It is customary to regard Christmas as a feast of divine manifestation. God has become man. He has entered the human story in a definitive and absolutely singular way. Grace, like a geyser, erupts from the cave at Bethlehem to inundate the whole world.
Our festivities have made this season merry. Our sermons and celebrations, our songs and specials, our gifts and feasting – everything seems to collude in a joyous conspiracy to rob us of our gloom at what is, by nature, a terribly depressing time of year. And there is much to rejoice in when we regard the Holy Infant surrounded by his Virgin Mother and foster-father. But I think we have missed something.
God is everywhere hidden – a Deus Absconditus. His Face, as it were, abides behind more veils than that which cloaked His glory in the Temple. In the depths of human sin, the heart fashions idols and chases phantasms. This is not merely true of those outside the Church; how often do we Christians find ourselves falling into the same wicked habits, preferring the things of earth to the things of heaven! I am not excused from this very charge. I, too, am in need of mercy.
Christmas is not so much a feast of divine manifestation as a testament of God’s enduring hiddenness. The Infant King has no caparisoned herald to announce him in the highways and byways, so as to bring the mighty to pay their homage. Instead, He sends His angels to summon the lowly and humble from afar off in the fields. Why were the shepherds summoned first, and not the townspeople of Bethlehem? Only a few souls received this extraordinary grace. We do not know their names. We have no idea what happened to them in the end. We have no sense of whether the peculiar privilege granted to them bore fruit in their own salvation. But I would like to believe that they did achieve the Beatific Vision. I hope they are in a high choir of Heaven. As deep calls to deep, so does the Hidden God love those elect souls who remain hidden in pious obscurity. In a beautiful passage, Fr. Faber calls these souls, which exist even today,
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 uunder our very feet, where His glory feeds without our seeing it.Fr. Frederick William Faber, Bethlehem, 228.
How then is this a divine manifestation? If anything, God draws the shepherds into the very obscurity in which He always abides. It is a manifestation that negates itself. They share His hiddenness, so similar to the dim glory of the Holy of Holies. The shepherds become human extensions of His sacred obscurity. Each one is a living shroud of the Divine Presence. Their lives, already hidden from the proud eyes of the world, are now forever hidden in God’s and written into His story.
God led the shepherds to that bed by the grace of an angelic call. He led the Magi instead by a less glorious, if no less effective, grace. They saw a marvel in the sky and followed it. Strange phenomena are another of God’s many veils, though not so beautiful and not so clear as revelation. We do not even know if the star they followed was supernatural or just a prodigy of nature. Directly or indirectly, Providence used it as a beacon to light their way to the dark and holy cave.
But the shepherds were first. And surely in this we discover a truth confirmed throughout the long history of the Church’s experience in the world. God does not reveal Himself to the learned and those wise in the judgment of the World. The Incarnation, like all the works of grace, is “unto the Jews indeed a stumblingblock, and unto the Gentiles foolishness” (1 Cor. 1:23 DRA). Our Lady sings as well that “He hath shewed strength with his arm: he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He hath put down the mighty from their seat: and hath exalted the humble and meek” (Luke 1:51-52, BCP 1662).
Worldly learning is totally bereft of access to God. It is little better than blindness. Thinking otherwise is mere pride and vanity, and only deepens the darkness. St. Paul tells us that “For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known” (1 Cor. 13:12 KJV). Natural reason can help us see that there is a God, as well as to illuminate a few of His basic features. But no sage, however wise, and no scholar, however learned, grasped the mystery of the Incarnation of the Logos. Still less could they have foreseen that this holy child was, as it were, born as a sacrifice. Even the Prophets were entrusted with signs alone, and not the true substance of the mystery they preached. That was reserved first for the Virgin Immaculate in holy poverty, then for St. Joseph her Most Chaste Spouse, then the family of the Holy Forerunner, and then to the humble shepherds. Only after all of them did the Magi arrive to gaze upon the faze of God Incarnate. In delaying the Magi, Providence teaches us that the mysteries of grace are a crucifixion of natural reason. But in condescending to let them enter and adore the Divine King, He shows us that He will crown our earnest efforts to reach Him, as only He can, with His mercy.
But still, so very few are the witnesses of this God who remains, as it were, quite hidden! A handful of Jewish shepherds, and three pagan scholars with their retinue. He is brought to the Temple and circumcised – a prophetess and a priest, both soon to depart for eternal life, are entrusted with the secret. Anna and Simeon are a reminder that “salvation is of the Jews,” (John 4:22 KJV) and comes from no other people on earth. The gratuitous particularity of this chosen people, this priestly nation among all others, comes from the newborn babe that Simeon held in his hands. Perhaps, looking upon that smiling face, he suddenly saw all the covenants telescope into one, all collapse into themselves and center upon and magnify this child. Perhaps he knew he was holding the heavenly High Priest, of which his own office was merely a shadow.
Quite soon, the Lord departs from Bethlehem when a wicked and impudent king seeks His life. Then those martyrs, the Holy Innocents, water the ground of Bethlehem with their sainted blood. That grisly dewfall covered the steps of the escaped God who, in His Mercy, made them a very different kind of witness to His Incarnation. But their names are also covered in obscurity. They, too, remain in a kind of holy hiddenness.
There is a common thread between these four groups – or at least, explicitly in the first three, and only implicitly in the last. Contact with the Divine Presence, hidden for so long, brings forth adoration in the soul. The shepherds adore, the Magi adore, the dwellers in the Temple adore, and the Holy Innocents join Him in an oblation of their very blood. This grace of adoration is not given to all souls, but is nevertheless a defining characteristic of the Christian life. It is the sine qua non of Heaven. It is the essence of Christian life. Wherever one adores Our Lord in truth and earnestness, even a soul very imperfectly purified, we can be sure that grace is working there.
This Christmas, let us pray that the Incarnate Lord will grant us the graces of humility, of adoration, and of an earnest search for the God who remains always hidden from our mortal eyes.