The Visitation—The Incarnation Announced To Saint Joseph — The Birth Of Jesus (25 December, 6 (?) B.C.). Part 2.

Eight days after, relatives and neighbours flocked to Karem to congratulate Elisabeth, and to welcome the newly born child on the occasion of his formal reception into the people of Israel. 1 In the midst of the festival Zacharias's tongue was suddenly loosened; the Holy Ghost inspired him, and he also praised and magnified the Lord who visited and redeemed His people, and prophesied the high destiny of his son, who should be called " prophet of the Highest" ; he sung above all of another person, the mysterious messenger, the Saviour, the Lord before whose face John was sent to prepare the way. The guests at Karem were filled with righteous fear and admiration. They asked : " What manner of child shall this be ? " and they were answered by these strange words: "He hath raised up an horn of salvation for us, in the house of His servant David. . . . Through the tender mercy of our God; whereby the dayspring from on high hath visited us. . . ." And if Mary was still there, the words that John said later were already fulfilled: " There standeth one among you, whom ye know not." 2 The humble daughter of David, in whom He was hidden, disappeared into the midst of the crowd, and the questioning glances which were exchanged among them did not fall upon the young wife of the carpenter of Nazareth.

Mary " returned to her own house," 3 and with Joseph resumed her life of work and prayer. By degrees, however, the signs of her motherhood became apparent, and necessarily they attracted the attention of Joseph. 4 He had such faith in Mary's virtue, however, that he could not, in spite of appearances, entertain any suspicions which could cast dishonour upon her. Not only was her virtue witnessed by all her life and conduct; God Himself had attested it, by the care which Providence had taken to insure her that virgin marriage. And the circumstances] of that marriage, and the evident holiness of his wife, recalled a prophecy well known among pious Jews, which made Joseph strongly inclined to believe that he had in his home the Virgin mother of the Messiah. But a sign or witness was needed to confirm as a certainty this conjecture of his mind. Then, said he in his humility, if Mary was the Virgin expected by all Israel, was he worthy to receive the Messiah into his house ? What course must he take in this great matter ? And he was greatly troubled. For, when one is deeply concerned and desires full enlightenment, it is a grievous pain to be in ignorance.

In spite of the profound sadness which the thought of separation caused him, it appeared to him that he could not, in such circumstances, live with Mary. "Being a just man," he believed in her innocence, and consequently " not willing to make her a publick example," nor to expose to criticism that which he rightly supposed to be a divine mystery, 5 he thought of dissolving the bond of his marriage as secretly as possible. He would deliver Mary again into those divine hands which had up till then guided her, and which he believed would still take care of her.

A word from the Virgin would have sufficed to extricate her husband from the perplexities which she certainly guessed, and which were no less sad for her. She was assured that she would be believed; and perhaps, had she been guided by ordinary prudence, that word would have been said. But a higher wisdom inspired her to respect the heavenly secret; it was the most delicate propriety that the confidence should not come from her; it was for God to command Joseph to retain his place and his mission near the Messiah, and God would know how to do it at the proper time. She waited and she prayed. This silence was worthy of the wise and prudent Virgin, who, possessing herself in peace, gave herself up entirely to God.

Nothing is more mysterious and at the same time more sure than the guidance of God for those who seek His way and have confidence in Him. Sometimes He shows them the way to be taken, without saying where it will lead them; sometimes He indicates the end beforehand, without instructing them as to the way; sometimes He leaves to their own judgment the choice of the direction they will take; and finally, He sometimes confirms, and sometimes amends the choice of human wisdom, taking His faithful by the hand, and leading them into the right path.

" But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife : for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a Son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus: for He shall save His people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a Son, and they shall call His name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."

Thus the celestial vision assured Saint Joseph of the two things which it was necessary that he should know definitely. From the very first, the mystery accomplished in Mary was wholly divine, and the work of the Holy Ghost; and the Son whom she would bring into the world, was truly He who was to deliver Israel from their sins, the promised Saviour, God with us. Therefore, Joseph's duty must be to remain with her as God had already indicated to him, in uniting him to Mary. The Virgin, thus singularly blessed, must belong to him by right of his most pure marriage. In the eyes of men he would then be the father of the child; even his genealogy would be for them a sign by which they might recognise the origin of the Messiah, and indeed, the angel had been careful to call him, "Joseph, son of David." His paternal rights would not exist solely in the opinion of the world, they would be real, founded on the natural order of things by the will of God. Because the field was his, to him also belonged the treasure which heaven had hidden there, the flower which it should bear. And God commanded him to exercise his authority by bestowing upon the child the name of Jesus.

" Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife." 6 Never was an awaking more joyful, never was any meeting sweeter than that of Mary and Joseph on the morning of that day. The secret which, for a moment, had isolated the one from the other, was now revealed to them both, and renewed and multiplied all the happiness of their union and intimacy. Joseph repeated to Mary the words of the angel; Mary recounted to him the scene of the Annunciation and the divine consolations of Karem. From that time forward, Jesus was the only object of their thoughts, their converse, and their anticipations.

But this Jesus, who was to die upon the cross, sought a still poorer and more inconvenient lodging in which to be born than the humble dwelling at Nazareth. Besides, according to an ancient prophecy, the Messiah must come from Bethlehem. Joseph, and especially Mary, could not have been ignorant of that prophecy, since well-informed Israelites knew of it. 7 But in this as in all other things they committed themselves to God's guidance, and, without knowing how that which was written would be fulfilled, they waited for a sign of His will.

This time the indication came by means of outside events and from a political cause. It was also expedient that the history of the world should be interwoven with that of the birth of the Saviour. Already, in view of His reign, the supremacy among nations had passed from the oriental kingdoms to an empire still more vast and more firmly established ; and in the year 746 of the Roman Empire, the eighth year before our era, Augustus had closed the temple of Janus. Thus the Roman unity and peace announced and prepared for the coming of peace and unity in Christ.

" And it came to pass in those days, 8 that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed. This taxing," made or at least concluded by Cyrenius, has kept alive the name of this governor; he is named as the taker of the first census, which "was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. And all went to be taxed,'' according to the custom of the Jews approved by the Roman power, " every one into his own city " or birthplace. "Joseph also," always submissive to authority, as to God from whom it is derived, started on his journey, and " went up from Galilee, out of the city of Nazareth, into Judaea, unto the city of David, which is called Bethlehem (because he was of the house and lineage of David), to be taxed, with Mary, his espoused wife, being great with child." 10

She also, perhaps, may have been upon the lists of the census, for it is not improbable that in certain cases women were obliged to be registered, and she would have a special claim as the only daughter and heiress of Joachim.

Joseph and Mary travelled then towards Jerusalem, which it was necessary to pass through to reach Bethlehem, situated two hours to the south of the holy city. Winter and the encumbrances of the travellers made the way more difficult. Perhaps they went on foot, perhaps Mary, as she is so often represented, rode on an ass. Her veil was lowered over her face which was wonderfully modest and meditative. Without doubt she communed with the Wisdom of the Father, who reposed in her, and was humble in the thought that she bore within her the Son of God, and that soon she would see Him and hold Him in her arms. She and Joseph remained wrapped in a silence of contemplation and expectation. And, if to their hearts there came echoes of the psalms so often chanted on that same road, what a new meaning and savour there would be to them in the aspirations towards the presence of the Lord and towards the God who would glorify Israel by the light of His countenance. All around them, however, was the noise of the passing of the indifferent crowd. Is it not thus that the multitude generally passes without seeing God ?

God who came to visit His people, " came unto His own and His own received Him not." 11 The inn at Bethlehem was full. Perhaps the wealthy might even then have gained an entrance, but for the humble artisan and his companion there was no room. In compassion someone pointed out to them a little distance away, a grotto hollowed out from the face of the rock ; it served, or had served, for a stable, and might shelter the poor couple for a time. Sweetly resigned and, in spite of the inhumanity of man, piously adoring the lovingkindness of God, they retired there, and Joseph endeavoured to make the place as little uncomfortable as possible for his saintly wife, and for Him whose coming would not be long delayed. In fact, so it was, that " while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered." According to ancient tradition, this was a little after midnight on the 25th of December, probably a Sunday, 12 and in all likelihood the year 748 of the Roman era, six years before the commencement of the Christian era."

Since, entirely exempt from the curse of Eve, she miraculously and virginally brought the Saviour into the world, it is probable that she was blessed with the most exalted rapture. 13 If any conjecture as to the secrets of her heart is permissible, may she not have seen, in the splendour of God revealing Himself to her soul, that same mystery to which she contributed ? The Father, who in the eternal present begets His son, God of God, Light of Light, begot Him at that hour in the new nature which was thenceforth inseparable from His Person. The Father begot His Son with her and by her, for that humanity which participates in the divine sonship was truly of her flesh and substance, just as the Person of the Word is of the substance of God; and with the Father she could say to that Person, " Thou art my Son ; this day have I begotten thee." 14 Her Son was the Lord of all angels, and the Father when He brought the first begotten into the world said: " Let all the angels of God worship him." 15 Her Son was the Light of the World, and from her proceeded that Light which illumined the darkness and dispersed the shadow of death.

Nevertheless, to bodily eyes, her " first-born" 16 and only son was a feeble infant, who, in her arms, trembled with the cold of night, and Mary " wrapped Him in swaddling clothes" that she had brought with her. There was no cradle in that poor stable ; there was only a " manger," a kind of clay trough, 17 placed on wooden supports. There she " laid her Son," and falling on her knees beside Joseph, they offered Him the first worship of mankind.

"And there were, in the same country," about a mile-and-a-quarter towards the East, 18 some " shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them : and they were sore afraid. And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. And this shall be a sign unto you; Ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men." 19

" And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass, which the Lord hath made known unto us. And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a manger. And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child." These simple and obedient souls had no hesitation in recognising in the newly born infant their Lord and the Saviour of Israel. Mary, smiling in the joy of her miraculous motherhood, presented Him to them, and the information which she and Joseph wisely and discreetly gave them, confirmed that which the angels had told them. They worshipped the child, and perhaps relieved the necessities of the holy family by some presents, willingly offered from their poverty.

Then, possessed by the great joy that had been announced to them from Heaven, they did not leave Bethlehem till they had told the good tidings. Had not the angel said that the joy would be for all people ? " And all they that heard it wondered at those things which were told them by the shepherds." Finally, the happy " shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen," for all had been, "as it was told unto them," by the heavenly messengers.

And Mary, beside the manger, tasted the unspeakable joy of beholding her Son, the joy of having heard the angels sing of His coming, the joy of having seen kneeling before Him in that first hour His well-beloved, the poor and simple of the earth. She " kept all these things, and pondered " on all the circumstances " in her heart." And from time to time, leaning over the infant who smiled at her, "she gave Him more than a mother's kisses, for they were the kisses of a virgin mother. "  20


1 St Luke i. 57-79.

2 St John i. 26.

3 St Luke i. 56.

4 St Matthew i. 18-25 ; in the following pages the text is explained according to the opinion which appears to be the most probable.

"Joseph, knowing Mary's virtue, and marvelling at what had happened, wrapped in silence that mystery of which he was ignorant. . . ." St Jerome upon this passage (PL. xxvi. 24).

6 Joseph had hesitated; he had asked himself whether Mary truly belonged to him, and had believed it his duty to separate himself from her. The angel told him to take her without fear, to receive her definitely in a tranquil and assured union, and Joseph did so. Such appears to be, in verses 20 and 24, the meaning of the word

7 Micah v. 2 ; St Matthew ii. 4-6.

St Luke ii. 1-20; the passage commented on in the following pages.

9 Concerning the numerous questions relating to Quirinius (such is the true form of his name), and to the two censuses of which he had the direction, see the Dictionnaire Cyrinus, or other recent works.

10 I have endeavoured in this translation to render exactly the text of St Luke, which does not say clearly whether Mary came for the purpose of being registered.

11 St John i. ii.

12 A commonly accepted tradition, founded upon important testimony, says that the Incarnation (March 25) was on a Friday, and consequently the Nativity (December 25) was on a Sunday. See Suarez : Mystllres du Christ, t. II., disp. xiii., sect. 4.

13 Perhaps the vision of the divine essence. See note on p. 88, and Suarez: Mystires, t. II., disp. xix., sect. 4.

14 Psalm ii. 7.

15 Hebrews i. 6 ; cf. Psalm xcvi. 7, in the Vulgate.

16 In biblical language the first child born in a family is always called the " first-born," even though it should be an only child.

17 See the Dictionnaire de la Bible, article Creche.

18 According to local tradition the shepherds were in that direction, and at about that distance, but the exact spot is a matter of discussion.

19 There is no doubt that theof St Luke, and the bona voluntas of the Vulgate, is the good will of God towards men (see, for example, Knabenbauer: in Lucam, p. 122-4; and compare the meaning ofin the following passages : St Matthew xi. 26; St Luke x. 21 ; Ephesians i. 5, 9; Philippians ii. 13). Fouard ( Vie Jesus-Christ, 8°, 1880, p. 67), following up a suggestion of Bossuet, has proposed the rendering, " Paix sur la terre aux hommes cheris de Dieu ! "

20 Bossuet, sermon sur le Rosaire, 1651 (Lebarq, t. i., p. 79), and the first sermon pour la Nativite de la Sainte Vierge, 1652 (ibid. p. 171).