“And the angel said to them: Fear not, for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be unto all the people,” Luke 2:10 . . .
Whatever records there were of visitations of God to man, either in the sacred books of the Jews, or in the vague traditions that lingered like memories of dreams in the human mind, all had hitherto borne traces that His visitations were made in such a way as to strike awe, and sometimes even terror and dismay, into those who had witnessed them. The great bulk of mankind, outside the Jewish nation and the Jewish Church, had, before the coming of our Blessed Lord, little reliable guidance about things supernatural. But though pagans darkness lay like a pall of death upon the face of the world, yet, even in the worst of times there lingered, at least in the imagination of mankind, an impression so deep-rooted that nothing could utterly destroy it, that apart from, but very near to, the plodding life of sense, there was another and a very different world – the world of spirit – that made itself felt at times amid the dull routine of the material universe. They felt, even the most careless and the most depraved, that it could scarcely be, but that, beyond the vault of the overarching heavens some Mighty Power ruled and had a throne, from which, however invisible it might be to the dull eyes of sense, yet, real mandates came, at times, supported by a power that granted obedience; and men felt sore afraid when any unusual occurrence, any unwonted signs of marvelous portent, gave ground for thinking that the world of spirit was about to make a manifestation of itself. And, in truth, if mankind had had a knowledge of the inspired books of Judea, they would have found in them enough to explain and to justify this natural feeling. For, according to these books, there was a very real and Almighty God, Who had made the world, and the men who dwelt in it, and Who, having made them, had not flung them from Him to be ruled by chance, but Who had kept them fast in His Almighty hand, and presided over the shaping of their destinies by a providence that left nothing outside its spread, and overlooked nothing in its marvelous minuteness. And this God had made many a visitation to His creatures, and He had made them usually in a way that was well calculated to make men’s hearts troubled and afraid.
There had been a day – the saddest day the world could have possible witnessed - when the first parents of the human race, having sinned their first and fatal sin, heard the voice of God in Paradise, and hid themselves away from the wrath of His face.
Again, had God come and had come in deeper anger, for all flesh had corrupted its way, and the floodgates of heaven were opened, and the fountains of the deep were broken up, and, in a flood of many waters, the wrath of God rushed over the wicked world.
Once again had God come, and to His chosen people; but the lightning flashed and the thunder rolled from the heights of Sinai, and the people, God’s hosen people thought they were, fell upon their face, and the hearts within them quailed with a terror like the terror of death, while God proclaimed His Covenant and His Law.
Such had been some of the visitations which God had made to the world. But there was now, in the fullness of His mercy, to be another and an abiding visitation of God to man, so different from those of old, that the most appropriate words that could be found to herald its arrival were the words of the angel: “Fear not,” etc. Perfect love had cast out fear, and this time God had come in love.
How the world has needed a Savior the history of the world can tell. Not once, but many a time, had all flesh corrupted its way. God was unknown by many, by some despised, by all but badly served, and lightly or little thought of. What was the history of the world before the coming of our Lord? I can sum up its sadness in words that were spoken amid the trees of Paradise. Adam had said, when God had asked him – “Adam, where art thou?” Adam had answered: “I was ashamed, and I hid myself.” These words may be said to contain, as it were, in germ, the sad history of the forty centuries that preceded the coming of our Lord. Man – created with an immortal soul made to God’s likeness, destined to find perfection and happiness in the knowledge and the love of God Himself – man had been corrupted by sin; the blight of sin had fallen like a pall of death over the face of humanity; and it had become the one business of man, ashamed, as it were, of the nakedness of his soul, to hide himself away from the face of God. He had been striving through all those years to raise between himself and the God Who made him a mist of ignorance and a wall of sin. And too fatally had man succeeded in his design. Sin made its way on earth: the curse of it worked deeper from father to son, from generation to generation. The world had in fact, to all appearance, become the kingdom of Satan. But now God’s time had ripened to its fullness, and the voice of John came from the wilderness, proclaiming that the Kingdom of Heaven was at hand. And while the world slept in the silence of the midnight, the Kingdom of God stole upon the world as silently as the footsteps of the dawn steal down the eastern hills. But silently though God wished to come, yet He wished to make just one announcement of His coming. This announcement was made to some shepherds, who kept the night-watch on the lonely plains.
And it was made to them with special appropriateness. They were, of all men, least likely to have been affected by the spirit of worldliness. Their lives were very simple, and their hearts were very pure, and the world had not spoiled them by its wealth or by its pleasure. Their life path lay apart from the great highway where the noisy folly of the world pursued its march. They had never seen – had scarcely ever even imagined – the splendid vice that flaunts itself in city streets. They were moistly alone with God, in the solitudes of nature, out under the eye of heaven, thinking their simple unsophisticated thoughts beneath the gleaming of the moonlight and the twinkling of the stars.
But when the vision burst upon them – being men, with the natural feelings of men, and having, as all men have, a nameless awe in the presence of the supernatural – they were afraid. They had seen the gleaming of many a harvest moon, but never had they seen a brightness like the brightness that shone around them now. Their souls had been filled with the still music of many a starry night, but never even into their dreams, had music stolen of such witching strain as broke upon the stillness of that December night. And the shadowy, shapely form of an angel floated in the light of the vision, and the music rushed into articulate words, and the words were these: “Fear not, . . . ”
Yes; a Savior was born; after all the weary waiting. Death had quenched the longing in the eyes of many a king; Isaiah’s fire-touched lips were dust; Ezekiel’s voice was mute and prophets were no more, for prophets were no longer needed. After the long years – the Christ had come.
And how had He come? How was He likely to come? Shall He come as He came in Paradise, with a footstep that seemed to trample on the guilty hearts that throbbed with terror at His coming? Shall He come as He came on Sinai, clothed in heaven’s stormiest clouds, with the lightning in His hand, and the roll of the thunder in His voice? Shall He come as a King, with observance and state, compelling the reverence and the fear even of the ungodly? Shall He not come, at any rate, as a full-grown Man, with the ripe thought of manhood in His perfect mind, and manly vigor in the beat of His heart, and the pressure of His hand? My brethren, in any of these ways might one of us have dreamed of Him as coming, and been satisfied to see Him come. But He came not in any of these ways, because He came not yet to judge, or to smite with the sword of justice, but to draw men to Him by the sweet attractions of mercy and of love. All power was His, but He put away the signs of power, because He wished, if to use force, to use only the force that unselfish love and entire self-sacrifice must always exercise over hearts that retain even a vestige of humanity. He would, as it were, lie in wait for the men who had been avoiding Him so carefully, and offending Him so grievously. He would hide under the weakness of infancy, and try to steal into their hearts under a form that rarely appeals in vain, even to the most hardened – the form of a child. He would be born of a woman; He would lie helpless in the arms of a human mother; He would lay His lips on hers, would nestle close to her bosom, would stretch His baby hands to her, with the common instinct of all the baby children of Adam; He would look up into her face, and take the law of infancy, as children take it, from a mother’s eyes and from a mother’s lips. My brethren, it was a thought of which I must say, and you must feel, just this – that it was a thought worthy of the God Who thought it. Who can help loving Him, as He lies a helpless Infant, rift of the semblance of Heaven’s Majesty, and of the power that makes the angels full of awe, and makes the devils tremble? And what a rich harvest of tender memories would ripen for mankind, from the seed sown in Bethlehem! He would gradually as it were, make Himself at home in His own world. He would lay aside the manifestation of the knowledge that would amaze, and the majesty that would awe, and the power that would terrify, and the beauty that would dazzle. He would hide them all under the simple forms of babyhood, and childhood, and boyhood, and youth.
This was God’s plan; and, accordingly, when the shepherds passed up to Bethlehem they found the Infant laid in a manger.
Such, my brethren, is the spectacle that the Church summons you to look upon to-day – the spectacle of God made Man in the form of an Infant. Can I – as the minister of the Church, announcing the same tidings of great joy that an angel announced on the world’s first Christmas – can I, also, preface the announcement with the angel’s words: “Fear not”? My brethren, up from amid the cares and distractions, alas! And it may be, too, amid the sins of your ordinary lives, up starts the vision that eighteen centuries have not dimmed – the ages of eternity shall not dim – the vision of the Child Jesus.
Can I, too, say – pointing to that vision, and addressing you – can I, too, say: “Fear not”? Well, I can say so, but only on this condition – if already there is kindled in your hearts the fire of that love that casts out fear; if you can come, as the shepherds came, with simple minds and firm faith, and hearts as guileless as their hearts were, to make an offering of your hearts and souls to the Infant Savior; if, having gone through the Baptism of Penance which John the Baptist preached to the remission of sins; if, with hearts full of love, and souls free, at any rate, from mortal sin, you can kneel to-day before that altar, where, in the reality and the lowliness of His sacramental presence, Jesus has made Bethlehem no longer a mere memory of the past, but a living reality, a part of the everyday experience of your Catholic lives.
If this be so, then come without fear with the shepherds of Bethlehem; you will find Jesus here as truly as the shepherds found Him, as surely as you shall find Him when your souls shall have passed to the glory of heaven; and, coming like the shepherds, you shall find, as they found, not only the Child but His mother; and with that loyal devotion to Mary that belongs to Catholic hearts, you will learn from His mother and from yours, how to love the Infant Jesus.