Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The First Worshippers, Part 3

Our fourth type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy is to be found in the Angels. How beautiful to our eyes is that vast angelic world, with its various kingdoms of holy wonders and of spiritual magnificence! It is well worth while for a theologian to spend his whole life lying on the confines of that bright creation to mark the lights and gleams which come to him from out of those realms of the eldest-born sons of God. It is not only sweet to learn of those whose companions in bliss we hope some day to be, and one of whose royal princes is ever at our side even now, ennobling rather than demeaning himself by ministries of secret love. But it is sweeter still to know so much more of God as even our imperfect theology of the Angels can teach us. No one knows the loveliness of moonlight till he has beheld it on the sea. So does the ocean of angelic life on its clear field of boundless waters reflect, and as it were magnify by its reflection, the shining of God's glory. Devotion to the Angels is a devotion which emancipates the soul from littleness and gives it blissful habits of unearthly thought. Purer than the driven snow are all those countless spirits, pure in the exuberance of their own beautiful natures, not by the toilsome chastening of austerity, nor by the quick or gradual death of nature at the hands of grace. Mary, their queen, looks down into them for ever more, and the white light of her exceeding purity is reflected in them, as in deep, still waters. They come nearest to God, and it is one of the rubrics of Heaven's service that the incense of men's prayers should be burned before God by Angels. Yet they are our kin. We look up to them more as elder brothers than as creatures set far apart from us by the pre-eminence of their natures. We love them with a yearning love; we make sure of being the comrades of their eternal joys; we even imitate their impossible heights without despair, for their beauty invigorates rather than disheartens us. It is an endless delight to us that they serve God so well while we are serving Him so poorly, and that they themselves so abound in love that they joy in the love of men. Yet, truly, why should they not prize what even God so ineffably desires? Beautiful land! beautiful bright people! how wonderfully the splendor of creation shines in them, while from off their ceaseless wings they are ever scattering lights and odors which are all of God and from God's home, and make us homesick, as exiles are who smell some native almost-forgotten flower or hear the strains of some long-silent patriotic melody! No cold gulf is between us and those angelic spirits. Like a ship that hangs upon a summer sea with its fair white sails, and one while seems to belong to the blue deep and another while to be rather a creature of the sunny air, so do the dear Angels hang, and brood, and float over this sea of human joys and sorrows, never too high above us to be beyond our reach, and more often mingling, like Raphael, their unsullied light with our darkness, as if they were but the best, the kindest, and the noblest of ourselves.

Immense was their devotion to the Babe of Bethlehem. He was the cause of their perseverance, and its means. There is not a grace in the deep treasuries of their rapturous being which is not from the Babe of Bethlehem, and from Him not simply as the Word, but as the Incarnate Word. It was the vision of His Sacred Humanity which was at once their trial, their sanctification, and their perseverance. The Babe of Bethlehem was shown to them amid the central fires of the Godhead, and they adored, and loved, and humbled themselves before that lower nature which it was His good pleasure to assume. They greeted with acclamations of exulting loyalty the announcement that His mortal Mother was to be their queen. They longed for the day when Anna's child should gladden the distant earth; and Heaven has scarce heard sweeter music than they made on the day she was assumed and crowned. Thus, devotion to the Holy Child was more than a devotion to them: it was their salvation; it was their religion. They almost longed it was their redemption also. If the weakness and infirmity of His Incarnation was a glorious probation to them, and to their fallen brethren a fatal stumbling-block, the littleness and seeming dishonor of his Childhood formed as it were the extreme case of the Incarnation; for they had not even the dignity of victim and of sacrifice which clad as with a mantle the shame and violence of Calvary. We cannot doubt, therefore, of their special attraction to the Sacred Infancy. Christmas has always seemed to all men as one of the Angels' feasts. With what holy envy then must they not have regarded the fortunate Gabriel, waiting on a Daniel, the man of desires, and inspiring him with sweet precipitate prophecies, and still more when he went forth on his embassies that were preparatory to the great mystery, bearing messages to Joachim and Anne, to Zacharias and Elizabeth, but most of all they envied him when he went to Nazareth at midnight, and saluted Mary with a salutation which was not his alone, but the salutation of the whole angelic world, and then stood back a little, in blissful trembling reverence, while the Eternal Spirit overshadowed their young queen, and the sweet mystery was accomplished. They envied Michael, the official guardian of the Sacred Humanity, whose zeal devoured his unconsuming spirit even as the zeal of Jesus devoured the Sacred Heart. They envied Raphael, the man-like Angel, the healer and the redeemer, because he was so like to Jesus in his character, and made such beautiful revelations of the pathos there was in God.

But they did not envy Michael or Raphael as they envied the fortunate Gabriel. Oh, how for nine months they hung about the happy Mother, the living tabernacle of the Incomprehensible Creator! Yet none but Gabriel might speak, none but Gabriel float over Joseph in his sleep and whisper to him heavenly words in the thick of his anxious dreams. But when the Little Flower came up from under ground, and bloomed visibly in Bethlehem at midnight, and filled the world with sudden fragrance, winter though it was, and dark, and in a sunless Cave, then Heaven was allowed to open, and their voices and their instruments were given to the Angels, and the flood-gates of their impatient jubilee were drawn up, and they were bidden to sing such strains of divinest triumph as the listening earth had never heard before, not even when those same morning stars had sung at its creation,---such strains as were meet only for a triumph where the Everlasting God was celebrating the victories of His boundless love. Down into the deep seas flowed the celestial harmony. Over the mountain-tops the billows of the glorious music rolled. The vast vaults of the purple night rung with it in clear, liquid resonance. The clouds trembled in its undulations. Sleep waved its wings, and dreams of hope fell upon the sons of men. The inferior creatures were hushed and soothed. The very woods stood still in the night breeze, and the star-lit rivers flowed more silently to hear. The flowers distilled double perfumes, as if they were bleeding to death with their unstanched sweetness. Earth herself felt lightened of her load of guilt; and distant worlds, wheeling far off in space, were inundated with the angelic melody. Silent, in impatient adoration, they had leaned over toward earth at the moment of the Incarnation. Silent, and scarce held in by the omnipotent hand of God, they pressed like walls of burning fire around the Cross on Calvary. But at Bethlehem the waters of their inward jubilee burst forth unreproved, and overran all God's creation with the wondrous spells of that Gloria in excelsis which is itself not only a beautiful revelation of angelic nature, but also the worship round the Throne made for one moment audible on this low-lying earth. Who does not see that Bethlehem was the predilection of the Angels?

It is not possible for us to apprehend all the spiritual beauty which lay deep down, glorifying God, in this devotion of the Angels. It was plainly a devotion of joy, of such joy as Angels can feel. It was joy in a mystery long pondered, long expected, yet whose glory took them by surprise when at length it came. It was at once a joy that so much was now fulfilled, and also that God had, as usual, so outstripped all hopes in the fulfillment. It was a joy full of unselfishness toward men, whose nature was at that moment so gently, yet so irresistibly, triumphing over theirs. In their song they made no mention of themselves,---only of God in the highest, and then of men on earth. How beautiful, how holy, is this silence about themselves! They gave way to their younger brothers with the infinite gracefulness which nothing but genuine superiority can show. It was a joy full of intelligent adoration of the Word, an intelligence which none on earth could equal but the Mother of the Word. It was thus a reparation for the ignorance of man, for the rudeness of Bethlehem, and for all that was yet to come of the inhospitality of earth to its Incarnate Maker. It was more like Mary's worship than like Joseph's, because it was so full of self-oblivion. If an Angel could ever be otherwise than self-possessed, we might have called it too spontaneous to be recollected, too jubilant to be self-abased. It was more like an outburst of grandeur which they could not help, than an offering of deliberate and meditative worship. It was the overflow of Heaven seeking fresh room for itself on earth. It was also a devotion like the Baptist's; for it was freighted with long ages of angelic gratitude, teeming with mysterious memories of their ancient probation, the welcome beatitude of the reality of that primal worship in whose visionary beauty their predestination had been accomplished.