her spiritual beauty. Many women in Bethlehem had seen her leave their doors that afternoon, and had discerned nothing in her to rouse admiration or even to waken interest. They had known perhaps by some peculiarity of her dress, or by Joseph's accent, that she was from Nazareth. They might have thought her young for so aged a husband, and might have looked at her for a moment with transient kindness, which the evidence of her being soon about to be a mother would naturally excite. But this was all. They dreamed not of her unspeakable dignity. They perceived not the light of almost-habitual ecstasy lurking in her eye. No odor went from her which environed them with an atmosphere of Heaven. There was nothing in themselves upon which the attractions of her awful holiness could act. So is it always with the things of God. They do not make their claims out loud. Their eloquence is their silence. Their beauty is their mysterious unobtrusiveness. They do not flash upon the eye, and so compel conviction. They touch the heart, melt it, enlarge it, transform it, and, when they have made it in some measure like themselves, they enter into it and possess it. They require study. This is their characteristic. Holiness is the science by whose rules, and in the light of whose discoveries, and by the delicacy of whose processes, the study must be carried on. The nearer a thing is to God, the more blinding is the light in which it lies, and therefore the more assiduous and patient must the study of it be. Hence it is that nothing requires so much study as the Sacred Humanity of Jesus, and, next to Him, the chosen Mother of His Humanity. Very nigh indeed to them come the tranquil magnificence and unruffled depths of Joseph's sanctity.

It is this then which occupies the centre of the Cave. Uncreated Holiness and Created Holiness in One Person and in Two Natures, the Incarnate Word, the Infant Creator, there, but not yet visible----this is the object of our wonder, our love, our thanksgiving, our most absolute adoration. He has around Him, almost blended in His beauty and His light, two worlds of created holiness, vast, and glorious, and both of them without parallel. In one of these worlds He has dwelt Himself for nine months, and out of its material has He vouchsafed to draw the materials of His Own created Body and Blood. The other of these worlds He has placed near Him, just outside, and yet hardly outside, the actual mystery of the Incarnation, as the outpost to defend Him, as the satellite to minister to His Mother and Himself, as the shadow under whose safeguard and concealment the mystery might be operated in the way most suitable to the Divine perfections, as the shadow of the Eternal Father following Him from Heaven. These three worlds form one system, which we name the hierarchy of the Incarnation, in the stricter sense of the words, or the nucleus of that hierarchy, if we speak less strictly, although with perfect propriety; and in this latter case, the Apostles, the Baptist, the Evangelists, and others, come into the system. Theologians have been bold enough to name these three worlds of holiness the Earthly Trinity, and the usage of the Saints and of devotional writers has now consecrated the reverently daring language. Thus is the Cave of Bethlehem an awful image of the Threefold Majesty in Heaven. It is there that the Divine Shadows are deepest and most clearly defined. It is there that all similitudes between the Creator and the creature are drawn together and concentrated. It is thus the very holiest core of creation, the Creator Himself being there in a created nature. It presents us with a kind of earthly beatific vision, in which the unity, the distinctions, the relationships, and the processions of the Most High are marvellously pictured, filling the beholder's soul with rapture, fear, and love. What are the mysteries of music and of poetry, what the wonders of the starry skies, what the stirring science of past creations disinterred from the ciphered chambers of the taciturn rocks, what the exciting pursuit of fugitive protean matter retreating, amid endless unexpected changes, into the fortresses of its last elements, behind which the baffled chemist with prophetic genius ever suspects other last, and last resolutions, and more and more ultimate refuges, to which he can at present come no nigher, what the physiologist's intense and joyous awe as with silent patience and his microscope he tracks the principle of life amidst its labyrinthine cells----what are all these intellectual joys compared with the joy of that mother-science, heaven-born theology, which takes us thus into the central sanctuaries of creation, and shows, and illumines for us, the Earthly Trinity in the Cave of Bethlehem?

Around that centre, what is the characteristic furniture of the Cave? Who can doubt that all was there which was most fitting, most Divine, most in harmony with the incomparable mystery? Yet all is so unlike what we should have imagined! Five material objects stand round about, and, as it were over the shoulder of each of them, we discern an ethereal form looking on, a spiritual presence assisting there, of which these five material things are as it were the representatives and symbols. First of all there are the Beasts, the ox and the ass. There is surely something inexpressibly touching in this presence of the inferior animals at the nativity of the Incarnate Creator. In the Incarnation God has been pleased to go to what look like the uttermost limits of His Divine condescension. He has assumed a material, although a rational, nature; and, according to our understanding, it would not have been seemly that He should have assumed an irrational nature. Nevertheless He is not unmindful of the inferior creatures. Their instincts are in some sort a communion with Him, often apparently of a more direct character than reason itself, and bordering on what would commonly be called the supernatural. At times there is something startling in the seeming proximity of the animal kingdom to God. Moreover, all the inferior animals, with their families, shapes, colors, cries, manners, and peculiarities, represent ideas in the Divine mind, and are partial disclosures of the beauty of God, like the foliage of trees, the gleaming of metals, the play of light in the clouds, the multifarious odors of wood and field, and the manifold sound of waters. It was then, if we may use such an expression, a propriety of Divine art that the inferior creatures should be represented in the picture of their Maker's temporal nativity. While the sheep lay on the star-lit slopes outside, the ox and the ass stood sentinels, full of patient significance and dumb expression, at his manger. The herds of cattle which were collected within the walls of Ninive were one of God's reasons for sparing the repentant city. The wild beasts in the wilderness were His companions during His mysterious Lent; and, as all beasts are symbols of something beautiful and wise in God, so has He many times vouchsafed in His revealed word to make them the symbolical language by which He has conveyed hidden truths to men. They were not without their meaning in the scene of the Nativity. They remind us that the Babe of Bethlehem was the Creator. Their presence is another of His condescensions. He is not only rejected of men, but he trespasses, so to speak, on the hospitality of beasts. He shares their home, and they are well content. They welcome Him with unobtrusive submission, and do what little they can to temper with their warm breath the rigor of the winter night. If they make no show of reception, at least they deny Him not the room He asks on His Own earth. They make way for Him; and there was more worship even in that than Bethlehem would give Him.

We reckon such things as these among the humiliations of our Blessed Lord, and rightly. Every circumstance, every detail, every seeming accident, of the Incarnation is full of humiliation. It follows by a necessary consequence from every mystery. Even the praise of men is a deep humiliation to the Most High in His Incarnate form, when we consider who they were that passed the favorable judgment upon His actions, and with what mind, as if they had a right to judge and patronize, they passed it, and also Who He was Whom they were praising. All praise of God, unless it be worship also, is humiliating to Him. Thus every thing about the Incarnation was humiliating. Our Lord's Divinity as it were holds a strong light over all His human actions and sufferings, and shows each of them to us in its real character as an unfathomable abyss of condescension, no matter whether the mysteries be those of glory or of suffering. There are even some points of view from which the mysteries of Tabor and the Risen Life seem to be more truly, and also more unnecessarily, humiliations than the mysteries of Bethlehem or Calvary. Nevertheless, after long meditation, together with an habitual remembrance of our Blessed Lord's Divinity, there are often times when we lose sight of this character of humiliation altogether. As the Divine Nature can suffer nothing, so its adorable impassibility seems to pass in a certain way to the Human Nature which was joined with it. Our Lord's Divinity appears to hinder any thing from becoming a humiliation. It raises ignominies into worshipful mysteries. It clothes shame with a beauty which beams so brightly that it almost hides from us the horror of the outrage. His lowness becomes a Divine height, a height which none could reach but God. His disgraces are crowned with lustre, and become nobilities. He raises what He touches to His Own height: it does not sink Him to its vileness. There are men who wept over our Lord's Passion, yet who have almost to do a violence to themselves to realize His humiliations, so strongly and so brightly is the grand thought of His Divinity before their minds. Moreover, it is just these men who, because they are so exclusively possessed with the idea of His Godhead, honor with the tenderest minuteness and with the most astonishing unforgetting detail the mysteries of His Humanity.

Our Lord's companionship with the inferior animals was one of these glorious humiliations, which have become honorable mysteries. But He was not only their companion. He was laid in their Manger, as if He was their food, the food of beasts, that so He might become in very truth the food of sinners. This Manger was the second of the material objects which were round about Him. While it was a deep shame, it was also a sweet prophecy. It foretold the wonders of His altar. It was the type of His most intimate and amazing communion with men. It was a symbol of the incredible abundance and commonness of His grace. It was a foreshadowing of His sacramental residence with men from the Ascension to the Doom. It was like the sort of box or crib we sometimes see at foundling-hospitals, into which the deserted child is put, with none to witness the conflict of agony and love in her who leaves it there. It is as if He were placed in the Manger like a fatherless foundling, with the whole of the unkind world for His hospital.

The rough Straw is the quilting of His crib; and the refuse of an Oriental threshing-floor is not like the carefully-husbanded straw of our own land. Men made Him as a worm, and no man, in the onslaughts of His Passion. He Himself in His first infancy makes His bed as though He were a beast of burden, a beast tamed and domesticated for the use of men. The vilest things in creation are good enough for the Creator. He even exhibits a predilection for them. The refuse of men,----that is the portion of God. It is not only that we give it Him; He chooses it: and His choice teaches us strange things and stamps its peculiar character on Christian sanctity. Such is the furniture of the nursery of the King of kings. The light of Joseph's lantern shoots here and there readily and imperfectly through the darkness, and we see the faces of the dumb beasts, with the pathetic meekness in their eyes, and the rough Manger worn smooth and black and glistening, and the Straw scattered here and there, and bruised beneath the feet of the animals, and so perchance rendered less sharp and prickly as a couch for the newborn Babe. We must add to these features that very Darkness which the lantern so indistinctly illumines. The darkness of earth's night is the chosen, the favored time of the Uncreated Splendor of Heaven. It is the curtain of His concealment, the veil of His tabernacle, the screen of His sanctuary. He came first to Nazareth at dead of night. At dead of night He is coming now at Bethlehem. At dead of night also will He come----if we rightly penetrate His words----to judge the world. There is no darkness with Him, and He needs no light to work by, Who called the sun itself from nothing and hung it over with a white mantle of blinding light. He came to darkness. It was His very mission. He came when the darkness was deepest, as His grace comes so often now. The very depth of our darkness is a kind of compulsion to the immensity of His compassion. This Darkness is the fourth material thing which is round about them. Lastly, we must note as another feature of the Cave its excessive Cold. The very elements shall inflict suffering upon their Creator as soon as He is born in His created form. The air, which He must breathe in order to live, shall be as inhospitable to Him as the householders of Bethlehem. The winter's night will almost freeze the Precious Blood within His veins. But what is the whole world but a polar sea, a wilderness of savage ice with the arctic sunshine glinting off from it in unfertile brightness, a restless glacier creeping onward with its huge talons, but whose progress is little better than spiritual desolation? The Sacred Heart of the Babe of Bethlehem has come to be the vast central fire of the frozen world. It is to break the bands of the long frost, to loosen the Bosom of the earth and to cover it with fruits and flowers. As He came to what was dark, so He came to what was cold: and therefore Cold and Darkness were among the first to welcome Him.

The Beasts, the Manger, the Straw, the Darkness, and the Cold! Such were the preparations which God made for Himself. From the first dawn of creation, every step (and there were countless of them), in the worlds both of spirit and of matter, was a preparation for Jesus. It was a step toward the Incarnation, which was at once the cause and the model of it. While each step seemed to take creation further on, it also brought it a step backward, a step homeward, a step nearer to the original idea of it all in the mind of God. The Creation of the Angels was a step toward Jesus. The successive epochs in which our planet was ripening for the abode of man, and the successive forms of vegetation and of life which God caused to defile before Him in the slow order characteristic of all His works, were all steps toward Jesus. The patriarchs and the prophets, the history of the chosen people which was a prophecy of the future at the same moment that it was a free drama of the present, the unconstrained realized allegories of the lives of the typical saints, the rise and fall of each system of Greek or Oriental philosophy, the fortunes and destinies of the empires which thrust each other from the stage of the world's history,----all these were steps to Jesus, all were the remote or proximate preparations for the Incarnation. When the Babe Mary was born of Anne, the world little dreamed how God was quickening His step. Mary and Joseph were the proximate preparations for Nazareth, and for the midnight mystery of the unspeakable Incarnation. Each of these steps, as we study them, tells us something more about God than we knew before. The knowledge of Him grows into us through the contemplation of them. But the grace of the Immaculate Conception was like the opening of Heaven. It seemed as if the next moment men must see God; and so it was, as moments count with God. Now we have come to the proximate preparations of Bethlehem, the Beasts, the Manger, the Straw, the Darkness, and the Cold.

But these things are spiritual types, as well as material realities. Matter has many times masked Angels. There were five spiritual presences in the Cave of Bethlehem, which these five material things most aptly represented. They were Poverty, Abandonment, Rejection, Secrecy, and Mortification. They started with the Infant Jesus from the Cave, and they went with Him to the Tomb. They are stern powers, and their visages unlovely, and their voices harsh, and their company unwelcome to the natural man. But to the eye which grace has cleansed they are beautiful exceedingly, and their solemnity inviting, and their spells, like those of earthly love, making the heart to burn, and full often guiding life into a romance of sanctity. The companionship of the Beasts, and the room they had as it were lent Him to be born in, betokened His exceeding Poverty. The Manger was the type of His Abandonment. Could any figure have been more complete? The refuse Straw on which He lay, and which perhaps Joseph gathered from under the feet of the cattle, well expressed that Rejection wherewith men have visited and will visit Him and His Church through all generations till the end. The darkness round Him was a symbol of those strange and manifold Secrecies in which He loves to shroud Himself, like the eclipse on Calvary, or the impenetrable thinness of the sacramental veils. The wintry Cold, which caused His delicate frame to shudder and to feel its first pain, was the fitting commencement of that incessant penance and continuous Mortification which the All-Holy and the Innocent underwent for the redemption of the guilty. These five things stood like spiritual presences around His crib, waiting for His coming, Poverty, Abandonment, Rejection, Secrecy, and Mortification. Alas! we must be changed indeed before such attendance shall be choice of ours! Yet have they not been ever more the five sisters of all the Saints of God?

There was something, therefore, in these five things, which expressed the character of the Incarnate Word. They portrayed His human sanctity. They were a prophecy of the Three-and-Thirty Years. They foreshowed the spirit and genius of His Church in all ages. They reversed the judgments of the world, and were the new standards according to which the last Universal Judgment was to be measured. They were in themselves a revelation; for the ancient Scriptures had but very dimly intimated them, and the philosophy of the heathen had not so much as dreamed of them. Even now, what are all heresies, which concern holy living, but a dishonoring of them? Asceticism is part of the ignominy of the Cross; and modem heathenism turns from it with the same disdain which the elder heathenism of Greece and Rome showed for it in the days of the persecuting Caesars. Yet these five things not only contain the peculiar spirit of the Incarnation and embody its heavenly characteristics, they also express the character of God Himself, and throw light upon the hidden things of His Divine majesty. Is not created poverty the true dignity of Him whose wealth is uncreated? Shall He, whose life has been eternal independence and self-sufficing beatitude, lean upon creatures? Can the very thought of comfort come nigh to the Omnipotent, and not dishonor Him? Silver and gold, diamonds and pearls, houses and lands, all these things surely would have seemed more truly ignominies to God, than the reproaches of Sion or the cruelties of Calvary. It was enough that he let our nature lean upon his Person. It was enough that he abased Himself to lean upon the sinless beauty of His mortal Mother and owe to her the possession of that which He had Himself created. Even the abandonment of Bethlehem was worthy of His self-sufficing loneliness. Men fell off from Him, as if He were not altogether of themselves,----as truly He was not. He was used to stand alone. It was the habit of an unbeginning eternity. It was the work of His Own grace, the permission of His Own condescension, which allowed anyone, even Mary and Joseph, to remain with Him and be on His side. There was something like worship in His abandonment, though they who abandoned Him meant it not as such. It was an acknowledgment, blind, erring, even malicious, yet still an acknowledgment, of His unapproachable grandeur. When men tacitly permit another's right to be alone and not to mingle with the crowd, it is because their instincts Divine something in Him which is entitled to the homage either of their love or of their fear.

He was passive when men abandoned Him. When He was active and offered Himself to them, they rejected Him. Has not this been God's history with His creatures from the first, independently of the Incarnation, if any passage in the history of creation can be said to be independent of it? Awful as is the guilt of this rejection, it glorifies God unconsciously and beyond its own intention; even like the despair of those who have chosen to hide themselves from Him in everlasting exile. It is a mark by which we may measure how far the finite falls off from the Infinite. It is a token of the magnificent incomprehensibility of God. It is the wickedness of ignorance which simply rejects God: the clear light of immortal despair defies, because it knows that acceptance is now impossible.

The secrecy of Bethlehem is no less becoming to the inscrutable majesty of God. He is invisible because created eye cannot see Him. He shrouds himself when He works, lest creation should be blinded with the very reflection from His laboratories. He needs to wear no other veil than His Own wondrous nature. The brightness of His uncreated sanctity is a more impenetrable concealment than the darkness of the old chaos. Secrecy alone becomes so great a majesty, so resplendent a beauty, so unutterable a sanctity, as His. All revelation is on God's part a condescension. If we may dare so to speak, it is rather love which humbles Him to disclose His goodness, than glory which constrains Him to manifest His greatness.

Last of all, mortification also is becoming to the majesty of God. Even had He come not to suffer, but in a glorious, blissful, impassible Incarnation, He would surely have moved amidst the sensible delights and loveliness of earth as the sunbeam moves through the wood, gilding trunk and leaf, ferny dell and mossy bank, the stony falls of the brook and the tapestry of wild flowers, the pageant of the bright insects and the plumage of the shy birds, yet mingling not itself with any of them, giving beauty, not taking it, coloring all things, yet admitting no color into its own translucent whiteness, a heavenly yet an earthly thing, a loving light upon us and among us, intimate, familiar, independent, universal, and yet unsullied. It is by sensible things that we go deeper down into creation and confuse ourselves with its lower lives. Mortification is the ministry of the senses to the God-seeing soul. Immortification is the captivity of the soul to sing sweet songs to the senses and give an intellectual relish to their enjoyments. Asceticism is simply an angelic life, grace raising nature to a nature higher than itself, yea, nigh, amazingly nigh, to the very nature of God. There is a mortification which is a fight for freedom. Such a mortification could in no way belong to our Blessed Lord. There is also a mortification which is the full liberty of holiness; and such was His. It was not that He did not assume our senses and the sensible fashions of our lives, but that He bore Himself as was becoming God toward those outward things. God reveals Himself to us as wishing, yet not constraining our freedom so as to secure His desires; as claiming rights, yet contenting Himself with what is far below His claim; as giving grace, and letting men make waste of its abundance; as pleading when it would have seemed more natural to command; as coveting the hearts of men, yet being unspeakably less rich in His creatures' love than He craves to be; as aiming at a mark of which He is content to fall short; as compassing  whole creations in His nets of love, and taking but a partial prey. What is all this but something of which mortification is a created shadow? Surely there is no truth we need in these times to lay to heart more strongly, than that the character of Jesus is the character of the invisible God, and the fashions of the Incarnation the fashions also of the Divine Incomprehensibility. What truth holds more teaching than this? What teaching refutes at once a greater number of untruths, and those too the special errors of our day?

But why are we thus lingering so long on the threshold of the great event? Is it that the night draws on so slowly, or that our desires are cold and unimpassioned? Love surely knows full well of that impatience which delays, whose very fire causes it to hesitate, to tremble, to grow calm. We are looking on the sights which Mary's eyes beheld. It is sometimes said that she was so poor that she was unable to make better preparation for the coming of the Babe. By no means let us think this. It could have been otherwise, had Mary so chosen. If the Birth of her Beloved was to be in a stable, and after the rejection of inhospitable Bethlehem, she could have furnished other lining for the manger than the crisp and prickly straw. She, who was prepared with the swaddling-clothes, might have been ready with better protection against the cold of the rigorous night. These accidents were not the necessities of the Mother's poverty; they were the heroisms of her obedience. They were the Son's choice; and the Mother knew well beforehand what He had chosen. For nine months at least, if not before, she had seen only with His eyes and loved only with His heart. She was in His confidence, and His tastes were her tastes, His heavenly standards her weights and measures also. Often in vision had she seen the Cave, and had been ravished with the spiritual beauty of the unworldly preparations. Now the hour was come, and she was looking on the realities. They were a heavenly science to her, a most beautiful theology. She saw them not as we see them, merely on the surface, as mirrors imaging Divine things, but mistily and brokenly. She saw deep into their wonderful significance. Long processions of fair truths rose up and came out of each of them. Their mysteries stood still while she gazed upon them. She beheld the accomplishment of their prophecies, the strangeness of their properties, the gracefulness of their unworldly lineaments. Light from Heaven was round about them, the radiance of the eternal splendors. They raised her soul to God, and she entered into a blissful ecstasy, a state which, if not natural to her, as some suppose, was at all events ever nigh at hand, when she let her thoughts fly freely to the centre of their rest.

Such was the unspeakable magnificence of her soul. that we cannot doubt that the operations of grace within it during that ecstasy were more numerous and manifold, as well as incomparably more elevated, than those which fill a Saint's whole life, and call forth in us intelligent wonder and enthusiastic praise of God. Yet in her these operations were also divinely simple, with an absorbing simplicity which no Saint has ever known. Her mighty soul strives to grow to the height and stature of the mystery, and falls far short of its incomprehensibility. It is a fresh joy, a rapturous redoublement of ecstasy, that it is in truth beyond her comprehension; and more than ever she desires to look upon that little Face, which shall express to her in its silentness those mysteries which words cannot paint. and to the conception of which busy thought can give neither hue nor form. Ever more the Beasts, and the Manger, and the Straw, and the Darkness, and the Cold seem to flit before her in her ecstasy, uncertainly and double-faced, one while showing their definite material features, and another while turning upon her the beautiful countenances of Poverty, Abandonment, Rejection, Secrecy, and Mortification. She looked upward, and beheld those abysses in God which these outward things betokened. She looked inward, with her new nine-months habit: for that was to her what upward was to all other adoring souls of men, and she trembled at the greatness of the mystery; she desired, even while her humility feared lest a desire should be a will: but the desire of her heart, like a shaft that cannot be recalled, had sped its way. It reached the Heart of the Babe, and at once she felt the touch of God, and was unutterably calm, and Jesus lay upon the ground on the skirt of her robe, and she fell down before Him to adore. Twice had her pure desire drawn Him from the home of His predilection, once from the uncreated Bosom of the Father, and once from her own created Bosom which He tenanted. It was as if the sweet will of Mary wert; the time-piece of the Divine decrees.

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