As regards that other Coming, which is to be in majesty and power on the Last Day, we have meditated upon it during Advent. The fear of the Wrath to come should have roused our souls from their lethargy, and have prepared them, by humility of heart, to receive the visit of Jesus in that secret Coming which He makes to the soul of man. It is the ineffable mystery of this intermediate Coming that we are now going to explain.
Every soul that has been admitted to Bethlehem, that is to say, into the House of Bread, and has been united with Him Who is the Light of the World—that soul no longer walks in darkness. The mystery of Christmas is one of Illumination, but this Light is given to us, so to speak, softened down—our weakness required that it should be so. It is indeed the Divine Word, the Wisdom of the Father, that we are invited to know and imitate; but this Word, this Wisdom, are shown us under the appearance of a Child. Let nothing keep us from approaching Him. We might fear were He seated on a throne in His palace; but He is lying on a crib in a stable! Were it the time of His Fatigues, His Sweat of Blood, His Cross, His Burial, or even of His Glory and His Victory, we might say we had not courage enough: but what courage is needed to go near Him in Bethlehem, where all is sweetness and silence, and a simple Little Babe? Come to Him, says the Psalmist, and be enlightened! (Ps. 33: 6)
Let us listen to the grand words of Pope St. Leo the Great: "Although that Childhood, which the majesty of the Son of God did not disdain to assume, has developed, by growth of age, into the fullness of the perfect Man and, the triumph of His Passion and Resurrection having been achieved, all the humiliations He submitted to for our sakes are passed; nevertheless, the Feast we are now keeping brings back to us the sacred Birth of the Virgin Mary's Child, Jesus Our Lord. So that whilst adoring His Birth, we are, in truth, celebrating our own commencement of life; for the Generation of Christ is the origin of the Christian people, and the Birthday of Him that is our Head is the Birthday of us that are His Body. It is true, that each Christian has his own rank, and the children of the Church are born each in their respective times; yet the whole mass of the Faithful, once having been regenerated in the font of Baptism, are born, on this Day of Christmas, together with Christ; just as they are crucified together with Him in His Passion, and have risen together with His Resurrection, and in His Ascension are placed at the right hand of the Father. For every believer, no matter in what part of the world he may be living, is born again in Christ; his birth according to nature is not taken into account; he becomes a new man by his second birth; neither is he any longer called of the family of his father in the flesh, but of the family of the Redeemer, Who unto this was made a Son of Man, that we might become the sons of God" (Serm. 6 On the Nativity, Ch. 2)
Let us give ear to the words of the Seraphic St. Bonaventure, who in one of his sermons for Christmas Day thus explains the mystery of the birth of Jesus in the soul of man: "This happy birth happens when the soul, prepared by long thought and reflection, passes at length to action; when the flesh being made subject to the spirit, good works are produced in due time: then do interior peace and joy return to the soul. In this birth there is neither travail nor pain nor fear; everything is admiration and delight and glory. If then, O devout soul, thou art desirous for this birth, imagine thyself to be like Mary. Mary signifies bitterness; bitterly bewail thy sins: it signifies Illuminatrix; be thou illumined by thy virtues: and lastly, it signifies Mistress; learn how to be mistress and controller of thy evil passions. Then will Christ be born of thee, and with what happiness to thyself! For it is then that the soul tastes and sees how sweet is her Lord Jesus. She experiences this sweetness when, in holy meditation, she nourishes this Divine Infant; when she covers Him with her tears; when she clothes Him with her holy longings; when she presses Him to her heart in the embrace of holy tenderness; when, in a word, she cherishes him in the warmth of her glowing love. O happy Crib of Bethlehem! In thee I find the King of Glory: but happier still than thou is the pious soul, which holds within itself Him Whom thou couldst hold but corporally!"
Now in order to pass on from this spiritual conception to the birth of Our Lord Jesus; in other words, that we may pass from Advent to Christmas, we must unceasingly keep the eyes of our soul on Him Who wishes to be born within us, and in Whom the world is born to a new life. Our study and ambition should be, how best to become like Jesus, by imitating Him; for, though the imitation must needs be imperfect, yet we know from the Apostle that our Heavenly Father Himself gives this as the sign of the elect—that they are made like to the image of His Son (Rom. 7: 29).
Let us, therefore, hearken to the invitation of the Angels, and go over to Bethlehem (Luke 2: 15). We know what sign will be given to us of our Jesus—a Child wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger (Luke 2: 22). So that you, O Christians, must become children; you must not disdain to be tied in the bonds of a spiritual childhood; you must come down from your proud spirit, and meet your Savior Who has come down from Heaven, and with Him hide yourselves in the humility of the manger. Thus will you begin, with Him, a new life. Thus will the Light that goeth forwards and increaseth even unto perfect day (Prov. 4: 18), illumine your path the whole remaining length of your journey. Thus the sight of God which leaves room for Faith, which you receive at Bethlehem, will merit for you the face-to-face vision on Thabor, and prepare you for the blissful union, which is not merely Light but the plenitude and repose of Love.
So far we have been speaking only of the living members of the Church, whether they began the life of grace during the holy Season of Advent, or were already living in the grace of the Holy Ghost when the ecclesiastical year commenced, and spent their Advent in preparing to be born with Jesus to a new year of higher perfection. But how shall we overlook those of our brethren who are dead in sin; and so dead, that neither the coming of their Emmanuel, nor the example of those who are earnestly preparing for that coming, could rouse them? No, we cannot forget them; we love them, and come to tell them (for even now they may yield to grace, and live), that there hath appeared the goodness and kindness of God our Savior (Tit. 3: 4). Sinners, take courage! This Feast of Christmas is one of grace and mercy, on which all, both just and sinners, meet in the fellowship of the same glad Mystery. The Heavenly Father has resolved to honor the Birthday of His Son, by granting pardon to all save those who obstinately refuse it. Oh, how worthy is the Coming of our dear Emmanuel to be honored by this divine amnesty!
Nor is it we that give this invitation; it is the Church Herself. Yes, it is She that with divine authority invites you to begin the work of your new life on this day whereon the Son of God begins the career of His human life. That we may the more worthily convey to you this Her invitation, we will borrow the words of a great and saintly Bishop of the Middle Ages, the pious Rabanus Maurus, who, in a homily on the Nativity of Our Lord, encourages sinners to come and to take their place, side by side with the just, in the stable of Bethlehem, where even the ox and the ass recognize their Master in the Babe Who lies there:
"I beseech you, dearly beloved Brethren, that you receive with fervent hearts the words Our Lord speaks to you through me on this most sweet Feast, on which even infidels and sinners are touched with compunction; on which the wicked man is moved to mercy, the contrite heart hopes for pardon, the exile despairs not of returning to his country, and the sick man longs for his cure; on which is born the Lamb Who taketh away the sins of the world, that is, Christ our Savior. On such a Birthday, he that has a good conscience rejoices more than usual; and he whose conscience is guilty fears with a more useful fear... Yes, it is a sweet Feast, bringing true sweetness and forgiveness to all true penitents. My little children, I promise you without hesitation that everyone who, on this day, shall repent from his heart, and return not to the vomit of his sins, shall obtain all whatsoever he shall ask; let him only ask with a firm faith, and not return to sinful pleasures.
"On this day are taken away the sins of the entire world; why need the sinner despair? ...On this day of Our Lord's Birth let us, dearest Brethren, offer our promises to Jesus, and keep them, as it is written: Vow ye, and pray to the Lord your God (Ps. 75: 12). Let us make our promises with confidence and love; He will enable us to keep them... And when I speak of promises, I would not have anyone think that I mean the promise of fleeting and earthly goods. No—I mean that each of us should offer what Our Savior redeemed, namely our soul. 'But how,' someone will ask, 'how shall we offer our souls to Him, to Whom they already belong?' I answer: by leading holy lives, by chaste thoughts, by fruitful works, by turning away from evil, by following that which is good, by loving God, by loving our neighbor, by showing mercy (for we ourselves were once in sin), by trampling on pride, since it was by pride that our first parent was deceived and fell" (4th Homily on the Nativity).
It is thus our affectionate Mother the Church invites sinners to the Feast of the Divine Lamb; nor is She satisfied until Her House be filled. The grace of a New Birth, given Her by the Sun of Justice, fills this Spouse of Jesus with joy. A new year has begun for Her, and, like all that have preceded it, it is to be rich in flower and fruit. She renews Her youth as that of an eagle. She is about to unfold another Cycle, or Year, of Her mysteries, and to pour forth upon Her faithful children the graces of which God has made the Liturgical Cycle to be the instrument. In this Season of Christmas, we have the first-fruits of these graces offered to us; they are the knowledge and the love of our Infant God: let us accept them with attentive hearts, that so we may merit to advance, with our Jesus, in wisdom and age and grace before God and men (Luke 2: 52). The Christmas Mystery is the gate of all the others of the rest of the year; but it is a gate which we all may enter, for, though most heavenly, yet it touches earth; since, as St. Augustine beautifully remarks in his 11th Sermon for Christmas: "We cannot as yet contemplate the splendor of Him Who was begotten of the Father before the Day Star (Ps. 109: 3); let us, then visit Him Who was born of the Virgin in the night-hour. We cannot understand how His Name continueth before the sun (Ps. 71: 17); let us, then, confess that He hath set His tabernacle in Her that is purer than the sun. We cannot as yet see the Only-Begotten Son dwelling in the Father's Bosom; let us, then, think on the Bridegroom that cometh out of His bride chamber (Ps. 18: 6). We are not yet ready for the banquet of our heavenly Father; let us, then, keep to the Crib of Jesus, our Master" (Is. 1: 3).
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