Meditation by Bishop Ehrler, 1891:
“When the fullness of time had come, God sent His Son, made of a woman, made under the law, that He might redeem those who were under the law.” (Gal. 4: 4, 5.)
The time had, at length, arrived–that full and perfect time–which was best fitted for the fulfillment of the hopes of all the nations of the earth. You are well aware of the reasons why the redemption of the world was deferred until four thousand years after the fall of man. Today, we shall merely consider the time itself in which the Redeemer made his appearance in our midst, in order to learn whether it was really the most appropriate period for that gracious event,
II. In view of its expectation of a Redeemer; and
III. In view of its political condition.
I. Human understanding acknowledges that God is most worthy of our love:
2. Because all His works are infinitely great.
I. The period fixed by God for our Savior’s birth was no mere matter of accident. If Providence arranges even the most trifling events; if not a hair of our head falls without His knowledge, would He not send his only-begotten Son at the most appropriate time? The time of which our present Gospel speaks, was indeed the right era chosen by God for the grand event, especially in view of the universal corruption of the world, which had then reached its worst stage.
1. The fullness of time was, indeed, the darkest and most unhappy period of the world’s history. I blush to describe that horrible night of Paganism which cast its deadly shadows over the earth in the days of St. John the Baptist. St. Paul, in his Epistle to the Romans, portrays in terrible words the moral corruption of that epoch: “And they changed the glory of the incorruptible God, into the likeness of the image of a corruptible man, and of birds, and of four-footed beasts, and of creeping things. Wherefore God gave them up to the desires of their heart, to uncleanness: to dishonor their own bodies among themselves. . . . . Being filled with all iniquity, malice, fornication, covetousness, wickedness, full of envy, murder, contention, deceit, malignity, whisperers, detractors, hateful to God, contumelious, proud, haughty, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, foolish, dissolute, without affection, without fidelity, without mercy.” (Rom. 1 : 23-31.) Paganism not only committed, without shame, secret sins of all kinds, but it went so far as to raise vice upon its altars, and pay it divine honor. Sin took the place of religion and was worshipped as a God. Where could we find lower depths than these?
2. The abomination of desolation had fixed its seat at Rome, the capital of the pagan world, distributing thence its deadly poison over the whole broad Roman empire. All those relations of life which should ensure its stability were either defiled, loosened, or destroyed. The individual man had lost his dignity, worth, and manhood. Slavery had reduced the masses below the level of the brute creation. Family life was dissolved. The woman lay dishonored under the feet of man; and the children trembled before their father, who, at his will, could repudiate or kill them. In civil life, despotism and cruelty ruled–denying, and trampling upon all individual rights. In those days preceding the fulfillment of the promises, even the temples of the heathen gods stood deserted and empty. Their priests were without faith; they omitted the customary worship, or performed it only through compulsion. Magicians, sorcerers, and soothsayers carried on their tricks publicly for the corruption of the people. The more-enlightened pagans turned to philosophy for a relief, and sought their consolation in the investigation of science; but bitter, gnawing doubt was the result of their study and research. Men had reached that point which is described by the last and greatest historian of paganism in these words: “For us, there is no hope, nothing but despair.”
3. The Jewish people of that day were sunk in a similar depth of corruption. Their multiplied dissensions had produced a fearful indifference to the observance of the commandments of God. After the return from the captivity of Babylon, the Pharisees labored with all zeal for the observance of the law; but kept only its letter. Their religious fidelity was mere ostentation, obstinacy, and hypocrisy; the spirit of the law and the traditions of their fathers had perished for them. Still, they stood higher in the estimation of the people than the Sadducees who had branched off into heresy, setting themselves above the law, despising tradition, and giving themselves up to sensuality and infidelity. They denied the providence of God, the immortality of the soul, and the resurrection of the body. Besides the Pharisees and Sadducees, there was the sect of the Essenes, who, wishing to practice virtue, dwelt together in remote places, and favored a community of goods. Some of them lived in continency, condemning matrimony; but, although they rigorously observed the Sabbath, they took no part in the sacrifice at Jerusalem. The Jews oscillated between these three religious parties; and, by degrees, sank deeper and deeper in infidelity. Secularized and sensualized, the hopes of the nation were fixed upon a Messiah, who would appear as a mighty king, and gratify their carnal lusts. No prophet had appeared among them for a long time. The Almighty no longer worked miracles in their behalf, and the divine protection, so often and so visibly afforded them in all the past periods of their history, seemed to be entirely withdrawn.
4. The national glory of Israel had departed. Subjugated to the yoke of pagan Rome, the Jews were denied even the free exercise of their religion. The sacerdotal robes, without which no religious function or divine service was possible, were kept in those days, by the order of Herod, in the citadel of Antonia, and only loaned to those of the high-priests who showed themselves the creatures of his power. Moreover, through intercourse with pagans, a horrible corruption of morals had supervened among the Jews. The bond of marriage sat so loosely upon them that the most trifling cause sufficed for a divorce. This one circumstance demonstrates how low the chosen people of God had fallen. The whole body of human society was suffering from sin, as from the spreading of a fearful ulcer. In this fulness of misery, the Lord arose to manifest His mercy. “Where sin abounded, grace hath abounded more.” (Rom. 5 : 20.) The hour of earth’s deepest degradation seemed to the Divine Word the most appropriate time for His saving advent. Mankind had to be convinced of their utter inability to free themselves from their misery; and their horribly degraded condition was to furnish the occasion for the most glorious triumph of the grace of God.
II. In the fullness of time, the Lord sent His only-begotten Son into the world, because the expectation of the promised Redeemer had then arisen to its highest degree of intensity. The greater and more pressing the need, the louder and more vehement is the cry for help. The spark of goodness which still glowed upon the earth in the days preceding the advent of Christ, strove to enkindle in all hearts a powerful longing for the Redeemer. We find traces of this burning desire not only among the Jews, but also among the better-disposed of the pagans.
1. Ever since the days of Adam, the hope that the woman’s seed would crush the serpent’s head, and that, in this seed, all the nations of the earth should be blessed, had glowed like a brilliant star before the eyes of all pious Israelites. Kings and Prophets desired to see the day of Christ, and their desire was not gratified. Those ancient Patriarchs may have told their sons and daughters, time and again, of the great promise to their race; and, together with them, may have longingly sighed for Him who was to be sent. When the people, in later times, were languishing in the hard servitude of Egypt, their desires only waxed stronger. Moses, their great, God-appointed leader, often reminded them of the promise; and afterwards, when the Lord overcame their enemies and gave them the Promised Land; and when He raised among their judges and kings, great and famous men, must not the eyes of all believing Israelites have looked eagerly into the future, seeking the great Messiah who was to elevate them, (as they supposed) to the summit of all earthly fame and splendor? How must the Temple, with its numerous priesthood, its grand and dignified ceremonials of worship, have increased in the hearts of all pious Jews, the longing for the coming Emmanuel! Moreover, at all times, the Lord had sent prophets to His people to keep alive in their hearts the remembrance of the promise; and these holy seers had painted the picture of the Redeemer, and the glorious future of His kingdom, in the most glowing colors.
But, if the Israelites in the days of their greatness and prosperity, could even have forgotten “the star out of Jacob,” those sad days of universal misery prior to Christ, would have powerfully reminded them of the hope of their race. Great calamities broke in upon the chosen people of God. They languished under the heathen yoke; they were led into the Assyrian and Babylonian captivities; their temple was destroyed; and, without priest, altar, or sacrifice, they sat by the rivers of Babylon, and wept over the misery of their nation. All the more longingly, then, did they look to the future, and expect the coming of their Redeemer and mighty Helper. And when, finally, they languished under the dominion of the Roman Emperor and his satellites, and the scepter was taken away from Juda, the eyes of all pious Jews must have been raised to heaven with burning desire for relief. The signs of the times, and the deep demoralization of their people, alike convinced them that the salvation from God was at hand.
Witness of this longing is the holy aged Simeon who, led by the spirit of God into the temple at the presentation of Jesus, manifested his desire. “And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel.” (Luke 2: 25.) So, too, the prophetess Anna, who, on the same occasion, praised the Lord, “and spoke of Him to all that looked for the redemption of Israel.” (Luke, 2: 38.) Other witnesses were the high priests, who sent messengers to John in the wilderness to know if he were the Messiah; and the whole Jewish nation manifested this desire, when they cried out to the Savior: “How long dost thou hold our souls in suspense? If thou be the Christ, tell us plainly.” (John, 10 : 24.) Even the Samaritans shared this desire, hoping for a Redeemer, as the Jews did. “I know that the Messiah cometh (who is called Christ): therefore when He is come, He will tell us all things,” (John 4 : 25,) said the Samaritan woman to Jesus at Jacob’s well. So great had the longing for a Redeemer become in those days, that false Christs arose who had many followers among the people.
2. We must admire the same expectation among the heathens of that time. Whether it was that the depth of misery raised up the best elements of paganism to such a hope, or that the dispersion of the Jewish nation disseminated among the heathens the promise of a Redeemer, the fact remains that the attention of the pagan world was attracted to Judea, whence the Redeemer was to come. The Roman historian Tacitus declares that, in those days, the entire East was filled with the expectation of “a mighty Ruler who should come forth from Juda. The majority were convinced that it was written in the ancient writings of the priests, that about this time, the East should become mighty, and that the Lord of the world should come forth from Judea.” (Hist. L. 5: 13.) Suetonius, the historian, uses similar language: “The entire East resounded with the ancient and oft-repeated prophecy, that, according to the decrees of the Fate, the ruler of the world should come forth from Judea.” (Vesp. 4.) The poet Virgil announced that the last moment was at hand “in which that wonderful year, prophesied by the Cumean Sybil, should arrive.” (Exl. IV. AEn. 6.) This expectation was so powerful among the pagans that many of them traveled to Jerusalem in order to see the Redeemer of the world. And when we take into consideration that the Jews were, at that time, an enslaved nation, bowed down under the yoke of the Roman Emperor, it is still more astonishing that the proud Romans should have turned their eyes expectantly toward the religious center of their despised captives.
III. But what must excite our wonder in the highest degree is the political condition of the world at the time Christ was born. It promised the greatest results to the work of redemption. It is true, the leaven of the Gospel could have seized and permeated the most conflicting elements, but the wisdom of God waited for a moment in the world’s history when it could most easily and quickly draw all hearts toward itself.
2. A universal peace should reign over the whole world; and
3. Israel should have finished its predicted course.
1. All people should be joined in a political union, so that upon this arch, so to speak, might more easily be erected the great corner-stone of the unity of faith. From the time of the building of the tower of Babel, God’s people were dispersed over the face of the earth, and confounded in their language; and, in consequence thereof, their unity ceased. Men having given up their union in God, found themselves divided into numerous tribes. And the more sin increased, the wider paganism was spread abroad, the greater and more disastrous became the rupture between the various nations of the earth. A house divided against itself was not fitted to be the temple of the Lord, in which all the nations of the earth should worship him in peace and unity.
2. But at the time of Christ’s advent, after centuries of warfare among nations and bitter struggles for supremacy, the Romans became masters of the world. Rome’s unconquered eagles floated victoriously over Spain, Gaul, Germany, Great Britain, Asia Minor, and the coasts of Africa. The long, military roads branched out from Rome into all adjacent countries; and, for the first time in thousands of years, an interval of peace supervened. The world seemed tired of war and bloodshed. The temple of Janus was closed. The golden age seemed to have revisited the earth.
3. Admire the divine wisdom as manifested in the history of Israel. It had a mission for the whole world. It was not only to preserve the revelation of God and the hope of the Redeemer, but it was also chosen as witness of the heavenly promises to all the nations of the earth. It had, therefore, to come in contact with all the great nations, in order to appear among them and speak to them as the prophet of God. And the Redeemer could not come until Israel had completed its prophetic march over the face of the globe. Babylon, Niniveh, and the Pharaohs had seen and heard the prophets of God. The prophecies were still further spread through the culture of the Greeks, especially under the Ptolemies, when the Old Testament was translated into the Greek tongue. And when, at last, the power of the Roman Empire possessed the earth, there was not a large city within its domains, which did not contain a Jewish colony. Israel was a living prophecy. The nations were prepared to see the salvation of God–ready to look upon Him in whom all the promises of God were to be fulfilled.
Is it not a great spectacle, when we thus behold the nations of the earth, in the fullness of time, all subservient to the one almighty will of God? Like clouds, we behold them driven over the face of the universe, one misty shape following fast upon another, until, suddenly dividing, the Sun of Justice shines gloriously forth in their midst. “Prepare ye the way of the Lord, make straight His paths, every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be brought low: and the crooked shall be made straight: and the rough ways plain.” Thus the prophet had said. The Lord Himself, having prepared the way for His Son upon earth, when all the valleys had been filled, and all the mountains brought low, when all the crooked had been made straight and all the rough ways plain–sent down His salvation from on high, and the glorious mystery of Bethlehem spread over all the world.