“Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”
“WHO WAS CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY GHOST.” – THE INCARNATION OF OF JESUS CHRIST
The third article of the Apostles’ Creed teaches us that the Son of God became man, that is to say, by the operation of the Holy Ghost He took a body and a soul like unto ours. Hence this article teaches us the fundamental dogma and mystery of Christianity. It teaches us what was predestined from all eternity in the decrees of the adorable Trinity for the salvation of the human race, what was done by the Son of God for us poor sinners, and the great and wonderful things accomplished through the intervention of the Holy Spirit. So enormous was the guilt incurred by the human race through Adam’s sin that man alone was unable and incompetent to atone for it. All men were tainted with sin, no just man could be found, for Adam’s sin reached all. Were it possible to find a man who could voluntarily take upon himself for others the guilt of others, that man would first have to be created by a miracle of the divine mercy, for of all those born according to the natural order each and every one fell under the penalty.
If such infinite guilt were to be assumed by any substitute or representative he must needs be an infinite being; but, as outside of God there is no such infinite being, the human race would have perished for all eternity if the Son of God had not, out of love for us, taken upon Himself the work of redemption, the cleansing of sin, and the punishment it had duly and properly entailed upon mankind. Hence the Son of God laid aside the garments of His majesty and became man, “taking the form of a servant, being made in the likeness of men, and in habit found as a man.” (Philippians 2:7) He assumed a human body and a human soul, and united His divinity with His humanity, without mingling the divine with the human. He took a body that we might be able to see Him, a true body that He might be able to suffer, a real human soul to enable Him to feel all anxiety and grief. This is the unspeakable mystery of the Incarnation of the Lord, which we profess in the words of Saint John, the Evangelist, where he says, “the Word was made flesh and dwelt amongst us” (John 1:14). This Word, namely, the only-begotten Son of God, who expresses the thought of the eternal Father, and who is come to reveal the will of that Father, has become flesh, that is to say, man, while His divinity dwelt unchanged within Him. Thus He was at one and the same time God and man – God from all eternity and man born in time. Such is the substance of what we are taught to believe in the third article of the Apostles’ Creed.
In this union of the divine with the human is shown as well the love of God as the wisdom of the divine decree. In order to lift mankind up to heaven divinity came down to humanity. In order to create a new man God Himself is made man, that thus to grace a model should not be wanting.
As God revealed Himself to Adam, so did He again manifest Himself and make known to men, in a human way, His holy will. Thus we believe firmly, and profess openly, that the divinity of Christ is united with His sacred humanity.
Thus, when we say that God became man, we do not mean that the divinity was submerged in the humanity, nor that the divinity was changed into humanity. We do not here understand any transformation or even transubstantiation, but an assumption of human nature without any detriment to the divine nature. Hence in Christ there are two natures, not one only – namely, the divine nature, because He is God, and the human nature, because He is man. Each of these natures exists and dwells beside the other, and yet both are inseparably united, so that there are not two persons, but one only, and that one is divine.
This human nature the Son of God took from the immaculate Virgin Mary, who had been selected by God from among all the maidens of Israel to be herself a miracle of divine grace. Descended from the family of David, of a royal race, but poor now by reason of the vicissitudes of life, she lived in retirement at Nazareth, under the protection of a simple carpenter named Joseph, whose only wealth and honors were the title of just man given him by the Holy Scriptures (Matthew 1:19). She is the incomparably pure and stainless one, who from the moment of her con- ception was destined to be a vessel of divine mercy. For as it was not becoming that the soil from which the root of Jesse sprouted should ever be in the pos- session of the evil enemy, she was not indeed, like Jeremias and Saint John, sanctified in her mother’s womb, after she had been conceived, but, more than that, her body and soul were sanctified by the Holy Ghost in the very moment when that body and soul were first united. Thus there was never a moment in which she was tainted with sin. Rightfully, then, is she called the purest Virgin, because she at all times remained an incomparably pure Virgin, before as well as after the birth of her divine Child, Jesus Christ. For the body of Our Saviour was formed in the pure body of the Blessed Virgin out of her pure substance, by the power of the Holy Ghost, at the very moment that the Angel Gabriel spoke to her the words, “Behold thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and shalt bring forth a son, and thou shalt call His name Jesus: He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the most High.” (Luke 1:31,32)
At this moment, and while the angel was announcing the sublime mystery, the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, as the same angel declared afterward to Saint Joseph in his sleep in the following words, “Joseph, son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost.” (Matthew 1:20) This solemn moment, when the declaration was made by Gabriel of the Incarnation of the second person of the Blessed Trinity, we commemorate as the beginning of our salvation, as the rosy dawning of the coming day of brightness, and we praise and honor the Blessed Virgin as blessed among women, as the angel himself styled her when he said, “Hail full of grace, the Lord is with thee.” (Luke 1:28)
For this purpose the Church has placed the festival of the angel’s announcement to Mary on the 25th day of March, the birthday of Our Saviour falling on the 25th day of December, or nine months later.
Now, in the very moment when, by the power of the Holy Ghost, the body of Our Lord was formed out of the substance of the Blessed Virgin, and the eternal Father united a reasoning soul to that miraculously formed body, in that same moment the divinity became united to the humanity; and as thus the divinity was, as it were, born in the human frame of Mary, she became truly the Mother of God.
With right and truth is she called the Mother of God, for she bore, not an adopted Son of God, but His very Son, in whom dwelleth the fulness of the Godhead, and “of His fulness we all have received,” according to Saint John 1:16. Such is the teaching of the Catholic Church regarding the ineffable mystery of the Incarnation.
The Council of Trent says, “To reap from the mysteries abundant fruits of salvation the faithful should particularly call to their recollection, and frequently reflect, that it is God who assumed human flesh, but that the manner of its assumption transcends the limits of our comprehension, not to say of our powers of expression; finally that He vouchsafed to become man in order that we mortals may become regenerated children of God. When to these subjects they shall have given mature consideration, let them, in the humility of faith, believe in and adore all the mysteries contained in this article, nor indulge a curious inquisitiveness by investigating and scrutinizing them, – an attempt scarcely ever unattended with danger.” (4th Chapter, 7th Question)
Christ our Lord – may He be praised and adored for all eternity I – had therefore Mary for His veritable Mother, in so far as He was man, but as man He had no father, for Saint Joseph, the virginal spouse of Mary, was only His foster-father. On account of his purity he was entrusted with the guardianship of the Blessed Virgin, who preserved untainted the lily of virginity both before and after the birth of Our Saviour. To him she was espoused, not as a wife, but that she might have in him, who was of the same chaste sentiments as herself, a protector for herself and a wise guardian for her divine Child on earth, one who would care for Jesus in His youth and at a time when, according to the sublime decrees of the ever adorable Trinity, He was not to appear as a miraculous personage, but was to pass His years in the character of an humble and obedient Child and an example to youth. (When Christ, lajer in life, spoke of His “brethren” He did not use the word in the sense in which we use it, but in the sense of “kinsfolk,” for the Hebrew word often means cousin.)
The mystery of the Trinity was concealed from men, and hence Jesus was commonly considered to be the son of Saint Joseph. But He was not such, for He held His human nature, by the power of the Holy Spirit, from Mary.
Thus were the words fulfilled that David puts in the mouth of the Messias when appearing spiritually before him: “Sacrifice and oblation Thou didst not desire: burnt-offering and sin-offering Thou didst not require. Then said I: Behold I come. In the head of the book it is written of Me that I should do Thy will. O my God, I have desired it.” (Psalms 39:7-9) The Son of God has come. Freely He became man that He might be able to suffer and to die for us, for as God He could neither suffer nor die. Thus did He fulfil the will of God, yielding to the charity of His divine heart, and made the atonement possible which could only be accomplished by the death of an innocent victim. In His holy life and death we are to find the source of our eternal life. In His humiliation lies our elevation, in His poverty our wealth. Therefore should we be grateful to the Lord, and be ever mindful of this grace-laden mystery, especially when the solemn tolling of the Angelus bell strikes upon our ear, coming as the invitation of our holy Mother, the Church, to salute the Blessed Virgin as the Mother of God, in the words of the angel – and then, in the inspired words of Saint John, “The Word was made flesh and dwelt among us,” to adore her divine Son, Our Saviour. To these sentiments of praise, thanksgiving and adoration let us add Mary’s words, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord,” and with her let us consecrate, as a return-gift to the infinite oblation of the Son of God, our hearts and minds, our bodies and our lives.
“BORN OF THE VIRGIN MARY” – THE LIFE OF JESUS CHRIST ON EARTH
The Birth of Christ
Four thousand and four years had elapsed since the creation; one thousand years had passed since the time of building the Temple of Solomon. For five hundred years no prophet’s voice had been heard. The pagans no longer believed in their own detested deities; the Jews were demoralized in their lives, and their piety had degenerated into perfunctory observances; the tribes of the Jews were divided into sects, the longing for a Saviour was general among men, and equally general was the belief that His advent was close at hand. Then God made use of the Roman emperor to verify the predictions of the prophets concerning the birth of the Messias, for Caesar Augustus issued an edict that throughout the whole Roman empire an enrolment of all his subjects should take place, and that each person should be registered in the locality where his family belonged.
Joseph, being a descendant of the house of David, was thus compelled to repair to Bethlehem, and went to that old kingly city accompanied by his virginal spouse. On reaching the end of their journey they found every house filled with strangers, leaving them comfortless and shelterless and thus verifying the words of Saint John, “He came unto His own, and His own received Him not.” (John 1:11)
In the outskirts of the city was a lonely cave which served as a shelter in stormy weather for the shepherds of the vicinity while watching their flocks. Here Mary and Joseph were compelled to seek refuge. Here at the solemn midnight hour the Saviour of the world was born. He, whose throne is the heavens, whose footstool is the earth, was wrapped in swaddling-clothes and laid in the manger. No one in all the land of Juda knew that the day of salvation had come forth from the long night of darkness.
It was Christmas eve, the holy night commemorated by the Church each year on the 25th of December, not arbitrarily, but because that date, according to the best calculations, was really the birthday of the Saviour.
But what God concealed from the great ones of this world He made known to the poor and lowly. Simple shepherds, while guarding their flocks on the plains, were the first to learn that the real true Shepherd had come, who would one day lay down His life for His sheep. To these shepherds the angel said, “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. And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly army, praising God and saying: Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will.”
Thus were the joyous chants of angels mingled with the wondering, happy voices of the poor men. The shepherds hastened to Bethlehem to adore the Lord, and the words were true, ” The poor have the gospel preached to them.” Then they hastened to their neighbors and informed them of what they had heard and seen, and so prepared the people of Israel for the Gospel, the happy message of salvation. Eight days later the divine Infant was circumcised and received the name Jesus, in compliance with the angel’s order. The Son of God submitted to this painful law in order to give us an example of obedience. If He, the Lord and Master, and Maker of the law, was obedient, how can we presume to be disobedient?
But the glory of the new-born Infant was also to be manifested to the heathens.
Twelve hundred years before had the prophet Balaam prophesied against his will, “A star shall rise out of Jacob.” (Numbers 24:17) This prophecy still lived in the memory of many heathens. Now a strange apparition is seen in the starry heavens. A star of unusual size and brilliancy, or rather a cluster of stars, appears among the lesser lights of heaven. The prophecy is fulfilled and the Magi, or three wise men, rise and prepare to follow the course of the new star, in the certain expectation of finding the Saviour.
They thought not of the difficulties and dangers of travel, they heeded not expense or loss of time, nor neglect of home duties; with sentiments of faith, confidence, and hope they went their way. Arriving at Jerusalem they asked where the new-born king of the Jews might be. Herod was alarmed. Could there be another king beside himself? Was his throne in danger? All Jerusalem shared his alarm and fears, for they knew the savage cruelty of their tyrant and feared his «anger. He at once summoned the scribes and high priests to his presence and inquired from them where Christ was to be born. They replied that He was to be born in Bethlehem and of the tribe of Juda, for so it stands written by the prophets, “And thou Bethlehem, the land of Juda, art not the least among the princes of Juda; for out of thee shall come forth the Captain that shall rule My people Israel.” (Matthew 2:6) Thus spoke the priests well versed in Scripture, but they had no thought of going in search of their Lord and Master, and the three wise men went alone. Filled with renewed courage they followed the guiding star to Bethlehem, to the crib of the divine Infant. They drew near to the stable, they entered and adored the Child in the Virgin’s arms, offering to Him presents as tributes of their faith and allegiance. Their gifts consisted of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. Gold they offered to their King, incense to their God, myrrh to their suffering and dying Redeemer. Then, admonished by an angel, they returned to their homes by another way than that which would lead them back to Herod.
Jesus is Presented in the Temple
Forty days after His birth Jesus was presented in the Temple to the eternal Father, in compliance with the law given to Moses, “Sanctify unto Me every first-born, for they are all Mine,” said the Lord to Moses. (Exodus 13:2)
In this sanctifying of the first-born was to be expressed the perfect dominion of the Lord over the whole people whom He had rescued from destruction. This first-born was to be ransomed with five shekels of silver, and at the same time a lamb was to be offered in sacrifice for the purification of the mother. If the parents were too poor to present a lamb they offered instead a pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons.
Joseph and Mary brought the offering of the poor, and thus poverty was sanctified through the poverty of Our Lord. As the simple group entered the Temple they were met by Simeon, a God-fearing old man, whom the Holy Spirit led there. For God had promised him in reward for his fidelity that he would not die until he had seen the Anointed of the Lord. Now, inspired by the same Holy Spirit, he recognizes his Saviour, takes Him lovingly and joyfully in his arms and says, “Now Thou dost dismiss Thy servant, O Lord, according to Thy word in peace: because my eyes have seen Thy salvation, which Thou hast prepared before the face of all peoples: a light to the revelation of the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel.” (Luke 2:29-32)
This joyous recognition of the Saviour as the Light that has come to enlighten every man that cometh into the world, is to-day commemorated in the Church by the blessing of candles. Hence this Mass is termed the Mass of the candles and the feast itself is styled Candlemas day. The procession carried out on this day is commemorative of Simeon’s inspired advance to the Temple to meet his Lord.
While Simeon was still speaking, the gentle, simple group was joined by the devout Anna, an aged, God-fearing woman, the daughter of Phanuel of the tribe of Aser and also a prophetess. She dwelt constantly in the Temple, serving God day and night in much prayer and fasting. Sharing deeply in Simeon’s joy, and sympathizing with the happy parents, she spoke to those who were waiting for the redemption of Israel, of her happiness in having seen the Saviour. Thus were the Jews admonished that their Redeemer would soon appear, and hence, on the first public appearance of Jesus in their midst, we hear them asking whether He is such or not.
After complying with the law Mary and Joseph, with the divine Infant, returned to Bethlehem, whence they soon moved to Nazareth. The Lord in His wisdom decreed that for a time the wonderful Child, for whose appearance all Israel was waiting, should be secluded from observation, till such time as Herod’s arm should be powerless to smite Him.
The Flight into Egypt – The Slaughter of the Innocents
Herod, in his wicked cunning, had said to the three wise men from the East, “Go and diligently inquire after the Child; and when you have found Him, bring me word again, that I also may come and adore Him.” (Matthew 2:8) The tyrant, having spoken thus with a view of finding out Jesus in order to destroy Him, and now finding himself thwarted by the good wise men, issued the dreadful order to murder all the children of two years of age and under in the town of Bethlehem.
He wanted to be certain of his Victim. But an angel of the Lord bade Joseph fly into Egypt with Mary and the divine Infant. The faithful and obedient foster-father lost no time in departing with his precious charge. And as they journeyed along the road, so run the legends, the palm-trees dipped. their branches in salutation, the leaves on the trees murmured hymns of adoration, in recognition of their Creator; the blossoms whispered to one another that their Maker was passing by and offered their tribute of fragrant perfume; roses and lilies sprang up beneath the feet of the Blessed Virgin, while behind them at Bethlehem arose the shrieks of the horrified mothers as Herod’s minions massacred their innocent offspring. Rachel’s voice, the voice of the ancient mother in Israel, issued forth from the grave and united itself to that of the inconsolable mothers at Bethlehem.
Joseph remained in Egypt with his little family until he was notified by the angel to return to their native country, for now Herod was dead and Archelaus was reigning in his stead. He accordingly set out for Galilee and took up his abode in Nazareth.
Jesus’ Life at Nazareth
From this time forward, till His thirtieth year, our blessed Lord dwelt in retirement in the humble home of His parents and was obedient unto them. This He did in order to teach children obedience to their parents. From His conduct they were to learn that neither their advanced age nor their imaginary intelligence could absolve them from this duty, and that they ought to pride themselves on their complete and unqualified submission. During this long lapse of years Jesus lived so secluded that even the Evangelists seem unable to tell us much about that part of His life. Only one incident is given and that occurred during His boyhood.
The Jews were obliged by law to repair three times during the year to the Temple at Jerusalem, that is, at the time of the Passover, at the Harvest Festival, and on the Feast of the Tabernacles. This duty was incumbent on all males who had attained their twelfth year. When Jesus, therefore, had reached that age, He accompanied Mary and Joseph to the festivals. Mary went from devotion, for the law did not bind the women. In Jerusalem the paschal lamb was purchased, then slain in the Temple, and afterward served up at table in the inn where, amid prayers and other ceremonies by the house-father, it was eaten by the members of the family. With it were eaten unleavened bread, with bitter herbs, and cakes baked in the form of bricks. All this was done in commemoration of their captivity in Egypt, their escape from the destroying angel, their hasty march from Pharao, their passage through the Red Sea and their final deliverance. The chief festival day was followed by seven so-called Easter days, after which the pilgrims returned to their homes.
But while Joseph and Mary were on their way to Nazareth Jesus remained behind at Jerusalem. His parents did not miss Him, supposing that He was somewhere in the company, which was large and consisted of friends, neighbors, and kinsfolk, all traveling together. In the evening, on arriving at the inn where the members of the different families met together, the boy Jesus did not appear. The parents became alarmed indeed and hastened back to Jerusalem. They sought everywhere, but could find no tidings of their lost treasure. After wandering in vain up and down the streets of Jerusalem for two weary days, at last, on the third day, they met Him. Where? In one of the outer halls of the sacred Temple, where the doctors learned in the law were in the habit of meeting to impart instruction.
There He sat amid the teachers. He, divine Wisdom itself, was humble enough to seek information from mortal men. Like a studious, inquiring school-boy He asked for information, though His able and searching questions raised in the minds of some listeners suspicion of His heavenly knowledge. The doctors answered His inquiries, yet were astonished at His cleverness. Mary approached the group and, embracing her Son with warm motherly feeling, asked, “My Child, why hast Thou done so to us? Thy father and I have sought Thee sorrowing.” What was the boy’s answer? Oh, beloved parents, what a deal of unnecessary suffering you have undergone. How could you suppose Me disobedient, or think that I had separated from you without good and sufficient reasons? You should have supposed from the first that I was in the Temple. “Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” (Luke 2:49). At that time the joyful Mother did not quite understand the meaning of His words. But she treasured them carefully in her heart, and they ever afterward strengthened her in her affliction, more especially during the awful hours passed at the foot of the cross on Calvary. When all was dark and threatening her faith and perfect confidence in God shone forth brightly.
This incident in Our Saviour’s life has for us a deep meaning. It shows how all other claims must be silent when there is question of discharging a duty that we owe to God. He stayed in the Temple in order to show us that we should find our happiness in prayer and Christian instruction, and that we should love to visit God’s temple. While He wished to enliven our zeal for the cause of God our Father, He also showed that, above all things, we should give to God what belongs to Him before we give to men what they claim from us. God before all: The kingdom of God first of all. Then the world, then parents, then the civil power, then relatives and the necessaries of life. There is no contradiction in all this, nothing hard to bear, for God commands us to discharge our duties to our parents, our civil rulers, our neighbors and ourselves, but in such a way as not to neglect Him, as not to render to others what belongs to Him, as not to forget Him in remembering ourselves and others; in fine, the example of Jesus teaches us that we should draw from prayer and the word of God strength and grace to fulfil our duties.
Then Jesus went with His parents back to Nazareth and lived there a life of quiet obedience and affection and “advanced in wisdom and age, and grace with God and men.” (Luke 2:52) His divine character grew with His bodily growth in such a manner that all who knew Him beheld Him with eyes of wonder and perplexity.
Saint John the Baptist
It was customary among the Israelites for no teacher to begin his public career until he was about thirty years of age. Our blessed Lord, wishing to observe strictly both laws and customs, remained peacully at Nazarth until He reached the required age. During this long period, He furnishes us with an example of a retired, obscure and humble life, teaching that greatness is always retiring, and that excellence, more than even greatness, can be attained only in a hidden way. At least He emerged from the obscurity of his human home and, leaving Nazareth, went away about a hundred miles to the bank of the river Jordan. There, for some time, that missionary sent from God, the one appointed to prepare the way of the Saviour, Saint John the precursor, had been engaged at his duties. His history is most closely allied with the history of the Saviour.
Martyr had a cousin named Elizabeth who was married to Zachary of the the priestly family of Abia, and who dwelt in the priestly city of Hebron. These had no children, and were now far advanced in years. One day, while Zachary was in the Holy of holies offering incense to the Lord, behold an angel from heaven appeared to him, standing near the incense-altar. Saint Luke this describes this event – “And there appears to him and Angel of the Lord, standing on the right side of the altar of incense.”
“And Zachary seeing him was trouble, and fell upon him.
“But the Angel said to him: Fear not, Zachary, thy prayer is heard, and they wife Elizabeth shall bear thee a son, and thou shalt call his name John:
“And thou shalt have joy and gladness, and shall rejoice in his nativity:
“For he shall be great before the Lord, and shall drink no wine nor strong drink, and he shall be with the Holy Ghost even from his mother’s womb:
“And he shall convert many of the children of Israel to the Lord their God:
“And he shall go before Him in the spirit and power of Elias: that he may turn the hearts of the fathers unto the children, and the incredulous to the wisdom of the just, to prepare unto the Lord a perfect people:
“And Zachary said to the Angel: Whereby shall I know this? for I am an old man, and my wife is advanced in years:
“And the Angel answering, said to him: I am Gabriel, who stand before God: and am sent to speak to thee, and to bring thee these good tidings:
“And behold, thou shalt be dumb, and thou shalt not be able to speak until the day, wherein these things shall come to pass, because thou hast not believed my words, which shall be fulfilled in their time.
“And the people were waiting for Zachary: and they wondered that he tarried so long in the Temple:
“And when he came out he could not speak to them, and they understood that he had seen a vision in the Temple. And he made signs to them, and remained dumb:
“And it came to pass, after the days of his office were accomplished, he departed to his own house:
“And after those days Elizabeth his wife conceived, and hid herself five months, saying: ,
“Thus hath the Lord dealt with me in the days wherein He hath had regard to take away my reproach among men.” (Luke 1:11-25)
No sooner did Mary receive the news from the angel than she hastened to her cousin, Elizabeth, to mingle her joy with her own. When Mary entered the house and greeted her cousin the infant leaped for joy in the womb of Elizabeth, who, being then and there filled with the Holy Ghost, cried out to Mary, “Blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb. And whence is this to me, that the Mother of my Lord should come to me?” (Luke 1:42). Then both together united their voices in a hymn of thanksgiving to God, Mary continuing her act of praise in chanting the Magnificat, saying, “My soul doth magnify the Lord and my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.”
A hymn of beauty, called the Magnificat, has ever since been cherished in the Church and sung with deep devotion in Vespers on Sunday and on many other solemn occasions. Mary tarried with her cousin about three months, probably till after the birth of Saint John. Eight days after this event Elizabeth’s neighbors and kinsfolk came to congratulate her and to attend at the solemn ceremony of the circumcision of the child. It was urged by some friends that he should be called Zachary, after his father, “and his mother answering, said: Not so, but he shall be called John. And they said to her, There is none of thy kindred that is called by this name. And they made signs to his father,” for he was still dumb, “how he would have him called. And demanding a writing-table, he wrote, saying: John is his name. And they all wondered. And immediately his mouth was opened, and he spoke blessing God…. And filled with the Holy Ghost he prophesied, saying: Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, because He hath visited and wrought the redemption of His people.” These words of Zachary, with the rest that follow, form the beautiful hymn of praise which we call the Benedictus, a fit companion to the Magnificat of Mary, and which, like the latter, has ever been cherished in the Church and inserted in her holy office. In it Zachary foretold the duties which, according to the decrees of divine wisdom, were to be discharged by Saint John.
Both these canticles, the Benedictus and the Magnificat, continue to be two permanent thanksgiving hymns in the Church because they are outpourings of grateful, happy hearts, expressing forcibly the feelings of all Christians who, in repeating them, acknowledge that God has wrought great favors in their behalf. “The child grew and was strengthened in spirit: and was in the desert until the day of his manifestation to Israel.” (Luke 1:80)
Then, preceding his Lord and Master by about six months, he came forth with the power of an Elias, as the messenger who should go before the Angel of the covenant, as the last of the prophets, but the greatest of them all.
The public appearance of Saint John created a profound commotion. In the desert he had led a life of severe penance and mortification, a mode of life which he continued to the end of his days, as the angel had foretold he would. “He had his garment of camel’s hair, and a leathern girdle about his loins: and his meat was locusts and wild honey.” (Matthew 3:4). As it was already rumored among the people that the Messias had come, they studied John closely to see whether he were the promised Redeemer. He continued to preach with earnestness and effect, “Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” He insisted emphatically on “fruits worthy of penance” and taught the Jews that they were to find salvation in such works and fruits of penance, and not in their being descendants of Abraham.
As a symbol of cleansing from sin he gave to those who came to him a baptism in water – a figure, too, of the Sacrament of Baptism in and through the Holy Ghost – assuring them at the same time that He who was to come after him would baptize with fire and the Holy Ghost, that is to say, would, by the operation of the Holy Ghost, enkindle the fire of divine charity in the hearts of men and purify those hearts as iron and gold are purified in the crucible. All Judea was now flocking to hear the words of this extraordinary man. Even the high priests despatched messengers to him to learn from him if he were the promised Messias. “Who art thou?” they said to him. “Art thou the Christ? Art thou Elias, who did not die, but was taken up to the Lord, and will come again on earth? Art thou the prophet concerning whom the Lord said to Moses, ‘I will raise them up a prophet out of the midst of their brethren like to thee: and I will put My words in his mouth, and he shall speak all that I command him?'” (Deuteronomy 18:18)
All these distinctions Saint John disclaimed for himself and added, ” I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Isaias…. But there hath stood One in the midst of you whom you know not The same is He that shall come, the latchet of whose shoe I am not worthy to loose. . . . But that He may be made manifest in Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.” (John 1:23-31)
Before entering on His public duties Our Lord went first to Saint John that He might be made manifest to Israel. And He was made manifest. At first Saint John hesitated to baptize our blessed Lord. “John stayed Him, saying: I ought to be baptized by Thee, and comest Thou to me? And Jesus answering, said to him: Suffer it to be so now: for so it becometh us to fulfil all justice.” (Matthew 3:14,15)
When Saint John baptized Our Lord, behold! the heavens were opened, and the Holy Ghost descended in the form of a dove, while from heaven was heard the voice of the eternal Father saying, “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.” Thus was manifested the glory of the Son in the manifestation of the Father and of the Spirit.
Then Jesus went out into a desert place, there by prayer and fasting to prepare Himself for His public life. After He had fasted for forty days He felt the want of nourishment for. His body. Then came the devil to Him to tempt Him by the enticements of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and avarice and pride. But Jesus rejected the temptation, simply referring to what is written in the Scriptures, thereby affording us an example of how we should reject at once all and every temptation, that is, by simply remembering the presence of God instead of imitating Eve, who permitted herself to be misled because she held parley with the serpent instead of turning to God.
Meanwhile Saint John continued to preach of Him whom he had baptized and whom he had openly recognized as the divine Messias.
When Our Saviour again came toward Saint John the latter pointed with his finger at Him before the Jews, saying, “Behold the Lamb of God, behold Him who taketh away the sin of the world.” (John 1:29) After that Saint John withdrew from the public gaze, for the Sav- iour was to replace him, as the Baptist himself tells us in these words, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (John 3:30) Not long afterward he was thrown into prison by Herod and then beheaded at the instigation of Herodias, all because of his heroic love of virtue and truth. The Church celebrates his festival on the 24th of June. And even nature verifies history and prophecy, for about the time of Saint John’s day the light of the day begins to decrease, while about the 25th of December, Christmas day, which occurs among the longest nights, the light of day begins to increase. The duties of Saint John the Baptist were now all fulfilled. Henceforward the way was to be prepared for the human family by the Angel of the Covenant Himself.
The Public Life of Jesus
Our blessed Lord now began to appear in public, and to call His disciples about Him, to whom He gradually communicated His teachings. He spoke not merely to a small gathering of chosen ones, but to the entire people. He traveled through Judea, Samaria, and Galilee, seeking every opportunity to proclaim the doctrines of salvation. He taught in the Temple at Jerusalem, in the synagogues of the towns, and in the public highways, having so many hearers that He was compelled to find special places in order to make Himself heard and understood. Thus one day He ascended a mount in order to address the throng from the height. Another time He boarded a ship, that He might not be crushed in the immense gathering of eager listeners. Often thousands and thousands of people would follow Him and remain about Him for several days at a time, as we learn from the account of the miraculous feeding of the hearers in the desert place. But He chose also a circle of select disciples whom He named apostles, or messengers, who were in a special manner to be the guardians of His teachings, the faithful custodians of the commissions to be bequeathed to them, the pillars of the future Church, the authorized expounders of His word and will.
The names of the twelve apostles are as follows: The first was Simon, surnamed Peter; Andrew, the brother of Simon; James, the son of Zebedee; John, the brother of James; Philip; Bartholomew; Thomas; Matthew, the publican; James, the son of Alpheus; Thaddeus; Simon, the Chanaanite; and Judas Iscariot, the same who betrayed Him. (Matthew 10:2-4) These Jesus sent forth, even in His own lifetime, to preach. They were to direct the people’s attention toward Him and to prepare them for His mission. Thus He became the teacher of all Israel.
He taught all that we ought to believe, hope and do in order to be saved. He taught us to know God the Father, and with that same Father, Himself as the Son of God, and the power and operation of the Holy Ghost. He pointed to the perfect holiness of God, before whom even the angels are not pure, and taught us to be holy like that God. He pointed to the infinite justice of God which punishes the smallest as well as the greatest, and rewards the smallest no less than the greatest; to the infinite wisdom of God who knows what each one needs, and gives to every one what he is entitled to; to the love of God whom we are permitted to call Father; to divine Providence, without whose consent not a hair of one’s head may perish. He demonstrated that we should love God above all things, and our neighbor as ourselves, but that our neighbors are not merely our near relatives, but all those who are most in need of our assistance; that not our friends alone, but also our enemies, have a claim upon our love; that this love of neighbor consists of practical good works; that the essence of justice is not merely in the perfunctory observance of external laws, but in the purity of intention; that we are not permitted to desire evil, even in our hearts; that our conversation is to be truthful; that God’s name is to be honored; that one day a reckoning of every man’s stewardship will be demanded; that the reward of the good in heaven, and the punishment of the wicked in hell, will be everlasting.
He thereby taught us to know the infinite love of the Father, who sent His only-begotten Son into the world as the foundation of all our hopes.
He taught us that by true repentance, and by faith in Him, and in virtue of the grace of the Holy Ghost, sin will be annihilated within us and we shall be called to the sonship of God; that no creature is excluded from the mercy of God if he repent, but rather that there is more joy in heaven over one sinner that doeth penance than over ninety-nine just who need not penance.
All these teachings were new. Nothing like them had ever been heard of. No worldly philosopher, no prophet enlightened by the Holy Spirit, had ever presented such simple yet such sublime truths.
They were truly divine teachings, brought from heaven, made known by a God. Though they needed no proof Our Lord did prove them. He showed that His teachings were true and divine, first by the holiness of His own life and, secondly, by miracles and prophecies. The life of Our Saviour was the most perfect expression of His teachings. He not only said, “Be ye holy,” but He was holy. He who, according to His divine nature, was supremely holy, was holy also according to His human nature, for this last is intimately united with the divine nature in Him as one person.
Hence He was free from all sin, so that He could stand before the people and say, “Which of you shall convince Me of sin?” (John 8:46) He not only preached virtue, He practised it. He submitted obediently to the law to which He was not subject; He was untiring in doing good; mild and gentle toward the weak, merciful toward sinners and full of love even toward His worst enemies, praying for them even on the cross. To His heavenly Father He was obedient unto death, even to the death on the cross. So perfect a model was He of all virtues that He could say to every one that “He that followeth Me walketh not in darkness, but shall have the light of life.” (John 8:12)
But whenever Divinity manifests itself it does so under extraordinary circumstances. These circumstances, inasmuch as they do not lie in the ordinary course of things, but exceed nature, are called miracles. Such are those extraordinary works which can be accomplished only by the almighty power of God and not by natural forces.
When, for instance, a sick person is restored to health by the application of human science and human remedies there is no miracle performed, it is merely the natural consequence of natural causes. But when a blind man recovers his sight, a cripple regains his suppleness, a deaf man his hearing, a dry, withered hand revives and regains its perfect circulation of blood, a dropsical patient is cured, a dead man is raised to life, instantly, without any natural remedy, merely by the words, “I will, be thou healed,” such events are beyond the forces of nature, and, in the absence of motives pointing to diabolical intervention, true miracles indeed.
Such extraordinary occurrences accompanied Our Lord at almost His every step. To prove His divinity it was necessary that He should perform miracles, and He did perform them. The working of these miracles is a proof of the divinity of His doctrine. For God is not with evil, not with deception, not with falsehood, but being truth itself He is on the side of truth, and miracles are the evidences of a divine mission. How Our Lord worked His miracles, how He changed water into wine, fed five thousand men with five loaves of bread, calmed the winds and the waves by a simple word of command, how He cured diseases of all kinds, expelled devils, and raised the dead to life, has been related in a former chapter.
All these wondrous deeds served powerfully to give force to His teachings and to open a way for His every word. This we see specially exemplified in the changing of water into wine, His first public miracle, when He won over His disciples, for “this beginning of miracles did Jesus in Cana of Galilee: and manifested His glory, and His disciples believed in Him.” (John 2:11) Such miracles showed them that God was with Him, that He Himself was God, sent by God to speak to men. Hence it was that even Nicodemus said to Our Lord, when visiting Him at night to secretly obtain instruction in these doctrines, “No man can do these signs which Thou dost, unless God be with Him.” (John 3:2)
To these miracles Christ added His prophecies or predictions of future events that could be known only to God. Nor did He make these predictions in a way that was open to several interpretations, for He said plainly to Saint Peter, “I say to thee, Peter, the cock shall not crow this day, till thou thrice deniest that thou knowest Me.” (Luke 22:34) Of Judas He foretold positively, “Amen I say to you, one of you that eateth with Me shall betray Me.” (Mark 14:18), and when Judas asked Him, “Is it I, Rabbi?” Jesus said to him, “Thou hast said it.” (Matthew 26:25)
Speaking of Himself He foretold that after the temple of His body should be destroyed He would raise it up in three days (John 2:19), and that the Son of man would be three days in the bosom of the earth as Jonas was three days in the whale’s belly (Matthew 12:40). He “foretold that He would be lifted up, meaning on His cross, but that by this lifting up He would lift up many toward Himself, that is to say, He would free them from sin and place them in the condition of children of God (John 12:32). Speaking to Mary Magdalen He thus foretold His ascension into heaven, “I ascend to My Father and to your Father, to My God and your God.” (John 20:17) To His apostles He predicted, too, that He would send the Holy Ghost saying, “I will ask the Father, and He shall give you another Paraclete, that He may abide with you forever.” (John 14:16)
But there are three highly important facts which we have seen existing through many centuries, which could not have resulted from any other source than divine wisdom, and which could not have been accomplished save by the power of an almighty God. Twelve poor men were sent forth to proclaim a new doctrine, one never before heard of, apparently unintelligible to all, which was to effect a complete change in the family, in the state, in religion, and in individual life and practise. These men had learned nothing more than that divine wisdom imparted to them. They had no other power than that entrusted to them by God. They were to wage war against heathenism and all the cherished vices and darling lusts of heathenism. And they did combat manfully, and preach successfully, and before them bowed the proud nations of the earth. They set up their altars in the strongholds of pagan- ism, they overturned pagan idols, annihilated super- stition, and introduced the worship of the one true God.
The world rose up against them, but they remained steadfast; unbelievers slaughtered them, but could not silence them. In their places arose new champions of the faith whose mission was duly inherited by their spiritual sons, just as kings or princes succeed one another. These sons, too, were martyred, but their blood became the seed of new confessors in the faith. Though fourteen millions of Christians fell in the sanguinary struggle, Christianity kept aloft its standard of the cross, while paganism sank at last into the tomb.
Heretics arose in the bosom of the Church, persecutions were renewed, the Church suffered, and bled, but triumphed in the end. At no time did the Church enjoy peace, for when tranquil in one land, she was combating in another. Such struggles, too, in all ages, but served the more effectually to form models and examples for mortals on earth, as well as intercessors in heaven.
While these twelve fishermen stood erect as twelve pillars of the Church of Christ, the proud vaults and arches of Jerusalem’s Temple sank to the earth. When wicked men would raise that edifice again in order to set at naught the predictions of Christ, flames of fire burst from the earth and gave testimony of Him.
Who could have foreseen such a revolution – who could even have thought of it? Our divine Lord foresaw and foretold it, saying, “Go ye into the whole world and preach the gospel to every creature” (Mark 16:15), knowing, as He well knew, that human power could not hinder the fulfilling of such a commission. He foretold that the gates of hell, namely, the power of evil, would not prevail against the Church, and that of the Temple in Jerusalem not a stone would be left upon a stone, for the edifice would be brought to utter and hopeless desolation.
These are predictions that have been working out their fulfilment before the eyes of all through the long lapse of many ages. While the growth of the Church is a perpetual triumph, the people of Israel, scattered up and down over the face of the earth, are a lasting memorial of the divine anger. These two last facts proved the Saviour to have uttered the truth when He said, “Heaven and earth shall pass, but My words shall not pass.” (Matthew 24:35)
If, finally, we scrutinize the life of our blessed Lord from the moment of His Incarnation till the time of His Passion we find example after example. He has pointed out to us the way we are to follow, in order that in us God may see His well-beloved sons in whom He is well pleased. Industry, obedience, zeal in prayer, heartfelt piety, delight in the word of God, charity, goodness, mercy, meekness, stainless purity, and a quiet, humble demeanor are the chief features in the character of Our Lord. Now Christ has left us an example in order that we should follow it. He lived long enough among men to bless and to sanctify all the circumstances and relations of life. He Himself appeals to us, “I have given you an example, that as I have done to you, so you do also.” (John 14:15) We can not help knowing our duty. In fact we have but one duty to discharge on earth: To imitate Christ and to pursue a course of life having for its accompaniments those most precious gifts of God, wisdom and grace.