Father John A. Hardon, S.J. Archives
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Lessons of Bethlehem
Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius
What is poverty? Destitute poverty? What is humility? Limitless humility? What is charity? Boundless charity? All are questions of highest, no eternal order. All are answered in this meditation. To be saved, America must be re-Christianized. The lessons of Bethlehem touch and test each one of us. It's up to you, it's up to me. Let's not only listen and learn the answers but also determine to live the lessons of Bethlehem. Then and only then should we attempt to do our divinely expected share to reach others with this important message. Now, Father Hardon.
Suppose we begin with a prayer.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hail Mary, full of grace the Lord is with thee. Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
Our Lady of Bethlehem, pray for us.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Thank you for listening, I'm speaking from the monastery of the Carmelite Cloistered Nuns in Dallas, Texas. This is our fourth conference on the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius. Our conference today will be on the lessons of Bethlehem.
Just a reminder, those of you that are following these conferences or making the retreat it would be well if you had available a copy of the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius to follow the logic and sequence of the Spiritual Exercises. And also it would be useful if you had a copy of my own one volume 'Retreat with the Lord' published by Servants Publication in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Our next conference is on March the 8th. It will be on the two standards, namely, of Christ and Satan.
First to briefly place ourselves into context, as we've said before, there are four major divisions to the Spiritual Exercises, divided into four weeks. The first week concentrates on the purpose of our existence and on sin and the need of our reforming our lives. The second concentrates on Christ's public ministry. The third week spans the passion of Jesus Christ ending with His death on Calvary and burial. And the fourth week concentrates on Jesus resurrection from the dead and His risen life on earth closing with His ascension into heaven. We are now in this meditation focusing on the second week of the Spiritual Exercises.
The Lessons of Bethlehem
If there is one event that changed the course of history it is the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. In the Spiritual Exercises of St. Ignatius, the meditation on Bethlehem is called, not a meditation but a contemplation on the Nativity. This means that the focus of this contemplation is on the persons and events which took place at Bethlehem. While the purpose of these reflections is not just to reflect or think about what happened but rather to apply the revealed meaning of the events of Bethlehem to our own spiritual lives. That is why we are calling this conference, 'the Lessons of Bethlehem'. And by lessons of Bethlehem we mean, the mind being enlightened in order that the will might be inspired here, inspired to follow in the footsteps of Jesus Christ. What I will do in sequence is give a capsule title to each section of our contemplation as we go along.
First: Political power and Jesus Christ
The first lesson that Bethlehem teaches us is the mysterious role that political power played in the life of the Savior. As St. Luke tells us, and I quote, "A decree went forth from Caesar Augustus that a census of the whole world should be taken". Except for this decree of the Roman emperor the messianic prophecy of the Savior's birth in Bethlehem, the town of David, would never have been fulfilled. It was therefore in obedience, to the authority of a pagan monarch that Joseph went from Galilee out of the town of Nazareth into Judea, the town of David, which is called Bethlehem. Why, because he, Joseph, was of the house of David and the family of the same king. To register together with Mary, his espoused wife, who was with child. Needless to say, our Lady was also of the family of David. Just as Christ's birth at Bethlehem was occasioned by the imperial edict of a vain monarch. What Caesar wanted was a head count of all the people living in the Roman Empire. In the same way, Christ's death on Calvary was a result of a cowardly Pontius Pilate representing the royal power of the Roman Empire. The lesson behind both Bethlehem and Calvary is the mysterious providence of unjust civil authority being used by God to accomplish the designs of God. In other words, He uses the sin of human beings to achieve His divine goals. And over the centuries from Calvary to the present day, who have been the most stark, virulent, enemies of Christ and His Church? Who, The holders of political power who saw in Christ and in Christians a challenge to their own autocratic tyranny. And let's remind ourselves. As I never tire telling people, our century is the Age of Martyrs. More men, women and children have died for Jesus Christ since 1900 than in all the previous 1900 years put together. And behind that martyrdom, who has it been, its been anti-Christian political power. We go on.
The Poverty of the Incarnate God
The words of the evangelist in describing what happened on Christmas morning could not be more simple. We are told that, When the date for Mary to be delivered were fulfilled she brought forth her first born son and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, she laid him in the manger because there was no room for them in the inn", unquote St. Luke. Remember nothing, absolutely nothing ever happens with God. One word not in the divine vocabulary is happened or chance. It was not coincidental that Mary and Joseph could not find lodging in Bethlehem. Nor was it by chance that Our Lady gave birth to her Son in a stable. And literally wrapped him, as the Greek of St. Luke makes plain, wrapped him in rags and laid him in a trough. What is our Lord teaching us? He is telling us what, enshrined in the first Beatitude, remember. He began His Sermon on the Mount by giving us the Beatitudes. Which I tell people are the Decalogue of the New Law. And the first Beatitude reads, "Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven." Notice, no one else has a title to heaven, only the poor in spirit. Detachment from the things of this world is the first law in the following of Jesus Christ. Let's make sure we know that our faith is to be taken literally. This detachment is not a hyperbole, it is not a figure of speech. As the infinite God, Christ possessed the universe as His domain. The sun, moon and stars are His, the ocean, mountains, the planets all belong to Him. Yet this infinite God chose to be born in a stable. He chose to come into the world not only as man but as impoverished, indeed, as dependent and by all human standards as helpless. How we, especially we, we Americans need this lesson today. In so called developed countries like our own, where wealth is glorified, and rich people are canonized and poverty is despised, we need, I need, you need, the inspiration that the Son of God gives us by this witness of, and I mean it, this witness of destitution. Most of the human race goes to bed hungry every night. As long as I live I'll never forget my month's stay in Calcutta, India. Children starving, begging for food. Tens of thousands of people all night, lying on the sidewalks, not a few, by the morning are dead. A survey made for India the average monthly death by starvation in India is 100,000 people. Lord, teach us, we beg You, the meaning behind Your being born in a stable and being wrapped in rags. Teach us, we beg You, what You want us to understand by the first beatitude. We continue.
The First Message of the Angel to the Shepherds
The longest sustained part of the Bethlehem narrative is on the appearance of the angels to the shepherds. Quoting St. Luke, "Living in the same district and keeping watch over their flock by night", these are the shepherds, "all of a sudden an angel of the Lord stood by them, while the glory of God shone round about them." And then the evangelist tells us, they feared exceedingly. The angel reassured them, "do not be afraid, he told them. For behold I bring you good news of great joy which shall be to all the people for today in the town of David a Savior has been born for you, who is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign to you, you will find an infant in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger." We ask, what were the shepherds being told. They were being told to identify a specious babe lying in an animal barn. Identify I repeat, this specious babe was the Lord of the universe who had come to save a sinful world.
The lesson for us is too painfully obvious to miss, if poverty was the first instruction of Bethlehem, humility is its principle commandment. The Creator of the world by whose Word the universe was made. Made out of nothing because the Word of God said, spoke, and the world was made. This Almighty Creator now came into the world that He made, as an ( ) which is the latin word for speechless, a speechless child. Later on, during His public ministry, Jesus would give us one mandate on which the whole of Christianity depends. He would tell us, "learn of me, I am meek and humble of heart". Where pride wants to publicize itself, humility hides even the highest gifts we may possess. Humility, St. Teresa of Avila tells us, is the truth. Except for God, we would be what we were before He made us what we are, nothing, nothing. That is the truth. No wonder the angel told the shepherds how this would be a sign to them, that the Lord of heaven and earth would be found wrapped in cast away cloth and lying in a food bin for animals. Whatever else Bethlehem should teach us, it is the need for recognizing our sinful parading of ourselves in our desperate need for living a humble life.
Let me say a little more. The road to humility is paved with the stones of humiliation. God began, God started, His earthly existence by the humiliation of being born in a barn. And He clothed His earthly life by the stark humiliation of being crucified as a criminal between two thieves. The last thing that we, as professed followers of Jesus should ever, I don't say reject, but even, avoid is humiliation. This is the normal way that God gives those whom He created to reach the Creator from whom they came, because only humble people will reach heaven. And only those who are willing to be humiliated will become humble. How we need to learn this hard lesson in our self publicized, constantly advertised, so widely paraded, United States, the need for being humiliated if you want to become like Jesus in following Him in His own practice of humility. We continue.
The Angelic Promise of Peace
The first message of the single Angel at Bethlehem introduced a multitude of the heavenly hosts. Praising God and saying, "Glory to God in the highest and on earth peace to men of goodwill", unquote. In effect the angels, now the multitude, are making two important announcements, and they were making the announcements to us, though speaking to the shepherds in Bethlehem. The first announcement was to glorify God for the marvel of the Incarnation now made visible by Christ's actual, physical nativity. Let's remind ourselves, to glorify God means to recognize the goodness of God and adore Him for His gracious love in becoming one of us to restore our friendship with the Holy Trinity, do we ever need this lesson. To glorify the goodness of God in our own lives made manifest in countless ways every day in our lives. Here I would like to read from St. Anthony the Great as he is called who by the way lived a very mortified life, second, third centuries. "I have lived to the ripe old age of 105", says, St. Anthony. Regarding our duty of glorifying God by thanking Him daily for His goodness to us. I quote St. Anthony "Man, created to be a witness and grateful interpreter of His works, this is what men should strive for lest they die as dumb animals without having seen or understood God and His works. When you lie down on your bed, remember with thanksgiving the blessings and providence of God. Then filled with this good thought you will rejoice in spirit and brimming with a feeling of goodwill wholeheartedly and with all strength glorify God, giving Him from the heart praises that rise on high." unquote St. Anthony. That is the first announcement made by the angelic multitude. We are to glorify God by daily, and during the day, thanking Him for the wonderful graces and gifts He is giving us. And remember, not all of God's gifts are pleasant to us. The only thing that matters is; is what we have received pleasing to Him.
The Second Commandment, better, second announcement of the angelic hosts was to promise peace to human beings here on earth, but on one condition, that we become men and women of goodwill. To be of goodwill in the language of God is to conform one's will to the divine will. By now there must be a dozen translations in English of the official Latin text in St. Luke, which says, and I quote the latin, "Et in terra pax hominibus bonae voluntatis" which properly translated reads, "and on earth, peace to men of goodwill." In other words, God promises peace of heart to those whose hearts are united with His, or in less poetic terms, whose wills are conformed to the loving will of the Almighty. The lesson behind this promise is beyond price. Unlike what the world teaches us, there is no peace in doing our own will. There is no peace in choosing what we want. There is no peace in demanding what our desires should be or that our desires should be satisfied. There is peace only, and I repeat that adverb is divinely revealed, there is peace only in doing God's will. There is peace only in doing what God wants. There is peace only in surrendering our desires to what we may call the desires of God for us whom He loves. Of all the great minds over the centuries that have written eloquently about Bethlehem and the deep meaning of Christ's birth, I know of no one who has improved on the poem, the poem of St. John of the Cross on the birth of our Lord. I think it is worth quoting the poem in full.
Now that the season was approaching of His long expected birth
Jesus as we know cried. We may be sure He cried as a child. We know He wept as a man to teach us how deeply He loves us. And how deeply He suffered out of love. We go on.
The Shepherds Came and Believed
Twice in two chapters St. Luke tells us that people went with haste. Mary went in haste to visit her kinswoman, Elizabeth. And the shepherds went in haste to visit the Christ Child. As St. Ambrose tells us, love is always in a hurry. Not surprisingly the shepherds found Mary and Joseph and the Christ child lying in the manger just exactly as the angel had told them. What is most significant however, is what the evangelist next tells us, that when the shepherds had seen they understood what had been told them concerning this child. This is marvelous; it is the suddenness with which understanding by the mind followed the shepherds seeing with their eyes. Why did they understand? Because, their minds did not resist the revelation which God was giving them. This is more than a lesson for all of us. It is at once a warning and a blessed promise. The warning is; that the Gospel, which Christ came into the world to reveal, must be accepted by the believing mind. As Jesus warns us, "He who believes shall be saved, but he who does not believe shall be condemned". In other words, heaven is reserved for those who believe.
Faith is the indispensable pathway to eternal beatitude. As a person or a nation becomes more academically sophisticated the mind tends to become correspondingly more skeptical. We are then tempted to measure our degree of faith by the degree of our agreement with what we are expected to believe. It is not enough to say, as the shepherds believed what they saw when they saw the Christ Child because, well, you know, they were just shepherds. They were unlettered, unsophisticated, and we may be sure, illiterate men doing the menial work of tending sheep by night. On a personal note, I think I should mention my mother was a shepherdess in Europe. Finished only the sixth grade in grammar school. How happy I am to give tribute to a deeply believing woman. What we sophisticated modernists had better learn, and we'd better learn it, is that all educated people are not necessarily intelligent. Not all educated people are intelligent; and not all intelligent people are educated. In other words, intelligence and education are not necessarily synonymous. Forty-four years of teaching have taught me many things. Among the things I've learned is that people with a very simple, limited education can be very intelligent, profoundly wise and correspondingly, highly educated doctorates can be, dare I say it, learned ignoramuses. But that's not the principle lesson I wish to share with you.
Much more important than the dichotomy between intelligence and education is what the shepherds teach us. Namely, that you never stand in judgment on the wisdom of God. By definition divine faith is the assent of the intellect to everything which God has revealed accepted on divine authority and not because the believing mind grasps or understands, and least of all, comprehends what God has revealed. That is why over the centuries, beginning at Bethlehem and He has continued doing this over the centuries, God chooses the simple people to confound the self-wise. He selects by preference those with humble mind to put proud intellects to shame. We are of course to understand what we believe, we are to grow in our grasp of what God has revealed. But, hear it, this understanding is conditioned on having a lowly estimate of our own native intelligence when confronted with the ocean of divine wisdom. Above all, it means that we bend our minds, bend them, I've taught too many intelligent people for too many years not to know how hard it is for intellectuals to be humble, humble in mind. Ah, how much the shepherds have to teach us, they saw the Christ child and they understood. We continue.
The Shepherds as First Apostles
St. Luke gives us only one sentence on this subject, but it is most revealing. He says, and I quote, "All that heard marveled at the things told them by the shepherds." It was not for nothing that the first visit of the angel told the shepherds that he was bringing them good news of great joy which shall be to all the people. The good news is of course, the Gospel. After having seen the Christ Child and understood what this meant they began to tell others about their experience. It must seem ironic that when God become man appeared in visible form on earth He should have resorted, of all people, to unlettered caretakers of sheep to communicate this message to the rest of the world. Another embarrassing lesson for us. We have the true faith, we have received the message of salvation, we have in greater or less measure understood what we believe, is there still something wanting to us? Yes, yes indeed. We have the duty, the divinely conferred duty, to tell others what we know is God's revealed truth. We have the heavy responsibility to share with others what God has so undeservingly given to us. We cannot excuse ourselves for not being in positions of influence in the Church or in society. We cannot hide behind our anonymity, each one of us, just because we have the true faith and corresponding duty to communicate this faith to everyone, we therefore must, according to our ability, we must share this faith with everyone whose life we touch.
Finally, the Heart of Mary
It should be no surprise that St. Luke does not quote a single word of our Lady at Bethlehem. All the evangelist says is that, quote, "Mary kept in mind all these things, pondering them in her heart", unquote. And the Virgin most prudent, we're not surprised that our Lady gave no speeches at Bethlehem, what we are told is that she kept all the events of Christmas morning on her mind while pondering them in the depths of her heart. This is both the final and in a way the most important lesson of Bethlehem. God became man to dwell among us in the fullness of His human nature in the Holy Eucharist and in the depth of supernatural gifts by His grace. Our most important task on earth is to think of Christ our Incarnate God by speaking to Him with our minds. And our deepest experience on earth should be to tell our Lord that we love Him from the depths of our hearts, everything else this side of eternity is secondary for the best of reasons. To imitate Mary in her contemplative love at Bethlehem is already a foretaste of heaven here on earth. It is also the promise of joining our Lady in that everlasting Christmas day for which we were made. I have a short concluding prayer.
Lord Jesus, our God, You were born into this world at Bethlehem to teach us many things. But the deepest and hardest lesson we have to learn is to become like little children if we wish to possess the kingdom of heaven. Conquer our pride, dear Savior. Humiliate our vanity, to become something of what You became at Bethlehem, a little child. We thank You, dear Lord, for Your gifts of coming to live among us. We love You with all our hearts. We share with You our love. Amen.
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