1 Augustus taxeth all the Roman empire. 6 The nativity of Christ: 8 one angel relateth it to the shepherds: 13 many sing praises to God for it. 21 Christ is circumcised: 22 Mary purified. 28 Simeon and Anna prophesy of Christ: 40 who increaseth in wisdom, 46 questioneth in the temple with the doctors, 51 and is obedient to his parents.
ND it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Cæsar Augustus, that all the world should be taxed.
Douay Rheims Version
The birth of Christ. His presentation in the temple. Simeon's prophecy. Christ at twelve years of age, is found amongst the doctors.
ND it came to pass that in those days there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus that the whole world should be enrolled.
5. To be enrolled with Mary his espoused wife, who was with child.
6. And it came to pass that when they were there, her days were accomplished that she should be delivered.
21. And after eight days were accomplished, that the child should be circumcised, his name was called JESUS, which was called by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.
22. And after the days of her purification, according to the law of Moses, were accomplished, they carried him to Jerusalem, to present him to the Lord:
23. As it is written in the law of the Lord: Every male opening the womb shall be called holy to the Lord:
24. And to offer a sacrifice, according as it is written in the law of the Lord, a pair of turtledoves or two young pigeons:
40. And the child grew and waxed strong, full of wisdom: and the grace of God was in him.
41. And his parents went every year to Jerusalem, at the solemn day of the pasch.
44. And thinking that he was in the company, they came a day's journey and sought him among their kinsfolks and acquaintance.
45. And not finding him, they returned into Jerusalem, seeking him.
48. And seeing him, they wondered. And his mother said to him: Son, why hast thou done so to us? Behold thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing.
51. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was subject to them. And his mother kept all these words in her heart.
52. And Jesus advanced in wisdom and age and grace with God and men.
Ver. 1.—And it came to pass in those days (in which John the Baptist was born) there went forth a decree, &c. The Syriac for “all the world,” has “all the people of his dominion,” subject that is, to Augustus and the Romans. For we have the authority of Suetonius that Augustus did not rule over the Goths, the Armenians, or the Indians. This enrolment was made, both that the number of men under the sway of Augustus might be known, and also with a view to collecting the tribute to be taken to the Roman treasury, exhausted by so many wars; for each person gave in an account of his income. It is probable that the Jews gave what they otherwise gave in taxes according to their law, half a shekel apiece, that is two reals. Exod. xxx. 11-16; Matt. xxii. 19.
From Cæsar. The true name of this Cæsar was Octavius or Octavian, the sister’s son of Julius. He being the first Monarch of Rome, extended the glory of the empire and added to it in a wonderful degree; hence he received the surname of Augustus in the eighteenth year of his reign (from which date Censorinus reckons the years of Augustus, and calls them the Augustian or Augustæan years) as though he were some divinity come down from heaven. For he reigned in the greatest peace, plenty, splendour, and felicity for fifty-seven years. Hence the proverb, “Happier than Augustus, better than Trajan.” This census was taken by Augustus when he had the whole world in a state of peace, and had therefore closed the temple of Janus for the third time, in the fortieth year of his reign. And all this happened under the guidance of God, that He might signify that Christ was now born, who was to bring peace to all the world. So Bede, “A lover of peace, He would be born in a time of the most profound quiet. And there could be no plainer indication of peace than that a census should be taken of the whole world, whose master Augustus was, having reigned at the time of Christ’s nativity for some twelve years in the greatest peace, war being lulled to sleep throughout all the world.” Wherefore the Virgin Mother of God appeared to Augustus in the Capitol bearing the Infant in her arms, Augustus himself having already learned from the Oracle of Apollo that a Hebrew child was born who had imposed silence upon the Oracles of Idols, and having erected an altar in the Capitol with the title, “The Altar of the Firstborn of God.” Hence Constantine the Great built on that spot a temple to the memory of Mary, Mother of God, which exists to this day, and is commonly called the “Ara Cœli.” There too the place is shown where Augustus saw the vision. So Baronius, following Suidas, Nicephorus, and others, in the materials of his “Annals.” Moreover, in the same reign there flowed out of the earth, in the shop of a certain deserving man, at Rome, a plentiful fountain of oil, which lasted the whole day; and the spot is still shown in the Church of St. Maria in Trastevere. “By this sign” says Osorius, book vi. ch. 20, “what more plainly declared than the birth of Christ in the reign of Caesar Augustus?” “For ‘Christ’ being interpreted is ‘The Anointed’”—because He hath anointed us, and doth anoint us with the oil of grace and of gladness through all the days of our mortal life. The question arises, In what year of Augustus was Christ born? The opinions of the learned and of chronologists differ on this point. The first opinion is that Christ was born in the 41st Julian year, the 40th of the reign of Augustus, the 36th of Herod, that is, A.U.C. 749, the fourth year of Olympiad 193. The Julian years date from that in which Julius Caesar reformed the calendar, the last year but one of his life. This opinion agrees very well with Sacred and Profane histories. The only objection to it is that in S. Luke iii. 1 and 23. It is said of Christ that when He was baptized He “was beginning to be about thirty years old,” while according to this view He must have been thirty-two, or nearly as much, for Augustus reigned fifty-seven years. The answer given to this is that Christ is called about thirty years, because He was thirty-two. In the same way S. Augustine is said in the old Breviaries to have been baptized in his thirtieth year, when he really was thirty-three, as the lately corrected Breviaries have it.
The second opinion is that Christ was born in the 41st year of Augustus, A.U.C. 750. So think Sulpicius Severus and S. Jerome; Irenæus and Tertullian also are inclined to this opinion.
The third places the date in the 42nd year of Augustus, A.U.C. 751. So Clement of Alexandria and Cassiodonus among the ancients, Scaliger and the Martyrologium Romanum for the 25th December among the moderns. I have accordingly taken this date in the Chronological Chart which I have prefixed to the Pentateuch.
The fourth is the 43d of Augustus, A.U.C. 751. So S. Epiphanius, Eusebius, Nicephorus, and others. Francis Suarez, Maldonatus, and others incline to this opinion.
The fifth makes it the 44th of Augustus, A.U.C. 753. So Joannes Lucidus, and Dionysius Exiguus with their followers.
The sixth is the 45th of Augustus, A.U.C. 754. So Paul of Middlesburgh, Bishop of Sempronia, Peter of Aliacum, Bellarmine, and Bede; and very recently, but with great exactitude, our own Petavius, in the “Rationarium Temporum.”
All these opinions have their probabilities and also their difficulties. In a matter of so much doubt there can be no certainty of definition. With the first the early Annals in Epiphanius expressly agree, the old, Chronicle in Eusebius, and an anonymous chronologist writing 1400 years ago. In its favour there is also, first, that in that year the temple of Janus was shut, and there was the greatest peace in the world, as I have said. Secondly, that Herod in the 37th year of his reign (the 41st of Augustus), and a little before his death, ordered the children under two years to be slain, Matt. ii. Christ must, therefore, have then been in His second year. This argument is strong, and can scarcely be solved except by torturing the expression “a bimatu” [Greek α̉πὸ διετου̃ς]. Thirdly, Christ must have been born in a leap year, as is clear if we count back from the present to the birth of Christ, for every hundredth year is a leap year. But the 40th year of Augustus was a leap year, and the 41st and 42d were not. For the first year of the Julian Era was a leap year, as Macrobius, Censorinus and others tell us, and therefore the tenth leap year of the Era must have been the year 41—or the 40th year of Augustus. Besides which, it is clear from Josephus, Dion, Hegesippus, and others, that Herod ruled altogether thirty-seven years, and died in the year 43 of the Julian Era, before the Passover. Therefore Christ could not have been born under him in that or any following year in the end of the year namely, in December.
Lastly, this was the year in which Augustus introduced to the Forum, with great pomp, his grandson Caius Caesar,—the son of his daughter Julia and his son-in-law Marcus Agrippa—he, on that occasion, laying aside the “toga prætexta,” and putting on the “virilis“—according to the Roman custom. For Caius was born A.U.C. 734, in the consulship of M. Apuleius and P. Silius—as Lipsius shows from Dio, from the stone of Ancyra, and from other documents. Therefore A.U.C. 749 must have been that in which he assumed the “toga virilis”—he then entering on his sixteenth year.
In this same year it was that God the Father introduced to the world His Son Jesus Christ, the Lord of Heaven and Earth, that through Him He might adopt as sons all that believed in Him, and make them heirs of the Kingdom of Heaven.
From this view likewise we may easily understand why Christ did not come to Jerusalem before the twelfth year of His age; namely, because Archelaus, the son of Herod, reigned there until that year, and he, like his father, was a source of danger to Christ. Archelaus reigned ten years, add to these the two last years of Herod and we have the twelve years, after which Archelaus was driven into exile, and then Christ freely and without fear went to the Temple at Jerusalem.
Ver. 2.—And this taxing was first made when Cyrenius was governor of Syria. First, that is general,—throughout all the world, which had now been lulled into peace under Augustus and the Romans; for there was a particular census taken in several provinces prior to this general one. So Paulus Orosius, Bede, Maldonatus, Jansenius, Toletus, Franciscus Lucas and others. First, again, because a second was taken ten years after, when Cyrenius was sent to Syria to superintend it, for the purpose of confiscating the property of Archelaus who was then exiled;—see Josephus, Antiq. bk. xviii., ch. 1. Tertullian, “against Marcion” bk. iv., ch. 7, 19, and 36, says that this first enrolment was made under Sentius Saturninus, who was sent expressly for the purpose by Augustus at the time when Cyrenius was governor of Syria in all things, and, consequently, with respect to this census as well. Or, according to others, Cyrenius began the census, and, being called away to a war against the Homonadians—over whom he shortly after triumphed—left it to Saturninus to finish.
Hence it follows that this enrolment and census was not a lustral or quinquennial, but a new and universal one; the second and most celebrated of the three made by Augustus, in the Consulship of Censorinus and Asinius, as the stone of Ancyra, Suetonius, and Josephus, Antiq. xvii., ch. 3, have it. The first census was that which Augustus took twenty years before in his sixth consulate and the seventeenth year of his reign, M. Agrippa his son-in-law being his colleague, while the third was twenty years after, in the last year of his reign and his life, with Tiberius, who had married Julia at the death of Agrippa, his mother Livia having married Augustus.
The time occupied in making one of these enrolments was five years.
Cyrenius. This was P. Sulpitius Quirinus, Cyrinus, or Cyrinius whom Augustus had appointed tutor to Caius Cæsar when he went to Syria, and whom he ordered to remain as governor when Caius died there, as Velleius the companion of Caius, Suetonius, Florus, Dio, and others record.
Ver. 3.—And all went to be taxed, every one into his own city. To the cities from which their respective families took their origin; as the house of David, of which Joseph and Christ were born, took theirs from Bethlehem; David having been born and brought up in Bethlehem. The Jews had divided their nation into twelve tribes and these again into different families, and so the Romans, in taking the census among them, followed this division.
Indeed all this was taking place under the direction of God, that it might be clear to the whole world that Christ, then newly born in Bethlehem, was of the tribe of Judah and the house of David, and that He was the Messiah, as the Prophets had foretold.
To be taxed.—The Greek α̉πογζάφεθαι means both to be enrolled and to make a declaration. Each one was enrolled, and made a declaration of allegiance to him who enrolled him, namely to Cyrenius, as the viceregent of Augustus. For at Rome all as to whose loyalty towards Augustus and the Senate there was no doubt, were enrolled as citizens and subjects, but elsewhere they were said to make a declaration of allegiance, as being foreigners subdued by the Roman arms. Orosius, book vi., last chapter, infers from this enrolment that Christ was a Roman citizen, that He might, as it were, tacitly signify that all Christians must be subjects to the Roman Pontiff and Church.
Symbolically, by this enrolment is signified the coming of Christ to free us from the servitude of the devil, and subdue all the world to His faith and worship, not by force of arms, but by the efficacy of His grace; and for this cause it was that Augustus at that time refused the title of “Lord,” as Orosius and others testify.
Again, S. Gregory, Homily viii. in Evang., says, “Why is it that a census of all the world is taken when the Lord is about to be born, except that it is by this means clearly shown that He was appearing in the flesh who should enrol His elect in eternity? For, on the other hand, it is said of the reprobate by the Prophet, Let them be blotted out of the book of the living, and not be written with the Just.” So too Origen. “To one who regards the matter attentively it seems to present a kind of mystery, as though, in the enrolment of the whole world, it behoved Christ too to be enrolled, that being enrolled with all other men He might sanctify all, and that having entered in the census with all the world, He might grant to the world something in common with Himself.”
Hence it appears that Christ was enrolled not immediately after His birth, but eight days after His circumcision; for at His circumcision the name of Jesus was given Him, and, in the presence of the inhabitants of Bethlehem, who were of the house of David, entered on the public tablets which Cyrenius forwarded to Augustus, to wit that Jesus the Son of Mary was born in Bethlehem, of the lineage of David. So Justin “Apol. ii., ad Antoninum Pium,” Origen, and others.
Ver. 6.—And so it was that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered. Here the prophecy of Micah, v. 2, that Christ should be born in Bethlehem, was fulfilled.
Went up—from Nazareth, where, at the annunciation of the angel, the Blessed Virgin had conceived Christ. Hence Christ was called by the Jews a Galilean and a Nazarene.
To Bethlehem, which was beyond Jerusalem, and two hours journey from it; so that from Nazareth to Bethlehem was a journey of three days or more, and the Blessed Virgin, though near her delivery, accomplished it, as many piously suppose, on foot. S. Bernard, in his sermon on the words “A great sign appeared in heaven” of the Apocalypse, says, “She went up to Bethlehem, her delivery being now at hand, bearing that most precious trust, bearing a light burden, bearing Him by whom she was borne. . . . She alone conceived without defilement, carried without trouble, and brought forth her Son without pain.” S. Gregory, Hom in Evang., says, “And well is He born in Bethlehem. For Bethlehem means ‘The House of Bread.’ And He it is who says, ‘I am the Living Bread that came down from Heaven.’”
Her days were accomplished. She brought forth, not under the influence of the fatigue of the journey, but naturally. Observe that Christ was born a little after the winter solstice, when the days begin to increase, John the Baptist a little after the summer solstice, when the days begin to decrease. For, as John himself said, “He must increase, but I must decrease.” So S, Augustine remarks.
Ver. 7.—And she brought forth her firstborn Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for Him in the inn. She brought Him forth naturally like other mothers, and was, therefore, truly and naturally the mother of Christ, and therefore of God, for Christ is God. Moreover the Blessed Virgin was more the parent of Christ than other mothers are of their children; for from her Christ received all His substance, and other sons receive it not only from their mother and but also from their father. Hence the love between Christ His mother was far greater than that between other mothers and their offspring, for the love which is divided between mother and father was, in the case of the Virgin, united and kept together, since she was to Him in place of both, mother and father. Secondly, as she conceived so she brought forth, remaining a virgin, so that Christ was born while the womb of his mother was closed, and penetrated as the rays of the sun penetrate glass.
Thirdly, the Blessed Virgin, as she conceived without concupiscence, so also brought forth without pain, or any of the concomitants of ordinary childbirth. So say the Fathers everywhere.
So the Blessed Virgin was all vigorous and in good health, absorbed in the love and contemplation of her Son, each moment expecting His birth, and longing to see and embrace Him.
And she herself on a certain anniversary of the Nativity made a revelation to S. Bridget, as the latter tells us in book vi. ch. 88 of her Revelations, saying, “When He was born of me He went forth from my closed virgin womb with unspeakable joy and exultation. . . . I brought Him forth as thou hast now seen me, kneeling alone in prayer in the stable. For, with such exultation and gladness of soul did I bear Him that I felt no trouble nor any pain; but straightway I wrapped Him in the clean clothing which I had prepared long before. And when Joseph saw these things, he marvelled with great joy and gladness that I had brought forth without assistance.” And in the “Angelic Discourse,” ch. xv.—“God Himself bent low His majesty, and, descending into the womb of the Virgin . . . formed in purest fashion from the flesh and blood of the Virgin alone His Human Body. And therefore is that most chosen Mother fitly likened to the burning bush which Moses saw, that took no hurt. . . . Moreover as, when the Son of God was conceived, He entered throughout the whole body of the Virgin with His Divinity, so, when he was born with His Humanity and His Godhead, He was poured forth throughout her body, like all its sweetness shed whole from the bosom of the rose, the glory of maidenhood remaining entire in His Mother.”
There is a question as to what place was the first to receive Christ at His birth. Barradius thinks it was the ground, that Christ might teach us humility. Others think that Christ was received into the arms of His Mother, with exceeding joy,—for this would seem to be becoming for such a mother and such a son, and would be natural, and is gathered from what Luke immediately adds, “and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes.” Taking Him in her hands she adored Him, kneeling, and then kissed Him most sweetly, and wrapped Him in the clothes and bands. Suarez thinks that Christ, as soon as He was born, was laid by angels in the arms of His most holy and loving Mother; S. Gregory of Nyssa implies the same. This would be the place most becoming to Him, and most consonant to the wishes both of Son and Mother; and from thence she placed Him in the manger.
S. Bridget, Revel. bk. viii. ch. 47, implies that, at His birth, Christ came of His own accord into the hands of His sweet Virgin Mother, and this may be piously believed with great probability.
Ribadaneira says that there is a tradition to the effect that the Blessed Virgin, as soon as she saw Christ, struck with wonder at God made Man, prostrated herself on the ground before Him, and, with the deepest reverence and joy of heart, saluted Him with the words, Thou art come to one who has longed for Thee, my God! my Lord! my Son!—not doubting that she was understood by Him, infant as He was; and that thus she adored Him, kissing his feet as God, His hands as her Lord, and His face as her Son.
Christ, says S. Bernard, sermon 4, “On the Nativity,” when born cried and shed tears like other infants; both that He might begin to weep for and wash away our sins and also that He might conform himself to other infants; as Solomon, who was a type of Christ, says, “And when I was born, I drew in the common air, and fell upon the earth, which is of like nature, and the first voice which I uttered was crying, as all others do. . . . For there is no king that had any other beginning of birth.” Wisdom vii. 3-5.
All the angels accompanied Christ, their God and Lord, to earth, as all royal households accompany a king when he goes abroad. They were amazed at God the immeasurable as it were straitened into a span’s breadth, they venerated Him and adored Him. Such is the meaning of the Apostle where he says, “And again, when He bringeth His Firstborn into the world, He saith, And let all the angels of God worship Him,” Heb. i. 6.
And so it came to pass that this stable was, as it were, turned into the highest heaven,—full of angels, yea, of cherubim and seraphim, who all, leaving heaven, came down to adore their God made Man. Such was the work of the Incarnation and Nativity of the Word,—hitherto inconceivable, and, as it were, incredible to the angels, as being the supreme and appropriate work of the Divine Power, Wisdom, Justice, and Clemency—surpassing every understanding of men and of angels.
The reasons why Christ would be made Man and born on earth were many. First, that suffering and dying in the flesh He might redeem us from our sins and from hell. That He might teach us by example rather than word the way of salvation, and give us a perfect specimen of sanctity and of all virtues, but especially of the most profound humility. “Dig within thyself,” says S. Augustine, “the foundation of humility, and so shalt thou arrive at the summit of charity.”
Another reason was that Christ wished to become our kinsman and brother, nay, our very flesh and blood, in order that He might deal as flesh with flesh, as man with man, as equal with equal. Hence S. Bernard (Serm. 3, super Missus Est) says, “He has been sent;—let us strive to be made like as this little one; let us learn of Him, for He is meek and humble of heart, lest the Great God be made Man to no purpose.”
A third reason is that Christ took upon Him the meanness, the lowliness, the ills of our flesh, not for Himself but for us, to prick the icy hearts of men with the effectual stimulus of love and stir them up,—nay, force them, to love Him in return. For Christ, in His Incarnation, is ever calling aloud to us; I have given Myself all to thee, do thou in turn give thyself whole to Me. For this did I take flesh upon Me, that thou mightest say with Paul, I live now not I, but Christ lives in me. Listen to S. Ambrose,—“He therefore was a little infant that thou mightest be a perfect man—He swathed in bands that thou mightest be freed from the snares of death—He in a crib that thou mightest be on the altars—He on earth that thou mightest be in heaven—He had not room in the inn, that thou mightest have more abiding places among the inhabitants of heaven. . . . His poverty, therefore, is my heritage, and the weakness of my Lord is my strength.”
A fourth reason is that we could not conceive the idea of God, who is a pure and uncreated spirit, so God clothed Himself in our flesh that we might see Him with our eyes and hear Him with our cars. It is this that the Church sings in the Preface of the Mass of the Nativity—“Because by the Mystery of the Incarnate Word a new effulgence of Thy glory has shone upon the eyes of our soul, that coming to know God visibly we may by Him be rapt into yearning after things that are not seen.”
Firstborn—and only born. The firstborn is he who is born first, though no other be begotten after him; for such an one enjoys the rights and privileges of primogeniture.
And wrapped Him in swaddling clothes—and cheap, but clean and decent. Cyprian, or whoever is the author of the book, “On the Chief Works of Christ,” in serm. 1, says, “In place of purple some rags are got together, instead of the regal equipage a few fragments; the Mother is also the nurse and pays devoted attention to her beloved Offspring.” The Ethiopian version, instead of “wrapped Him in swaddling clothes,” has “bound His thumbs,” as though this were the sign by which the Infant was recognised by the shepherds. This is connected with the Ethiopian tradition that the Queen of Sheba, when she returned to Ethiopia from her visit to Solomon, brought forth a son called Menelich, whom she had conceived by him, and that she sent this son back to Jerusalem, putting on his thumb the ring which Solomon had given her, that by this sign he might be known by his father.
And laid Him in a manger. Passing over the various opinions on the subject recorded by Baronius and others, we may note that the place of Christ’s birth was not the stable belonging to some rustic dwelling, but a cave hewn out of a rock at the eastern end of the city of Bethlehem. This is on the authority of S. Jerome, “Ep, 18 ad Marcellam,” Bede, “de Locis Sanctis ” ch. 8, and others. Whether the cave were within or without the city of Bethlehem authorities are not agreed. Bede says that a miraculous perennial spring took its rise in the rock of the cave, and was still flowing, in his time; he also records that the whole cave was cased in marble by the Christians, and adorned with a magnificent church built above it. That there was in this cave a wooden manger, well known to all the shepherds of that part, is clear from the fact that the shepherds soon found the spot when the angel indicated it to them by this sign. This manger was taken from thence to Rome, and there placed in the Basilica of S. Maria Maggiore, where it is religiously visited and venerated.
Christ was placed in the manger for two reasons; first, because there was no place better fitted to hold Him—the straw in it forming a kind of bed on which the tender babe might repose; and, secondly, that in the rigour of winter, He might be warmed by the breath of the ox and the ass. For the tradition goes that an ox and an ass were tethered to this manger, and such is the common belief of the faithful. Of these two animals the Church interprets the words of Habakkuk iii 2, “In the midst of two animals shalt Thou be known” (Vulgate), and appropriates also Isaiah i. 3, “The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib,”—such is the explanation given on these passages by S. Jerome, Nazianzen, Cyril, Paulinus, and others, quoted by Baronius.
Gregory of Nyssa “On the Nativity” gives a mystical reason as follows:—“A manger is the dwelling-place of beasts; in such a place is the Word born, that the ox may know his owner, and the ass the resting-place of his Lord. Now, the ox is the Jew under the yoke of the Law; and the ass is an animal fitted for bearing burdens,—the Gentile groaning under the grievous burden of idolatry. Moreover, the ordinary food of beasts is hay. But the rational animal eats bread, wherefore the Bread of Life which came down from heaven is laid in the crib where the food of beasts is wont to be placed, that even animals void of reason may share the food of reasonable beings.”
Many mothers of Saints, following the example of Christ, have brought forth their sons in a stable. The mother of S. Francis, being pregnant, and, unable to give birth to her child, advised by a poor pilgrim to betake herself to a stable, did as she was told, and there gave birth to S. Francis, the imitator of Christ’s poverty. So says Ribadaneira in his life. Let all Christians look at and contemplate Christ in the manger, and consider Who and What He is,—what He does, for whom and why He does it. For Christ in the manger, God made Man, the Word become a babe,—is the love and admiration of all the angels and all the faithful, at whom they stand amazed and shall be amazed for all eternity. For who will not be astonished if he look thoughtfully at this Child and ask Him, Who art thou, 0 Babe of Bethlehem? and hear Him answer; learn of Isaiah,—“Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon His shoulder, and His name shall be called Wonderful, Counsellor, the Mighty God, the everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace.” Isaiah ix. 6.
“0 God, we have thought of thy loving kindness in the midst of Thy temple. For this God is our God for ever and ever, He will be our guide unto death.” Ps. xlviii.
Let Solomon, the wisest of kings, teach who this is;—“The Lord possessed me in the beginning of His way, before His works of old. . . . When He prepared the heavens I was there: when He set a compass upon the face of the depth . . . Then I was by him, as one brought up with him.” Prov. viii. 22.
And let the Sybil of the Gentiles tell us in Virgil’s Fourth Eclogue.
“The last great age, foretold by sacred rhymes,
Renewed its finished course, Saturnian times
Roll round again; and mighty years begun
From their first orb, in radiant circles run.
The base degenerate iron offspring ends;
A golden progeny from heaven descends”
—Dryden’s “Pastoral IV.”
With reason, then, does S. Augustine exclaim, “0 miracles! 0 prodigies! 0 mysteries! Brethren, the laws of nature are changed, God is born as a Man, a virgin is pregnant. . . . God who is and was the Creator becomes a creature, He who is unmeasured is held, He who makes men rich is made poor, the Incorporeal is clothed with flesh, the Invisible is seen. . . . What was it that so great a God did, lying in so small a covering of flesh in the crib? Let us hear Him as He teaches us from His Manger-Throne,—teaching not by word but by example.” I, who with three of my fingers poise the earth’s vast mass, I who did create heaven and earth, the King of Glory and Lord of Majesty, beneath whom the columns of heaven tremble, and they that bear the globe are bowed down,—I, for love of thee alone, 0 man, to deliver thee from thy sin and from the eternal flames of hell, and to bring thee to the happiness of heaven, have come “leaping upon the mountains, bounding over the hills;”—from heaven have I leapt down upon earth, from the bosom of the Father to the Virgin’s womb. Through the bowels of My compassion have I “the Dayspring from on high” visited thee; I have joined in one person the Word with flesh, a spirit with the slime of earth, God with man, and most intimate have I made the union. I have become a little child, thy bone and thy flesh, I am made man to make thee God. Within the manger, the food, as it were of the ox and the ass, I lie among the beasts, because thou wast living like unto the beasts,—wallowing in flesh and blood. Thou hadst become as the horse and the mule that have no understanding. For man when he was in honour did not understand, and was comparable to the senseless brutes and became like unto them. Therefore did I take flesh upon Me, that thou mayest eat My flesh, that joining it to thy flesh thou mayest breathe the breath of Heavenly and Divine Life.”
I am the Way, the Truth, and the Life. If, then, thou wouldst not err, follow Me as the way to heaven; hearken unto Me as the Truth; embrace Me as the true Life. Vain is wealth, vain are pleasures, vain the honours of this world, which foolish mortals, like silly children, follow after and covet so greedily. True riches, true pleasures, undying honours are in heaven;—these doth God enjoy, and His angels and His saints;—aspire after these. Am I, Christ, the King of kings, born poor and needy, and dost thou, 0 Christian, seek after comforts and riches? Have I, the uncreated and illimitable Wisdom, chosen for Myself the pains of flesh and of spirit, and wilt thou indulge in the delights both of the one and of the other? I, whom the heavens cannot contain, am shut up in a tiny body and in this paltry manger, and art thou, Christian, ashamed to be despised as a little one and lowly? Not in Herod’s palace would I be born, not in the palace of Augustus, but in a cavern, in a manger; I chose to dwell in humble cottages, and preferred the sheepfold before the royal court, but thou dost follow after courts and the things of courts. Sons of men, why delight ye in vanity, and why seek ye after a lie?
“The stable cries aloud”—says S. Bernard, sermon 5, “On the Nativity”—“the manger cries aloud, His tears and His clothes. The stable cries out that it is ready to be the shelter and hospital of man who has fallen among thieves; the manger, that food is ready for man that is become like to the beasts; His tears and His clothes that with them man’s bleeding wounds are now washed and wiped dry.”
Because there was no room for them in the inn—namely, for Mary and Joseph. The reading “for Him,” adopted by some, is, therefore, incorrect. Barradius, who is among these, gives as a reason why the Blessed Virgin brought forth in the cave, and why Christ was laid to rest in a manger and not in a bed, that all the places in the inn had already been taken by the crowd of richer people who were flocking thither for the census. It is very likely that in a small town like Bethlehem there was only one inn; as S. Luke here implies. But this came to pass by the supreme foreknowledge and providence of Christ, that he might give us an example of the greatest humility and poverty. Hiding Himself away, however, He was made manifest and glorified by God, through the star that summoned the wise men, the angels sent to the shepherds, the over-turning of idols, and other miracles which Orosius, bk. vi. ch. 20, and Baronius in his annals, vol. 1, recount.
And there were in the same country shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night. In the fields and plains about Bethlehem. St. Jerome, Ep. 27, Brochardus, and others say that it was the same place where Jacob fed his flocks, and which was called the Tower of Edar, or the flock, because it is rich in pasturage; Gen. xxxv. 21. Here, then, it was that the angels sang “Glory to God in the highest;” and & Helena built on the spot a Church in honour of the Holy Angels. The place is about a mile from Bethlehem.
Abiding in the field. In Greek α̉γζαυλου̃ντες—passing the night or keeping their flocks in the field. For αυ̉λή is a fold or enclosed place, and αγζός is a field. Theophylact interprets singing in the field, as though from αυ̉λει̃ν, to sing.
From these words Joseph Scaliger argues that Christ was born in September; for it is then, he says, and not in December, the depth of winter, when everything is stiff with frost or snow, that sheep are herded and fed in the fields. However, that Christ was born on the 25th of December is the common tradition of the Church and of all ages. In answer to Scaliger’s argument, it may be urged that in warm climates, such as Palestine, flocks stay in the fields even in winter; whether in the open air, or in sheds prepared for the purpose, such as there doubtless would have been in “the Tower of Edar.” So in Italy one sees sheep and cattle feeding on the plains the whole winter.
Keeping watch over their flocks by night. In the Greek φυλάσσντες φυλακάς—keeping watch through the four watches of the night to guard their flocks lest they might be pillaged by wolves or robbers. Hence we gather that Christ was born in the night, probably after midnight, when the 25th day of December was beginning. And this is signified mystically (for there is another and literal interpretation of the passage) by the words of Wisdom xviii. 14:—“For while all things were in quiet silence, and that night was in the midst of her swift course, Thine Almighty Word leaped down from heaven out of Thy royal throne, as a fierce man of war into the midst of a land of destruction.”
In memory of the event the Church of the Three Shepherds was afterwards built on this spot. Lucius Dexter in his Chronicle, which he dedicates to S. Jerome, says, “A.U.C. 752, in the consulship of Lentulus and Messala, one year before the consulship of Augustus and Sylvanus, Christ is born, and is pointed out to three shepherds who were holy men.” See Baronias, AC. 1.
Ver. 9.—And, lo, the angel of the Lord came upon them, and the glory of the Lord shone round about them, and they were sore afraid. “An angel,” says Titus, “in a body which he had assumed to signify that God had assumed a body, and had made Himself visible to man by means of the flesh He had taken upon Him.”
The author of the work “De Nativitate Dei,” attributed to S. Cyprian, Toletus, Francis Lucas, and others think that this angel was Gabriel, for if was he who appeared to the Blessed Virgin and to Zachariah, and he was the agent in all this matter of the Incarnation.
Came upon them. In the Greek ε̉πέστη αυ̉τοι̃ς, which some translate “stood over them,” like an angel coming down from heaven. These shepherds, being Jews and believers, are called by an angel, for angels often appeared to the Jews; the Magi, being Gentiles and astrologers, are called by a star. See S. Gregory, Hom 10, on the Gospels. Euthymius gives four reasons why the angel appeared first to the shepherds, and not to Scribes or rich citizens. The first is that here at Christ’s crib, all things breathe poverty and lowliness, and the simple shepherds, poor and humble as they are, are more pleasing to God than proud rich men, and incredulous Scribes and Pharisees—“I thank Thee, 0 Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because Thou hast hidden these things from the wise and prudent, and revealed them unto babes. Even so, Father: for so it seemed good in Thy sight,” Matt xi. 25. Theophylact remarks on this passage: “He has overcome the learned by the unlearned, the rich by the poor; and by fishermen He caught the whole world like fish.”
The second reason is that the shepherds were following the old way of life of the Patriarchs, the most innocent of industries. Abel, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses were shepherds, and to them, as being holy and innocent, God often appeared by His angels. The third is that Christ was to be the shepherd of His people—“I am the Good Shepherd” (John x.). Hence it was once usual to paint Christ as a Shepherd surrounded by sheep, as we may still see in Rome in S. Cosmas and S. Damian and other ancient churches.
And the fourth is, in order that we may understand that to the shepherds of rational sheep—of the faithful—the Divine mysteries are first revealed by God, for them to teach their sheep—to the people committed to their care.
The author of “De Mirabilibus Sacræ Scripturæ” quoted in the works of S. Augustine (vol. iii. bk. iii. ch. 2), gives a fifth reason, namely, that Christ was the Lamb that was to be offered for the salvation of the world. It was fitting, then, that He should first be made known to shepherds.
Tropologically, Christ reveals and communicates Himself to those who watch over their thoughts and actions as the shepherds watched their flocks, and consoles those who have no consolation for themselves. S. Bernard (Serm. 5, “On the Nativity”) says, “The infancy of Christ has no consolation for them that speak much, nor His tears for them that laugh, nor his swaddling clothes for them that are clothed in fine raiment, nor His manger and His stable for those who love the chief seats in the assemblies. But we shall see that these things yield, perhaps, all their consolation to those who wait for their Lord in calmness and quietness. And let them know that the angels themselves bring no consolation for other than such as these.”
And the glory of the Lord shone round about them. In the Arabic version, “the glory of the Lord arose upon them.” Everywhere in Holy Scripture God has manifested His glory by a heavenly light. “By glory of the Lord,” says Euthymius, “we are to understand Divine light.” This brightness, then, was not that of the stars, but a far more august effulgence, the indication of the Majesty of God, whose ambassador the angel was. However, S. Ambrose, Serm. 10, “On the Feast of the Nativity,” says, “When the Saviour arises, not only is the salvation of the human race renewed, but also the brightness of the sun himself; as the Apostle says in Ephes. i.—That by Him He might restore all things that are, whether in the heavens or on earth. For if the sun is darkened when Christ suffers, it must of necessity shine more brightly than usual when He is born. . . . To sum up, I hold that it came to pass that the night began to wane while the sun, hastening to pay his homage to the birth of the Lord, brought forth his light upon the world before the night fulfilled her course. Indeed I call it not night at all, nor will I say that it had any darkness when the shepherds watched, the angels rejoiced, and the stars paid their service. If the sun stood still at the prayer of Joshua the son of Nun, why should it not at the birth of Christ make haste to advance into the night?”
And they were sore afraid. They were filled with a holy and reverent fear, by reason both of the strangeness of the vision and the brightness, and also of the majesty of the heavenly messenger, - a majesty which so strikes men as almost to stupefy them, so that of old the opinion prevailed that he who had seen an angel must die, according to the words of Manoah, the father of Samson, “We shall surely die because we have seen God.” Judg. xiii. 22. From this we may learn that the sign of a good angel is that he first terrifies us and then consoles us.
Ver. 10.—And the angel said unto them; Fear not, for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, that shall be to all people—but first to you, whom first I summon to visit and adore the Messiah that is born.
Ver. 11.—For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord. In Bethlehem, of the seed and lineage of David. Each word here has its weight, and suggests new matter for joy, as is clear to every one who ponders them deeply. Toletus makes a full and minute examination of the passage. The name “Christ” denotes priesthood and kinghood, says Eusebius in the Catena, for both kings and priests were anointed, and were therefore called “Christi”—that is “consecrated by anointing.”
Ver. 12.—And this shall be the sign unto you (by which you may know this child from others recently born), ye shall find the babe wrapped in swaddling clothes lying in a manger. For other children born at that time were in houses and in beds,—only Christ was in a manger in a stable. Hence it appears that this manger was commonly known to every one, unless we suppose, as Toletus would have it, that the angel pointed out to the shepherds with his finger, or by an inward inspiration, the cave where the manger was. The angel gives this sign that the shepherds may not suppose, according to the Jewish notion, that their Messiah, as King of the Jews, was to be sought in the royal palace of Herod or in any place of the same kind. For this was Christ’s first Advent—the Advent of Humility, as His second Advent, to judge the world, will be one of Majesty. The sign, then, of the Word Incarnate and straitened is the lowliness of the swaddling bands and the manger. As S. Bernard says, Serm. 1, “On the Nativity,” “What more unworthy, what more detestable, what more severely punishable than that, seeing the God of Heaven become a little child, man should of his own free will set himself in opposition to magnify himself upon the earth? It is a trait of intolerable insolence that, where His Majesty has effaced Itself, a poor worm should be puffed up and swollen with pride.”
Ver. 13.—And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God and saying. Because, as I said at verse 7, all the angels accompanied Christ to earth and adored Him, and they are His battle array and His host,—the army of Heaven that fight strongly for God against the evil spirits and against the ungodly. Wherefore He is called the “God of Sabaoth,“ that is, of armies. So it was that Jacob, the type of Christ, fleeing from his brother Esau, saw an army of angels that brought him aid; wherefore he said, “This is the camp of God,” and called the place Mahanaim—“The camp in double,” on account of the two ranks or bodies of angels which he saw coming to protect him, Gen. xxxii. ‘Again, if the stars of the morning praised God, and all the sons of God (that is, the angels) rejoiced at the creation of the world, as Job says (ch. xxxviii 7), how much more did they do so at the Incarnation and Nativity of the Word?
Ver. 14.—Glory to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men (of good will “bonæ voluntatis,” Vulgate). So the Syriac, Egyptian, Coptic, and Persian versions also have it, except the words “of good will,” of which we will treat presently. “In the Highest” may be taken with reference both to “God”—glory to God who dwells in the highest heavens; and also, and preferably with reference to “glory.” In the highest heavens the angels give glory to God, as on earth men enjoy peace through Christ who is now born. Again, these words may be taken either in an affirmative sense—supplying “is;” or in an optative sense—supplying “be.” In the former sense it is, Now is there glory to God in heaven, and peace on earth. For the inhabitants of heaven glorify the mercy, the wisdom, and the fidelity of God, in that He has now exhibited to the world the Christ promised by Him to the patriarchs, and hence there is peace on earth, for that Christ is born to reconcile to God, as the peace-making King, men who are born sons of wrath. So Toletus and Maldonatus. In the optative sense, praised and glorified be God in heaven, and let all the inhabitants of heaven bless and glorify Him, because He has deigned to send Christ upon the earth, that He, being incarnate, may bring to men peace—that is, reconciliation, grace, salvation, and all good things. Therefore let heaven and earth praise God, and let all the dwellers therein rejoice before Him, because Christ is born who is the glory of God, the joy of angels, the peace of men. So Jansenius, Baradius, and others.
The Greek versions make this hymn consist of three members:—(1) Glory to God in the Highest, (2) an earth peace, (3) good will among men. So, too, the Syriac, and the Arabic, which instead of “good will” has “rejoicing” [hilaritas]; and the Greek fathers everywhere adopt this reading—S. Athanasius, Basil, Gregory of Nyssa, &c.
But all the Latins, and, among the Greeks, Origen, S. Chrysostom, and Cyril, read, and with better reason, for ευ̉δοκία good will, ευ̉δοκίας—of good will, making the hymn consist of two members. For as glory is given to God as to Him who is glorified, so peace is given to men of good will as to those whom the peace of Christ belongs and befits; and in this way the concatenation of the whole sentence hangs better together. The peace on earth cannot be supposed to be other than that which belongs to men of good will. S. Bernard, in his Epist. 126 to the Bishop of Aquitania, says: “How then shall the peace of men stand before God, or with God, if His glory cannot be secured to God among men? 0 foolish sons of Adam, who, despising peace, and seeking after glory, lose both peace and glory!”
And on earth peace. The peace of men with God, to whom Christ has reconciled us, and, following on this, peace—that is, tranquillity of mind; and in the third place, peace and concord with ,other men. Moreover, peace meant for the Jews every good—all prosperity and happiness. Some say that this peace is Christ Himself, “For He is our peace, who hath made both one,” Eph. ii. 14; for “it pleased God through Him to reconcile all things to Himself, bringing into peace all things, whether they be in heaven or on earth, by the blood of His Cross,” Colos. i. 20 (Vulg.), S. Augustine (Orat. contra Judæos, Paganos, et Arianos, c x.), says: “Within the Virgin’s womb there were celebrated spiritual nuptials, God was joined to the flesh, and the flesh clave unto God, coming forth from hence like a bridegroom from his chamber, at whose wedding all creation was stirred up and seemed to exult. For the choir of angels proclaim, as the result of these nuptials, peace to men of good will; for He that was the Son of God became the Son of Man.”
Good will. These words may be taken in three ways—First, with reference to, and as qualifying, “men.“ Peace be to men, and yet not to all men, but to chose that are of good will. So S. Ambrose reads. Secondly, S. Leo (Serm. on the Nativity): “Peace be to men, to make them of good will, that they may in all things subject and conform their will to God’s will and law.”
But, as the Greek is ευ̉δοκία, which corresponds to the Hebrew דצון, ratson, and is generally attributed in Holy Scripture not to man but to God Himself, signifying the grace, benevolence, satisfaction, and love of God towards men, Gregory of Nyssa, Theophylact, and Euthymius give the following interpretation. Peace be to men, whom God deigned to pursue with this grace and display of good will—with His benevolence and love, freely and without their merit; to give them such a Saviour and Reconciler to make peace between Himself and them. So, in Ps. v., it is said, “With the buckler of Thy good will” (in Greek ευδοκίας) “hast Thou crowned us” (Vulg.)—that is, surrounded us, as with a crown, with a buckler, which is Thy benevolence. And in S. Matt. xvii., “This is My beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased”—in the Greek ηυ̉δόκησα. So, too, “men of good will” are elsewhere called “the sons of love.” See Eph. i. 9.
Ver. 15.—And it came to pass, as the angels were gone away from them into heaven, the shepherds said one to another, Let us now go even unto Bethlehem, and see this thing which is come to pass. This thing, a metenomy, common in Scripture, by which the word is put for the thing signified by it, as in ch. i 37, “No word”—that is, nothing “shall be impossible with God.” And in 2 Kings i. 4, “What is the word that is come to pass?”
Which the Lord hath made known unto us. In the Greek ε̉γνώζισε—revealed, made known. Yea, and has given us, rather than the scribes and all others, a sign by which we shall find the Messiah that is born. Wherefore, if we, who have been invited by Him through an angel, do not visit and adore Him who is born for us, and revealed first to us, we shall be ungrateful to God, to the angels, and to Christ, and enemies to ourselves.
Ver. 16.—And they came with haste, and found Mary, and Joseph, and the babe lying in a mange. With haste, from their longing and zeal to see Christ. Hence S. Ambrose remarks, “Thou seest that the shepherds make haste; for no one seeks after Christ with slothfulness.” And Bede, “The shepherds hasten, for the presence of Christ must not be sought with sluggishness; and many perchance that seek Christ do not merit to find Him, because they seek Him slothfully.”
Ver. 17.—And when they had seen it, they made known abroad the saying which was told them concerning this child. They made known—in the Greek διεγνώζισαν—they knew distinctly and with certainty. Or it may be translated, according to Pagninus, they made known; Theophylact has, they published abroad. So, too, the Syriac version; and hence it follows:—
Ver. 18.—And all they that heard it wandered at these things which were told them by the shepherds. The and is not found in the Greek, the Syriac, or the Arabic version, and with this omission the sense is plainer. But, according to the Roman version, the meaning is, they wondered at the birth of the Messiah, and at the other things that were said about him by the shepherds, namely, that an angel had appeared, that angels had sung “Gloria in excelsis,” and Christ was lying in a manger, &c.
So the Gloss, Francis Lucas, and others. Lyranus, however, interprets the “and” as equivalent to “that is.” Hence it appears that the shepherds told to many what they had heard and seen respecting the birth of Christ; and that therefore many went to the crib and saw Christ; but that those only believed in Him whose hearts God touched efficaciously, while others, offended at His poverty, despised Him. S. Ambrose assigns the reason for this—“The person of the shepherds was not despicable—assuredly the more precious in the eyes of faith, the more despicable it was to worldly wisdom. Not the schools crowded with their bands of wise men did the Lord seek, but a simple folk, that knew not how to deck out and colour the things they had heard. For simplicity is what is sought, ambition is not wanted.”
Ver. 19.—But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart—putting them together and comparing them—not as Bede would have it, the prophecies made about Christ by the prophets, but the things seen and reported by the shepherds with reference to the angels—the “Gloria in excelsis,” &c., with what she had experienced herself—the annunciation of Gabriel, the prophecy of Elizabeth and of Zacharias, and the other things which she herself had witnessed and felt in herself. And this she did, first, that seeing the wondrous harmony—all things agreeing so well together—she might be the more confirmed in her faith that the only begotten Son of God was born of her. So speaks S. Ambrose. Secondly, that by the sweet contemplation of these circumstances so consonant among themselves, she might feed her mind, and look with sure hope for the rest—namely, that God would bring this work to an end, and redeem mankind by Christ. Thirdly, that in good time she might unfold all these things and narrate them in order to the apostles, and especially to S. Luke, who was destined to write of them. Observe here in the Virgin the rare example of maidenly silence and modesty, of heavenly prudence, and of the firmest faith and hope, as she wonders at the present and waits for the future. She was comparing the signs of deepest loneliness which she saw with what she knew of His Supreme Majesty, the stable with heaven, the swaddling clothes with that which is spoken of in Ps. civ., “covered with light as with a garment,” the crib with the throne of God, the beasts with the seraphim.
Ver. 20.—And the shepherds returned (to their flock, says Euthymius, for God would have the faithful, however exalted by Him, remain in the discharge of their several callings), glorifying and praising God for all the things that they had heard and seen, as it was told unto them. Hence it is clear that the shepherds remained constant in the faith and gospel of Christ—nay, exulting and jubilant in the joy of the Holy Spirit at having seen Him.
Ver. 21.—And when eight days were accomplished for the circumcising of the child, His name was called Jesus, which was so named of the angel before He was conceived in the womb—when eight days were fulfilled—when the eighth day from His nativity was come. That the child should be circumcised—this indicates that He was circumcised, implying that He underwent the rite, not of obligation, but freely and of His own will. For, in the first place, He was God—the Author of the law, and, therefore, not bound by the law; and, in the second place, He was not of the common generation of men, who are procreated of the propagation of sin and conceived in iniquity, says Bede, but conceived and born of the Holy Spirit, and, therefore, without original sin, for wiping out of which circumcision was instituted. For circumcision was the sign and stigma of sin, the cautery with which it was burnt out, and in Christ there was no sin, no lust. So in His circumcision Christ humbled Himself to a still greater degree than in His nativity—in the latter He took upon Him the form of man, in the former the character of a sinner.
Here are seven reasons why Christ would of His own accord be circumcised, drawn from the writings of S. Cyprian, S. Augustine, Bede, and others, and given by S. Thomas, (part iii., quæst. 37, art. 1):—First, to show the reality of His human flesh, as against Manichæus, who said that He had a phantom body, Apollinarius, who said that the body of Christ is consubstantial with the Godhead, and Valentinus, who said that He brought His body from heaven.
Sacondly, to sanction the rite which God had instituted.
Thirdly, to show that He was of the seed of Abraham, who had received the ordinance of circumcision as a sign of the faith which He had in reference to Christ.
Fourthly, to take away all excuse from the Jews, lest they should not accept Him if He were uncircumcised.
Fifthly, to commend to us by His own example the virtue of obedience. Hence it was that He was circumcised on the eighth day, as the law prescribed.
Sixthly, that, having come in the likeness of the flesh of sin, He might not seem to reject the remedy by which the flesh had been wont to be cleansed of sin.
Seventhly, that, bearing the burden of the law Himself, He might free others from that burden, “God sent forth His Son made under the law, to redeem them that were under the law,” Gal. iv.
S. Leo (Serm. 2 on the Nativity) adds as another reason that by this rite Christ’s character was hidden from the devil: “The merciful and Almighty Saviour, so conducting the beginning of His assumption of human nature as to hide the virtue of the Godhead inseparable from His humanity with the veil of our infirmity, eluded the craft of the enemy, who was secure in the supposition that the birth of this child, begotten for the salvation of mankind, was no less liable to His power than that of all other children who are born.”
S. Augustine (Serm. 9 on the Nativity) gives yet another reason—that putting an end to the carnal, Christ might put in its place that spiritual circumcision which consists in the mortification and cutting away of vices and concupiscence—“Christ,” he says, “took circumcision upon Himself as about to do away with circumcision; He admitted the shadow as about to give light—the figure as He that should fulfil the verity.”
Lastly, by this act He began that suffering by which He became the Redeemer and Saviour of the world. So it was that in this rite the name of “Jesus” was given Him, because He healed not our infirmities with drugs, as the physicians do, but by taking them upon Himself and making satisfaction for them to God, so earning the power of healing all the diseases of soul and of body, all our passions, temptations, sorrows, and afflictions, whether in this life or in the life to come. Art thou afflicted, then, with fear or over-scrupulousness, with anger or bitterness, with sorrow or poverty? Call upon Jesus, and thou shalt feel that He is thy Consoler and thy Saviour.
Christ was circumcised in the cave where He was born by some priest or Levite, and felt greater pain than other infants, in that He had the use of reason which other infants lack, and possessed a more delicate and active sense of touch.
His name was called Jesus. The name of Jesus signifies the function of Saviour in its greatest fulness, inasmuch as He not only saved men Himself, but gave to His apostles and to these like them the power of saving. This is what is implied by the word Josue, or, as the Hebrews say, Jehosua. Let the faithful then remember that they are children of Jesus, and that they ought therefore to imitate Him in bringing about the salvation of souls.
Which was so named of the angel (when Gabriel announced to the Blessed Virgin His conception, ch. i. ver. 31) before He was conceived in the womb. For Christ was conceived at the end of the Annunciation, when the Blessed Virgin answered, “Behold the handmaid of the Lord, be it unto me according to Thy word.” In this sentence S. Luke gives us to understand that the name of Jesus had been decreed by God, for this Child from all eternity, to signify that He was to be the Saviour of the world.
Observe here how God joins and couples in Christ the humble with the sublime, the human with the divine, the poison with the antidote, to show that in Him human nature was joined to the Divine Majesty. Christ would be circumcised, so taking on Him the appearance of sin, but presently, when He wipes away this appearance He gives Him the name of Jesus—the Saviour that heals all sins. So, too, He would have Christ born in a stable and laid in a manger, as being poor and abject, but soon He summoned by the star the three kings, and by the angel the shepherds to adore Him. So, again, He would have Him suffer, be crucified, and die; but at the same time He darkened the sun and the moon, rent the rocks and shook the earth, that all the elements might testify of, and mourn for, the ignominious murder of their Creator. The more, then, Christ humbled Himself, the more the Father exalted Him. To thee, Christian, He will do the same; wherefore fear not to be humbled, knowing, for certain that by this means thou art to be exalted. For the road to glory is humiliation, according to that promise of Christ, “Every one that humbleth himself shall be exalted.”
Ver. 22.—And when the days of her purification according to the law o Moses were accomplished, they brought Him to Jerusalem, to present Him to the Lord. Observe that here three different ordinances are intertwined and joined together. The first is that of Lev. xii. 2, et seq., that a woman, if she have borne a male child, shall remain unclean for forty days, and then be purified in the temple legally, that is by the sacrificial rite prescribed by the law. The second, that the mother offer to God a lamb, as a holocaust for her own purification (not that of her child, as S. Augustine would have it), and a young turtle-dove or pigeon as a sin-offering, if she be rich; but if poor, only a pair of turtle-doves or two young pigeons (Lev. xii. 6, 7). And the third, that if the offspring be a male, and the firstborn, it be set before God, and offered to Him as His due, and holy, that is, consecrated on account of the immunity of the firstborn of the Hebrews granted them by God, when the firstborn of Pharaoh and the Egyptians were smitten by the angel in the time of Moses (Exod. xiii. 1). The child, however, so offered might be redeemed by his parents for five shekels (Num. iii. 47). Symbolically, these five shekels stood for the five wounds of Christ, with which, as with a price, He redeems the human race.
The days of her purification. In the old law the woman bearing a child was unclean, with a natural, a legal, and a moral uncleanness; but especially because she bore a child whom she conceived in original sin. The natural uncleanness was that physically incidental to her gestation and delivery; and the legal defilement was consequent upon this, for the law, on account of these impurities, regarded her as impure, and directed that she be kept away from the temple, and be held, as it were, “unclean” for forty days, until, on the fortieth day, she was purified by the prescribed rite.
With reference to the question whether the Blessed Virgin suffered this impurity, S. Jerome (Ep. 22 ud Eustochium), John of Avila, commenting on Lev. xii., and Erasmus on this same passage, affirm that she did. All other authorities, however, agree in the contrary view, since the Virgin’s parturition was perfectly pure. See S. Augustine (de Quinque hæresibus, ch. v). This point has been treated in what has been said on v. 7 of the present chapter. Hence the Blessed Virgin incurred no defilement, and therefore was not bound by the law of purification. Yet, in her zeal for humility, in order to make herself like other women who bear children, that she might not give scandal in seeming to be singular, and that she might conceal her virginity and her conception by the Holy Ghost, the Blessed Virgin was willing to be purified, even as Christ, for similar reasons, was willing to be circumcised. Hence S. Bernard (Serm. 3 On the Purification) says: “In this conception, and in this child-birth, there was nothing impure, nothing sinful, nothing that had to be purged, for this offspring is the fount of purity, and is come to make a cleansing of sins. What is there in me for a legal observance to purify—in me, who, by this immaculate parturition, am become most pure? Truly, 0 Blessed Virgin, thou hadst no need for purification; but had thy Son need of circumcision? Be thou among women as one of them, for so too is thy Son among men.”
Tropologically, the purification of the soul is penance, and this the Blessed Virgin underwent, not for her own sins, seeing that she had none, but for those of others, as Christ did. Still she did not undergo the Sacrament of Penance, because she had no sins of her own to confess. See S. Chrysostom, Tertullian, S. Augustine, and S. Ambrose in his book “On Penance.”
To present Him to the Lord. The Syriac version has “in the presence of the Lord.” The Blessed Virgin, holding Christ in her hands, on bended knee, offered Him to God with the greatest reverence and devotion, saying, “Behold, 0 Eternal Father, this is Thy Son whom Thou hast wished to take flesh from me for the salvation of men. To Thee I render Him, and to Thee I offer Him entirely, that Thou mayest do with Him and with me as it shall please Thee, and by Him mayest redeem the world.” So saying, she presented Him to the priest as to the representative of God; and then she redeemed Him with five shekels, as the law prescribed.
Ver. 23.—As it is written in the law of the Lord, Every male that openeth the womb shall be called holy to Me Lord (Exod. xiii 12)—that is, shall be offered and consecrated to God as a thing dedicated and holy. Christ was not bound by this law, both because He subsisted in the Person of the Word, which is bound by no laws, and also because He did not open His mother’s womb, but came forth while it remained closed. So Cyril (Hom. De Occurs. Dom.), Pope Hormisdas (Ep. i ch. iii.), Bede, and others.
Rupertus, John of Avila, Jansenius, and Maldonatus, therefore, who take the phrase “that openeth the womb” as merely equivalent to “first-born,” and suppose, on this ground, that Christ was included by these words, but otherwise excepted from the law as being God and the Son of God, are incorrect in their view. Lastly, I quote the following from S. Bernard’s “Sermon on the Purification“—“Very slight, brethren, does this oblation seem, in which He is but presented to the Lord, redeemed with birds, and straightway taken back. The time shall come when He shall be offered up not in the temple, nor within the arms of Simeon, but outside the city in the arms of the Cross. The time shall come when He shall not be redeemed with blood not his own, but with His own blood shall redeem others, because God the Father hath sent him to be the redemption of His people. That shall be an evening sacrifice, this is a morning sacrifice—this is the more joyous, that shall be the fuller.”
Ver. 24.—And to offer a sacrifice according to that which is said in the law of the Lord, A pair of turtle-doves, or two young pigeons, because they were poor; for the rich were obliged to give in addition to this a lamb for a holocaust. Although the three kings had offered to Christ a great quantity of gold, still the Blessed Virgin, zealously affected towards poverty, accepted but little of it, that she might show her contempt of all earthly things, and what she took she spent in a short time, says John of Avila, on S. Matt. ii. Quæst. 47; or, if she took much, say S. Bonaventure and Dionysius, she distributed it among the poor. And, lastly, because she was by her condition poor, she would be reckoned among the poor, and offer the gift of the poor.
The purification of the Blessed Virgin is commemorated by the Church on the second day of February, in order, Baronius says, to abolish the Lupercalia, which used to be celebrated at Rome on that day. The order of the rite of purification was as follows First, the woman came into the “court of the unclean”—she being unclean until her purification. Next, she offered a sin-offering of a turtle-dove or a young pigeon. It is probable that she was also sprinkled with water mixed with the ashes of the red heifer, this water being, as it were, an “aqua lustralis” used in all purifications.
Then she offered the infant to God, and redeemed him. And, lastly, she offered to God as a whole burnt-offering of thanksgiving a lamb, or else a turtle-dove, or a pair of young pigeons. These last two acts, were performed by the woman (by this time purified) standing in the “court of the clean;” there she, would offer the infant at the door of the tabernacle, and there watch from afar off her holocaust being offered in the “court of the priests”—for between the court of the priests and that of the people there was a wall or a partition three feet high, so that the people could, from their court, watch the offerings, and all that was being done in the court of the priests.
Tropologically, the turtle-doves and the pigeons which the woman used to offer for her sins, i.e., her defilement or legal uncleanness, signified the groaning or compunction of the penitent by which ins are expiated, especially when they accompany the sacrament of expiation. Moreover, the Blessed Virgin, having no sin, needed no sacrament to expiate it, but she received the Sacrament of Baptism as a profession of the Christian religion, that of Confirmation, the Eucharist, and perhaps also Extreme Unction. She entered into the state of matrimony with Joseph, but this was not a sacrament in the old law. She never confessed her sins or received absolution from a priest in that she had no sins. It may be said, however, that the Blessed Virgin had reason to fear lest she had been guilty of some distraction in prayer, some venia1 negligence in word or thought, and that she might have confessed such as these, since, as S. Gregory says, “It is the characteristic of good souls to acknowledge fault where there is no fault.” And this is true in the case of sinners and those in the state of original sin, but not for those who are innocent and unspotted as the Blessed Virgin was. Wherefore, as the angels see clearly all their own actions, and the defects—even the most trifling—in them, and as Adam, too, saw his own actions when he was in the state of innocence—in accordance with the perfection which belongs to this state—so the Blessed Virgin in like manner saw all her own acts in the past and in the future, and knew that they were most pure and most holy, and altogether without any defect, even venial, and for this reason she could not confess them as sins. She did not, however, lift herself up on that account, but humbled herself the more, knowing this to be the gift of God and not her own merit. Hence the opinion of Sylvester, in the “Golden Rose” (tit. 3, ch. 53), to the effect that the Blessed Virgin received the Sacrament of Penance and was accustomed to confess venial sins conditionally to S. John, must be flatly rejected, especially as absolution cannot be given on uncertain matter, but the penitent, to be capable of it, must confess some particular sin—Vasquez (part iii., disp. 119, ch. 7).
Ver. 25.—And, behold, there was a man in Jerusalem, whose name was Simeon; and the same man was just and devout, waiting for the consolation of Israel: and the holy Ghost was upon him. Calvin would have it that Simeon was of obscure birth and unknown; but that he was venerable by his age and his sanctity appears from what follows here. Many hold that he was a priest, and that it was in this capacity that he blessed Mary and Joseph. So say Lyranus, Dionysius, Cajetan, Francis Lucas, Toletus, S. Athanasius (in “The Common Essence of the Father and the Son”), S. Cyril (De 0ccursu Dom.), S. Epiphanius (“Treatise on the Fathers of the Old Testament”), and Canisius (de Deipara, bk. iv. ch. 10). But Theophylact, Euthymius, Jansenius, and Barradius are of opinion that he was a layman, and gave his blessing not as a priest but as an old man.
And the same was just. From this Galatinus (De Arcanis Fidei, 1. I, cap. 3) gathers that Simeon was the disciple and son of Hille1 who, a little before the birth of Christ, was the founder of the Scribes and Pharisees, as S. Jerome states on Isa. viii. The words of Galatinus are: “Simeon, the son of Hillel, whom the Talmudists, by reason of his extraordinary sanctity, call ‘Saddic’ the Just. In whom (as it is related in the ‘Pirke Avoth’ or ‘the chapters of the fathers’) the rule of the great Academy of the Synagogue came to an end. He spoke many things concerning the Messiah, and, at length, being in his extreme old age, and having received an answer from the Holy Ghost that he should not see death without seeing the Messiah, receiving Christ Himself in his arms, he confirmed, in the presence of Christ, the truth of those things which he had taught about Him under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. And his noteworthy sayings are to be found scattered about in the books of the Talmudists.”
Genebrardus (Chronology, bk. ii.) is of the same opinion, and adds: “For the belief that with Simeon the spirit of the great Synagogue—a spirit less than the prophetic but greater than the common—died out, the Talmudists are our authority in the treatise ‘Pirke Avoth.’ The Rabbi Moses, the Egyptian, records that he was not only the disciple, but also the son of Hillel, and the teacher, and indeed the father, of Gamaliel, at whose feet Paul learnt the law.” All this, however, while it appears highly probable, is at the same time uncertain. There were many Simeons or Simons (for the two names are identical) who were just, as, for instance, Simeon the high priest, the son of Oniah, called “the Just,” and spoken of with praise at some length in Ecclus. 1. I. Besides, the successors and disciples of Hillel, the Scribes and Pharisees, were in the highest degree hostile to Christ.
Devout. In Greek ευ̉λαβής—religious, God-fearing. Waiting for the consolation of Israel—the coming of the Messiah, who was to console Israel, that is, the faithful people, and set them free from the oppression of Satan, of Herod, the Romans, and the Scribes and Pharisees. For, eager for the common weal, “he sought,” says S. Ambrose, “the good of his people rather than his own.” By the transferring of the sceptre from Judah to Herod, according to the prophecy of Jacob (Gen. xlix. 10), by the completion of the seventy weeks of Dan. ix., and by other prophecies, Simeon knew that the coming of Christ was at hand, to deliver Israel—that is, the faithful—from all evil, as well from their sins as from all miseries, partly in this life, partly in the life to come. Christ, then, is the consolation of the faithful, for except in Him there, is no hope of salvation, but only despair, and desolation. Hence Isaiah, ch. xl. I, promising the coming of Christ, says, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God: speak unto the heart of Jerusalem.” And in ch. li. 3, “The Lord shall comfort Sion;” and again in lxi. I, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me . . . to comfort all them that mourn.” And in 2 Cor. i. 5, S. Paul says, “As the sufferings of Christ abound in us, so our consolation also aboundeth by Christ.” In the time of Christ the condition, as well of the State as of the Church of Israel, was one of the deepest affliction. Their body politic, while it lacked its own chiefs, was under the yoke of Herod and the Pagan Romans, and their Church, on the other hand, was under bondage to impious priests, to Scribes and Pharisees; and in S. Matt. xxiii. 5, Christ tells us what manner of men these were—how they oppressed the people, and into what errors and vices they led them.
And the Holy Ghost was upon him, both sanctifying him and conferring on him the gift of prophecy. Observe that in Holy Scripture the Holy Ghost is said to come to, or be in, any one not only by the grace which makes that person acceptable, but also by any grace, “gratis data,” i.e., conferred not necessarily in consideration of the merit of the recipient, and not for his own benefit, but for that of others, e.g., the grace of prophecy, as here in the case of Simeon. So in ch. i. 35, the Holy Ghost is spoken of as about to come upon the Blessed Virgin, that she may conceive a Son, and become the Mother of God; this is a grace, “gratis data.” And again in ver. 41 of the same chapter Elizabeth is spoken of as full of the Holy Spirit when she began to prophecy.
Upon him. In the Greek ε̉π αυ̉τόν, the Holy Ghost, coming down upon him, took possession of his soul, so that he seemed not so much a man of this earth as a celestial and divine being, and this on purpose that his testimony as to Christ might be irrefragable and beyond dispute.
Celsus (De Incredulitate Judæorum apud Vigilium)—to be found among the works of Cyprian) gives a tradition to the effect that Simeon was blind, and recovered his sight when he touched Christ; but S. Luke would not have been silent about so great a miracle, and which would so clearly have been in place here.
Ver. 26.—And it was revealed unto him by the Holy Ghost, that he should not see death, before he had seen the Lord’s Christ. “It was revealed” by a divine oracle and promise—the Greek expression is χζηματίξειν. “The Lords Christ”—the Messiah, anointed with the unction of the Holy Spirit and the plentitude of grace. (Isa. xi. 2.)
In this Simeon was privileged far beyond Abraham, Isaac, and all the patriarchs and prophets, who, as the apostle says, Heb. xi. 13, “died in faith, not having received the promises, but having seen them afar off, and embraced them.” Hence it is plain that Simeon was a man of singular holiness, and full of holy aspirations and zeal.
Ver. 27.—And he came by the Spirit into the Temple. By the impulse of the Holy Spirit, moved and incited by the Holy Spirit, say Euthymius and Theophylact. And the same Spirit who urged him thither gave him the sign by which he should know Christ among so many infants that were then being offered in the Temple, or, rather, showed Him to him, inwardly prompting him and saying, Behold, this is Christ, whom I promised thee that thou shouldst see before thy death.
Timothy, a priest of Jerusalem, in his Oratio de Simeone, thinks that he must have seen the Virgin surrounded with light in the midst of the other women, and by this mark understood her to be the Mother of the Messiah. The Carthusian (Denis), too, says, “Perhaps he saw some divine splendour in the countenance of the child.”
Hence we may learn how God guides the mind and the paths of His saints that they may fall in with the good predestined for them by Him. Wherefore we must pray diligently, especially when about to undertake a journey, for this direction, that we may be preserved from evil, and blessed with good issues; saying with the Psalmist, “0 Lord, show me Thy ways and teach me Thy paths,” Ps. xxv. 4 “Make me to go in the path of Thy commandments,” Ps. cxix. 35.
We read, in the life of S. Ephrem, that, when he was entering a certain city, he prayed to God that he might fall in with something that should edify him. A harlot met him, and stared so hard at him, that he asked with great severity why she acted so immodestly; and he received this answer, “Let woman look upon man, for from him was she made, but let man fix his gaze upon the earth, of which he was formed.” The man of God felt that the rebuke was just, and, being deeply touched by it, gave thanks to God because he had received from a harlot a lesson so salutary.
And when the parents brought in the child Jesus, to do for Him after the custom of the law. In the Greek καί ὲν τω̃ εὶσαγαγει̃ν—when they had brought. This sentence is dependent on the next verse.
Ver. 28.—Then took he Him up in his arms, and blessed God, and said. Martial says of the dying swan—
“Sweet cadences the swan with voice that fails in death
Uttereth; his own dirge shaped of his own dying breath.”
And so the last utterances of the wise are the sweetest, their powers maturing with years. Again Cicero tells us in the first Tusculan Disputation, “Not without reason are swans dedicated to Apollo, since they seem to have from him a gift of prophecy, by virtue of which, foreseeing the good that there is in death, they die with joy and in the act of singing.” And Simeon here foresees, in this way the joy that through Christ is to come to him after his death, which must soon take place.
Ver. 29.—Lord, now lettest thou Thy servant depart in peace, according to Thy word. Lettest thou—in Greek α̉πολύεις, loosen, as it were, from the prison-chains of this body, that I may go to the liberty, peace, and rest which the fathers in limbo enjoy. In peace, so Tobias, ch. iii. 6; and Abraham, Gen. xv. 15, desired to die in peace. Euthymius here understands by peace—
1. The calming of his feelings, which had fluctuated between hope and fear with reference to his seeing Christ.
2. The peace of an intrepid soul that did not fear death.
3. His joy.
4. Peace may be taken to mean that security from the dangers of the world which death brings. S. Cyprian (Tract. de Moralitate, c. i) says, “joyful at his approaching death, sure that it must soon come, he took the Child in his hands, and, blessing the Lord, lifted up his voice and said, Now Thou dost dismiss, &c., . . . thus proving and bearing witness that then is there peace for the servants of God, then an easy and tranquil mind when, delivered from out the whirlpools of the world, we make for the haven of our eternal habitation and our peace.”
Thy word. Thy promise, says Theophylact, when Thou didst promise to prolong my life until I should see Christ; now have I seen Him, therefore let me depart and die.
Symbolically, S. Augustine (Serm. 20 de Tempore) says, “Now, Lord, let me depart in peace, because I see thy peace—Christ, Who shall make peace between heaven and earth—between God and angels and men—between men and themselves.”
And Simeon obtained his wish from God, for soon after he went to his rest. S. Epiphanius (De Prophetarum vita, c. xxiv.) puts S. Simeon among the prophets. “Simon,” he says, “departed this life full of years and utterly worn out; yet did he not obtain at the hands of the priests the last honours of burial.” He gives no reason, however, why this should have been so, but it is thought that, in openly announcing the advent of Christ, he brought upon himself the envy and hatred of the other priests.
Tropologically, the Church sings this hymn of Simeon every evening in the Office of Compline, for two reasons—First, to admonish the faithful, and especially ecclesiastics, to think upon death, and so live as though they were to die in the evening; and, again, that they may acquire that yearning which Simeon felt to pass away from the vanities and troubles of this life to the true and blessed life in heaven, begging of God to be permitted to depart, and saying with Paul, “I desire to be dissolved and to be with Christ.” “Behold how the just man,” says S. Ambrose, “as though shut in within the gross prison-house of the body, wishes to be loosed, that he may begin to be with Christ. But he that will be set free, let him come to the Temple, let him come to Jerusalem, let him wait for the Lord, let him embrace Him with good work as with the arms of faith. Then shall he be set free, that he may not see death, because he has looked upon life.”
Ver. 30.—For mine eyes have seen thy salvation. “Salvation,” in Greek σωτήζιον, the word used by the Septuagint as a rendering of the Hebrew ישוצח, iescua, safety. “Safety” is used by metonomy for “Saviour.” By “salvation,” then, we are to understand the Saviour Christ, whom the ancient fathers desired to see, but Simeon alone saw, touched, and embraced.
Ver. 31.—Which Thou hast prepared before the face of all people. That all the nations of the Gentiles may draw salvation from Christ the Saviour. God has not hidden Christ in a corner of Judæa, but has set Him forth before all men, and soon will announce Him throughout the world by His Apostles, that all who will embrace His faith and law may be saved by Him.
Ver. 32.—A light to lighten the Gentiles, and the glory of Thy people Israel. Thou hast given Christ the Saviour that He may be a light for the enlightenment of the Gentiles, enlightening with His faith and worship the Gentiles who know not the true God, and also to be the glory and honour of the Jewish people. TheArabic has, “the light that hath appeared to the nations.” In the same way we have in Ps. cxviii. ii 8, “Open Thou” (that is, illumine) “mine eyes.” The allusion here is to the prophecy of Isaiah, made seven hundred years before, in ch. xlii. 6, “I will give thee for a covenant of the people, for a light of the Gentiles, to open the blind eyes, to bring out the prisoners from the prison, and them that sit in darkness out of the prison-house;” and in xliv. 6, “I will also give thee for a light to the Gentiles, that thou mayest be my salvation unto the end of the earth.” In the Mass, and particularly on the Feast of the Purification, we bless candles, light them, and carry them about, thereby (1) symbolising our belief in Christ as the light of the nations, and (2) praying that He will grant us in this life the light of His grace, and in the other life the light of His gladness and His glory. And it is for this reason that these lighted candles are put into the hands of the dying. See Amalarius, Durandus, and others, who have written on the Offices of the Church.
And the glory of Thy people Israel. 1. Because Christ, promised to their forefathers by God, took upon Himself the flesh of their race, and was a Jew.
2. Because He lived and died in Judæa, His life being made glorious by His teaching, His holiness, and His miracles.
3. Because He first founded His Church in Judæa, the first believers having been Jews, who afterwards gathered the Gentiles to themselves.
4. It was in Judæa that He rose from the dead and gloriously ascended into heaven, sending down thence the Holy Ghost with the gift of tongues.
The allusion is to Isaiah xlvi. 13, “I will place salvation in Zion for Israel, my glory;” and lx. I, “The glory of the Lord is risen upon thee;” and ibid. 2, “His glory shall be seen upon thee.”
Ver. 33.—And Joseph and his mother marvelled at those things which were spoken of Him. Joseph, who is called the father of Christ, not only because he was His foster-father, and was commonly supposed to be His natural father, but also because Christ had been born to him lawfully in wedlock, and of his wife Mary; and this marriage of Joseph with the Blessed Virgin was made and ordained by God for the sake of this progeny. So say S. Augustine (De Cons. Evang. c. I), Bede, Jansenius, and others.
Marvelled. For, though they knew that Christ was to be the Saviour of Israel, yet they did not know all that the Holy Ghost was here prophesying about Him by Simeon and Anna—that He was to be a light enlightening all nations, that He should be “for the ruin and for the resurrection of many in Israel,” that a sword should pierce the soul of the Virgin, &c. Besides, even had they known these things, they would have wondered at their being proclaimed aloud with such enthusiasm and ardour.
Ver. 34.—And Simeon blessed them, and said unto Mary His mother, Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against. The form for the sacerdotal blessing is prescribed in Num. vi. 24, “The Lord bless thee, and keep thee,” &c.
Blessed them. That is, Joseph and Mary, not the Child Christ, say Maldonatus, Francis Lucas, and others; for the Child, as his Saviour and his God, he venerated and adored, desiring to be blessed by Him, and not presuming to bless Him. Jansenius, however, thinks that the word “them” includes Christ.
And said unto Mary His mother, rather than to Joseph, both because she was the true and natural mother of Jesus, while Joseph was only nominally His father, and also because Joseph seems to have died before the thirtieth year of Christ, when the things here foreshadowed were accomplished, so that the Blessed Mary alone experienced them in herself. To her alone, then, did Simeon here foretell both the happiness and the adversity which are to befall Christ and her, that in happiness she might not be lifted up too much, nor be cast down in her adversity.
Set for the fall and rising again of many in Israel. For fall the Greek has πτω̃σιν, and so the Arabic. The allusion is to Isa. viii. 14, “And he shall be for a sanctuary; but for a stone of stumbling and a rock of offence to both the houses of Israel” (that is), “for a gin and for a snare to the inhabitants of Jerusalem;” and in xxviii. 16, “Behold, I lay in Sion for a foundation a stone, a tried stone, a precious corner-stone, a sure foundation;” the latter text is quoted, against the unbelieving Jews by S. Paul, Rom. ix. 33, by S. Peter, 1 Pet. ii. 6, and Acts iv. II, and by Christ Himself, Matt. xxi. 42. Christ was laid and placed in the new, that is the Christian Church as a foundation and a corner-stone, that upon Him He might build all those that believed in Him, and of them build up the spiritual edifice of the Church, as He had promised to Adam, Abraham, Moses, and the other patriarchs and prophets. God did this directly with the intention of drawing all the Israelites to the faith of Christ, that He might so bring them into His Church and save them; but He foresaw that a great part of them would, by reason of their wickedness, speak against Christ when He came, and would strike against Him as on a stone of offence, and that so they would be broken, and fall into ruin both temporal and eternal. Yet He would not change His resolve of sending Christ, but would permit this rebellion and speaking against Him on the part of the Jews in order that it might be the occasion for S. Paul and the Apostles to transfer the preaching of the Gospel from them who resisted it to the Gentiles; and that so, instead of a few Jews, numberless nations might believe in Christ, be built in to Him in the Church, and be saved, as S. Paul shows at length in Rom. xi. Such was the design of God by which He set Christ as the corner-stone of the Church, to be indirectly “for the fall,” but director “for the rising again of many in Israel.” By fall is meant the destruction of the Jews who rebelled against Christ; by rising again, the salvation of those who believe in Him: for they that rebelled against Christ fell from faith into faithlessness, from the hope of salvation into despair and reprobation, from heaven into hell; but they who believe in Him have risen by his grace from the sins in which they lay prostrate to a new life of virtue and grace, looking for the hope of glory. Such is the interpretation of S. Augustine, Bede, Theophylact, Euthymius, Toletus, and many others; indeed, so Christ Himself, S. Peter, and S. Paul interpret in the places quoted above. S. Gregory of Nyssa also interprets “ruin” as the devastation of Judæa and Jerusalem by Titus; for this calamity came upon them because they set at nought and crucified Christ.
Symbolically, Theophylact says that Christ was set “for the ruin and the resurrection of Israel,” that is, of the penitent soul that sanctifies itself by the grace of Christ, because this grace brings it to pass that pride, gluttony, and lust fall in the soul, while humility, abstinence, and chastity rise up in it.
And for a sign which shall be spoken against. In Greek είς σημει̃ον α̉ντιγόμενον, a sign of contradiction or of contention, as the Syriac and Arabic render it. Tertullian (de Carne Christi, c. xxiii.) renders it “for a contradictory sign.”
The question arises, What is this sign?
1. Maldonatus and Francis Lucas say that Christ was set as an archer’s target at which the unbelieving Jews and Scribes hurled not only evil words with the tongue, but also maleficent weapons with the hand. This target was one of contradiction, because the Scribes strove together and contradicted one another about striking and piercing it. So that Simeon alludes to Lam. iii. 12, “He hath set me as a mark for the arrow, he hath caused the arrows of his quiver to enter into my reins.”
2. S. Basil, Bede, and Theophylact understand the sign of the cross, making it refer to Isa. xi. 10, “In that day there shall be a root of Jesse which shall stand for an ensign for the people” The Hebrew word translated “sign” is נס, nes, a standard, rendered by the Septuagint σημειον, which is the word here used by Luke. Christ, when lifted up on the Cross, is to be a standard-bearer, and shall raise the banner of the Cross, to which He will draw all the faithful as His soldiers to fight against Jews, Mohammedans, Pagans, and other impious soldiers of the devil, who contradict the Cross of Christ and fight hard against it. So Toletus interprets.
3. The most obvious interpretation is that Simeon is alluding to Isa. viii. 18, “Behold I and the children whom the Lord hath given me are for signs and for wonders in Israel.” The wondrous, strange, and hitherto unheard of birth of Christ from a virgin is here called a “sign” or “wonder,” and His Divine teaching, life, death, resurrection, and miracles, by which He clearly showed Himself to be the Messiah, the Saviour of the world. Against this “sign” of Christ not only do Jews and heathens speak with the tongue, but bad Christians also by their wicked lives. So Origen and Jansenius. S. Basil, commenting on “Behold a virgin shall conceive” (Isa. vii.), favours this view. Tertullian also (De Carne Christi) makes the allusion to Isa. vii., “Therefore, the Lord himself shall give you a sign: Behold a virgin shall conceive, and shall bear a son. We recognise, then, the contradictory sign, the conception and child- bearing of the Virgin Mary, of which these academicians say she bore a child and bore no child, she was a virgin and no virgin.” And these cavillers he answers, “She bore a child in that she did so of her own flesh; and she did not bear, in that she bore not of the seed of man. And she was a virgin for man, not a virgin for childbirth.”
Symbolically, Cajetan says, “Christ was the sign of the reconciliation of the human race with God.” And Dionysius, “The sign of the covenant between God and man, that the flood was no more to be brought upon the earth.” Others take “sign” as that with which God’s sheep are marked. Christians are to be marked with the faith of Christ, His baptism, and His character as a sign, that they may be distinguished from infidels. Baradius thinks that the allusion is to the brazen serpent which Moses set up, for a sign, that those who looked at it might be cured of the serpent’s bite, Num. xxi.
Ver. 35.—Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. “Sword,” in the Arabic version, lance; the Greek ζομφαία means both sword and lance or dart.
What is this sword?
1. Some understand doubt in her faith; that the Blessed Virgin, when she saw Christ suffering so fearfully from the violence of the Jews, and dying on the Cross, doubted as to whether He would rise again, as He had foretold. In this sense speak Origen (Hom. xvii.), Titus, Theophylact, and others. This, however, is an error, for such a feeling were unworthy [of] the Deipara, and that she experienced it is counter to the common sense of the Church. For so the Blessed Virgin would have sinned by unbelief. Indeed, the authors cited are sometimes explained as meaning by “doubt,” admiration, mental perturbation, and inward questionings.
2. S. Eucherius of Lyons (Hom. in Dominicam), understands the sword of the Spirit—the word of God, i.e., the spirit of prophecy, as who should say, The sword of the prophetic spirit shall pass through thy soul, 0 Mary, to reveal to thee the secrets of Holy Scripture and the hidden thoughts of men, as in Cana of Galilee when thou shalt say, “Whatsoever He telleth you, do it,” knowing that Christ will command them to draw the water which He is to turn into wine. So it is that the Apostle says in Heb. iv. 12, “The word of the Lord is quick, and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.” And S. Ambrose understands it of the prudence of the Virgin, who was not without knowledge of heavenly secrets.
3. It has been supposed by some, as Amphilochius (Hom. De Occurs. Dom.) bears witness, that the Blessed Virgin really received the crown of martyrdom by the sword, but this is contrary to all belief in history.
4. The true interpretation of “sword” here is with reference to the sufferings inflicted on Christ, or rather contradiction spoken of a little before; for the contradiction of the tongue is spoken of in Scripture as a sword, as in Ps. lvii. 4, “The sons of men, whose teeth are spears and arrows, and their tongue a sharp sword;” and Ps. lxiv. 3, “Who whet their tongues like a sword;” and Ps. cv. 18, “The sword hath passed through His soul” (Vulg.) This sword, then, is twofold. (1.) The sword of the tongue. For the Blessed Virgin, hearing the insults, calumnies, and blasphemies with which Christ was assailed by the Jews, even when He was crucified, suffered intense tortures, just as though a sword had been struck through her soul. (2.) The sword of iron - the nails and other torments which not only pierced the body and soul of Christ, but also pierced the soul of the Virgin. Just as when a man stabs with a sword at two persons who are next each other so as to kill the one and pierce and wound the other. Such is the interpretation of S. Augustine (Ep. 59, ad Paulinum), Sophronius (Hom. de Assumptione), Francis Lucas, Jansenius, Toletus, Barradius, and others.
How great was the torture inflicted by this sword we may gather, with Toletus, from the fact that it was her Son Who suffered, whom the Mother of God loved more than herself, so that she would far rather have suffered and been crucified herself. Love is the measure of sorrow. Secondly, from the severity of Christ’s torments and the wideness of their extent; for He suffered the most fearful agonies in all His senses and all His members, and all this the Blessed Virgin endured also by her sympathy with Him. Thirdly, the dignity of the Personage who suffered; for the Blessed Virgin pondered deeply the fact that this was the True God, the Messiah, and Saviour of the World. Fourthly, the long duration of His sufferings; for Christ suffered all His life long, until He breathed forth His Soul on the Cross. Fifthly, His loneliness; for He suffered alone, deserted by His Apostles and all His friends, by the angels, and by God Himself, so that He cried aloud, “My God! why hast Thou forsaken Me?” For, though the Blessed Virgin stood by Him and suffered with Him, yet did the Mother’s anguish but add a new pang to the Son’s torments, and this grief again had its echo in the Mother’s soul.
So it is that S. John of Damascus (de Fide, lib. iv. cap. xv.) remarks, “The pains she had escaped in childbirth she bore at the time of His Passion, so that she felt her bosom torn asunder by reason of the depth of her maternal love.” It is for this reason that the doctors teach that the Blessed Virgin was a martyr, and more than a martyr. As Christ, in His Passion, was tormented more than all the martyrs, so too was the Blessed Virgin by her sympathy with Him; and by this torment she would have been overcome and would have died had not God preserved her life by His special support. As, therefore, S. John the evangelist, who was put into the vessel of boiling oil, is a martyr, because this suffering would, in the natural course, have resulted in his death, if God had not preserved his life by a miracle, so also is the Blessed Virgin.
It may be objected to this that the Jews did not wish to torture or kill the Blessed Virgin, but only Christ. But, in torturing Christ, they tortured His Virgin Mother, just as he who tortures the body tortures, the soul, for she was more closely joined to Christ in feeling than the body to the soul. Besides, the Jews persecuted all the relatives of Christ, as they did His apostles and disciples, out of hatred of Him. S. Bridget (Serm. Angelic. cc. xvii., xviii.) gives a pathetic account of the strength of this sword of the Virgin’s sorrow.
Symbolically, S. Bernard (Serm. xxix.) interprets this sword or dart as love: for where there is sorrow there too is love; in love there is no living without sorrow, nor in sorrow without love. “The chosen arrow,” he says, “is the love of Christ, which not only pierced, but pierced through and through, the soul of Mary, so that it left in her virginal breast not the smallest part void of love, but with all her heart, and all her soul, and all her strength, she loved. And truly, again, it penetrated through her to come to us, that of that fulness we might all receive, and she might be the Mother of that love whose father is the love of God. . . . And in her whole self did she receive the vast sweet wound of love. Happy shall I think myself if sometimes I may feel pricked with but the very tip of that sword’s point, that my soul too may say, I am wounded with love.”
That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed. An obscure sentence, and difficult of interpretation.
1. S. Hilary, who by “sword” understands the Day of Judgment, easily settles the difficulty. The sword, he interprets, shall dissect and lay open the hearts of men—even of the Blessed Virgin. This is the force of the words of the Apocalypse about Christ, “And from His mouth there went forth a sharp two-edged sword” (c. i. v. 16).
2. Eucherius, taking “sword” as the spirit of prophecy, interprets that this sword was given to the Blessed Virgin that she might know the secret thoughts of men.
3. Euthymius—Many, seeing the miracles and the wisdom of Jesus, thought within themselves that He had descended from Heaven, and was not the son of Mary; but, when they saw her at the cross of Christ, mourning and in such tribulation, they abandoned this idea, believing that she who felt His sorrows so deeply must be His mother indeed.
4. S. Augustine (Ep. 59, near the end)—“By the Lord’s Passion both the plots of the Jews and the infirmity of the disciples were made manifest,” for they forsook Christ and fled. This is apposite with respect to the Jews, but not so applicable as to the disciples, for the latter did not meditate flight beforehand.
5. Toletus interprets concisely—The sword that shall pierce thy soul, 0 Virgin, shall be the occasion of revealing the thoughts of many hearts that before lay hidden. For, long before Christ was slain, the leaders of the Jews had the intention of slaying Him, but dared make no attempt against Him, for fear of the people. But then the Jews had already before the Passion made manifest their thoughts about Christ, by cavilling at His words and works, although they concealed their desire to slay Him.
6. The fullest and most obvious explanation is that which makes the “that” expressive both of the purpose and its attainment, and refers it both to the sword and the words of the preceding verse, “This child is set for the fall,” &c. That is to say, that the Scribes and Pharisees, who, like the heretics of to-day, appeared to be the upholders of justice and truth, may show the world how antagonistic they are to the true Messiah and to justice, and what evil designs they cherish against Him. For, before the advent of Christ, they were in hopes that He would come with pomp and with wealth, even as Solomon, so that they might be raised by Him in honour and riches; but when they saw Him in His humility and poverty opposing Himself to their ambition and avarice, and publicly rebuking them for it, they set Him at nought and opposed Him, secretly scheming to bring upon Him the destruction which they at length actually compassed. Then was it revealed who in Israel were just, for these loved Christ sincerely and with constancy; and who unjust, for these persecuted and slew Him. So S. Augustine (Ep. 59), Bede, Jansenius, Maldonatus, Francis Lucas, and others. The explanation of Toletus also tallies with this to some extent.
Ver. 36.—And there was one Anna, a prophetess, the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Aser: she was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity. She was an old woman, so that she was prompted by no youthful fervour, but bore testimony to Christ in a mature and grave manner. “Anna” in Hebrew signifies grace—of which Anna was full. The name “Grace” is still often borne by women, and was the name of her who at Firando, in Japan, generously met a glorious death, together with her four children and her whole household, for the faith of Christ.
A Prophetess—that is, a teacher, says Francis Lucas—one who instructed the young women in the law of God and in piety; for at this time the Jews had no prophets who foretold future events. But that Anna foretold the hidden things of the future is clear from v. 38, where she prophesied about Christ. For, though the Jews had no prophets until the time of Christ, yet God raised up prophets at that time, such as John, Zachary, Elizabeth, and Simeon. Hence S. Ambrose says, “The birth of the Lord received testimony not only from the angels, from the shepherds, and from His parents, but also from the aged and good; every age, and both sexes, and the wondrous nature of events, build up our faith. A virgin conceives—the barren brings forth—the dumb speaks—Elizabeth prophesies,—the wise man adores—he that is shut up in the womb exults—the widow confesses—the just man is waiting for His coming.”
The daughter of Phanuel. Phanuel was a well-known man at that time. “Phanuel” in Hebrew signifies “the face of God”—his daughter is “Anna”—grace; for grace proceeds from the face and from the mouth of God, and is breathed into the faithful. The place where Jacob saw God face to face, was called by him Peniel or “Phanuel,” Gen. xxxii. 30.
She was of a great age, and had lived with an husband seven years from her virginity—that is, from the time when she became of marriageable age; for infants, who have not yet reached this age, are not properly virgins. Again, from the time of her marriage which she contracted as a virgin. They were wont to marry soon after attaining puberty—in their fifteenth year, the age at which the Blessed Virgin was married to Joseph. Hence we gather (1) that Anna was married once, and that in the first years of her puberty; (2) that, before her marriage, she lived chastely; (3) that, when, after seven years of her married life, her husband died, becoming a widow at the early age of twenty-two, she, with remarkable continency in the flower of her life remained a widow until the age of eighty-four, or, as S. Ambrose interprets, until the eighty-fourth year of her widowhood. If this last interpretation be correct, she must, when she met Christ, have been one hundred and six years old. It seems that God prolonged the life of Anna to this great age with the special design, that she might see and bear testimony to Christ, even as He prolonged that of Simeon.
Ver. 37.—And she was a widow of about fourscore and four years (of age, or, according to S. Ambrose, of her widowhood), which departed not from the Temple. Not that she lived in the Temple, but she frequented it, and spent much time in it. So think Toletus, Jansenius, and Maldonatus. Others, however, think that she actually dwelt in the Temple; for hard by the Temple there were houses of religious women who served God “night and day“—as there afterwards were of deaconesses in the Christian Church, and still are of nuns. This appears from Exod. xxxviii. 8; 2 Maccabees iii. 20; and 1 Sam. ii. 22. These religious women were some virgins, and some widows, of which latter it seems, that Anna was one, as Canisius (Marialis, lib. i. xii) argues.
But served God with fastings and prayers night and day—that is, serving God, as the Arabic renders it. The Greek λατζεύουσα, worshipping with “latria”—latria being due to God only. Hence is plain the falsehood of the teaching of the heretics, that fasting is only a mortification of the body, and no worship of God, except in so far as it is understood to mean prayer; for S. Luke here says that Anna served God both with fastings and prayers. By means of her fastings and prayers she served God “night and day.” S. Chrysostom (Hom. 42, ad pop.) eloquently commands prayer made by night: “Behold,” he says, “the company of the stars, the deep silence, the great calm, and admire the dispensation of thy Lord. For then is the mind purer, lighter, and more subtle, more sublime and agile. The darkness itself and the great silence have the power of inducing compunction. And if thou lookest upon the sky, dotted with numberless stars as with eyes . . . bend thy knees, groan, pray thy Lord to be propitious to thee. He is the more appeased by prayers made in the night, when thou makest the time of rest the time of thy struggles. Remember the King, what words he said: “I am weary of my groaning, every night wash I my bed, and water my couch with my tears.” So Christ used to give the day to preaching, the night to prayer, Luke vi. 12. So too S. Paul, Acts xvi. 25, and 2 Tim. i. 3. So S. Anthony, S. Hilarion, and the other anchorites; nay, the Church also, as is plain from the “Nocturns” which monks still chant by night.
Ver. 38.—And she coming in that instant gave thanks likewise unto the Lord. In Greek α̉νθωμολογει̃το, confessed to God in her turn, as though singing in answer to Simeon from the choir set apart for the other sex, praised the Lord, and gave Him thanks for the gift of Christ and His birth.
And spake of Him—of the Lord Christ, whom she had there present. Not only did Anna praise God, but she began to discourse to others of Jesus, asserting Him to be the Christ, and exhorting all to believe in Him.
To all them that looked for redemption in Jerusalem. The Redeemer Christ, who redeems from sin, death, Satan, and Hell, Israel, that is, the people of the faithful who believe in Him.
Allegorically, Christ, when born, appeared to three groups of persons in three ways—(1) to the shepherds, at the indication of an angel; (2) to the magi, under the guidance of a star; (3) to Simeon and Anna, guided by the Holy Ghost. Again, the shepherds saw Christ, the Magi adored Him, but Simeon and Anna embraced Him. So we first recognise Christ, then adore Him, and then, when we are no longer children in virtue, but old men, embrace Him with arms of love. So Jansenius teaches.
Ver. 40.—And when they had performed all things according to the law of the Lord, they returned into Galilee, to their own city of Nazareth. And from thence, fearing the Infanticide Herod, they fled, with the Child Jesus, into Egypt. The massacre of the innocents took place, says Euthymius, Toletus, and others, a little after the purification of the Virgin, and about the time of the Passover. S. Augustine, however (de Consens. Evang., lib. ii. cap. v.), Jansenius, and Francis Lucas, think that they fled immediately from Jerusalem, and returning thence nine years after, went back to Nazareth, as S. Luke here says. See Commentary on S. Matt. ii. 13. Moreover, they returned to Nazareth, before their flight, in order to arrange their affairs there, and to prepare what was necessary for the long journey to Egypt. And there was abundance of time for their flight, since the interval between the 2d of February—the date of the Purification and the Passover, when the massacre is said to have taken place—is about two mouths.
Ver. 40.—And the child grew, and waxed strong in spirit. The Greek, Syriac, and Arabic add “in spirit,” and Euthymius explains it that Christ did not receive greater spiritual strength inwardly day by day, since He was full of grace and the Holy Ghost from the first moment of His conception, but that He exhibited this strength more and more outwardly by word and work. The Latin version, the Latin fathers, and the interpreter reject “in spirit,” as also Origen and Titus among the Greeks.
Filled with wisdom. The Greek πληζούμενον means both to be being filled and to be full, so as to be equivalent to πλήζης. The Arabic renders “was being filled again with wisdom,” the Syriac “was being filled with wisdom.” So also Origen, Theophylact, Euthymius, and Titus on this passage, and S. Ambrose (de Incarn. Dom. Sact. cap. vii.). Theophylact explains—Not acquiring wisdom (for what could be more perfect than He who was perfect from the beginning?) but discovering it little by little. For had He manifested all His wisdom whilst he was small in stature, He would have appeared, as it were, monstrous, and as though not really a child, but a phantasm of a child.
And the Grace of God was upon Him. In the Greek ε̉π αυ̉τόν. All the favour, goodwill, care, and love of God the Father towards the Child Jesus, as His Son, brooded, as it were, over Him from out of the heavens, to adorn Him with gifts and graces, to guide and dispose Him in all His actions, that all might see that He was ruled, and in all things directed by God, and that His actions were not so much human as Divine. So says Euthymius. In a similar manner it is said of John the Baptist, “And the hand of the Lord was with him,” Luke i. 66.
Ver. 41.—Now His parents went to Jerusalem every year at the feast of the Passover. God had commanded that every man should go to the Tabernacle or Temple three times a year, there to adore God publicly and offer Him sacrifices, Exod. xxiii. 14 and Deut. xvi. 16. The Blessed Virgin, although not bound by the law, still, out of devotion, after her return from Egypt, joined her husband, and brought her son with her to the Temple, that she might teach mothers to bring their children, from their tender years, to the Temple, and to worship God. So say Bede, Maldonatus, Jansenius, Francis Lucas, and others. Nor did she fear Archeläus the son of the Infanticide Herod, both because she thought with good reason that, in so large a concourse of Jews, they would be able to escape observation for a few days, and also because she knew that God for whose honour she underwent this risk, had her in His mind and in His keeping. So says S. Augustine (de Consens. Evang., lib. ii cap. x), and S. Luke implies as much in the next two verses. Some however, think, with some probability, that Jesus only went up to Jerusalem in the twelfth year of His age, for in that year Archeläus was exiled by Augustus.
Ver. 42.—And when He was twelve years old, they went up to Jerusalem after the custom of the feast. The Syriac has “as they had been accustomed on the feast”—namely, of the Passover.
Ver. 43.—And when they had fulfilled the days, as they returned, the child Jesus tarried behind in Jerusalem. In the Greek, after they had finished, or gone through, the days—namely, of the Passover; for this feast was kept for seven days, and S. Luke here implies that Mary and Joseph kept all these days at Jerusalem, though they were not bound by the law to remain so long—tarried behind in Jerusalem, there to shed some little ray of His wisdom and Divinity, as though longing to begin the ministry for which His Father had sent Him. For at the age of twelve childhood ends, and youth and perfect judgment begin. So says Bede.
And Joseph and his mother knew not of it, because Jesus asked leave of His parents, who were lingering a little in Jerusalem from motives of devotion or business, to visit His relations, as if he were about to go on with them, and, having obtained permission, went to them, but soon withdrew quietly to the Temple—God so directing—in order that His parents, though at other times always solicitous about Him, should be unaware of this, and think that He was in the company of His kinsfolk.
Ver. 44.—But they, supposing him to have been in the company, went a day’s journey; and they sought Him among their kinsfolk and acquaintance, who had gone on, and with whom Mary and Joseph who were about to follow a little later, would that evening lodge and, as they thought, there find Jesus.
Ver. 45.—And when they found him not, they turned back again to Jerusalem, seeking Him. Jesus having been seen by none of His kinsfolk on the way, His parents understood that He must have remained in Jerusalem; and so they sought Him there with great anxiety. Origen gives the reason, and Theophylact and Titus follow him. “But did they seek Him so anxiously? Did they imagine that the Child had been lost, or had wandered from the way?” Far otherwise, “For this would not have been characteristic of Mary’s wisdom (she knew that Jesus was full of wisdom, yea, that He was God), and they could never have thought that the Child was lost, when they knew that He was Divine, but they sought Him lest by any means He might have gone away from them; lest perchance He had left them;” lest He should wish to remain not with them at Nazareth, but with others in Jerusalem, that He might there make haste to begin the ministry of teaching for which He had been sent by God. Origen adds, “They sought Him, lest perchance He might have gone away from them, lest He might have left them and betaken Himself elsewhere—or as seems most probable—lest He might have returned to heaven, to descend from thence when it should please Him . . . but she mourned because she was a mother, and the mother of a Son worthy of her immeasurable love—because He had departed without her knowledge, and quite contrary to her expectation.”
S. Antoninus adds that the mother of Jesus feared lest He might have fallen into the hands of Archeläus, the son of Herod the Infanticide, who would slay Him. Euthymius and Francis Lucas think she feared lest Christ might have wandered from the road, since He did not thoroughly know all the way. For, though He knew its turns and windings by His Divine and infused wisdom, yet, according to the experimental knowledge which He, as a child, was following, He did not know it. Whether this be correct I leave to theologians to decide.
Ver. 46.—And it came to pass, that after three days they found Him in the Temple, sitting in the midst of the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions. After three days, that is, on the third day. The first day was that on which they left Jerusalem; the second, that on which, not finding Him at the inn, they returned; and the third, when they sought and found the Holy Child in the Holy Temple. So S. Ambrose, Euthymius, and others. Just as we read in ver. 21, “When the eight days were accomplished”—that is, on the eighth day—Jesus was circumcised. And in S. Mark viii. 31, “The Son of Man must suffer many things . . . after three days (that is, on the third day) to rise again.”
In the Temple—For the place of God Incarnate is in the Temple. There is He to be sought, there shall He be found—not in the market-place, not in the tavern, not in the theatre. S. Basil and S. Gregory Nazianzen imitated Christ, for they, according to Ruffinus, when they were studying at Athens, knew but two streets in the city—one led to the church and the other to the school.
The whole of these three days, then, Jesus spent in praying and hearing and answering the doctors in the Temple; His food He received from the doctors, who, being present, and admiring His wisdom, invited Him. Others, with less probability, think that He lived by begging from door to door; such is the opinion of S. Bernard (Hom. infra Oct. Epiphan.), Bonaventura, Alensis, and others. S Thomas, in the Summa, favours this view, proving that Christ did sometimes beg, from the words of Ps. xl. 17, “But I am poor and needy.” On the other hand, Nicholas de Lyra, Dionysius the Carthusian, John the Greater, commenting on this passage, and John of Avila, on S. Matt. xvii., hold that Christ never begged, begging having been unlawful among the Jews. “There shall be no poor among you,” Deut. xv. 4. However, these words are not a precept, but a promise of riches, if they obey the Law of God.
Sitting in the midst of the doctors. A Hebraism—among the doctors, but in a lowly position like a disciple, in order that He might rouse them to think and inquire about the advent of the Messiah, which was now nigh at hand, because the sceptre had departed from Judah, and the seventy weeks of Daniel and other oracles of the prophets were now fulfilled. It is very probable that Christ questioned the doctors about the coming of the Messiah, so that His manifestation might not be unexpected, but that, afterwards, when preaching and working miracles, He might the more readily be received by them as the Messiah, from these same indications which now flashed out like sparks upon them.
Asking them questions. (1.) Because it was fitting that the child should ask questions of these learned men, and not teach them. (2.) To teach the young modesty, and the desire to hear, to question, and to learn, “Lest,” says Bede, “if they will not be disciples of the truth, they become masters of error.” (3.) That, asking them questions, He might be questioned in turn by them, and might teach them by His replies.
Ver. 47.—And all that heard Him were astonished at His understanding and answers. That a child of twelve, the son of a carpenter, one who had never attended the schools, should be so versed in Holy Scripture, should question so wisely and answer so intelligently as to surpass even the doctors themselves, so that they said, “What thinkest thou that this child will be?”—will He be a Prophet? will He be the Messiah, whom we all anxiously expect from day to day to be the Teacher of the World?
Ver. 48.—And when they saw him, they were amazed. His parents, who were seeking Him, wondered and rejoiced at finding Him alone disputing with the doctors, manifesting such wisdom, while the doctors, and all the rest who were present, wondered at Him.
And His mother said unto Him, Son, why hast thou thus dealt with us? behold, Thy father and I have sought thee sorrowing—the Arabic adds, “with labour.” Such are the words of His mother, not as finding fault with Christ, but in wonder and in sorrow, and sorrowfully unfolding her grief. The reverence felt by this mother for her Child—the God-Man—assures us of this; so it is most likely that she said this to Him, not publicly in the assemblage of doctors, but privately, calling Him aside, or when the assembly had dispersed. So Jansenius, Maldonatus, and others.
Thy father and I. S. Augustine (Serm. 63 De Diversis, xi.) remarks upon the, humility of the Virgin, who, knowing that she was in every sense (in solidum) the Mother of Christ, and, therefore, of God, and that Joseph had no part in begetting Him, yet modestly puts herself after Joseph as her husband. “She expresses herself always,” says an anonymous writer in the “Catena Græcca,” like a mother, with trustfulness, humility, and affection.”
Tropologically, let the soul that has separated itself from Jesus by mortal sin, or from its wonted communion with Him by venial negligence, seek Him again (1) with the sorrow and tears of a penitent heart, for, as S. Gregory Nazianzen says (Orat. 3), “The tears of righteous men” (and of sinful too, if they repent) “are the flood that covers sin, and the expiation of the world, as was Noah’s flood;” (2) with earnestness and solicitude, as the Blessed Virgin did, and that in the Temple, by passing some time in prayer and in spiritual reading and meditation; (3) among the doctors, among learned and good men, who shall instruct the soul as well in knowledge as in piety.
Ver. 49.—And He said unto them, How is it that ye sought me? wist ye not that I must be about my Father’s business? S. Ambrose holds that these are the words of one administering reproof. And Christ, as the Messiah, and as a Lawgiver, might rightfully have reproved His mother had she sinned. But there was no blemish of sin in His mother, neither therefore was there any reproof on the part of Christ. Still, there is in the words a certain sharpness of tone, savouring of reproof, that He may teach them by His question and incite them the more keenly to learn the things that concerned Him, just as parents are wont to stimulate their children to zeal and diligence with sharp words, and masters their pupils. These words of Christ, then, are the words of one instructing and consoling; excusing himself, and defending what he has done:—There was no need for you to seek Me, for you might have considered that I was treating concerning the beginning of that business, the salvation of the world, for which My Father sent Me. Neither must you suppose that I shall always remain with you; some day I shall leave you and go away about this business, as I have already begun to do. And, as for My going without your knowledge, I did so purposely, to teach you that, in these matters, I depend not on you, but on My Heavenly Father, and that I must act according to His will and His plan. It is not I, then, who have given you cause for sorrow, but partly your love for Me and partly your ignorance of the mystery I have now told you of; you knew not that I was occupied with My Father’s affairs. For, though this ought to have presented itself to your mind, your tender love prevented it, and turned aside the thought. Hence Bede says, “He blames her not because she sought Him as her son, but forces her to raise the eyes of her mind to what He owes Him whose Eternal Son He is.”
In order to understand this thoroughly we must notice that Christ, besides His Divine actions, which He had as God and the Son of God, such as creating, preserving, and ruling all things, and breathing the Holy Spirit, had human actions of two kinds. Of these He had some as man, common to Him with other men, eating, walking, labouring, &c.; others were proper to Him as the God-Man, the Redeemer, the Christ, and these actions are called by S. Dionysius “Theandric” (Θέος α̉νηζ); being the works partly of God and partly of a man. Such actions were those of teaching, working miracles, calling His disciples, creating and ordaining apostles, &c. In respect of the former class of actions Christ was willing to obey His parents; but as to the latter He would obey only God His Father, because these, as being of a higher order, were received by and were under the direction of God alone. Wherefore He answered His parents, when they sought an explanation of His conduct, that these things were to be done, not at their will and pleasure, but at God’s—as appears from this passage, and at the marriage at Cana, in the turning of the water into wine, S. John ii. 4, and in other similar cases.
And these actions which Christ did as the God-Man He calls the actions of God His Father, and attributes to His Father, not to Himself (1) because on account of these works He was sent by His Father into the world; (2) because He had His Divinity from the Father, and these were the works chiefly of His Divinity; (3) because He did them by the Father’s command; (4) because in these matters He was subject to no one but His Eternal Father, to teach us that God’s command or counsel must come before even the tenderest love for mother—as when God calls any one to religion, to the priesthood, to martyrdom, or to the apostolate, and his parents are opposed to the call.
Ver. 50.—And they understood not the saying which He spake unto them. Some make these words refer to the ignorance of those who stood by, who were astonished at the wisdom and the answers of Jesus—others to Joseph alone by a synecdoche. But they clearly refer both to the Blessed Virgin and Joseph; for, though they knew that their Jesus was Christ, the Son of God, and the Saviour of the world, still they did not understand in what manner He was going to set about the work of this His office, or what was that business of His Father which He had said that it behoved Him to be about—that is to say, whether, or when, or how He was going to teach, to live, to die, and to be crucified for the salvation of the world; for these things had not yet been revealed to them by God. However, they learnt all this in progress of time, either by experience or by revelation from Jesus. And, out of reverence for Him, they durst not ask Him curiously in this place what those mysteries were, but prudently awaited the fitting opportunity.
Ver. 51.—And He went down with them, and came to Nazareth and was subject unto them. He “came to Nazareth” of His own accord, notwithstanding that S. Bernard says (Serm. 19 in Cant.), “Having remained in Jerusalem, and having told them that He must needs be engaged in what belonged to His Father, He yet did not disdain to follow them to Nazareth—the Master—the disciples—God—Men, the Word and Wisdom,—a carpenter and a woman.”
Subject. In the Greek ύποκείμενος, obedient, that is, as regards His human nature, not as regards His Divine nature, as S. Augustine shows, in opposition to the Arians (Contra Maximinum, lib. iii. cap. xviii.)
Observe that the human nature in Christ, though considered in itself, it was under the rule of His mother, yet, being elevated by God to the Person [Hypostasis] of the Word, and being, therefore, one with God—one Divine Person—was, for this reason, exempt from the obligation of obedience to His mother as much as from that of obedience to the laws of Augustus and all other worldly authorities. Just as a member of a religious order, if he be made Pope, is exempted from the obedience of his order, and, indeed, becomes its superior. Yet Christ, to give us an example of profound humility and perfect obedience, made Himself subject to His mother, and to Joseph too.
Let children learn, says S. Augustine (Serm. 63 De Diversis), to be subordinate to their parents, because the world is subject to Christ, and yet Christ was subject to His parents. And & Bernard (Serm. 1 on the text “missus est”) exclaims, “He was subject to them. Who? To whom? God to men, not only to Mary, but also to Joseph. On both sides an astounding thing! On both sides a marvel! both that God obeys a woman—humility without example! and that a woman rules over God—exaltation without a parallel! . . . Blush, proud dust and ashes (cinis)! God humbles Himself, and dost thou lift thyself up? . . . As often as I desire to rule over men so often do I strive to surpass my God.”
Christ wished to teach us by the whole of His early life, for thirty years without cessation, that the perfection of virtue, and especially of religious life, consists in obedience. He did and said many things in these thirty years, but S. Luke sums them all up in the sentence, “He was subject to them.” Glorious panegyric of a religious man! All His life He was obedient and subject to His superiors.
It is the opinion of the old writers that Christ assisted Joseph in his trade as a carpenter. For it was fitting that He, who, together with His true Father, is the Artificer of the Universe, should practise with His supposed father the trade of an artificer.
These scanty facts only does S. Luke recount of the youth of Christ until His thirtieth year; and during the whole of this time He lived privately and unknown. The statements from the apocryphal book, called “The Infancy of the Saviour,” and other books of the same kind, the Church rejects.
S. Justin (Dial. contra Tryphonem) says that Christ used to make ploughs, yokes, &c., and that for this reason He often took them as figures of speech in the Gospel, as, “Take My yoke upon you,” and “No man putting his hand to the plough, and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.” Lyranus, Jansenius, Maldonatus, Dionysius the Carthusian, and John of Avila are of the same opinion, as also Cajetan, and Francis Lucas (on S. Mark vi. 3); but Paulus Burgensis, Baradius, and Simon de Cassia (book iv. ch. 3) deny that Christ worked as a carpenter, and hold that He lived a retired life like a religious until His thirtieth year, passing His time in prayer, contemplation, and fasting. To the objection that the Nazarenes, who were neighbours of Jesus, asked, “Is not this the carpenter?” they find an answer in S. Augustine (De Cons. Evang., 1. ii. c. xlii.), “They thought Him a carpenter because He was a carpenter’s son,” S. Matt. xiii. 55. But since the Nazarenes saw Jesus every day, and studiously watched what He did, they seem likely to have called Him a carpenter from His occupation. Otherwise, indeed, had they seen Him idle, they would have taxed Him with idleness, for not succouring the poverty of His parents by His labour, and helping His father Joseph in his work.
Besides Christ wished by this labour to give an example to working-men. So S. Paul was a tent-maker, even when he preached, as appears from Acts xviii. 3.
But His mother kept all these sayings in her heart—that, in course of time, she might the more fully understand all that Christ should say and do, and also that she might impart them to S. Luke and the other Apostles, to be written or handed down to posterity. “For although,” says Titus, “she did not perfectly follow all that was said by Him, yet she understood them to be Divine things, and above human understanding. She heard Jesus, not as a child of twelve years, but received and heeded His words as those of a man perfect in every way.” Or, as Euthymius says, “as the words not merely of a child, but also of the Son of God.”
Ver. 52.—And Jesus increased in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and man. For stature the Greek has ήλικία, “age,” or “proficiency.” See also chap. xii. 25. Both renderings are true and apposite.
To the question whether Jesus really progressed in wisdom and grace, as He did in age and stature, S. Athanasius (Serm. 4 Contra Arianos) and S. Cyril (Thesaurus, l. x.) seem to answer in the affirmative; for they seem to say that the humanity of Christ drew greater wisdom from the Word by degrees, just as the Blessed Virgin and other men and women did.
But the rest of the fathers teach differently. For, from the first instant of His conception, Jesus was, as has been said at v. 40, full of wisdom and grace, this being due to that humanity on account of its hypostatic union with the Word. S. Gregory Nazianzen (Orat. 20 in laudem Basilii) says, “He progressed in wisdom before God and men, not that He received any increase, since He was, from the beginning, absolute in grace and wisdom, but these gradually became apparent to men [hitherto] unaware of them.” For, as Theophylact says, “the shining forth of His wisdom is this very progress;” just as the sun, though it always gives the same degree of light, yet is said to increase in light as it unfolds it more and more from morning until midday. It is to be noted that there were in the soul of Christ three kinds of knowledge—(1) beatific, by which He saw God, and all things in God, and so was rendered blessed; (2) knowledge infused by God; (3) experimental knowledge guided by daily use. The two former were implanted in Christ in so perfect a degree from the first moment of His conception that He could not increase them. I assert the same with respect to His habitual grace and glory. So say S. Augustine (De peccat. mor. et rem., 1. iii. c. xxix.), S. Jerome (on the words of Jer. xxxi. 22, “A woman shall compass a man”), S. Athanasius, Cyril, S. Gregory Nazianzen, Bede, and others, S. Thomas and the schoolmen everywhere—for this is required by the hypostatic union.
Christ, therefore, is said to have progressed in wisdom and grace as He progressed in years—1. In the estimation of men, and in outward seeming. For sometimes Scripture speaks according to what is seen outwardly, and the judgment formed by men. So Origen, Theophylact, Nazianzen, S. Athanasius, and Cyril.
2. Christ did really increase in experimental wisdom, for from mere use He acquired experience—“He learned obedience by the things which He suffered” Heb. v. 8.
3. Though Christ did not increase in habitual, yet He did increase in actual and practical wisdom and grace. For, even while yet a child, He daily exerted more and more of the strength of mind and heavenly wisdom that lay hidden in His soul; so that in face and manner, in word and deed, He ever acted with greater and greater modesty, gravity, prudence, sweetness, and piety.
To the objection that Christ is said to have increased in grace before God, S. Thomas (p. iii. Quæst. vii.), answers that Christ increased in grace in Himself, not as regards the habit, but as regards the acts and effects produced by it.
Among other differences between the grace which Christ had, and that which we have, there are the four following:—
1. Christ had grace, as it were, naturally by virtue both of the hypostatic union and of His conception of the Holy Ghost; but with us all grace is undue, gratuitous, adventitious, and supernatural.
2. In us grace (1) wipes out original sin, and whatever actual sins there may be, and so (2) makes us pleasing to God; but in Christ grace existed not only previously to sin, but actually without it, sanctifying Him per Se primo, for from the grace of the union with the Word emanated habitual grace, as rays from the sun, immediately and naturally. So that we are adopted and are called sons of God, but Christ is truly and naturally the Son of God, as S. Hilary (De Trinit., 1. xii.), and Cyril (In Joannem, 1. iii. c. xii.), teach.
3. In us grace is peculiar to the individual, justifying the man in whom it resides; but the grace of Christ is the grace of the Head, and so sanctifying us. For “of His fulness have we all received, and grace for grace” S. John i. 16.
4. Grace increases in us (even in the case of the Blessed Virgin) by good works; but in Christ it did not increase, because, proceeding from the union with the Word, which from the beginning was full and perfect, this fulness of grace, which could not be increased, was given Him at the moment of that union.
Tropologically, Damascene (De fide, 1 iii c. xxii.) says that Christ progresses in wisdom and grace, not in Himself, but in His members, that is, in Christians. For He went on producing greater acts of virtue day by day that He might teach us to do the same. All our life is without ceasing either a progress or a falling off; when it is not becoming better it is becoming worse, as S. Bernard tells us. Ep. 25.
With God and man. “For,” says Theophylact, “it behoves us to please God first and then man.” If we please God He will make us pleasing to men. It is not enough to please man, for this is often false and feigned, nor to please God only, for this is peculiar to oneself and unseen, but we must please “God and man,” that we may show to men that grace by which we are pleasing to God, and so attract them to it. “To God,” says S. Bernard, “we owe our conscience, to our neighbours our good reputation.”