CHAPTER IX THE NATIVITY
AT the period when these events occurred, the Romans, rulers of the earth, always masters abroad, though consumed at home by hideous vices, had extended their iron yoke even as far as the East. Augustus Caesar, wishing to ascertain the number of subjects over whom he held sway, had just issued an edict in which he commanded a general census to be taken of all the nations subdued by the Roman empire—from the Druidical forests of Gaul as far as the banks of the Euphrates, where a corrupt civilization was destroying, by effeminate luxury, the successors of Alexander. Men, women, and children, the young and the aged, all were to be enumerated like a single flock, not to inquire into their wants or to ease the burden of misery under which they groaned, but to ascertain what taxes might still be imposed upon them. The unbridled luxury of the Imperial City at that time absorbed all the riches of the then inhabited earth; the Roman emperors, not knowing or allowing any other deities than themselves to be worshiped, looked upon the world as a prey which they might devour according to the dictates of their caprices.
The Roman governors were charged with the execution of this new edict, each in the province under his authority. The people inhabiting Palestine were ordered to register, every man in the place of his birth. But the Israelites, scattered over all parts of Judea, in consequence of the increase of their families and their numerous wants, still adhered to their ancient custom, which was to rank themselves by family or tribe. Therefore Joseph, of the family of David, was obliged to inscribe himself among his brethren of Bethlehem.
"We must go, Mary," said Joseph, one morning, on returning from the Council of the Elders, where the edict had just been proclaimed. "We are entering upon the winter, and it appears that it will be of unusual severity. Already the snow covers the lofty summits of Libanus, and the storks traverse the plain. A long and rough journey stretches before us, and for that reason I think we should start at once."
"Let us depart then," said Mary, "without fear."
She understood his misgivings, but they did not disturb her serenity.
"God is guiding us, dear Joseph," she continued. "We can only fulfil His divine decrees."
For the young maid of Galilee was revolving even then in her mind the words of Micheas. 4 'And thou, Bethlehem Ephrata, art a little one among the thousands of Juda; out of thee shall He come forth unto me that is to be the ruler in Israel." (Micheas v, 2.)
The wife of Cleophas was to remain at Nazareth until the arrival of her husband—now a matter of daily expectancy—when she would set out with him and their children and insert their names in his tribe. Joseph and Mary, bidding her an affectionate farewell, began their journey immediately. The beautiful Virgin was covered with a long cloak and thick veil and seated on Eleabthona. Joseph, wrapped in a heavy coat of goat's hair, led the little animal by the bridle, in order to render its step more secure beneath its precious burden. Piously he invoked their guardian angels to guide them. Some of the inhabitants of Nazareth who also belonged to the numerous tribe of David accompanied them.
The face of nature contrasted tremendously with those days in the spring when Mary had set forth to visit her cousin Elizabeth. The sky was dull and covered with clouds; the rocks, stripped of verdure, presented summits that were naked and rugged; the notes of the birds were no longer heard; the torrents were troubled; the leaves, falling from oak and sycamore, sank with a melancholy rustling; the wind itself bore a mournful sound, and the earth, shrouded in hoar-frost, seemed to wear an aspect unfamiliar in that beautiful country, ordinarily so highly favored.
The sweet Virgin could not but contrast the present sterility with the loveliness which had greeted her so short a while before. Nature's altered appearance seemed symbolical of the future. In that hour, perhaps, she experienced, by anticipation, the joys and sorrows which awaited her and her dearly-loved Son. The contrast was inevitable. The spring had poured forth upon her all its favors; roses, perfume, sunshine, the beauty of night, the splendor of day had surrounded her. All nature had visibly rejoiced. But now that the time approached for the birth of the Son of God, all seemed gloom and decay. Each day's journey was more irksome than the one that had preceded it. The wind grew colder and more piercing; the sea-bird's mournful cry was filled with sorrow, and occasionally, from the rocks and caves hidden in the wilderness, the roars of wild animals could be heard in all their frightening intensity.
These scenes of wintry mournfulness in that land of Israel, so long called the Promised Land, were now succeeded by others of a directly opposite character. For when the caravan had passed through the narrow defiles and left Mount Carmel behind; when it descended into the plain, sheltered from the north wind by the contiguous mountains, it again encountered a pleasing landscape as far as Bethlehem— Bethlehem, the house of bread, called also Ephrata, "fruitful," since all good was to spring from it. From a distance the travelers hailed the town as the termination of their long journey, but still more as the city of David, Obed, and Booz. All forgot the mournfulness which had been the chief impression since they left Nazareth—excepting Mary, the Mother, whose foresight had identified the future in the present.
The approaches to the town were crowded with travelers of every rank and of every age. They came from the remotest parts of Judea to be inscribed in that little city, for the tribe of David was, as we have said, one of the most numerous, and for that reason the most scattered. Some had left the mountains of Lebanon, where they kept their numerous flocks. These had descended into the plain upon strong asses. Some came from towns beyond the Jordan, where, by marriage, they had settled themselves, and now they brought with them numerous sons and daughters. Others came from Bozra, where for a long time they had practised the art of dyeing the most beautiful and celebrated purple. Others still from Mizraim, where was cultivated the flax from which tunics were made. Everywhere were men, women, and children—whole families with camels, dromedaries, and long files of carriages in which the older people had traveled on account of the bad season.
It was near the third hour when the holy couple drew nigh to Bethlehem. Their companions had left them to seek relatives residing in the town. The little animal on which Mary rode was fatigued, and proceeded with difficulty. Joseph, consumed with anxiety, forgot his own bodily weariness in the trouble that now confronted them. For when they presented themselves at the inn, it was so crowded with guests that it was impossible even to cross its threshold. A house was pointed out to them further on, but this also was filled to the very doors. Again and again they sought admission within the precincts of the town. Not only were they unsuccessful, but rude voices bade them begone. No one wished to welcome the two humble strangers.
Night approached swiftly. It became icy-cold; a raw, dense mist enveloped the earth. Mary and Joseph were well-nigh exhausted, and their poor dumb beast tottered along beside them, panting with fatigue. Yet where were they to go? Every door was closed against them—as well might they have been in a desert, for all the cheer or comfort that was proffered.
For the first time in her life, Mary, the tender, the charitable, the loving Mary, felt something of the keen abandonment which her Son was one day to experience. Her soul was wrung with grief. She understood that to which, until then, she had been a stranger—how cold is man toward his fellow. Never had Mary beheld a single human being in distress without hastening to his assistance, giving him either from the little worldly goods she possessed, or tenderly consoling him. And now, out of all these people, not one turned a glance of pity in their direction.
"And yet," she thought, within her pure heart, "these are the souls to whom the Saviour is coming. He is to redeem them. They are torpid, but they will be aroused. And how precious they are, since God is about to bestow His Son upon them, to save them and all creatures." And this thought so comforted her that she blessed them all, notwithstanding their indifference.
Joseph found a sheltered place near one of the closed houses, and helped Mary to be seated. He then gave a little barley to poor Eleabthona, and took some fruit from a basket fastened to the saddle. The busy hum of the crowd had died away. Mary shivered and drew her cloak about her.
"We can not remain here," said Joseph, "and you, my dear Mary, are not fit to go on." His anxiety was acute. " It is no use looking further within the town."
"Perhaps," said Mary, "we could go back part of the way, and find shelter under a tree—or beneath that great rock which we passed at noon."
Joseph immediately remembered the halting. They had paused under a large olive-tree, and close to it he had perceived a grotto cut in the rock, which he now thought might serve as a refuge. They rose at once. A cold wind blew upon them, and Joseph, taking off his cloak, wrapped it about Mary. They walked as fast as their weariness permitted, and at length arrived at the grotto. They were just in time, for so fatigued were they both that neither could have traveled another step.
Upon entering the grotto they were surprised at the sensation of warmth that greeted them. The moon, high in the heavens, shone through a crevice in the upper part of the rock, and showed them two beautiful white heifers, who had been left there for safe keeping by some shepherd, and whose presence and breath warmed the little cave.
"May God be praised!" ejaculated Joseph. "He has certainly guided us to this place. Here, at least, Mary, you will be enabled to rest in safety, and to-morrow I shall surely find a better habitation.' ' He threw some sheaves of straw upon the ground, and Mary, utterly overcome, gathered her robe and veil about her and quickly fell asleep. Joseph spread other sheaves before the entrance, and placed himself between it and Mary to serve as a screen.
If Joseph had suffered much physically during this journey, his soul had been a prey to the most acute sorrow because of Mary. He had formerly believed, in common with the greater number of Hebrews, that the King of glory announced by oracles, hailed by prophets, expected by nations, would appear surrounded by all the splendors of the world. Yet the divine Child was coming at a time when Mary and Joseph were really poor—poorer than they had ever been. They, the descendants of the royal race, to which so many wonders had been promised, had wandered about for almost a day unable to secure an abode, rejected, yes, even despised by all!
Joseph sighed, and closed his eyes wearily. He was too tired to pursue this train of thought, and raising his soul to God in an act of sublime resignation, he sank into deep slumber. All was quiet. The soft breath of the sleeping Virgin barely parted her lips. The warmth and shelter of the little grotto were grateful to their tired limbs.
Silence reigned—a silence such as has never prevailed upon the earth before or since; silence, profound as death, but instinct with life and promise.
Joseph opened his eyes suddenly.
Whence is that dazzling light that is shed throughout the grotto, illuminating it with extraordinary beauty? Whence proceed those canticles, accompanied by the musical rustling of wings? Whence that brightness, that sweet perfume? Joseph, half-awake, drank in the sweet sounds, hardly daring to move. And then he was able to distinguish words filled with celestial harmony:
"The Saviour of the world has arisen: Like a sun He rises in the East. He descends upon the universe as rain Doth fall upon its surface to renew it. The Saviour of the world has arisen: The Saviour of the world has appeared!"
And the chorus resounded again and again, so full of joyous melody that human heart could barely endure its sweetness.
"Glory to God in the highest And on earth peace To men of good will"
Joseph arose, and threw off his cloak. His vision, at first confused, became dearer, and he drew in his breath with a great gasp of awe, of almost overwhelming wonder. For, enveloped in that golden light, seated upon the heaped-up sheaves, was Mary, radiant in the splendor of her glorious Maternity, holding a little Child upon her knees! She saw nothing, heard nothing, observed nothing but the tiny Infant. No words could describe her expression of unbounded affection, tenderness, and respect.
Yet the Child resembled any other new-born infant. Like others, He was small and weak; like others, He uttered faint cries, for life was a new and strange experience. But rays of light, rays of heavenly purity, issued from His tiny body. They illumined the grotto, and all that it contained. The poor straw gleamed like gold; they shone on the milk-white heifers, the docile beast that had borne Mother and Child during the long journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem. They glorified Mary's reverent, tender face; they fell on the innumerable angelic spirits, now adoring their Lord and God; on Joseph, who rose to his feet but to fall upon his knees and join his loving worship to that of the happy Mother.
Gone were fatigue and sorrow and question and misgiving; gone was every shadow from heart and mind; gone was his anxiety for the future, his dread of what was to come; his fear of his own weakness which would prevent him from providing for Mother and Child! New strength flowed like a flood through every vein; new ardor and hope revivified his mind. Prayer and adoration rose to the throne of God from his grateful soul, as he knelt with clasped hands before this tiny Infant, who embodied the goodness and mercy of the Creator of the universe.
"Glory be to God in the highest . . . and on earth . . . peace . . to men of good will!"
Now the melody resounded through the night, dying away to sweetest echo, again mounting the heights triumphantly. Time passed—but no one knew that time existed. Joseph was lost in rapturous ecstasy, joining, in a low voice, his own praises to the glorious chorus of angels, seraphim, cherubim, archangels, who sang continuously that rapturous refrain:
"Glory be to God in the highest . . . and on earth . . . peace ... to men of good will!"
Ah, Joseph, blessed Joseph, this was indeed a reward exceeding great for thy patience and kindness and noble charity; for thy life of good deeds, and thy prompt fulfilment of the law of God!
Who can describe her transports? O young mother who reads this page, you are full of affection, clasping your child in your arms, and you know the joy of maternity. You are filled with a happiness which resembles that of heaven, so pure it is, so complete does it appear. And yet . . . you embrace but a creature, inferior, fallen, destined to sin, doomed to death. You know not what pains, what fears, even what misfortunes are reserved for your loving heart through this one small babe.
But Mary cradles a God in her sweet young arms.
This Child contains in Himself all light, for He is the Author of light; all virtue, for virtue emanates from Him; all strength and beauty, for all strength and beauty proceed from Him. He is Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end of perfection.
Tell me, earthly mother, if your heart seems scarce able to hold the feelings which overwhelm it—can you comprehend how the heart of Mary was able to sustain itself under the emotion which must have filled it now? But oh, how her heart was raised above the earth! She loved her Son as Eve loved her first-born; as the mother of Moses loved him whom she was compelled to expose on the banks of the Nile; as the mother of the Machabees loved those sons who were doomed to death; as every mother who has died for her child has loved it; as all mothers love their children. For she, the complete prototype of an indivisible love, possessed in herself alone what all other mothers possess in a limited degree.
But the measure of her joy is to be the measure of her grief. She is to suffer as Eve suffered at the death of Abel; as Sarah suffered over Isaac; as the mother of Moses suffered when the waters bore away her little son; as the mother of the Machabees; as those mothers have suffered who have died for their children! She will suffer as all mothers together have ever suffered.
And her soul, rejoicing with as great joy as all the joys of earth combined can give, was to suffer with as great a suffering as all the sorrows of earth combined.