CHAPTER X. THE ADORATION OF THE SHEPHERDS
"Fear not; for behold I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all the people;
"For this day is born to you a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord, in the city of David.
"And this shall be a sign unto you. You shall find the infant wrapped in swaddling-clothes, and laid in a manger." (St. Luke ii, 1o-12.)
The winged cohort departed, leaving a track of light across the velvety midnight sky. For a long time the shepherds stood gazing upward, their eyes on the heavenly brightness. They did not quite understand the words which had been spoken, but their hearts were filled with such exultant joy that they felt impelled to follow the angels, and see what they might see.
So they left their rudely constructed huts, and their large flocks to the care of a shepherd, and went after the angels, taking with them only their crooks and wallets, and one or two newly-born lambs.
"Let us go over to Bethlehem," they said, "and let us see this word which has come to pass—which the Lord hath showed to us." (St. Luke ii, 15.)
They could talk of nothing, think of nothing but the sight just witnessed, and the message which called them to forsake everything and follow wherever the shining light would lead. A glad joyousness uplifted every heart—a joy that nature itself seemed to share. Clouds flitted across the sky in orderly array, seeming in this wise to be setting out with them on the same journey; the evergreen leaves of the laurel and the pine trembled as they passed; all the earth seemed wrought up at the coming of the Saviour.
They approached the road to the town, and were already calculating how long it would be ere they could enter it, when the divine hosannas they had previously heard fell upon their ears. Before them they saw the great olive-tree, and the mysterious grotto. They paused, marveling, wondering. Was it here that the King, the newly-born Saviour, was enthroned?
"How shall we venture to approach this King?" asked one of them timidly. "Wearing garments of purple and gold, and like another Solomon in majesty—"
Though a young man, and clothed in the skin of a lion he had strangled with his own hands, he trembled at the thought.
"No matter," cried another, stoutly. "He has called us. We do not understand, but we have come. Let us go—let us gaze upon Him in His glory and magnificence!"
They approached. They entered the grotto. And what did they behold?
"Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger." (St. Luke ii, 16.)
Only a new-born child, a tiny babe, in all its weakness, lying in a manger upon a sheaf of straw! His suite of attendants was a woman young in years, a man of middle age, and grouped about the back of the grotto a few domestic animals.
A king? Where are the crown and scepter of the king ? Where are his honors, his splendors, his riches of purple and gold? Where are the ministers and powerful men of the new kingdom?
Only a child, a little child, poor, weak, and naked.
Yes, undoubtedly. But no man ever knelt before an earthly king as this one man kneels before this little Child; no woman more beautiful, more celestial, more innocent, has ever worshiped at an earthly throne with such reverence as this glorious creature does beside the poor manger-bed. And for attendants, the adoring angels pass constantly to and fro, or kneel before Him, in sublimest awe, with bowed head and folded wings.
This poor and weak child, abandoned, seemingly, in so obscure a dwelling, shines with a light divine, the rays of which encompass those who surround Him. At the sight the simple shepherds found no room for doubt. "Seeing, they understood." (St. Luke ii, 17.) Their hearts swelled with rapture in their breasts. He is a King—a King, indeed! The King of the weak, the humble, and the poor! The King of those who are oppressed on earth, and suffer tribulation. His ears will listen to their sighs. His mouth will command the rich to tremble and the poor to hope. His heart, gentle and merciful, will raise all men from abjection. His understanding will free the world and alleviate all suffering. His is the light that will enlighten all hearts!
"The Lord hath sent His redemption to His people" cried the shepherds with one voice. "He hath commanded His covenant forever. Light has risen in the midst of darkness upon those who are sincere of heart. Let the heavens rejoice, and the earth leap with great joy at this, the sight of the Lord who hath come to His people who have awaited Him!"
Prostrating themselves to the ground, they adored and worshiped with all their hearts, and kneeling, presented their gifts—a little milk, a honeycomb, the fawn of an antelope, a milk-white lamb. They went away then, for their duties called them urgently, "Glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen." (St. Luke ii, 20.) Full of confidence and exultation, they went to circulate among their kindred and companions the joyous news.
"For a Child is born to us, and a Son is given to us, and the government is upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, God the Mighty, the Father of the world to come, the Prince of Peace." (Isaias ix, 6.)
Mary still held her divine Son in her tender arms —no purer throne could He have had on earth!— when Elizabeth, followed by Zachary, carrying a beautiful boy, entered the grotto. All three had been to Bethlehem, and after having inscribed their names on the roll of the census were returning home. But in a dream they were told where they might find Mary and her Child. Forthwith, they sought the place, that they might worship at the cradle of the Saviour. Elizabeth, approaching, full of love for her cousin and the Babe, would have clasped both in her arms. But a curious trembling seized upon her, and instead she cast herself upon her knees. Zachary knelt, also, and both were silent, the while their hearts beat violently in their breasts.
John, supported by his mother, endeavoured to reach the Saviour. Stretching out his little arms, he at last caught one of the hands of the divine Infant, and kissed it with childish glee. The eyes of Jesus were fastened upon him and both children gazed intently at each other. The mothers looked with love and joy on this affecting scene. Elizabeth wept, the tears falling down her cheeks like rain.
But Mary shed no tears. Her soul comprehended the boundlessness, the majesty of the Being encompassed by her arms, and emotion seemed too remote, too earthly. Surely in that happy moment of reunion, these loving souls enjoyed beforehand the bliss of heaven.
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The nations had long known the promises of God. All were expectant, watchful—some in fear, others in hope, for the advent of that Messias, of that Saviour promised to the earth, to renew and change the face thereof. The periods announced by the Prophets had arrived. The weeks foretold by Daniel were now accomplished. The promises, yes, the threats, uttered by Isaias were in course of fulfilment. The earth was at peace, after long and sanguinary wars, and for over twenty years the throne had no longer remained in the house of Juda.
Herod, a foreigner, unworthily named "the Great,"—a title given, in all probability, by a people too prone to allow the parade of viciousness to usurp the prerogatives of real greatness—possessed the throne in the name of the Romans, of whom he was, in truth, the slave. He contaminated his place of loftiness by every crime. Murder and incest reigned in conjunction with him, and these vices did not fail to arouse the indignation of the elder Hebrews, whose customs were virtuous and simple.
Israel, deploring its humiliations, raised suppliant hands to the Lord, The people asked themselves where, when, and how the King of glory should be born—that King in whom was centered all their hopes. They dwelt on the miracles which would signalize the coming of Him who was to reign victorious over Israel.
They did not dream, however, of spiritual conquest. They were looking to their old-time glory, to the conquering and enslaving of the world, to the possession of the riches and treasures of the earth. The coming of the King, the great Messias, meant war, victory, the subjugation and extirpation of all the enemies of God's chosen people.
He it was, the Promised One, who would deliver them from the yoke. He it was who would lead them to combat and battle- Enslaved they were, but they would become masters. Had not the Lord delivered to them their enemies? No olden triumph of the race had ever equaled that which they expected from the One desired above all others for four thousand years. From high places they cast their eyes, impatient to contemplate the King who had been promised. From among the rich and the great they expected to see Him arise like a brilliant star.
And He came ... a little Babe . . . born of a Virgin; His foster-father a humble carpenter . . . weak . . . poor . . . with not a place wherein to lay His head!
A small number of adorers were alone worthy of being admitted to this mystery of divine humiliation. The multitude were seeking the Messias, the great and glorious One, even while the poor shepherds knelt before the wooden manger that cradled Him. This infant King did not overwhelm the simplicity of their hearts by His touching majesty. They were lost in awe and astonishment, but they were not terrified.
And now the great Creator wished the Wise Men to behold His Son. He conducted them, therefore, to His feet—that they, the simple and wise, might meet in His presence. For the emotions of the heart issue from the same source—which is God—in the great and the lowly.
At the threefold blessed period of the birth of the Saviour a new star arose, appearing in great splendor to the Magi, or the Wise Men of the East.