Part II of the meditation on the Incarnation, taken from the book Bethlehem by Fr. William Frederick Faber:
It was on the eighth of December that those primeval decrees of God first began to spring into actual fulfillment upon earth. Like all God’s purposes, they came among men with veils upon their heads, and lived in unsuspected obscurity. Yet the old cosmogony of the material world was an event of less moment far than the Immaculate Conception. When Mary’s soul and body sprang from nothingness at the word of God, the Divine Persons encompassed Their chosen creature in that selfsame instant, and the grace of the Immaculate Conception was Their welcome and Their touch. The Daughter, the Mother, the Spouse, received one and the same pledge from All in that single grace, or well-head of graces, as was befitting the grandeur of her Predestination, and her relationship to the Three Divine Persons, and the dignity she was to uphold in the system of creation. In what order her graces came, how they were enchained one with another, how one was the cause of another, and how others were merely out of the gratuitous abundance of God, how they acted on her power of meriting, and how again her merits reacted upon them,—all this it is beside our purpose to speak of, even if we could do so fittingly. But the commonest grace of the lowest of us is a world of wonders itself, and of supernatural wonders also. How then shall we venture into the labyrinth of Mary’s graces, or hope to come forth from it with any thing more than a perplexed and breathless admiration? It was no less than God Who was adorning her, making her the living image of the August Trinity. It was that she might be the mother of the Word and His created home, that omnipotence was thus adorning her. To the eye of God her beautiful soul and fair body had glided like stars over the abyss of a creatureless eternity, discernible amid the glowing lights and countless scintillations of the Angelic births, across the darkness of chaos and the long epochs of the ripening world, and through the night of four thousand years of wandering and of fall. How must she have come into being, if she was to come worthily of her royal predestination, and of the decrees she was obediently to fulfill, and yet with free obedience!
Out of the abundance of the beautiful gifts with which God endowed her, some colossal graces rose, like lofty mountain tops, far above the level of the exquisite spiritual scenery which surrounded them. The use of reason from the first moment of her Immaculate Conception enabled her to advance in grace and merits beyond all calculation. Her infused science, which, from its being infused, was independent of the use of the senses, enabled her reason to operate, and thus her merits to accumulate, even during sleep. Her complete exemption from the slightest shade of venial sin raised her as nearly out of the imperfections of a creature as was consistent with finite and created holiness. Her confirmation in grace made her a heavenly being while she was yet on earth, and gave her liberty and merit a character so different from ours that in propositions regarding sin and grace we are obliged to make her an exception, together with our Blessed Lord. So gigantic were the graces of that supernatural life, which God made contemporaneous with her natural existence, that in her very first act of love her heroic virtues began far beyond the point where those of the highest Saints have ended. All this is but a dry theological description of the Word’s created home, as it was when the Divine Persons clothed and adorned it as it rose from nothingness. Yet how surpassingly beautiful is the sanctity which it implies! Fifteen years went on, with those huge colossal graces, full of vitality, uninterruptedly generating new graces, and new correspondences to grace evoking from the abyss of the Word new graces still, and merits multiplying merits, so that if the world were written over with ciphers it would not represent the sum. It seems by this time as if her grace were as nearly infinite as finite thing could be, and her sanctity and purity have become so constrainingly beautiful that their constraints reach even to the Eternal Word Himself, and He yields to the force of their attractions, and anticipates His time, and hastens with inexplicable desire to take up His abode in His created home. This is what theology means when it says that Mary merited the anticipation of the time of the Incarnation.
But let us pause for a moment here. St. Denys, when he saw the vision of Mary, said with wonder that he might have mistaken her for God. We may say, in more modern and less simple language, that Mary is like one of those great scientific truths, whose full import we never master except by long meditation, and by studying its bearings on a system, and then at last the fertility and grandeur of the truth seem endless. So it is with the Mother of God. She teaches us God as we never could else have learned Him. She mirrors more of Him in her single self, than all intelligent and material creation beside. In her the prodigies of His love toward ourselves became credible. She is the hill-top from which we gain distant views into His perfections, and see fair regions in Him, of which we should not else have dreamed. Our thoughts of Him grow worthier by means of her. The full dignity of creation shines bright in her, and, standing on her, the perfect mere creature, we look over into the depths of the Hypostatic Union, which otherwise would have been a gulf whose edges we never could have reached. The amount of human knowledge in the present age is overwhelming: yet, the deepest thinkers deem science to be only in its infancy. Many things indicate this truth. Just as each science is yearly growing, yearly outgrowing the old systems which held it within too narrow limits, so is the science of Mary growing in each loving and studious heart all through life, within the spacious domains of vast theology; and in Heaven it will forthwith outgrow all that earth’s theologies have laid down as limits, limits rather necessitated by the narrowness of our own capacities than drawn from the real magnitude of her whom they define.
Yet we should ill use Mary’s magnificence, or rather we should show that we had altogether misapprehended it, if we did not use it as a revelation of God, and an approach to Him. What was it in her which so attracted God? What drew the Word from the Bosom of the Father into her Bosom with such mysterious allurement? It was as if He were following the shadow of His Own beauty. It was because the delights of the Holy Trinity were so faithfully imaged there. All was His. It was to His Own He went. It was His Own which drew Him. He was but falling in love with His Own wisdom, when He so loved her. Her natural life was His Own idea, her beauty a sparkle of His science, her birth an effortless act of His Own almighty will. Her graces were all from Him. She had nothing which she had not received. Like the moon, her loveliness was all from borrowed light, softening and glorifying even in her a thousand craters of finite imperfection, which would have yawned black and dismal if the endless shining of the sun had not beaten full upon her, making beautiful and almost luminous the very shadows that are cast from her unevenness. Her grandest realities are but pale reflections of Himself. Her immense sanctity is less than a dew-drop of His uncreated holiness, which the beautiful white lily has caught in its cup and holds up trembling to the sunrise. Thus it is that God is all in all. Thus it is that the higher we rise in the scale of creatures, the less we see that is their own, and the more we see that all is His. The Angels gleam indistinguishably bright in their individual brightnesses, because they lie so near to God. In Mary, character, personality, special virtues, cognizable features, the creature’s own separate though not independent life, are to our eyes almost obliterated, because the bloom of God flushes her all over with its radiance, making herself and the lineaments of self as indistinguishable as a broad landscape beneath the noonday sun. The orb must have sloped far westward before we can measure distances, and discern the separate folds of wood, and the various undulations of the champaign. With Mary, the Orb will never slope westward. It will stand vertical forever. But we shall have a light of glory, like a new sense, fortifying our souls, and we shall go into the blaze, and see her there with magnificent distinctness lying deep in the glow of God. She will be a million times more great and beautiful to us then than she is now, and yet we shall see that less than a mote is to the magnitude of the huge sun, so much less that it is a littleness inexpressible, is Mary, the creature, to the greatness, the holiness, the adorable incomprehensibility of her Creator! Yet in Him, not in her, will be our rest. Even Him we shall see as He is! Oh, dizzy thought! Most overwhelming truth! Yet nothing less than this Vision, to the very least of us, was the almost incredible purpose of our creation, the glorious consequence of our faint similitude to that Incarnate Word of Whom Mary was the elected Mother!
The Divine decrees came forward in their mysterious slowness. They appeared on earth, and then paused, as it seemed, for fifteen years, and then, as it were, leaped precipitately and out of course to their fulfillment. There is almost always this double appearance, first of slowness and then of precipitation, in all Divine works. It is a characteristic of them, the pondering of which will reward us when we have leisure to do so. It is as if wisdom waited and was slow, till love called in omnipotence to its aid, and forthwith gained its end. Meanwhile we must wait on the grand decree which is trembling on the very verge of its accomplishment. The Eternal Word is about to assume His created nature. All things are subordinate to this. The magnificence of Mary is but His road, His instrument, His means. Her magnificence is simply in her ministering. The day, the hour, the place, the messenger, all come at last; for His beautiful created Home is ready for Him, shining with the greatness of its graces, fragrant with the perfume of its holiness. The day has come. According to our counting, it is Friday the twenty-fifth of March. Why has it been so long delayed? This is a mystery which does not concern us. Why is it that preparation always forms so much greater a part of the Creator’s works than it does of the creature’s? Is it wholly for the creature’s sake, or is it indicative of some perfection in the Creator? It is at least a disclosure of His character, which fixes our attention, and is not without its influence on our conduct. Why was He so long in preparing the world for the habitation of man? What means the old age of the lifeless rocks? Wherefore were those vast epochs of gigantic foliage, as if it were not beneath the minute considerateness of His love to be laying in wealth and power for generations of unborn men? Why were land and sea distributed and redistributed again and again, as if He were a fastidious artist Who could not please Himself because He could not express His idea except through repeated experiments? What end did those secular periods of huge sea-monsters and terrific creeping things subserve? Why was man so late a birth in the epoch of those perfect animals which were either his predecessors or his companions? Why should earth have to be the teeming burial-ground of dynasties dethroned and tribes extinct, before the true life for which it was meant came upon it? Who can tell? Perhaps it was not so. But, if it was so, it was His will. The delay of the Incarnation is parallel to what geology professes to reveal to us of the fitting and adorning and re-touching of the planet, if that can be called re-touching which was doubtless the simple development of a vast and tranquil uniformity. But the day came at last, the twenty-fifth of March, ever memorable among men as the date of the Incarnation. There was doubtless some deep and beautiful reason why it was not on the twenty-fourth or on the twenty-sixth, and why it should be on the anniversary of Adam’s fall, and hereafter of the Crucifixion,—there was doubtless some deep reason, because God has no surface; all things are deep which are in Him.
But of the chosen day the first moment was chosen also. The stars had scarcely marked the midnight in the sky, when the decree accomplished itself. Perhaps the greatest silence of created things, the hush of the nocturnal earth, was most suited to the Creator’s coming, just as it was with Adam in the old Asiatic Paradise. Goodness, also, like evil, though for opposite reasons, affects darkness and obscurity. God seem[s] marvelously to shun witnesses. The Resurrection manifests this to us, that unwitnessed mystery, the witnessing of which was nevertheless to be a main function of the college of Apostles. Yet they even were only allowed to bear witness, not to its taking place, but to its having undoubtedly taken place. So it is in science, in all questions of life, in the creation of species, in God’s viewless omnipresence, in the operation of His supernatural Sacraments, in the actual communications of grace, in all positive contacts with Him, our research is baffled on the very threshold of discovery. We just reach the point where we should see God the next moment; and without any visible obstacles, without walls or rocks or any palpable fences, we are mysteriously stayed. We can advance no further. We seem to hear the sound of God working, almost to feel His breath; but He will not be witnessed. He remains invisible. As it is in His lesser works, so was it in this His greatest. He came in the dark night, when men were unsuspecting: yet He did not take them by surprise; for, when the morning broke, He did not even tell them that He had come. Do we not know ourselves that, although we are God’s creatures, and creation is full to overflowing of Him, and is meant to raise us to Him, we nevertheless feel we are most with God when least occupied with His outward creation, and draw nearest to Him in proportion as we draw back furthest from creatures? So, on His side, He seems to keep aloof, even when He is coming in closest contact with us. He shrinks from view, Whose blaze we could not bear.
The place, where the Word’s assumption of His created nature was to be effected, was the inner room, or woman’s apartment, of the Holy House of Nazareth, where Mary and Joseph dwelt. It was an obscure dwelling of humble poverty in a rustic and sequestered village of a small land, whose days of historic glory had passed away, and whose destiny in the onward march of civilization would seem, as philosophical historians would speak, to be exhausted. The national independence of the people had come to an end. The questions, which divided their sects, were narrow and trivial. Jerusalem, long since eclipsed by Athens and outgrown by Alexandria, sat now, humbled and silent, beneath the somber shade of Rome. Even in this land Nazareth was almost a byword of contempt. Filled with pastoral green hills which shut it up within itself, its men were known beyond their own hills only for a coarse and fierce rusticity, with perhaps a reputation for something worse. The Eternal God was about to become a Nazarene. He, Whose eye saw down into every wooded hollow and penetrated every sylvan glen upon the globe, Who saw the white walls of fair cities perched jealously on their hill-tops or basking in the sunshine by the blue sea, chose that ill-famed, inglorious Nazareth for the scene of His great mystery. Who can deem that aught with God is accidental, or that anything happened as it might chance to happen with the central wonder of the Incarnation? It was His choice; and to us Nazareth, and its Holy House, exiled, wandering, and angel-borne, Syrian, Dalmatian, Italian, all by turns, are consecrated places, doubly consecrated by their old memories, and also by their strange continued life of local graces and the efficacious balm of a Divine Presence, awful and undecayed.
The occupations of that Holy House at Nazareth must not pass unnoticed. The minutest feature in the most ordinary circumstance of the Creator’s assumption of a created nature must be full of significance. From the Gospel narrative of the Annunciation [Luke 1: 26-40] we should infer that Mary had received no warning of what was about to happen, still less therefore of the time when the mystery should be accomplished. Great events commonly cast a peaceful trouble into great souls before they come, as if there was deep down in heroic natures something like a natural gift of prophecy. Such vibrations awakening yet indistinct, may have thrilled through Mary’s soul. Otherwise the mystery took her unawares; and, till the moment came, the greatness of her science and the wonder of her conscious holiness had not so much as excited a suspicion in her beautiful humility. Her unpreparedness thus gives a greater significance to her occupations at the time. The night was still and calm around her. We know not whether Joseph was wakefully pondering on the Divine mercies, or whether that man of heavenly dreams was resting from the toils of the artisan’s rude day in holy sleep. When the shadow of the everlasting decree stole upon her, Mary the wonderful and chosen creature, was alone, and, according to the universal belief, immersed in prayer. She was spending the hours of the silent night in closest union with God. Her spirit, then, as always, was doubtless raised in ecstasy to heights of rapturous contemplation. It was in the act of her prayer that the Word took possession of His created home. It was perhaps the immense increase of merit, and so the immense increase of her interior beauty, in that very prayer, which ended the delay, and precipitated the glorious mystery. It was perhaps one of her intense aspirations, an aspiration into which her whole soul and all the might of its purity were thrown, that drew the everlasting Son so suddenly at last from the Bosom of the Father. How often have the desires of the Saints been their own immediate fulfillment, because of their intensity! But what desire ever had such intensity as Mary’s yearning for Messias, unless indeed it were His Own eternal longing for His created nature? It was at least in an hour of awe-stricken worship that God visited her. Her created spirit was busied in adoration, when the Uncreated came, and took His Flesh and Blood, and dwelt within her. In all this too we see the fashion of God’s ways.
Yet His coming was not abrupt. He sent His messenger, before He came himself. We know nothing of the antecedents of the individual Angels; but Gabriel appears throughout Scripture, in the days of Daniel as well as those of Mary, to be the Angel of the Incarnation. There was doubtless something in his own character, something in his special graces, something in the part he had taken against the rebellious Angels, which peculiarly fitted him for this office, to which also he had unquestionably been predestinated from all eternity. It implies an extreme beauty of character, and a special relationship to each of the Three Divine Persons, and also a peculiar angelical similitude to Mary. He had been throughout the official herald of the decrees regarding the Incarnation, and he appears at this time in the midnight room at Nazareth, because the weeks of Daniel have run out, and he is preceding now, hardly by a moment, the everlasting decrees. But what is the especial purpose for which he has come? To ask in the name of God for Mary’s consent to the Incarnation. The Creator will not act in this great mystery without His creature’s free consent. Her freedom shall be a glorious reflection of His own ineffable freedom in the act of creation. The Omnipotent stands on ceremony with His feeble, finite creature. He has already raised her too high to be but a blind instrument. Moreover, the honor of His own assumption of a created nature is concerned in the liberty wherewith creation shall grant Him what he requires. He would not come, claiming His rights or using His prerogatives. Sometimes we have seen the tide pile up its weltering waves one upon another, as if it were building a tower of water, before some insignificant obstacle which the pressure of one rolling billow would have driven before it far up the sounding beach. This is a picture to us of the moment of the Incarnation. Innumerable decrees of God, decrees without number, like the waves of the sea, decrees that included or gave forth all other decrees, came up to the midnight room at Nazareth, as it were to the feet of that most wonderful of God’s creatures, with the resistless momentum which had been given them from eternity, all glistening with the manifold splendors of the Divine perfections, like huge billows just curling to break upon the shore; and they stayed themselves there, halted in full course, and hung their accomplishment upon the Maiden’s word.
It was an awful moment. It was fully in Mary’s power to have refused. Impossible as the consequences seem to make it, the matter was with her, and never did free creature exercise its freedom more freely than did she that night. How the Angels must have hung over that moment! With what adorable delight and unspeakable complacency did not the Holy Trinity await the opening of her lips, the fiat of her whom God had evoked out of nothingness, and Whose Own fiat was now to be music in His ears, creation’s echo to that fiat of His at whose irresistible sweetness creation itself sprang into being! Earth only, poor, stupid, unconscious earth, slept in its cold moonshine. That Mary should have any choice at all is a complete revelation of God in itself. How a creature so encompassed and cloistered in grace could have been free in any sense to do that which was less pleasing to God is a mystery which no theology to be met with has ever yet satisfactorily explained. Nevertheless the fact is beyond controversy. She had this choice, with the uttermost freedom in her election, in some most real sense of freedom. But who could doubt what the voice would be, which should come up out of such abysses of grace as hers! There had not been yet on earth, nor in the Angels’ world, an act of adoration so nearly worthy of God as that consent of hers, that conformity of her deep lowliness to the magnificent and transforming will of God. But another moment, and there will be an act of adoration greater far than that. Now God is free. Mary has made Him free. The creature has added a fresh liberty to the Creator. She has unchained the decrees, and made the sign, and in their procession, like mountainous waves of light, they broke over her in floods of golden splendor. The eternal Sea laved the queenly creature all around, and the Divine complacency rolled above her in majestic peals of soft mysterious thunder, and a God-like Shadow falls upon her for a moment, and Gabriel had disappeared, and without shock, or sound, or so much as a tingling stillness, God in a created nature sate in His immensity within her Bosom, and the eternal will was done, and creation was complete. Far off a storm of jubilee swept far-flashing through the Angelic world. But the Mother heard not, heeded not. Her head sank upon her bosom, and her soul lay down in a silence which was like the peace of God.
The Word was made flesh.
Even to us in the retrospect it is a moment of unutterable gladness. Love ponders it many times, when the world presses heavily and life goes wearily. When all things, but God, give way, because they are void and empty, and our pursuits are like the colored ends of rainbows, seen through even while we pursue them, and always receding before us as we advance, then we find such rest and such sufficiency and such transcending calm in God, that love weeps over the weakness of its own worship, and frets with a tranquil fretfulness because it cannot love Him more. It is then that the first act of love of the Sacred Heart of Jesus rises consolingly to our remembrance. It was a finite act, and yet of value infinite. Then first was the blessed majesty of God worshipped as it deserved to be. His glory lay outspread in all its broad perfection, in all its unembraced immensity, and that first act of love embraced it. Its worship was as broad as the uncomprehended breadth that lay before it. To our thoughts, to the foolishness of our venturous thoughts as finite beings, there was something desolate in that creatureless eternity of God. It was not an uncompanioned life, because of the Three Divine Persons in One God. But worship is our highest thought, and there is something dreary in the idea of an unworshipped splendor, something appalling, like a scene oppressively sublime, in an unworshipped God. It is our own foolishness, our own littleness. Yet what vent has love except in worship? We turn from our own worship of God as beneath even the complacency of our own vain-glory. We think with joy of the Saints and of the Angels, whose adoration reaches so much nearer to the Throne. Mary’s worship of God is all but rest to our eagerness to see Him loved exceedingly and worthily. But love’s rest, love’s sweet satiety, is in the worship of the Sacred Heart, and there alone. So that, in the first moment of the Incarnation, not only were the amazing decrees of everlasting wisdom fulfilled, and creation with incredible magnificence completed, but the creation thus completed turned round as it were to the Face of the Creator, and worshipped Him with a worship equal to Himself. When the heart is sick because “truths are diminished among the children of men,” and the weight of unintelligibly triumphant and abundant sin lies heavy on it, and the mind is dragged through thorny places till it bleeds, then the frightened soul flies back to that moment of the first love of Jesus, and rests there with the more full assurance and abiding calm, because it knows that that first act of love is not ended yet. It has stretched from that old midnight at Nazareth to this hour, and is not weakened by the stretch. It can bear the weight of millions of new creations. It will wear for untold eternities. Old as it is, it is new still. It is unending. Its arms are round the majesty of God, its kiss is on His feet, for evermore.
Thus had the Eternal Word begun His created life on earth. He had taken possession of that fair home which He had predestinated for Himself from everlasting. He had begun to live a life so full and broad and deep, that, if all the lives of Angels and men ran into one confluent stream, they would make but an insignificant and impoverished rill compared with the flood of real, enduring, solid, efficacious life which was His. It was a life without intermittence, without experiments, without failures, without inequalities. It was always at hightide, always succeeding, always reaching the ends at which it aimed, always fulfilling its purposes in the loftiest manner. It was a life without advance, without growth, beginning with its fullness both of science and of grace. It was a life which had measures, but its measures were practically immeasurable. Its worth was infinite, even while it was not absolutely infinite itself. It was a life also which comprehended all lives both of Angels and of men, touched them, vivified them, ennobled them, immortalized them. It ran over and abounded in mysteries, in merits, in satisfactions. It was the perpetual plenary indulgence of all other life that ever was. It was a life of the most absorbed contemplation, and at the same time of the most beneficent and heroic activity. It was a life of incomparable intellectual excellence, of unsurpassed moral wisdom, and of unexampled sanctity. It was a life so real and so true, so self-conscious and substantial, creating, perfecting, consolidating so much, that all other life by the side of it is but a shadow of life, a bare taking hold and letting go again, a mere ineffectual clutching of the hands in sleep. It was the life on which all noble, manful, divine lives were to be modeled, and moreover it contained the energetic cause and efficacious prophecy of all such lives within itself.