Frederick William Faber, D. D.



Bethlehem: The First Worshippers Part 1

LONG centuries have come and gone. The world has plunged forward through many revolutions. Almost all things are changed. There has been more change than men could have dreamed of. It seems incredible, even as a matter of history. The actual past has been more wonderful than any sibylline oracle would have dared to depict the future. History is more fantastic than prophecy. Time moves, but eternity stands still; and thus amidst perpetual change the faith, which is the representative of eternity on earth, remains, and is at rest; and its unchangeableness is our repose. The Bethlehem of that night, of those forty days, has never passed away. It lives a real life,----not the straggling Christian village on which the Mussulman yoke seems to sit so lightly, on its stony ridge, but the old Bethlehem of that momentous hour when the Incarnate God lay on the ground amid the cattle in the Cave. It lives not only in the memory of faith, but in faith's actual realities as well. It lives a real, unbroken, unsuspended life, not in history only, or in art, or in poetry, or even in the energetic fertile worship and fleshly hearts of the faithful, but in the worshipful reality of the Blessed Sacrament. Round the tabernacle, which is our abiding Bethlehem, goes on the same world of beautiful devotion which surrounded the newborn Babe, real, out of real hearts, and realized by God's acceptance.

But, independently of this august reality, Bethlehem exists as a living power in its continual production of supernatural things in the souls of men. It is forever alluring them from sin. It is forever guiding them to perfection. It is forever impressing peculiar characteristics on the holiness of different persons. It is a Divine type, and is molding souls upon itself all day long, and its works remain, and adorn the eternal home of God. A supernatural act of love from a soul in the feeblest state of grace is a grander thing than the discovery of a continent or the influence of a glorious literature. Yet Bethlehem is eliciting tens of thousands of such acts of love each day from the souls of men. It is a perpetual fountain of invisible miracles. It is better than a legion of Angels in itself, always hard at work for God, and magnificently successful. Its sphere of influence is the whole wide world, the regions where Christmas falls in the heart of summer, as well as in these lands of ours. It whispers over the sea, and hearts on shipboard are responding to it. It is everywhere in dense cities, where loathsome wickedness is festering in the haunts of hopeless poverty, keeping itself clean there as the sunbeams of Heaven. It vibrates up deep mountain-glens, which the foot of priest rarely treads, and down in damp mines, where death is always proximate and Sacraments remote. It soothes the aching heart of the poor pontiff on his throne of heroic suffering and generous self-sacrifice; and it cradles to rest the sick child, who, though it cannot read as yet, has a picture of starry Bethlehem in its heart, which its mother's words have painted there. Bethlehem is daily a light in a thousand dark places, beautifying what is harsh, sanctifying what is lowly, making heavenly the affections which are most of earth. It is all this, because it is an inexhaustible depth of devotion supplying countless souls of men with stores of Divine love, of endless variety, and yet all of them of most exquisite loveliness. This then is what we are to consider in the present chapter,----Bethlehem as a sea of devotion, an expanse of supernatural holiness, a wide field of sanctities, which are a great part of the daily life of the Church of God.

The mysteries of the Incarnation are a sort of disclosure to us of the infinity of God. They reveal Him by the very manner in which they compress His immensity. When we come to consider anyone of these mysteries by itself, we are continually being astonished by the number of phases under which it presents itself to us. It seems to diversify itself endlessly, to pass from one light to another, like the hues of the prism, or to enter into an inexhaustible series of combinations, momentarily changing, like the play of gold and color in the sunset. The different circumstances of life, bright or dark, overshadow or illumine the mystery, and reveal to us depths in it which we had never suspected, and beauties which we had hitherto omitted to observe. Sorrow and joy are both of them instruments of the soul; and both of them are at once telescopes and microscopes. With our growth in grace the changes of the mystery are yet more remarkable. It puts on something more than fresh significance; it is like a new revelation. Who has not felt how every Holy Week brings the Passion to him new, astonishing, and untasted? The odor and the savor of the mystery change, as it combines with our changed and augmented grace. No Christmas is like its predecessor. Bethlehem grows more enchanting. The strain of the Angels is sweeter. We know more of Mary and of Joseph. The Child surpasses himself year after year. Moreover, the significance of our Lord's mysteries are not mere theological allegories; much less are they poetical interpretations. They mean all that they can mean. They mean the same to all men, and yet different things to each man. They unfold fresh meanings to fresh generations. The ages of the world comment differently upon them, and there is always new matter for each new commentary. This comes from the unutterable prolific truth. fulness of God. No one has ever fathomed yet the least mystery of the Three-and-Thirty Years. Angelic spirits are hanging over the abyss deep down, like sea-birds over the dizzy cliff, and far below them, because of such sublimer wing, the soul of Mary floats softly, and wafts herself over depths to which they dare not descend; and yet even she has not fathomed yet the fair mysteries to which she ministered.

If we think of the different ways in which our loving fear could approach the Cave of Bethlehem, we shall find on reflection perhaps that there are nine spirits of devotion which take possession of our souls. There are nine attitudes in which our hearts will naturally put themselves before the Babe. The genius of the sanctuary seems ninefold. It is not easy to express these nine loves, these nine worships, in words; for not only does one follow hard upon another, but they borrow from each other, pass off into each other, return upon each other, reflect or anticipate each other, blend, intermingle, and melt into one, after such a marvellous and characteristically Divine fashion, that it is impossible to define them. To portray them is as much as we can do. Now, when we come to this historical Bethlehem, we find as a matter of fact that the first worshippers there may be said to be nine in number, a coincidence which seems to raise our ninefold division of the devotion to the Sacred Infancy to something more than a devotional conjecture. As there were nine choirs of Angels round the throne of the Eternal Word in Heaven, so were there, in type and semblance at least, nine choirs of worshippers round the Incarnate Word in Bethlehem. Nine choirs of Angels sang in Heaven, nine kinds of worshippers silently adored on earth.

Yet we must not forget that amidst all this variety there is at the same time a complete and higher unity. All devotions to the Sacred Infancy have one spirit in them, however diversified they may be. It is a spirit by which they are distinguished from devotions to the Passion, or to the Hidden Life, or to the Public Life, or to the Risen Life. Spiritual writers may differ as to the definition or description of this spirit. They may not agree in what it consists. They may hold conflicting opinions as to the peculiar graces which this spirit forms. [1] But there is no simple lover of Jesus, who does not as it were with an undelaying and unerring instinct discern the spirit of these devotions to the Sacred Infancy, and see how one is like to another in some essential property, while they are all different among themselves in other respects, and different also in that particular spirit from other devotions to the Incarnation. Then again in another way they all belong to a still higher unity. There are points in which devotions to the Sacred Infancy touch upon devotions to the Passion, and indeed identify themselves with them. The same may be said of devotions connected with the other divisions of our Lord's life. These junctions, or points of union, indicate the unity of all devotions to the Sacred Humanity, and the oneness of spirit which pervades them all. It is sometimes wonderful to see the results which grace produces in the soul by means of the congenialities of seemingly opposite devotions, and how an old grace lives on in a new vocation, feeding on something in a fresh devotion which has an affinity to devotions that have now been changed for others, and superseded by them. Thus, while we speak of the diversity of devotions to the Sacred Infancy, we must keep steadily before us that they are a family of kindred devotions with the same spiritual blood in them, and that they have this separate unity of their own distinct from that higher unity to which they all belong as devotions to the Sacred Humanity.  The special devotion to the Childhood of Jesus, which has distinguished the later Church, was a growth of the Carmelite Order, in whose blooming wilderness it was planted by the Holy Ghost at Beaune in France. The Venerable Margaret of Beaune was the instrument whom He raised up to propagate this devotion, not only by her teaching but by her mystical life and states of prayer, which were a sort of dramatic representation of the mysteries of the Sacred Infancy. Many older Saints, such as St. Antony of Padua and St. Cajetan, had been distinguished by a like special devotion. But it was systematized in the hands of the French Carmelites, and took a more tangible and exclusive shape than it had ever done before. We have thus received it from one of the grandest congregations of the grandest order in the Church, and the order which belongs to our Blessed Lady by a more ancient and especial right than any other. The present devotion to the Sacred Infancy is as much the gift of the Carmelites, as the present devotion to the Sacred Heart is the gift of the lowly sweet-spirited daughters of the Visitation. But it is remarkable how seldom, if ever, the works of God spring from one fountain. There were many persons in France, contemporaries of Margaret of Beaune, who had at the same time been led by the impulses of the Holy Ghost to a special devotion to the Sacred Infancy. Among these the well-known De Renty should have the highest place, although he was not singular in his devotion, It is said of him by his biographer that "he existed in the grace of the Infancy of Jesus as a sponge exists in the sea, only that he was incomparably more lost and confounded in the exhaustless ocean of the infinite riches of that divine Infancy than a sponge is in the waters of the sea," While some have made purity, and others innocence, and others simplicity, the distinguishing spirit of all these devotions, it seems as if De Renty, and others of his time, considered the acting in all things according to a pure movement of grace, as the special spirit of the Sacred Infancy. An attentive study of the lives of those saintly persons, whom the Holy Ghost has formed on these devotions, seems to bear out this conclusion. But, at any rate, the unity of these devotions is undeniable, as is also their power to form a character of very peculiar and cognizable sanctity proper to themselves. At the same time, their attraction is less universal than that of the Passion, and is seldom disjoined from it.

Before we proceed to examine the nine types of devotion with which the Cave of Bethlehem will furnish us, we must remind ourselves of the difference between devotions to the Sacred Humanity, and those to Angels and Saints, or even to the mysteries of our Blessed Lady, which are so inextricably blended with the mysteries of our Lord that they may almost be said to be one phase, and that a universal one, of all His mysteries. Mary is present almost everywhere, and her shadow falls on pictures where she is not represented on the canvas. Well as we know this difference between devotions to the Sacred Humanity and those to Angels, Saints, or even our Blessed Lady, we should never spare ourselves the admonition of it, because of its surpassing importance, especially as securing that doctrinal accuracy which should distinguish all devotions to the Sacred Humanity, and which, by keeping our Lord's Divinity before us every instant, deepens our devotion and encompasses it with that breathless reverence which is the very life of heavenly love.

We must bear in mind, then, throughout, that devotions to the Sacred Humanity involve nothing less than Divine worship. We pay to the Sacred Heart or the Precious Blood of our Blessed Lord precisely the same adoration as to the Most Holy Trinity, because His Divinity communicates to Them its Own worth by virtue of the Hypostatic Union. Although Hs Two Natures are uncommingled and unconfused, so that His Divine Nature receives no admixture and His Human Nature loses none of its genuineness, and although His Two Wills, human and Divine, are quite distinct, nevertheless His Two Natures are united in One Person, and that Person is Divine. The union of the Two Natures takes place, not by the blending of the Two, but in the unity of the Person; and this is what is meant by the term Hypostatic Union. This confers an infinite value and dignity on the operations of His Human Nature, and entitles each drop of Blood, and indeed whatsoever belongs to the integrity of His Human Nature, so long as it remains in the Hypostatic Union, to the honors of Divine worship. Almost all the objections which unthinking persons sometimes urge against particular devotions to the Sacred Humanity, or against the forms which those devotions take, arise from a forgetfulness of this fundamental doctrine of the faith. All such devotions imply habits of mental prayer, and mental prayer in a school in which even the simplest learn much theology. Perhaps no one who had a real habit of mental prayer was ever found among the objectors to the devotion to the Sacred Heart; but without this habit such objections are most intelligible, because of the way in which the dogmas of the faith can remain undeveloped, and their inferences unsuspected, in those who, not being theologians by education, have not become such by prayer.
Yet, while adoration in the strictest sense of the word enters into, and gives an august solemnity to, all our devotions to the Sacred Humanity, they are nevertheless tempered with a familiarity unlike the worship of the Divine perfections. It is not that they are more tender; for the tenderest and most tearful of all worships is that of the inscrutable grandeurs of the Most Holy Trinity. No devotion can equal that for melting the heart, and filling it full of the most childlike happiness and softness. But there is a certain boldness of approach, a certain freedom of human language, a certain deeply reverential familiarity, yet still a familiarity, which distinguishes devotions to the Sacred Humanity. We have a distinct picture of the object of our worship in our minds, which affects both our language and our feeling. Our Lord's assumption of our nature is a peculiar approach to us, to which we on our side have to correspond, and we correspond by this familiarity. Thus the familiarity becomes itself part of our reverence for the Incarnation, an element in our worship of it. A devotion which rests upon created images and historical facts must have a character of its own. Even the worship of the Unseen God, when it is pleading past mercies and reposing on the remembrance of old compassions, imbibes a kind of familiarity without any detriment to its reverence, as we may see by comparing the worship of Job with that of the patriarch Jacob. The latter speaks and entreats almost as man with man, whereas the former cowers before the whirlwind of the Divine majesty, while the boldness of his expostulations is wrung from him by the very agony of his fear. Devotions to the Sacred Humanity are a kind of Divine worship, of which neither Angels nor men could ever have dreamed without revelation, but which have been invented by God Himself, and contain in themselves the spirit and significance of that mystery of the Incarnation which was the cause, and type, and rule of all creation. They form a liturgy of Divine composition, a missal and a breviary of the Divine ideas, such as would be unimaginable by any mere created intelligence. What the Lord's Prayer is as a form of words, these devotions are as the attitude of adoring minds; and from their Divine authorship they have a sacramental power and a privileged acceptance.

They are therefore of an entirely different nature from devotions to the Angels or the Saints. In common with those devotions they have an intercessory character, only of a far more efficacious and irresistible kind; while at the same time they approach God directly by Divine worship. They unite all the excellences of other devotions, only in an unspeakably supereminent degree, with the awfulness of perfect adoration, and have also a peculiarity of their own derived from the grand mystery of the Incarnation, out of which they flow. They are necessary also to a worship which is mystically higher and more perfect than themselves. As our Lord's Sacred Humanity is our way to God, so in ordinary cases these devotions are the way of the soul to the contemplation of the Divine Attributes and of the secrets of the Undivided Trinity. Devotions to the Sacred Humanity can never be dispensed with. They will not allow themselves even to be depreciated in comparison with what are technically higher contemplations. They do not form a stage in the spiritual life, which we ultimately transcend. They are not merely an ascent to a table-land on a higher level, from which we may look back upon them. They are indispensable from the first. They are indispensable to the last. A disesteem of them, if it is intellectual, is heresy; if it is practical, is delusion. These devotions also have a peculiarly substantial effect upon our spiritual character, and mould our spiritual life with an irresistible pacific force, which belongs only to themselves, and which distinguishes their action in the work of our sanctification. There are many reasons for this, many which we cannot explain, although we Divine them and are sensible of their presence. But the chief reason is the amount of the living spirit of Jesus which they both contain and communicate, contain in an inexhaustible measure, and communicate according to the degree of our purity and fervor; and all holiness is but a transformation of us into the substantial likeness of our Lord.

1. When this was written I did not possess, as I do now, the bulky quarto on the Infancy of Jesus by Father Joseph Parisot, of the French Oratory (1665). It is extremely prolix, as all the books of the disciples of the Venerable Berulle seem to have been,  . . . a complete repertory of the history, spirit, and hagiology of the Devotion to the Sacred Infancy. Ordinary readers will find enough in Patrignani's abridgment of the long and also long-winded French life of Margaret of Beaune. M. Bray of Paris has published a remarkably pleasing life of her by M. de Cissey, which is of course to be procured without any difficulty. M. Bray is also the publisher of the Manuel de l'Archiconfrérie de la Sainte Enfance, and likewise of the Ame à l'Ecole de Jésus Enfant. One of the volumes of Patrignani has also been translated into French under the title of Le Livre de la Sainte Enfance (Avignon: Seguin Aine, 1857). It contains the examples from the lives of the Saints. The Life of Mother Mary of the Holy Trinity, novice-mistress to Margaret of Beaune, and, even more, the Life of Elizabeth of the Holy Trinity. in the third volume of the Chroniques des Carmelites Françaises, are full of wonderful things both about Sister Margaret and the devotion which she propagated in the Church.