LIGHT FROM BETHLEHEM
Jesus as friend
All the mysteries of Christ’s life are mysteries of love; the very birth of the Son of God is a mystery of love. Only divine omnipotence placed at the service of an infinite love for men could have found such a wonderful way of fulfilling the ancient promise. The event can be explained only by reference to him who cause it: these are words the Church gives her priests to say about the mystery that takes place in the cave at Bethlehem.
This mystery of God’s becoming a child really is a mystery of love: he who is all-powerful reduces himself to complete powerlessness. The Lord of heaven and earth has not even a cradle to lie in; a stable acts as a palace for the Son of David; a manger is used as a throne for the Son of God.
Today, as we wonder at the mystery of God’s having become a child, let us try to make a real effort to understand the value and importance of a genuine life of spiritual childhood. In his public life, to show us the only route he could guarantee would bring us to the kingdom, he said: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heave.” (Mt 18:3). That is all we have to pay to attend the “show” in heaven, to enjoy God’s glory and beauty and harmony. And it is a price outside the reach of proud people and very much within the reach of the humble and of all those who, by making an effort, become men of goodwill.
Surely all of us, this Christmas night, feel the need to try to sanctify ourselves, to become like little children, as this child-God wants? Particularly if we are in today’s world, where it is so easy to grow old and even die spiritually while still being young in years and apparently fresh and healthy.
How many young people and adults do we know who are spiritually dead! How many complicated, closed people whose souls are like labyrinths and whose hearts are always in commotion!
Christmas is the time for simplicity, for being born again, and for spiritual childhood. We should grasp this opportunity, when Christ comes to children and speaks to them. A simple, pure glance will be enough to go deeper into this mystery and enjoy it and benefit from it.
The greatest event in the history of mankind took place in the simplest of ways; something totally supernatural happened in the most natural of ways. The edict of pagan emperor, Caesar Augustus, brought Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; and they were spared none of the harshness of a long, difficult journey, in which cold and privation were their only companions.
God’s action in the world and the work of divine providence in the government of human life pass unnoticed by men and by the chroniclers of history, when people who ought to see and appreciate and report these events fail to approach them with a simple heart, which alone lets them be party to secrets of the life of faith. We men have become so used to looking for noisy news, we are so keen on spectacular events, that we fail to understand God’s preference for simple, ordinary things. There must have been hundreds of other ways of bringing Mary and Joseph to Bethlehem; but divine providence, using a very simple and ordinary way, chose one that certainly was not the most comfortable way for Joseph and Mary, “his betrothed, who was with child” (Lk 2:5). There is a lesson here for us in the twentieth century, who are always looking for the extraordinary, the unusual, who are forever looking for new ways to have an easy life.
The journey that Mary and Joseph made to Bethlehem is simple, humble, and unspectacular. And the same can be said of the birth of the very Son of God: it takes place in the humility and poverty of a cave, in the middle of a cold, silent night.
It certainly cannot be said that silence and solitude are our popular constant companions. In our normal day, periods of silence are few and far between. We hardly know what it means to fight against noise in our soul. And solitude, more than anything else – let’s us be frank about it – make us afraid; we often associate it with boredom and tedium.
In the birth of the Son of God, poverty is so complete that it takes on a certain grandeur – and it is so simple that it borders on poetry. He who adorns the flowers, the fields, and the birds has hardly the wherewithal to cover his nakedness. Many doors have been closed to him; many others have not opened to him: the two wayfarers have sought in vain a roof to shelter them for the night. “There was no room for them in the inn.”
A cave, a manger, a handful of straw, two farm animals – a donkey and a cow. This is the time and place chosen by Providence to start the Christian era. And, while they stayed there, the time came for the mother to deliver her child, the time of the great promise: and she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes and laid him in a manger. The scene is complete: Mary, the Mother of God; Joseph, the supposed father of Jesus; and the newly-born King of the Jews lying in the manger. All very simple, all very poor. A poor mother, a just man, simple swaddling clothes, a little child, a stable, a manger. We are in the middle of winter and in the middle of the night.
When we contemplate all this poverty and remember that the baby is the Light of the world, we naturally ask ourselves whether we have not ignored up to now – or at least not grasped sufficiently – how necessary the virtue of poverty is for our Christian life: without this virtue we cannot enter the kingdom of heaven.
It’s very sad that so many people disregard this virtue altogether and live so wastefully and frivolously. This desire for the superfluous, for more, more temporal possessions, unfortunately dictates the manner of their living and gives the true measure of very many people: it seems that the light of Bethlehem has not reached them. And very few seem to have taken to heart our Lord’s commandment: “Give what is left over to the poor” (Lk 11:41). The borderline between what is necessary and what is superfluous is continually shifting in the outlook and aims and lives of many Christians. And to the extent that it is pushed back, they lose serenity and joy. They are constantly creating new needs; they want to acquire and enjoy more and more things. And no sooner do you get them and enjoy them than, infallibly, you become disillusioned with them and your heart becomes dry again and your hands empty. But off you go again, immediately, in the same direction, with the same objectives.
If we stay for a while at the cave of Bethlehem, we will learn about the virtue of detachment – which means wanting to be poor and, insofar as is possible, becoming really poor – and we can savour the blessedness of poverty: “Blessed are the poor of spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.” A heart detached from the things of this world floods the soul with peace and teaches it to put to good use any wealth it possesses, thereby developing the virtue of generosity. Moreover, detachment gives serenity of heart, which is perfect interior freedom.
If we now look away from the crib, to the nearby hills, the shepherds will win us over by their simplicity. They are simple, humble and poor. There they are, doing their duty, keeping guard over their flocks. That is why they are the first to be told the Good News; that is why they become the first to adore the Son of God. The choices God makes are always conditioned by the presence in souls of those virtues that give off a genuinely evangelical perfume. The darkness opens up, the silence of the night is broken, and the angel brings the shepherds the joy of the Good News. “I bring you news of great joy…” Our simplicity will decide how much we share in the joy of the birth of Christ. The angels, while praising God, promise peace – the peace of the Christ who has been born – to men of goodwill. Men of goodwill! That’s the true “class” to which all Christians should belong. If we all had this evangelical “goodwill”, social classes, even if they continue to exist, would cease contending with each other, and we would attain, all together, the pax Christi in regno Christi: the peace of Christ in the kingdom of Christ.
Let us correct our will, here in front of the cave of Bethlehem, and make it really “good”, ready faithfully to serve the Lord. For if we manage, with the help of the light from Bethlehem, to become simple souls and men of goodwill, we will deeply share in the greatness of this day “on which appeared the goodness and loving kindness of God our Saviour” (Tit 3:4). May the Virgin of Bethlehem, the Mother of Christ, teach us how to become renewed “on the inside” and to understand and enjoy the goodness and kindness of our Saviour, the Christ who has been born.