Frederick William Faber, D. D.


Bethlehem: The First Worshippers, Part 4

From the Angels who sang we pass to the Shepherds who heard their heavenly songs,---a simple audience, yet such as does not ill assort with a Divine election. They are our fifth type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy. We know nothing of their antecedents. We know nothing of what followed their privileged worship of the Bible. They come out of the cloud for a moment. We see them in the starlight of the clear winter night. A Divine halo is around them. They are chosen from among men. Angels speak to them. We hear of the Shepherds themselves speaking to others of the wondrous Babe that they had seen, a King, a concealed King, born in a Stable-Cave, yet for all that a heavenly King. Then the clouds close over again. The Shepherds disappear. We know no more of them. Their end is as hidden as their beginning was. Yet, when a light from God falls upon a man, it betokens something in his antecedents which Heaven has given him, or which has attracted Heaven. Those lights do not fall by accident, like the chance sunbeams let through the rents in the pavilion of the clouds, shedding a partial glory with their transient gleams on rock and wood and fern and the many-colored moss-cushioned water-courses, but leaving others in the cold shade that are as beautiful as those which they carelessly illumine. Their early history is as obscure to us as that of Joseph. Nor are they unlike Joseph. They have his hiddenness and his simplicity, without the self-awed majesty of his stupendous office. They were self-possessed, not by the hold which an interior spirit gave them over themselves, but through their extreme simplicity. An Angel spoke to them, and they were neither humbled by it nor elated: they are only afraid of the great light around them. It was as much a matter of course to them, so far as belief in the intelligence, as if some belated peasant neighbor had passed by them on their pastoral watch and told them some strange news. To simple minds, as to deep ones, every thing is its own evidence. They heard the angelic chorus, and were soothed by it, and yet reflected not upon the honor done themselves who were admitted to be its audience. Theirs was the simplicity of a childlike holiness, which does not care to discriminate between the natural and the supernatural. Their restful souls were all life long becalmed in the thought of God.


The faith and promptitude of simplicity are not less heroic than those of wisdom. The Shepherds fell not below the Kings in the exercise of these great virtues. But there was less self-consciousness in the promptitude of the Shepherds than in the marvellous docility and swift sacrifice of the Kings. They represent also the place which simplicity occupies in the kingdom of Christ; for, next to that of Mary and Joseph, theirs was the first external worship earth offered to the newborn Babe of Bethlehem. Simplicity comes very near to God, because boldness is one of its most congenial graces. It comes near, because it is not dreaming how near it comes. It does not think of itself at all, even to realize its own unworthiness; and therefore it hastens when a more self-conscious reverence would be slow, and it is at home where another kind of sanctity would be waiting for permissions. It is startled sometimes, like a timid fawn, and once startled it is not easily reassured. Such souls are not so much humble as they are simple. The same end is attained in them by a different grace, producing a kindred yet almost a more beautiful holiness. In like manner as simplicity is to them in the place of humility, joy often satisfies in them the claims of adoration. They come to God in an artless way, with a sort of unsuspecting effrontery of love, and when they have come to Him they simply rejoice, and nothing more. It is their way of adoring Him. It fits in with the rest of their graces; and their simplicity makes all harmonious. There is something almost rustic, at times, in the way in which such souls take great graces and Divine confidences as matters of course, and the Holy Spirit sports with their simplicity and singleness of soul. They are forever children, and, by an instinct, haunt the Sanctuaries of the Sacred Infancy. Their perfection is in truth a mystical childhood, reflecting---almost perpetuating---the Childhood of our dearest Lord.

How beautifully, too, is our Lord's attraction to the lowly represented in the call of these rough, childlike, pastoral men! Outside the Cave, He calls the Shepherds first of all. They are men who have lived in the habits of the meek creatures they tend, until their inward life has caught habits of a kindred sort. They lie out at night on the cold mountain-side, or in the chill blue mist of the valley. They hear the winds moan over the earth, and the rude rains beat them during the sleepless night. The face of the moon has become familiar to them, and the silent stars mingle more with their thoughts than they themselves suspect. They are poor and hardy, nursed in solitude and on scant living, dwellers out of doors and not in the bright cheer of domestic homes. Such are the men the Babe calls first; and they come as their sheep would come to their own call. They come to worship Him, and the worship of their simplicity is joy, and the voice of joy is praise. God loves the praises of the lowly. There is something grateful to Him in the faith, something confiding in the love, which emboldens the lowly to offer Him the tribute of their praise. He loves also the praises of the gently, meekly happy. Happiness is the temper of holiness; and if the voice of patient anguish is praise to God, much more is the clear voice of happiness, a happiness that fastens not on created things, but is centred in Himself. They have hardly laid hold of God who are not supremely happy even in the midst of an inferior and sensible unhappiness. They whose sunshine is from Him Who is within them worship God brightly, out of a blessedness which the world cannot touch, because it gushes upward from a sanctuary that lies too deep for rifling. Sadness is a sort of spiritual disability. A melancholy man can never be more than a convalescent in the house of God. He may think much of God, but he worships very little. God has rather to wait upon Him as His infirmarian, than he to wait on God as his Father and his King. There is no moral imbecility so great as that of querulousness and sentimentality. Joy is the freshness of our spirits. Joy is the life-long morning of our souls, an habitual sunrise out of which worship and heroice virtue come. Sprightly and grave, swift and self-forgetting, meditative and daring, with its faiths all sights and its hopes all certainties, full of that blessed self-deceit of love that it must give to God more than it receives, and yet forever finding out with delighted surprise that it is in truth always and only receiving,---such is the devotion of the happy man. To the happy man all duties are easy, because all duties are new; and they are always done with the freshness and alacrity of novelty. They are like our old familiar woods, which, as each day they glisten in the dawn, look each day like a new, unvisited, and foreign scene. But he who lies down at full length on life, as if it were a sick-bed,---poor languishing soul! what will he ever do for God? The very simplicity of the Shepherds would not let them keep their praise a secret to themselves. If there are Saints who keep secrets for God's glory, there are Saints also whose way of worshipping His glory is to tell the wonders which He has let them see. But such Saints must have a rare simplicity for their presiding grace, and this simplicity is a better shield than secrecy. Thus secrecy, which is almost a universal need of souls, is no necessity for them. Hence the Shepherds were the first apostles, the apostles of the Sacred Infancy. The first apostles were shepherds, the second fishermen. Sweet allegory! it is thus that God reveals Himself by His choices, and there are volumes of revelation in each choice.

The figures of the Shepherds nave grown to look so natural to us in our thought-pictures of Bethlehem that it almost seems now as if they were inseparable from it, and indispensable to the mystery. What a beautiful congruity there is between the part they play, and their pastoral occupation! The very contrasts are congruities. Heaven opens, and reveals itself to earth, making itself but one side of the choir to sing the office of the Nativity, while earth is to be the other; and earth's answer to the open heavens is the pastoral gentleness of those simple-minded watchmen. She sets her Shepherds to match the heavenly singers, and counts their simplicity her most harmonious response to angelical intelligence. Truly earth was wise in this her deed, and teaches her sons philosophy. It was congruous, too, that simplicity should be the first worship which the outer world sent into the Cave of Bethlehem. For what is the grace of simplicity but a permanent childhood of the soul, fixed there by a special operation of the Holy Ghost, and therefore a fitting worship for the Holy Child Himself? Their infant-like heavenly-mindedness suited His infantine condition, as well as it suited the purity of the heavenly hosts that were singing in the upper air. Beautiful figures! on whom God's light rested for a moment and then all was dark again! they were not mere shapes of light, golden imaginings, ideal forms, that filled in the Divine Artist's mysterious picture. They were living souls, tender yet not faultless men, with inequalities in the monotony of their human lot that often lowered them in temper and in repining to the level of those around them. They were not so unlike ourselves, though they float in the golden haze of a glorious picture. They fell back out of the strong light, unrepiningly, to their sheep-flocks and their night-watches. Their after years were hidden in the pathetic obscurity which is common to all blameless poverty; and they are hidden now in the sea of light which lies like a golden veil of mist close round the throne of the Incarnate Word.

But now a change comes over the scene, which seems at first sight but little in keeping with the characteristic lowliness of Bethlehem. A cavalcade from the far East comes up this way. The camel-bells are tinkling. A retinue of attendants accompanies three Kings of different Oriental tribes, who come with their various offerings to the new-born Babe. It is a history more romantic than romance itself would dare to be. Those swarthy men are among the wisest of the studious East. They represent the lore and science of their day. Yet have they done what the world would surely esteem the most foolish of actions. They were men whose science led them to God, men, we may be sure, of meditative habits, of ascetic lives, and of habitual prayer. The fragments of early tradition and the obscure records of ancient prophecies, belonging to their nations, have been to them as precious deposits which spoke of God and were filled with hidden truth. The corruption of the world which they, as Kings, might see from their elevation far and wide, pressed heavily upon their loving hearts. They too pined for a Redeemer, for some heavenly Visitant, for a new beginning of the world, for the coming of a Son of God, for one who should save them from their sins. Their tribes doubtless lived in close alliance; and they themselves were bound together by the ties of a friendship which the same pure yearnings after greater goodness and higher things cemented.


Never yet had Kings more royal souls. In the dark blue of the lustrous sky there rose a new or hitherto-unnoticed star. Its apparition could not escape the notice of these Oriental sages, who nightly watched the skies; for their science was also their theology. It was the star of which an ancient prophecy had spoken. Perhaps it drooped low toward earth, and wheeled a too swift course to be like one of the other stars. Perhaps it trailed a line of light after it, slowly, yet with visible movement, and so little above the horizon, or with such obvious downward slanting course, that it seemed as if it beckoned to them,----as if an Angel were bearing a lamp to light the feet of pilgrims, and timed his going to their slowness, and had not shot too far ahead during the bright day, but was found and welcomed each night as a faithful indicator pointing to the Cave of Bethlehem. How often God prefers to teach by night rather than by day! Meanwhile, doubtless, the instincts of the Holy Spirit in the hearts of these wise rulers drew them toward the star. They followed it as men follow a vocation, hardly seeing clearly at first that they are following a Divine lead. Wild and romantic as the conduct of these wise enthusiasts seemed, they did not hesitate. After due counsel, they pronounced the luminous finger to be the star of the old prophecy, and therefore God was come. They left their homes, their state, and their affairs, and journeyed westward, they knew not whither, led nightly by the star that slipped onward in its silent groove. They were the representatives of the heathen world moving forward to the feet of the universal Savior. They came to the gates of Jerusalem; and there God did honor to His Church. He withdrew the guidance of the star, because now the better guidance of the synagogue was at their command. The oracles of the law pronounced that Bethlehem was to be the birthplace of Messias; and the wise men passed onward to the humble village. Again the star shone out in the blue heavens, and slowly sank earthward over the Cave of Bethlehem; and presently the devout Kings were at the feet of Jesus.

It would take a whole volume to comment to the full on this sweet legend of the gospel. The Babe, it seems, will move the heights of the world as well as the lowlands. He will now call wisdom to His crib, as He has but lately called simplicity. Yet how different is His call! For wise men and for Kings some signs were wanted, and, because they were wise Kings, scientific signs. As the sweet patience and obscure hardships of a lowly life prepared the souls of the Shepherds, so to the Kings their years of Oriental lore were as the preparation of the gospel. Yet true science has also its child-like spirit, its beautiful simplicity. Learning makes children of its professors, when their hearts are humble and their lives pure. It was a simple thing of them to leave their homes, their latticed palaces or their royal tents. They were simple, too, when they were in their trouble at Jerusalem because of the disappearance of the star. But when the end of all broke upon them,---when the star left them at that half-stable and half-cave, and they beheld a Child of abject poverty, lying in a manger upon straw between an ox and an ass, with, as the world would speak, an old artisan of the lower class to represent his father, and a girlish ill-assorted Mother,---then was the triumph of their simplicity. They hesitated not for one moment. There was no inward questioning as to whether there was a Divine likelihood about all this. Their inward eye was cleansed to see Divine things with an unerring clearness and to appreciate them with an instantaneous accuracy. They had come all that way for this. They had brought their gleaming metals and rich frankincense to the caverned cattleshed, where the myrrh alone seemed in keeping with the circumstances of the Child. They were content. It was not merely all they wanted: it was more than they wanted, more than they had ever dreamed. Who could come to Jesus and to Mary, and not go away contented, if their hearts were pure,---go away contented, yet not content to go away? How kingly seemed to them the poverty of that Babe of Bethlehem, how right royal that sinless Mother's lap on which He was enthroned!

The grand characteristic of their devotion was its faith. Next to Peter's and to Abraham's, there never in the world was faith like theirs. Faith is what strikes us in them at every turn, and faith that was from the first heroic. Had they not all their lives long been out-looking for the Promised One? and what was that but faith? They rested in faith on the old traditions which their Bedouin or Hindoo tribes had kept. They had utter faith in the ancient prophecies. They had faith in the star when they beheld it, and such faith that no worldly considerations could stand before its face. The star led them on by inland track or by ribbed seashore, but their faith never wavered. It disappeared at Jerusalem, and straightway every thing about them was at fault except their faith. The star had gone. Faith sought the synagogue, and acted on the words of the teachers. Faith lighted up the Cave when they entered it, and let them not be scandalized with the scandal of the Cross. They had faith in the warning that came to them by dream, and they obeyed. Faith is the quickest of all learners; for it soon loses itself in that love which sees and understands all things at a glance. How many men think to cure their spiritual ills by increasing their love, when they had better be cultivating their faith! So in this one visit to Bethlehem the Kings learned the whole gospel, and left the Babe perfect theologians and complete apostles. They taught in their own lands the faith which was all in all to them. They held on through persecution, won souls to Christ, spread memories of Mary, and shed their blood joyously for a faith they felt too cheaply purchased, too parsimoniously requited, by the sternest martyrdom. We must mark also how detachment went along with faith,---detachment from home, from royalty, from popularity, from life itself. So it always is. Faith and detachment are inseparable graces. They are twins of the soul, and grow together, and are so like they can hardly be distinguished, and they live together in such one-hearted sympathy that it seems as if they had but one life between them and must needs die together. Detachment is the right grace for the noble, the right grace for the rich, the right grace for the learned. Let us feed our faith, and so shall we become detached. He who is ever looking with straining eyes at the far mountains of the happy land beyond the sea cheats himself of many a mile of weary distance; and while the slant columns of white wavering rain are sounding over the treeless moorland and beating like scourges upon him, he is away in the green sunshine that he sees beyond the gulf, and the storm growls past him as if it felt he was no victim. This is the picture of detachment, forgetting all things in the sweet company of its elder twin brother faith. Thus may we say of these three royal sages, that their devotion was one of faith up to seeming folly, as the wise man's devotion always is, of generosity up to romance, and of perseverance up to martyrdom.

These three Kings, like the Shepherds, are beautiful figures in the Cave of Bethlehem, because the attractions of Jesus are so sweetly exemplified in them. He has drawn them from the far Orient by the leading-string of a floating star. He has drawn them into the darkness of His ignoble poverty, into the shame of His neglected obscurity, and they have gone from Him with their souls replenished with His loveliness. There is something exotic in the beauty of the whole mystery. It reads in St. Matthew like a foreign legend; and why should it be in St. Matthew's Gospel, when it should naturally have been in St. Luke's? It seems to float over the Sacred Infancy more like an unchained cloud, that anchors itself in the breathless sunny calm for a while and then sails off or melts into the blue. As the congruity of the Shepherds was beautiful, so the apparent incongruity of the Magians is in its own way beautiful as well. What right had ingots of ruddy gold to be gleaming in the Cave of Bethlehem? Arabian perfumes were meeter for Herod's halls than for the cattleshed scooped in the gloomy rock. The myrrh truly was in its place, however costly it might be; for it prophesied in pathetic silence of that bitterweet quintessence of love which should be extracted for men from the Sacred Humanity of the Babe in the press of Calvary. Yet myrrh was a strange omen for a Babe Who was the splendor of Heaven and the joy of earth. How unmeet were all these things, and yet in their deep significance how meet! The strange secrecy, too, with which this kingly Oriental progress, with picturesque costumes, and jewelled turbans, and the dark-faced slaves, and the stately-stepping camels, passed over many regions, makes it seem still more like a visionary splendor, a many-colored apparition, and not a sober mystery of the humble Incarnate Word. It is a bright vision of old heathen faith, of the first heathen faith that worshipped Mary's Son, and it is beautiful enough to give us faith in its Own Divinity. Yet it almost makes Bethlehem too beautiful. It dazzles us with its outward show, and makes the Cave look dark when its Oriental witchery has passed away. They who dwell much in the world of the Sacred Infancy know how oftentimes meditation on the Kings is too stirring and exciting for the austere tranquillity of contemplation, too manifold in the objects it brings before us, too various in the images it leaves behind. Truly it is beautiful beyond words! a household mystery to those eagles of prayer to whom beauty brings tranquillity, because they live in the upper voiceless sunshine! With most of us it is not so. They who feed on beauty must feed quietly, or it will not nurture the beautiful within them.

But our seventh type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy brings us to a very different picture. The world of the Church is itself a hidden world; but even within it there is another world still more deeply hidden. It is the very cloister of the Holy Ghost, though without any show of cloister, a world of humblest peace, of shyest love, and of most secret communion with God. It gives us much to think of, but little to say. There is little to describe in its variety, but much in its heavenly union to feed the repose of prayer. The gorgeous apparition of the Kings in the gloomy Cave has passed away. The Babe, too, has left the Cave. Our present picture is the same humble mystery of Bethlehem which is now enacted on a gorgeous scene. We must pass to the glorious courts of the magnificent temple, when its little, unknown Master has come to take possession, the true High-Priest, with a thicker veil of incredible humiliation round Him than that which shrouded the local Holy of Holies from the gazing multitude. It is the mystery of Mary's jubilee, the Presentation of our Lord, mingling with that true-hearted deceit of humility, her needless Purification. The Babe's new worshippers are Simeon and Anna, who so resemble each other amidst their differences that we may regard them as forming one type of worship. Anna was a widow of the tribe of Aser, who filled no place in the public eye, but in whom her little circle of friends had recognised and revered the spirit of prophecy from time to time. She thus had an obscure sphere of influence of her own. She was a figure familiar to the eyes of many in Jerusalem whose piety led them to the morning sacrifices in the temple. Bowed down with the weight of fourscore years and four, her own house was not her home,---even if she had a house she could call her own. The temple was her home. It was rarely that she left its hallowed precincts. She performed in her single self the offices of a whole religious community; for she carried on the unbroken round of her adoration through the night as well as through the day. Long past the age when bodily macerations form an indispensable element in holiness, her life was nevertheless a continual fast. Prayer was the work of her life, and penance its recreation. Herod most likely had never heard of her, but she was dear to God, and was known honorably to his servants: God has widows like her in all Christian cities.

Simeon also was worn out with age and watching. He had placed himself on the battlements of Sion, and, while his eyes were filled with the sweet tears of prayer, he was ever looking out for Messias that was to come. Good people knew him well, and they said of him that he was a just man. Even and fair, striving for nothing, claiming no privileges, ready to give way, most careful to be prompt and full and considerate and timely in all his dealings with others, giving no ground for complaint to anyone, modest and self-possessed, attentive yet unobtrusive, such was the character he bore among those of his religious fellow-citizens to whom he was known. But to the edification of his justice he added the beautiful and captivating example of the tenderest piety. Devotion was the very life of his soul. The gift of piety reigned in his heart. Like many holy persons, he had set his affections on what seemed like an earthly beatific vision. He must see the Lord's Christ before he dies. There is a look of something obstinate and fanciful in his devotion: it is in reality a height of holiness. He has cast his spiritual life in one mold: it was a life of desire, a life of watching, a life of long-delayed but never despondent waiting for the consolation of Israel. There is an humble pertinacity about his prayer, which is to bend God's will to his own. It was a mighty fire of love which burned in his simple heart, and the Holy Ghost loved to dwell among its guileless flames. It was revealed to him that his obstinate waiting had been a dear worship to God, that he should have his will, and that he should see with his aged eyes the beauty of the Lord's Christ before he was called away from earth. He therefore was a haunter of the temple; for where should he be more likely to meet the Christ than there? How God always gives more than He promises! Simeon did not only see the Christ, but was allowed to take Him up in His arms, and, doubtless, to print a kiss of trembling reverence upon the Creator's human lips. How else could his lips have ever sung so beautiful a song,---a song so sunset-like that one might believe all the beauty of all earth's beautiful evenings since creation had gone into it to fill it full of peaceful spells? He was old for a poet; but his age had not dried or drained his heart.


The infirm old man held bravely in his arms the strength of the Omnipotent. He held up the light of the world on high in the midst of his own temple, just before he himself was lost in the inaccessible light of a glorious eternity. His weak eyes, misty with age and dim with tears, looked into the deep eyes of the Babe of Bethlehem, and to his faith they were fountains of eternal light. This was the vision that he had been seeing all his life long. He had wept over the drooping fortunes of Israel, but much more over the shepherdless wanderings of the souls of his dear countrymen. But he had ever seen through his tears,-as we may see through a thick storm of rain, waving like a ponderous curtain to and fro, while the wind is slowly undrawing it, a green mountain, bright and sun-stricken, with patches of illuminated yellow corn upon its sides, and strips of green ferny moorland, and jutting knolls of purple heather, and the wet silvery shimmering on the roofs of men's dwellings. Now the evening of life was come. The rain was passed away, and the Lord's mountain came out, not bright and radiant only, but so astonishingly near that he might have thought his eyes were but deceiving him. But no! the face of Jesus was close to his. Heaven had come to him on earth. It was the heaven of his own choosing. Strange lover of his land and people! he had preferred to see Jesus on earth, and so be sure that now poor Israel might possess him, rather than have gone long since by an earlier death to have seen the Word through the quiet dimness of Abraham's Bosom. Was it not the loveliest of mysteries to see those arms, that were shaking and unsteady with long lapse of time, so fondly enfolding the ever-young eternity of God? Was it not enough for Simeon? Oh, was it not unspeakably more than enough? As nightingales are said to have sung themselves to death, so Simeon died, not of the sweet weariness of his long watching, but of the fulness of his contentment, of the satisfaction of his desires, of the very new youth of soul which the touch of the Eternal Child had infused into his age, and, breaking forth into music which heaven itself might envy and could not surpass, he died with his world-soothing song upon his lips.

There is a little world of such souls as Simeon and Anna within the Church. But it lies deep down, and its inmates are seldom brought to the light, even by the honors of canonization. It is a subterranean world, the diamond-mine of the Church, from whose caverns a stone of wondrous lustre is taken now and then, to feed our faith, to reveal to us the abundant though hidden operations of grace, and to comfort us when the world's wickedness and our own depress us, by showing that God has pastures of His Own under our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it. So that, as sight goes for little in the world of faith, in nothing does it go for less than in the seeming evil of the world. Everywhere evil is undermined by good. It is only that good is undermost; and this is one of the supernatural conditions of God's presence. As much evil as we see, so much good, or more, we do know assuredly lies under it, which, if not equal to the evil in extent, is far greater in weight, and power, and worth, and substance. Evil makes more show, and thus has a look of victory; while good is daily outwitting evil by simulating defeat. We must never think of the Church without allowing largely for the extent of obscure piety, the sphere of hidden souls. We can form no intellectual judgment of the abundance of grace, of the number of the saved, or of the inward beauty of individual souls, which even intellectually is worth any thing, unless we form our estimate in the light of prayer. Charity is the truest truth; and the judgments of charity are large. The light of our own unsanctified judgment is at best but as moonlight in the world of faith, strangely distorting, grotesquely disfiguring, every thing. The light of prayer is as the beam of steadfast day. Who does not know how sunshine positively peoples mountainside and wood?----how, as it rests, it builds homes we could dwell in, so our fancy deems, in the rifted crags or under the leafy shades?----how wherever it has touched it has located a beauty, and has left it when it passes on? So is it with the light of prayer when it plays upon this difficult questionable world around us. It alone lights up for us continually this incessant Heaven upon earth, this precious region of obscure souls, in which God is always served as if it were one of the angelic choirs. Who does not remember when a supernatural principle first unveiled itself before him and showed that it was a thing of God? It was some one moment in a dawn of prayer, which was like day's first inroad upon night. So will it be with us to the end. Faith has a sort of vision of its own; but there is no light in which it can distinguish objects, except the light of prayer.

We must always, therefore, keep our eye fixed on this obscure world of holy hidden souls, that private unsuspected stronghold of God's glory upon earth, where so much of His treasure is laid up. Simeon and Anna are disclosures to us of that hidden world. They have a place, an office, and a power in the life of the Church, which is not the less indispensable because it is also indefinable. The Father's glory would not have been adequately represented at the court of the Infant Jesus if this obscure region had not sent thither its embassy of lowly beauty and of venerable grace. Much of our most intimate acquaintance with the adorable character of God arises from our observations of this hidden world. It is the richest of all worlds in its contributions to the science of Divine things. If we may venture so to speak, God is less upon His guard against our observations there than elsewhere. He affects secrecy the less Himself, because the particular world in which He is working is itself so secret. He is content with the twilight round Him, without pitching His well-known tent of darkness each time He vouchsafes to camp. In the case of the Shepherds we saw how they came up out of darkness, stood for a moment in the splendor of Bethlehem, and then passed on into the dark again. Here we see with Simeon and Anna what long preparation God makes in the soul for what appears to be only a momentary manifestation.

It shows of what deep import a brief transient mystery is, when a novitiate of perhaps fourscore years is barely long enough to fit those for their part in it who are after all but accessories and incidents. If it be true to say that with God all ends are only means, because He is Himself the only veritable End, so also is it true in a sense that all means with Him are ends, because He is present in those means. Thus these long lives of preparation for one momentary appearance on the stage of the world's drama are, when we view them supernaturally, ends themselves, and each step of grace in the long career, each link of holiness in the vast chain, is itself a most sufficient end, because it holds in itself Him Who is the only end. But this is not the way men judge of history. With them it is wandering humanity which is made to confer the importance on the actors in the world's theatre, and to confer it in proportion to the visible results between the actors and humanity. With God it is His Own glory which is the hidden centre of all history; and it requires a special study, with a strong habit of faith and a steady light of prayer, to enable us to read history in his way.

But besides this long preparation for a momentary and subordinate appearance in a Divine mystery, we must observe also how God often comes to men in their old age. They have lived for that which only comes when real life seems past. What a Divine meaning there is in all this! The significance of a whole life often comes uppermost only in the preparation for death. Our destiny only begins to be fulfilled after it appears to have been worked out. Who knows what he is intended for? What we have dreamed was our mission is of all things the least likely to have been such. For missions are Divine things, and therefore generally hidden, generally unconsciously fulfilled. If there are some who seem to have done their work early, and then live on we know not why, there are far more who do their real work later on, and not a few who only do it in the act of dying. Nay, is it not almost so in natural things? Life for the most part blooms only once, and, like the aloe, it blooms late.

Neither must we fail to note under what circumstances it is God's habit to come to these hidden souls. The devotion of Simeon and Anna is eminently a devotion of prayer and church-frequenting. In other words, God comes to holy souls, not so much in heroic actions, which are rather the soul's leaping upward to God, but in the performance of ordinary, habitual devotions, and the discharge of modest, unobtrusive duties, made heroic by long perseverance and inward intensity. How much matter for thought is there in all these reflections! and in Divine things what is matter for thought is matter for practice also! Thus, if the angelic song was the opening of Heaven before our eyes, this apparition of Simeon and Anna is the opening beneath our feet of an exquisite hidden world, a realm of subterranean angels, a secret abyss of human hearts in which God loves to hide Himself, a region of evening calmness and of twilight tranquillity, a world of rest and yet of power, heated with the whole day's sunshine and giving forth its fragrance to the cooling dews, a world which not only teaches us much, but consoles us also, yet leaves us pensive, (for does not consolation always leave us so?) casting over us a profitable spiritual shadow, like the melancholy in which a beautiful sunset so often steeps the mind, breeding more loving thoughts of others, and in ourselves a more contented lowliness.

The lake lies smooth and motionless in the quiet light of evening. The great mountains with their bosses of mottled crag protruding through the green turf, and the islets with their aerial pines, are all imaged downwards in the pellucid waters. Even the heron that has just gone to roost on the dead branch is mirrored there. The faintly-rosy sky between the tops of the many-fingered firs is reflected there, as if it were fairy fretwork in the mere. But upon yon promontory of rock a little blameless boy, afraid of the extreme tranquillity, or angry with it, or to satisfy some impulsive restlessness within him, has thrown a stone into the lake, and that fairy world, that delicate creation, is instantly broken up and fled. So is it with that spiritual world of placid beauty, which we have been contemplating in the worship of Simeon and Anna. Our next type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy drives us with shout and cry from its pleasant melancholy, as if we were trespassers in such a gentle world. Yet it is not altogether a scene of unmingled violence which is coming. But who does not know those plaintive sounds, sad in themselves but sadder in their circumstances, which can sometimes extinguish even the shining of bright light, making one sense master another, like the cry of the lapwing among ruins? So is it with us now. Like silent apparitions, Simeon and Anna pass away. We hear loud voices and shrill expostulations, as of women in misery talking all at once, like the jargon in the summer woods when the birds have risen against the hawk, and then the fearful cry of excited lamentation, with the piteous moaning of the infant victims mingled with the inconsolable wailing of their brave, powerless mothers. It is the massacre of the Holy Innocents. Yet even this dismal scene is a scene of worship. Tragic as it is, it has a quiet side, and a beauty, which, blood-stained though it be, is not unbecoming to the meek majesty of Bethlehem. Alas! how the anguish of those mothers, that were so inconsiderate to her who was on the point of becoming a mother like themselves, and how the wrathful but more silent misery of the fathers, is expiating in its own streets the inhospitality of Bethlehem!

But those little ones are mighty Saints of God, and their infant cries were a most articulate revelation of many of his mysterious ways. The apparent contradiction that innocence should do penance is one of the primary laws of the Incarnation. The Infant Savior Himself began it. It was involved in the state of humiliation in which He came. It was part of the pathos of a fallen world. But none shared it with Him at Bethlehem, except the Holy Innocents. To Mary He brought a new access of heavenly joy, and when the tender hand of Simeon was nerved by the Holy Ghost to plant in her heart the first of the seven swords she was to bear, it was the untimely woe of Calvary that pierced her soul, and not the penances of Bethlehem. To Joseph the joy the Infant brought was yet more unmingled. The Baptist leaped with exultation in his mother's womb, when the Babe came near. The Angels sang because the mystery was full of jubilee. To the Shepherds it was good tidings of great joy, and to the Kings contentment and delight. To Simeon and Anna also He came as light, and peace, and satisfaction, and jubilee. His brightness had made earth so dull, that all which was left them now was speedily to die. But the Holy Innocents joined their infant cries with His. To them the glad Christmas and the singing Angels brought but blood and death. They were the first Martyrs of the Word, and their guilt was His,---that they were born in Bethlehem.

Renewing the miracle which He had wrought for John the Baptist, our Lord is said to have conferred the full use of reason, with immense and magnificent graces, on these little ones at the moment of their Martryrdom, so that they might see Him in the clear splendor of their faith, might voluntarily accept of death for His sake, and might accompany their sacrifice by the loftiest acts of supernatural holiness and heroism. The revelations of the Saints also tell us of the singular power now accorded in Heaven to these infant Martyrs, especially in connections with death-beds, and St. Francis of Sales died reiterating with marked emphasis and significance the invocation of the Holy Innocents. They, too, were beautiful figures in the court of Bethlehem. They were children like the Prince of Bethlehem Himself. They were His companions in nativity, His mates in age and size; and though it was no slight thing to have these natural alliances with Him, by grace they were much more, for they were likenesses of Him, and they were His Martyrs. A twofold light shines in the faces of this infant crowd, the light of Mary and the light of Jesus. They resembled Mary in their sinless purity; for even if our Lord had not constituted them in a state of grace before, their Original Sin would be more than expiated by their guileless blood, when it was shed for Him. It was a fearful font, a most bloody sacrament, at which an Infant like themselves held them as their godfather, that they might lie in His paternal bosom for ever more. They were like Mary in their Martryrdom for Jesus, as all the Martyrs were; but they were like her also, in that their Martyrdom was as it were the act of Jesus Himself. He was the sword which slew them. He was the proximate cause of all they suffered. It is only more remotely so with the other Martyrs. This is one of their distinctions. They resembled her also in their nearness to Jesus. They were among the few who were admitted into the hierarchy of the Incarnation. Their souls were amidst the attendants who waited on His Human Soul when He rose on Easter morning, and who ascended with Him into Heaven. But the light of Jesus also was in their faces. It was not only in the material similitudes of being born when He was born and where He was born, that they were like Him. They resembled Him with a most Divine truthfulness, by being bidden to counterfeit Him. Their mission was to represent Him, to stand in His place, to be supposed to contain Him among themselves. Simeon and Anna lived long lives before they reached their work, and it was laid gently at their doors at the very extremity of life. Their earthly work lay almost at the threshold of Heaven. The lot of the Innocents was the reverse of this. They were just born, and their mission was handed to them instantly and abruptly, and its fulfillment was death. Yet in what a sense is it true of all of us that we are but born to die! Happy they who find the great wisdom which lies in that little truth! But there was more than this in their likeness to our Lord. In one way they outstripped Him. They died for Him as He died for all. They paid Him back the life He laid down for them. Nay, they were beforehand with Him, for they laid their lives down for Him before He laid His down for them. They saved His life. They put off His Calvary. They secured to us His sweet parables, His glorious miracles, and those abysses of His grown-up Passion, in which the souls of the redeemed dwell in their proper element, like fish within the deep. Yet, again, is there not a sense in which we all pay our dear Lord back with our lives for the life that He gave us? What is a Christian life but a lingering death, of which physical death is but the last consummating act? and if it be not all for Christ, how is it a Christian life? Nevertheless, in the historical reality of all this lies the grand prerogative of the Holy Innocents.

Notwithstanding their miraculous use of reason, they are still types to us of that devotion so common among the higher Saints, the devotion of almost unconscious mortification. They are like those who commit themselves to God, and then take what is sure to come. They not only commit themselves to Him without conditions, but they do not count the cost, because to them His love is cheaply bought at the price of all possible sacrifices. Hence there is no cost to count. The truest mortification does not forecast, because it is self-oblivious. Thus it was with James and John, when they offered to drink our Savior's cup; and how heroically they did drink it, when it came! Thus it is that heroic mortification is so often taken by surprise, and men, who cannot discern the Saints aright, think that the grandeur of their purpose for a moment faltered, when all the while the surprise was only stirring up deeper depths of grace, and meriting the more divinely. These infant Martyrs represent also what must in its measure befall everyone who draws near to Jesus. Suffering goes out of him, like an atmosphere. The air is charged with the seed of crosses, and the soul is sown all over with them before it is aware. Moreover, the cross is a quick growth and can spring up, and blossom, and bear fruit almost in a night, while from its vivacious root a score of fresh crosses will spring up and cover the soul with the peculiar verdure of Calvary. They that come nearest to our Lord are those who suffer most, and who suffer the most unselfishly. With His use of reason He could have spoken and complained: so might the Innocents, but they worshipped only with their cries. One moment they were made aware of the full value of their dear lives, and the next moment they were of their own accord to give them up, and not to let their newly-given reason plead, but even to hide it with the cries of unreasoning infancy. Never were Martyrs placed under so peculiar a trial. How well they teach the old lesson, that unselfishness is its own reward; and that to hold our tongues about our wrongs is to create a new fountain of happiness within ourselves, which only needs the shade of secrecy to be perennial! If they paid dear for the honor of being the fellow townsmen of our Lord, how magnificent were the graces, which none but He could have accumulated in that short moment, and which He gave to them with such a regal plenitude! To be near Jesus was the height of happiness, yet it was also both a necessity and a privilege of suffering. We cannot spare the Holy Innocents from the beautiful world of Bethlehem. Next to Mary and joseph, we could take them away least of all. Without them we should read the riddle of the Incarnation wrong, by missing many of its deepest laws. They are symbols to us of the necessities of nearness to our Lord. They are the living laws of the vicinity of Jesus. Softened through long ages, the mothers' cries and the children's moans come to us almost as a sad strain of music, sweeter than it is sad, sweet even because it is so sad, the moving elegy of Bethlehem.

There is still another presence in the Cave of Bethlehem which is a type of devotion to the Sacred Infancy. Deep withdrawn into the shade, so as to be scarcely visible, stands one who is gazing on all the mysteries with holy amazement and tenderest rapture. He takes no part in any of them. His attitude is one of mute observance. He is like one of those shadowy figures, which painters sometimes introduce into their pictures, rather as suggesting something to the beholder than as historically part of the action represented. It is St. Luke, the "beloved physician" of St. Paul, and the first Christian Painter. He forms a type of worship by himself, and must not be detached from the other eight, though he was out of time with them. To us he is an essential feature of Bethlehem. The Holy Ghost had elected him to be the historiographer of the Sacred Infancy. Without him we should have known nothing of the Holy Childhood, except the startling visit of the three heathen Kings, which was so deeply impressed on St. Matthew's Hebrew imagination, together with the massacre of the Innocents and the flight into Egypt, which were the consequences of that visit, and so part of the one history. In the vision of inspiration the Holy Ghost renewed to him the world of Bethlehem, and the sweet spiritual pageantry of all its gentle mysteries. To him, the first artist of the Church, we fitly have the three songs of the Gospel, the Magnificat, the Benedictus, and the Nunc dimittis. He was as much the Evangelist of the Sacred Infancy, as St. John was the Evangelist of the Word's Divinity, or St. Matthew and St. Mark of the active life of our blessed Lord.

He represents the devotion of artists, and the posture of Christian art at the feet of the Incarnate Savior. Christian art, rightly considered, is at once a theology and a worship; a theology which has its own method of teaching, its own ways of representation, its own devout discoveries, its own varying opinions, all of which are beautiful so long as they are in subordination to the mind of the Church. What is the Blessed John of Fiesole's life of Christ, but, next to St. Thomas, the most magnificent treatise on the Incarnation which was ever conceived or composed? No one can study it without learning new truths each time. It gives up slowly and by degrees to the loving eye the rich treasures of a master-mind, full of depth, and tenderness, and truth, and heavenly ideal. It is a means of grace which sanctifies us as we look upon it, and melts us into prayer.


Of a truth art is a revelation from Heaven, and a mighty power for God. It is a merciful disclosure to men of His more hidden beauty. It brings out things in God which lie too deep for words, things which words must needs make heresies, if they try to speak them. In virtue of its heavenly origin it has a special grace to purify men's souls, and to unite them to God by first making them unearthly. If art debased is the earthliest of things, true art, not unmindful that it also, like our Lord, was born in Bethlehem and cradled with Him there, is an influence in the soul so heavenly that it almost seems akin to grace. It is a worship too, as well as a theology. From what abyss rose those marvellous forms upon the eye of John of Fiesole, except from the depths of prayer? Have we not often seen the Divine Mother and her Blessed Child so depicted that it was plain they never were the fruit of prayer, and do we not instinctively condemn them even on the score of art, without directly adverting to religious feeling? The temper of art is a temper of adoration. Only an humble man can paint Divine things grandly. His types are delicate and easily missed, shifting under the least pressure, and bending unless handled softly. An artist, who is not joined to God, may work wonders of genius with his pencil and colors; but the heavenly spirit, the essence of Christian art, will have evaporated from his work. It may remain to future generations as a trophy of anatomy, and a triumph of peculiar coloring; but it will not remain as a source of holiest inspiration to Christian minds, and an ever-flowing fountain of the glory of God. It may be admired in the gallery; it would offend over the altar. Theology and devotion both owe a heavy debt to art, but it is as parents owe debts to their loving children. They take as gifts what came from themselves, and they love to consider that what is due to them by justice is rather paid to them out of the spontaneous generosity of love. St. Luke is the type and symbol of this true art; which is the child of devotion and theology; and it is significant that he is thus connected with the world of Bethlehem.

The characteristics, which have been noticed in his Gospel, seem to be most congenial to his vocation. Our Lord's life is everywhere the representation of the beautiful; but in none of its mysteries is it a more copious fountain of art than in those of his Sacred Infancy; and it is these which inspiration has especially loved to disclose to St. Luke's predilection. A painter is a poet also, and hence his Gospel is the treasury in which the Christian canticles, all of them canticles of the Sacred Infancy, are laid up and embalmed for the delight and consolation of all time. The preservation of them was a natural instinct of an artistic mind, which was already fitted to receive a bidding of inspiration so congenial to itself. He was a physician as well as a painter, and there is something kindred in the spirit of the two occupations. The quick eye, the observant gentleness, the appreciation of character, the seizing of the actual circumstances, the genial spirit, the minute attentiveness, the sympathizing heart, the impressionableness of all that is soft, and winning, and lovely, and weak, and piteous,---all these things belong to the true physician as well as to the true artist. Hence has it come to pass that the physician of the body has so often been the physician of the soul as well. That which is truly artistic in him makes him a kind of priest; and what above all things are priests, artists, and physicians, but angelic ministers to human sorrow, ministers of love and not of fear, vested with a pathetic office of consolation, which, strange to say, seems the more tender and unselfish because it is official? Thus St. Luke is noted for his instinct for souls. His Gospel has been named the Gospel of mercy, because it is so full of incidents of our Lord's love of sinners. It is from him chiefly that we have the conversions of sinners, and the examples of our Lord's amazing kindness to them, or we may say rather of his positive attraction to them, like the physician's attraction to the sick, to use the figure which he himself vouchsafed to use in order to justify himself for this compassionate propensity. After Mary, Luke is the beginner of the devotion to the Precious Blood, whose apparently indiscriminate abundance and instantaneous absolving power he so artfully magnifies in his beautiful Gospel. [1] It is a Gospel of sunshine. It throws strong light into the darkest places, and loves to use the power it has to do so; and is not all this painter-like? The examples, to which the fallen sinner turns instinctively when hope and despair are battling for his soul, are mostly in the Gospel of St. Luke. He chose what he most loved himself; and inspiration ministered to the bent of his genius, rather than diverted or ignored it. He is known, like all artists, by his choice of subjects. What wonder he was the dear companion of St. Paul, when their minds were so congenial? The magnifying of grace, the facility and abundance of redemption, the vast treasures of hope, the delight of reconciliation with God, the predilection for the grand phenomena of conversion, all these peculiarities of St. Luke's genius would recommend him to the apostle of the Precious Blood, and would also give him swift admission to the intimacy of Mary.

It was perhaps through her that the Holy Ghost revealed to him the mysteries of Bethlehem. To John she spake of the Eternal Generation of the Word, to Luke of Nazareth and Bethlehem, of the Angels, and the Shepherds, and the Gospel Songs. For devotion to Mary is an inalienable inspiration of Christian art, and it is akin also to devotion to the Babe of Bethlehem. Luke, with the painter's license, gazed into Mary's face as none other but the Infant Jesus had ever gazed into it. He read the mysteries of Bethlehem depicted there. He drank the spirit of the Sacred Infancy in the fountains of her eyes. He lived with the Mother of Mercy until he saw nothing but mercy in her Son. The image in his heart, which was the model of all other images, was the countenance of the Divine Mother. His idea of Jesus was his marvellous likeness to Mary,---likeness not in features only, but in office and in soul. Thus was the spirit of beauty within him instinctively drawn to Bethlehem, just as Bethlehem has been the most queenly attraction of holy art ever since. Then, when he comes to our Lord's public life and his intercourse with men, it is just such manifestations of his Sacred Heart, as are the most congenial to the spirit of the Sacred Infancy, which his predilection chooses for his written portrait of the Incarnate Word. Let us place him then in the Cave of Bethlehem, withdrawn into the shadow, and looking out from thence with the boldness of his tender eyes upon the mysteries around him. He is there, by the appointment of the Holy Ghost, as the painter of Mary, and the secretary of the Infant Jesus.

Such were the first worshippers of Bethlehem, nine types of devotion showed to us there, full of spiritual loveliness and attraction: nine separate seas that image Heaven in their own way, or form all together one harmonious ocean of worship of the Incarnate Word. We may join ourselves first to one, and then to another, of these nine choirs of first worshippers, and adore the Incarnate Word. How wonderful is the variety of devotion----more endless than the variations of light and shade, or the ever-shifting processions of the graceful clouds, or the never-twice-repeated tracery of the forest-architecture, as endless apparently as the excellences of Him Who is the centre of all devotion! We may venture, not uninvited, into that dear sanctuary of Bethlehem, and be as heart to Mary or as thought to Joseph, as voice to John or as harps to the Angels, as sheep to the Shepherds or as incense to the Kings, as sweet sights to Simeon and to Anna, or as soft sighs to the Holy Innocents, or as a pen for Luke to write with, and to write of the Babe of Bethlehem. Is it not a beautiful sea of tranquillest devotion, with the spirit of Bethlehem settling down over the purple of its waters, like one of those silent sunsets which are so beautiful that it seems as if they ought to make music in the air?

1. This does not contradict the sixth chapter of my Treatise on the Precious Blood, where St. Paul is called the "doctor of the Precious Blood"; for St. Luke's Gospel is said to have been written under the eye of St. Paul.