<< Luke II: The Birth of the Lord and the Visit of the Shepherds >>
IF we go southward from Jerusalem across a broad plain and over a range of hills, we come in sight of Bethlehem. This is a rough hill-side where we stand; the stones are thrown up in thick walls about the fields, and the slope is terraced to keep the soil from being washed away. At the foot of the hill is a valley with fields of wheat and olive orchards. And there is Bethlehem, its gray stone houses clustered thick together on a hill beyond the valley.
If we turn more to the east we look out over the barren hills of the wilderness of Judaea, the deserts where John the Baptist lived. In summer they are very dry and bare, but with the winter rains many little flowering plants spring up which give pasturage to flocks of sheep. Looking over the town, we see a part of the wilderness where the mountains are high, with deep gorges between leading down to the Dead Sea. Through one deep valley we see the water; and the mountains on its eastern shore stand as a long purple wall against the sky.
Bethlehem was David's home; here are the pasture hills where he tended his father's sheep, and where, as he watched through the long nights, he learned how "the heavens declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handy-work."
We are to read of a time when many people of the family of David were coming back again to the town of their forefather, that a list might be made of all their names. The Roman emperor had commanded this in in all countries under his power, as a help in gathering taxes and soldiers for his army. An inn where travellers find shelter is called in that country a khan. The inn in Bethlehem was perhaps only an open yard with a high stone wall about it, with arched recesses around the sides for shelter. So many people came that the khan was filled and there was no room for more.
Among those who travelled by this way from the north were Mary and Joseph. They had come a journey of several days from Nazareth, the little town of Galilee where they lived, to be enrolled, for they were of the family of David.
They were drawing near to Bethlehem, from the north. They came down this very hill-side where we stand and crossed the valley to the town. But the khan was full. They turned aside, and it has been believed from very long ago that they found rest in a cave in the hill-side, where animals were sheltered. There are many such caves in the hills about Bethlehem, and they are often used as sheepfolds, and stables, and even as houses. We can go to-day by steps down into the cave, and forgetting all that has been done to change the place, we seem to see it as it was that night when Mary and Joseph came,—a plain, rude cave. Here the Lord was born, and His mother wrapped Him in soft bands of cloth and laid him in a manger, one of the little reeding boxes from which the animals took their food.
As we stand here and remember the night, long ago, we think of the heavenly light and heavenly voices in the pastures not far away, where shepherds were keeping watch over their flock. It is almost as if the shepherds were with us in the cave and we heard from them the angels message, and bowed with them about the manger, feeling something of the wonderful holiness which the Lord brought into the world.
But it is better to read the story.
And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be taxed. (And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria.) And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. And Joseph also went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem; (because he was of the house and lineage of David:) To be taxed with Mary his espoused wife, being great with child. And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn. And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them: and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying,
And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart. And the shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them.and man.---Luke II. 1-20.
Author: William L. Worcester 1904
Shepherds keeping watch by night >> All who in that dark time were cherishing affections of innocence and charity which kept them near to heaven and open to the coming of the Lord
Bethlehem >> House of Bread >> Birthplace of the Lord who is the Bread of Life that came down from heaven
The manger >> The Lord's Divine accommodation to the humble states of men >> Accomodation of His Love
The swaddling clothes >> Accommodation of His truth >> His Truth was clothed in Parables
The manger is the place where gentle animals find their food >> He came to feed and strengthen every innocent, gentle and useful affection
Mary keeping the words of the shepherds and pondering them in her heart >> The reverent attitude which every person should keep toward the Lord, His Divine birth and His Divine mission
THE COMING OF THE LORD IN THE WORD.
THE Gospel story in its literal sense is the story of the real coming of God to men, in the early development of the rationality of the race.1
The natural sense of the Gospels relates to the natural reception of the Divine in the lives of men, which was the essence and substance of the Christian Church, and the spring of life of a new Christian civilization. On the same plane also is the coming of the Lord now, into the experience of men, normally in their early youth, as a power to restrain evil, and to inspire new affections for good life.
But this first coming of the Lord is itself representative of His second coming to a more advanced state of rational development both of the race and of the individual the state in which the pride of intelligence and the appropriation to self of the holy things of Christian worship and life are ready for judgment, that the pure love of the Lord may be received and do its work ; while man humbly and gratefully acknowledges it as the Lord's, fearing and dreading any appropriation to self.
It is in this sense that the genealogy has been interpreted, as leading up to Joseph, who stands for the good of life which is capable of being enlightened and rationally understanding the Divine of the Lord in the Word, and is the husband of Mary the affection for the Divine truth which is the Lord Himself the truth of His own life.
The lesson of the conception is that the reality of the Lord's presence in the Word is not first received by the rational understanding, but the goodness of it appeals directly to the affection for truth, and it is received and cherished as true before it is rationally understood.
And as this is not what the understanding would expect, it doubts the legitimacy of it ; but can be instructed that it is really of the Lord, and as the Lord should come; and then it unites with the affection for it in caring for and protecting it. Mary was afterward the wife of Joseph, because the understanding when enlightened does interpret the truth of the Lord's life to the affection for it, though the affection has been first to recognize it.
This coming of the Lord is indeed in the spiritual sense of the Word ; but a knowledge of the spiritual sense is not the coming of the Lord for this can be taught from books, and committed to memory ; neither is the rational understanding of it, the coming of the Lord for this may be had by mental training and combined with much pride of intelligence. The Lord may indeed be present in such knowledge, and introduced by such understanding; but He is received by the heart, when He is recognized and loved as the Divine Love uniting Itself with men in a good life according to the Commandments.
He was received in this way naturally in His first coming, and now also both naturally and spiritually in His second coming. And the difference is that to the life of benevolence and usefulness from His Spirit as received at first, is added in maturer regenerate states, the rational understanding of the glorification of the Lord's Human, and the regeneration of men by following in His footsteps both of which are fully taught in the spiritual sense of the Word. There is also added the dread born of long and hard experience, of the pride of holiness and the pride of understanding2 the shunning of which will forever preserve the sense of the new life as the Lord's, given of the Divine Mercy to men who are in themselves only vile and evil. (Author: John Worchester, 1898. Matthew's Gospel.)
1. This period was represented by the Kings, especially by David. Hence the Lord was called the Son of David. The Kings themselves belonged to the period of the first natural rationality, and did not receive any but natural ideals. But they represented the reception of spiritual ideals in the natural, which the Lord afterward brought to pass.
2. A new development of rationality has come to the race, especially in the growth of the European peoples, the youthful pride in which has brought the Church to a sterile end of intellect or faith alone. The prophecy of the birth of the Lord, not begotten of man (!SAIAH vii. 14), promises new life from God when this intellect shall be judged. It is this intellect which first seizes upon the new truth, and which must be humbled before the Lord can reign in His Church.
Pictures: James Tissot ----Courtesy of the Brooklyn Museum