YOU, BETHLEHEM EPHRATA, ARE BY NO MEANS THE LEAST OF THE RULERS OF JUDAH; FROM YOU WILL COME FORTH THE RULER OF ISRAEL. These words of the prophet Micah (5:1- 4) were rightly interpreted by the learned Jews at the time of our Lord's birth as applying to the Messiah's place of birth. They quoted this text to Herod when he inquired of them where the expected deliverer was to be born. It is the only passage of the Hebrew Bible which points to Bethlehem as the place of the Messiah's birth. When Matthew (2:6) cites this passage the effect is ironical, for he knows that while Jesus fulfilled this prophecy, the successors of these learned interpreters failed to recognize him as the person they pointed to. The line that follows this text is even more suggestive of our Lord's true identity, for it refers to his eternal nature. "His origins go back to ancient times, from the days of eternity."
These words introduce us into the most mysterious realms of revelation. Matthew does not include it in his citation; he obviously had in mind the origins of Jesus' birth in the flesh, not his eternal and divine birth from the Father. Rabbi Eleazar has this to say about the eternity of the Messiah.The Name of the Messiah. Whence (is it proved that he was created before the world ?) Ps 72:17: "Before the Sun his Name budded forth"... And another text says... "and his origins are from everlasting, that is before the world had been created." (Cited in Strack-Billerbeck Kommentar Zum Neuen Testament , vol. 1, p. 83)
The Prologue of St. John's Gospel takes up this theme of the eternal origins of the Word who became flesh and was the Messiah, although he does not make use of this saying of Micah. This passage would seem to be one of those OT prophecies which suggest more than they state explicitly, more even than the prophet who uttered them could have said in so many words. The common view of the Church Fathers is that these words refer to the eternal generation of the Son from the Father. One of the many benefits from reading the Fathers, in fact, is the discovery of their profound conviction that Jesus who was born in Bethlehem is identical with the eternal Son who is one with the Father and comes forth from him from eternity. St. Augustine returns to this conviction time and again in the course of his thirteen Sermons for the Birth of the Lord. He constructs his Christology on this basis, and regularly contrasts the almighty power of the eternal Word with the helplessness of the new-born infant, who cannot utter a single word. The distance between these two polarities measures the loving condescension of God and the humility he assumes for our sake.
It is much easier for those who have faith in Christ to discern in these words a recognizable pro phecy of the Lord; others will remain unconvinced. Prophecy does not supply for faith by overwhelming proof of a divine inspiration; rather it is an invitation to belief that requires a response that opens the heart as well as the mind to the truth it reveals. We can see this, not only in the case of the Hebrew prophets of the Old Testament, but even with regard to Jesus' closest disciples. Repeatedly, the Lord predicted his coming passion, death and resurrection, yet his words remained incomprehensible to his followers.And while they were coming down from the mountain he ordered them not to tell anyone what they had seen until the son of man should rise from the dead. They kept the word to themselves, but were inquiring among themselves what rising from the dead might be (Mark 9:9).
The theme was broached, but remained so obscure in their minds that they could not form a distinct concept relative to its meaning. Only after the event actually took place did they remember the prediction; even then Jesus had to call it to their minds. On the evening after the resurrection, Luke tells us,Jesus said to them: These are the matters that I had spoken about to you when I was still with you, saying that it is necessary that all things be fulfilled that are written in the law of Moses and the prophets and the psalms about me. Then he opened their understanding that they might grasp the scriptures... ( 24: 44,45)
Life must be lived facing the future, not the past. We must regularly handle situations that are obscure in their complexity and which remain uncertain in their tendency. Yet, decisions must be made and action follow if we would not withdraw from responsibilities or become passive in our stance before reality. Waiting until we have full certitude most often means dis covering we have missed the opportunity for creative and helpful action.
Every field has its own methods for arriving responsibly at decisions, but none has devised a system for avoiding the risk of error in any given instance. This is a sobering truth about our human condition, which has philosophical and theological implications as well as practical ones. In some areas of life, the risks are greater: in war and politics, for example, where there are innumerable and shifting elements that enter into the equation. In choice of a life partner in marriage there are also countless circumstances, many of which depend on factors altogether outside the character of the spouses and their control. Accidents that cause serious damage to health and so put unforseen stress on both partners can and do confront the other spouse with a new kind of demand that requires real sacrifice and suffering; economic distress due to a depression that costs a man his job is a frequent source of marital disruption. How can one be sure his or her partner will prove faithful and steady under such unforseen stress?
It would not be hard to draw up a long list of such unforeseen and unforeseeable sources of chal lenge to happiness and success in the adventure of marriage, no matter how well the two part ners knew one another at the time they married. The same situation obtains in the case of the person who joins a religious community. No matter at what age the person enters, he will change and encounter temptations and trials that had not been expected. At the same time, the community into which he had entered will change as well; so will the Order, and the Church and the society in which the vocation is lived out. Here too such unforseen changes result in one's being confronted with decisions and responsibilities that are often quite contrary to one's preference, and at times may seem to surpass a person's capacity to fulfill the obligations freely under taken. It is probably true to say that every one at some point of time or other comes to feel that the circumstances of life are too much for him to measure up to.
This remains the case even when the person may have made such a total gift of self at the time of his engagement that he never meets up with trials that he feels release him from the responsi bility he had assumed, having already foreseen in a vague, general way that it would involve bur dens of some unknown kind. When he pronounced vows he really meant them to be unto death, for better or worse, and understood in principle that the cross with its suffering would inevitably be his portion in some measure. But the actual, concrete experience by which he is tested is commonly of another order than he could have imagined; he will have to endure and allow him self to be changed and formed in a way he feels unprepared for. Only those who have such experiences and remain faithful in the course of them will attain to the goal of purity of heart and union with God. Fidelity to his commitment in such circumstances requires the help of grace as he well knows and so he makes prayer a regular part of his daily practice. This does not remove the element of uncertainty in the face of fresh opportunities and trials, but it does provide the confidence needed to meet them honestly and courageously.
There is, of course, no mathematical formula that will cover the countless contingencies that arise in the course of a lifetime, but each person can learn by careful observation, reflection on experience, study of works by prudent and competent authors who share their wisdom, and by persevering with courage in confronting life's challenges. Such a program requires of us a rigorous self criticism that includes the capacity to accept responsibility for mistakes, erroneous judgment, yielding to weakness or selfishness and other passions. Naturally, it also entails a dedica tion to daily prayer and efforts to walk in the presence of God, following conscience in all things. Above all else it requires a firm confidence in God's mercy and fidelity to His promise to aid those who put their trust in Him.
Such a way of life gradually roots us in reality as it exists before God, in its density and angular ity. We become increasingly capable of recognizing the truth of things and of persons and enjoy an increment of confidence as such insight and practical wisdom takes hold within us. We begin to experience ourselves in a broader web of relations than was earlier the case, and this has the effect of rendering us less self-centered. We know ourselves as part of a larger whole both in regard to nature and to society. Further, as we discern more clearly our limited powers, and ad mit our faults and sins we begin to have a lower opinion of our merit, and yet, because we are rooted in the mercy of God, a healthy confidence remains strong and even takes on added force within us.
This path is a narrow one at times, especially in the beginning, and only those who have made firm and lasting commitments to God and devote themselves earnestly and irrevocably to seeking the purity that union with Him requires, will continue on this way. Most of us slow down at times; we waver, hesitate, lose courage, stumble, and all too often fall. Yet, if we return to our purpose with renewed decision to be faithful to the end, we grow even through such failures and repentance. It is this process of repentance to which Jesus calls us by his birth in the flesh. And not only to repentance but to become new creatures capable of eternal life. As Blessed Guerric put it:" A child is born in order to renew us (Sermo de Nativitate Domini I. 2PL 185: 29)." Already at his nativity he began the process of renewal by the example of his helpless littleness accepted to teach us humility of mind and heart; even at his conception he began his teaching through the instrumentality of his mother. For at the announcement of the angel her humble readiness to yield to God's plan without any detailed knowledge of what it would entail led to the Incarnation of the Word of God. With that event, access to the transcendent world of God's infinite power, glory and mercy began to be opened to all our race. At the birth of the Lord in the flesh, these attributes became visible to those who had the spiritual insight to see them for what they were, even though it would take many years before they could be described in words with some measure of accuracy.
On this final day of Advent, then, let us all resolve to renew in all its fervor our commitment to follow to the end this narrow way that leads to eternal life and union with our Savior and our God. Many helps are given to us that will sustain us along this way and enable us to prove faithful to our baptismal promises and our monastic vows. These bonds tie us not to some abstract duty but to the person of our Lord himsel and his very weakness is stronger than any trials we might meet in this life. What Blessed Guerric proclaimed to his monks in the 12th century remains as true today as it was in his age:O blessed infancy whose weakness and foolishness is stronger and wiser than all men, because the virtue of God and the wisdom of God effects his divine work in us humans. For the weakness of this infant triumphs over theprince of this world, binds the armed strong man, takes the cruel tyrant captive and frees and liberates our captivity (Sermo I de Nativitate DominiPL 185: 30).Having been accepted by him and his Church, these solemn promises are an assurance that he will be truly Emmanuel for us, that is, God with us. He has first chosen us before we responded to Him; he has given us baptism, the Eucharist and our vows as pledges that he will bring to completion the promises he has made to those who put their faith in him and trust him to the end without turning back or away. Such resolute fidelity to our call is surely the most apt preparation for his coming to us at Christmas and, beyond this coming feast, for his second Advent at the end of time.
Abbot John Eudes Bamberger
ABBOT'S WEB SITE Home Page Index Page Archive Page