What struck me when I first read this beautiful 19th century Christmas meditation was its pure traditional Catholic sentiment!
By Father Francis Xavier Weninger, 1876
“When shall I come and appear before the face of God?”–Psalms xli, 3
Five thousand one hundred and ninety nine years after the creation; 2957 years after the flood; 2015 years after the birth of Abraham; 1510 years after the departure of Moses and the children of Israel from Egypt; 1032 years after the anointing of King David; in the 65th week, according to the prophecy of Daniel; in the 194th Olympiad; 752 years after the building of Rome; in the 42d year of the reign of the Emperor Augustus, when peace prevailed over the whole earth, and in the 6th age of the world, “Jesus Christ, Eternal God, the Son of the Eternal Father,” to bless the world by His coming, was conceived of the Holy Ghost, and nine months later, was born at Bethlehem, of the Virgin Mary. Hence, today is the human birth of our Lord and Saviour.
In these words the holy Church announces, in the Roman Martyrology, today’s great and glorious festival, the birth of our Saviour. The entire account of this festival cannot be given better than it is related in the Gospel of St. Luke, wherein we read as follows: Octavius Augustus, the Roman Emperor, had given peace to the whole empire by conquering his enemies. Nowhere was war heard of, and peace reigned over all the world. The emperor, desiring to know the strength of his empire, and the number of his subjects, profited by this calm, and gave command to his officers to register the names of all the inhabitants of his dominions. Cyrinus was charged with the census of Syria and Judea. In order that this registering might be correctly made, the command was issued that everyone should be enrolled in the city from which his family came. Mary, the Blessed Virgin, and St. Joseph resided at Nazareth, a small town in Galilee; but as both were descended from King David, who came from Bethlehem, a small hamlet or town in the tribe of Judah, five miles from Jerusalem, they went thither. There they found all the houses so filled with strangers, who had come for the same purpose, that although St. Joseph took all pains to find a lodging for his holy spouse, he could not succeed. As the night approached, nothing was left for them but to repair to a cave in a rock, outside of Bethlehem. Both submitted to divine Providence, humbly worshipping the judgment of heaven, as they recognised that the only begotten Son of God, who became flesh to teach us humility and poverty, had Himself chosen this lowly and miserable stable as His birthplace.
Mary, the Virgin Mother, knew the hour of His birth, and remained deeply absorbed in contemplation of the great mystery which was soon to be fulfilled. At midnight she brought forth, without pain and without detriment to her virginity, Him whom she had conceived of the Holy Ghost, Jesus Christ, the only begotten Son of the Heavenly Father, the Saviour of the world. Seeing the Divine Child, she was filled with heavenly joy, and, sinking on her knees, she worshipped Him with deep humility and reverence, while her heart burned with motherly love. To God alone is known the greatness of the devotion and love which the Virgin Mother felt at that most holy moment. She took the Child into her arms, kissed it, and pressed it to her happy heart, wrapped it in poor swaddling-clothes, and, as no better place could be found, laid it in a manger. At that time, an ox and an ass were in the stable, and with their breath warmed the Divine Child trembling with cold. Mary and Joseph, prostrating themselves before the new-born Saviour, worshipped Him most devoutly. The Angels united their adoration with that of Joseph and Mary. They had already adored Him at the first moment of His Incarnation; but St. Paul assures us that they were commanded by the Almighty to adore him again at the time of His birth.
While Mary and Joseph were kneeling before the Child, their souls enraptured with love and awe, the Heavenly Father announced the long-desired birth of the Redeemer of mankind to the heathens and the Jews; to the former, by a star; to the latter, by an Angel. During that night shepherds were watching their flocks in the field, when suddenly an angel, surrounded with wonderful brightness, appeared to them. The men, seized with fear at this apparition, knew not what to say or think. The Angel addressing them, said: “Fear not; for behold, I bring you good tidings of exceeding great joy, that shall be to all people. For this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David. And this shall be a sign to you: you shall find the child wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger.” Hardly had the Angel said this, when a multitude of heavenly Spirits appeared, praising God and saying: “Glory be to God on high, and on earth peace to men of good will.” The pious shepherds heard with astonishment the singing of the Angels, and, after they had seen them return to heaven, they said to one another: “Let us go over to Bethlehem, and let us see this word that is come to pass, which the Lord hath showed to us.”
They went hastily to Bethlehem, and found, in the stable, all that the Angel had told them: a lovely new-born Child, wrapped in poor swaddling-clothes, lying in a manger, and the Virgin Mother and St. Joseph kneeling beside it. Knowing from the words of the Angel and still more from a divine light, that this beautiful Child in the manger was the long-desired Saviour of mankind, it is not to be doubted that they worshipped Him with great reverence, and giving due thanks for the grace done to them, offered some gifts according to their station. After this they returned to their flocks, and praising the Lord, they related to others what they had heard and seen. So much is known to us from the Gospel of St. Luke concerning the Nativity of Our Lord and Redeemer, Jesus Christ.
The further considerations, to which we are led by this birth, are so manifold and so great that whole books filled with them, would not suffice to contain them all. Above all, we should consider the fact, that the only begotten Son of God saw the light of the world in so lowly a place, in the depth of winter and in the silence of the night. No doubt He could have celebrated His visible arrival in this world with grandeur and magnificence in the most noble palace in Jerusalem. But He did not, and why? St. Bernard writes: “Can we then believe that it was by chance that He was born in darkness and in the cold of winter, He who is Lord over winter and summer, day and night? Other children cannot choose the time of their birth, as they have neither reason nor liberty; but Christ, though man, was, as the Son of God, in the beginning with God, and was then the same wise and mighty God He is now. He, as the only begotten Son of God, who could choose for His birth whatever time He preferred, chose what was most painful and hard for a little child, especially the child of a poor mother, who hardly possessed a few swaddling-clothes to wrap it in.” He chose in everything what was most trying to human nature. And for what reason did He do this? The Holy Fathers give the following answers:
First, to show, in the most exquisite manner, His infinite love for us, and to move us to love Him in return. Had Christ been born at another time, in a palace, surrounded by luxuries, He would still have shown great love for us; but it could not have been compared with the love He manifested when born in such a night, in such abject poverty and in so lowly a place. Had He been born rich, we should have great cause to love Him; but how much more reason have we now to love Him, when we consider the manner, so full of love to us, in which He deigned to come into the world. Yes, our beloved Saviour, in the poverty of His birth, evinced His great love, and wishes to gain our entire heart. “He who desired to be beloved by us,” says St. Peter Chrysologus, “would be born in this and in no other manner.”
Secondly, Christ, our Lord, wished to show us, at His birth, the path that leads to heaven, and to teach by his example what later He would teach by words. “He announces in works, what He afterwards teaches with words,” says St. Bernard. Yes, not only He, but the stable, the manger, the swaddling-clothes speak to us, and point to the way we must walk, if we wish to derive benefit from the birth, the passion and death of our Saviour. The immoderate desire of the riches, honours and pleasures of this world, or, as St. John says, “the concupiscence of the flesh, the concupiscence of the eyes, and the pride of life,” are the principal sources of all vice, and the principal causes why so many men forfeit heaven and are cast into the depth of hell. The new-born Saviour teaches us, by his abject poverty, the deepest humility, and by voluntarily bearing so many discomforts of place and time, how we may overcome the three concupiscences, destroy the source of three most hurtful vices, and if we are solicitous about our salvation, to despise all that is temporal, or at least not to fasten our heart on it, but to live in due humility, and, by constant mortification, preserve our purity according to our station. The Saviour teaches all this by His example. Hence, the Holy Fathers called the manger, the pulpit of the Divine Child. We are all obliged to listen to this Teacher, who came down from heaven, and to live according to His precepts. The Heavenly Father says the same words now to us, which He proclaimed from heaven when our Saviour was baptised: “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased; hear ye him!”
From these reasons why Christ was born in a stable, at so rough a time of the year, and in such humility, follows a twofold lesson for us, which I will add in the words of St. Bernard. The first is: “Let us love the Child in the manger,” because the new-born Saviour has so loved us, and desires that we should love Him in return. Let us love Him, but with our whole heart, and in works, not only with the tongue and in words, as He has loved us, not only in words, but in deeds. The second is: “Let us endeavour to resemble this Child in poverty, in humility and in despising temporal pleasures.” For here we see the truth of the words which, later in life, Christ spoke to His disciples, when He placed a little child in the midst of them: “If you do not become as this little child, you cannot enter heaven.” It is this we should especially consider, in regard to the nativity of Christ, on to-day’s festival. Besides, it should be remembered, that this is one of the oldest and most sacred feasts in the whole year, and was instituted by the Apostles themselves. The manger in which the Saviour was laid, and the stable in which He was born, have always been kept in great honour. The wickedness of the heathens erected, on the spot, a temple dedicated to Adonis, that the Christians might be prevented from visiting the holy place; but in the course of time, a magnificent Christian church was built in its stead. Many convents were established at Bethlehem, in one of which St. Jerome spent many years.
Later, the manger, sanctified by Christ, was taken to Rome into the Church of St. Mary Major, where it is still honoured at this day. In the holy Chapel, at Paris, are preserved the swaddling-clothes in which the Divine Child was wrapped, and which St. Louis received as a gift from the Emperor Baldwin II.
I. Can you consider the beautiful and gracious mystery of Christ’s Nativity in all its details, without being moved to the deepest love for your new-born Saviour? Think earnestly, who He is, that out of love for you is born, and at His birth, suffers such privations for your salvation. He who is born, is the only begotten Son of God, who has no need of you, and expects neither benefit nor profit from you, but seeks only your salvation. He suffers, with the greatest patience, bitter cold, abject poverty, ignominious contempt, and great privation; not because He is forced to it, but voluntarily, and for your welfare. What have you to say to this? Does not a Saviour, loving you so tenderly, deserve your whole heart? Oh! follow then the admonitions of St. Bernard; love the little Child of Bethlehem; love your Saviour; love Him with all your strength. But as He has not only loved you in word and affection, but also in deeds, so must you manifest your love in works.
This will be done, if, after the exhortation of St Bernard, you endeavour to resemble the little Child of Bethlehem, and go the way to heaven which Christ pointed out when still in the manger. Your Saviour, the little Child of Bethlehem, was obedient to His father, unto the manger in the stable, as later, He was obedient unto death on the Cross. He could have said in the manger, what He said afterwards: “I do always my heavenly father’s pleasure.” May you also obey the Lord, your God; keep His commandments; do everything that is agreeable to Him; offend Him not. Your Saviour bore patiently, in the manger, for love of you, cold, poverty, disgrace, and many other hardships. Should similar sufferings assail you, allow them not to disturb you in serving the Lord. Think: My Jesus bore all these for love of me; why should I not suffer for love of Him? He Himself has shown me this path to heaven; He walked in it Himself: why should I not follow Him?
II. What would you have done, or how would you have acted, if you had had the happiness to see and to adore, with the pious shepherds, or the Virgin Mother and St. Joseph, the new-born Saviour, lying in the manger? What expressions of astonishment, love and humility would you have uttered? And if the grace had been bestowed upon you to take your Saviour in your arms, to kiss and embrace Him, how inexpressible would have been the joy of your heart, and your gratitude for so inestimable a favour! Behold, then, who is He that is presented to you in the most holy Eucharist? Is not the same God hidden here in the form of bread, who was lying in the manger, a little Child? This Saviour you can not only see and adore, but also receive into your heart, through holy communion. Faith convinces you of this. Hence St. Bernard says, in a sermon on this festival: “You also, my dear brethren, will find the Child, once wrapped in swaddling-clothes, in the manger of the altar. For, as in times gone by, the Virgin Mother wrapped it in poor swaddlingclothes, so have we hidden it here in the form of bread.” This, if you are a Catholic, you undoubtedly believe. With how great zeal and devotion must you therefore prepare yourself for holy Communion! Into what exclamations ought you to break forth before and after it! I leave it to you to consider this. Only this will I call to your memory. Beg the Divine Mother and St. Joseph to impart to you one small spark of the love and devotion that inflamed their hearts on beholding the new-born Saviour. Pray to your loving Redeemer for the favour that St. Margaret of Cortona requested of Him, when He gave her leave to ask Him a grace. She said: “Beloved Saviour, bestow upon me the grace never again to offend Thee.” She received what she requested, and so will you receive it, if you pray fervently, and leave nothing undone that is necessary to avoid sin.