Light and shadow on the Grotto of Bethlehem

“Remove from my eyes these despicable rags and this hut unworthy of the God I worship!” This is how, already in the second century, the heretic Marcion reacted to the mystery of Bethlehem. But we adore those rags and that hut, for they reflect God’s tastes, His wisdom, His glory and, above all, His love. It is true that iconography, as well as art and poetry in general, have often depicted the poverty and abasement of the Redeemer’s birth enveloped in light, splendour, and heralding and adoring angels. But was this how the birth of the Redeemer came about? The details revealed seem not to affirm this. St Luke, with brief but sublime brushstrokes, describes entrance of the Eternal into time thus: the Virgin “gave birth to her firstborn son and laid him in a manger” (Lk 2:7).

The greatest event in human history is described in few words, revealing, first of all, the virginal birth of the Mother of God. “There was no pain or corruption,” Aquinas states, “but the greatest joy that the Man-God was born into the world.” There is no doubt that the purest and highest joy, above all human comprehension, invaded the Virgin’s soul on seeing, for the first time, the One whom she sovereignly adored as God and tenderly loved as Son. The human mind cannot penetrate the sanctum of the Virgin’s heart in order to grasp the slightest reflections of that ineffable and divine joy. But it was immediately joined by the most acute pain. Monsignor Landucci writes:

“The bitter cold, the darkness of the night, the fumes of the stable, the dirt on the walls, the breath of the animals, that little bit of straw prepared in the feeding trough: while all the splendour of the universe gathered in a single palace would not have been worthy of Him. The Blessed Virgin’s lack of any physical pain in giving birth to Jesus was largely compensated for by the intense moral pain. In this sense, therefore, Mary too gave birth to the Saviour with unspeakable anguish.”

The purest joy was thus joined by the most acute pain, but it was a loving pain, because, as St Jerome states, the deeper God’s abasement appears, the more it obliges one to love Him.

Therefore, according to Landucci, the descriptions of light radiating from the Child that would have flooded the grotto, of songs and angels, seem improbable, since all of this would have eliminated that supreme abjection that the Divine Child had chosen — choosing as His dwelling and cradle the stable and the feeding trough, to teach us, to inflame us with grateful love, and to redeem us — just as, on Calvary, there was only weeping and sorrow, framed in the almighty but fearful manifestations of darkness and earthquake.

There is no doubt that the entire heavenly court surrounded the cradle of Bethlehem. What was missing was that external splendour that would transform the abjection of Bethlehem into the glory of Paradise. The light and splendour of Bethlehem are all inward, and the sacred text, hushing all visible wonder, seems to imply that the true glory of the Son of God lies in His abasement.

St Luke accurately notes that the angels had announced the birth of the Saviour to the shepherds, but the heavenly messengers are not present in the cave. On the contrary, the sign given to find God made man is precisely “a babe in swaddling clothes lying in a manger” (Lk 2:11).

But even the Angels’ announcement to the shepherds casts a shadow over the ineffable joy of Bethlehem. In their exultation, they exclaimed the immortal Gloria in excelsis Deo et pax hominibus bonae voluntatis, destined to be perpetuated in the Holy Mass. The peace, which the Babe of Bethlehem comes to bring, is not for everyone, but only for men of good will, whom exegetes like Martini interpret as “those for whom the Lord has good will”, that is, the elect, the predestined. If Christ is born for all, He does not bring salvation to all. The Angels’ song is therefore a directing song. The message of the Angels is, as they say today, divisive.

The confirmation is immediately given. A few kilometres away from the poverty of Bethlehem, Herod’s palace stands sumptuously. Anyone standing halfway between that palace and that cave would have seen this tremendous contrast: against the licentiousness and sinful pomp of the court of Herod was the humble and poor manger of the King of Heaven; against the throne of God’s triumph was the corrupt kingship of the earth that that court represented so well.

In the mystery of Bethlehem is outlined a translucent chiaroscuro, to use an expression dear to Garrigou-Lagrange, which will characterise the entire life of the Redeemer and the divine Mother. The Saviour is born, but He is born as a sign of contradiction. He brings peace, but not to everyone: here is the first discrimination, which He will make explicit in His ministry: “I came not to bring peace but the sword” (Mt 10:34). How, moreover, can one fail to see it immediately realised in the attitude of Herod who, with his court — indeed with the whole of Jerusalem — “was disturbed” by the birth of this Child? To Herod and his court, as to all herods and courts that they represent, the birth of that Child did not bring peace, but the bloody sword of the guilty slaughter of the innocent. The joys of Bethlehem are mixed with the deepest sorrow, lights alternate with shadows. This must not obscure the characteristic joy that pervades Christmas, but encourage us not to stop at it but to go beyond it. Behind the cradle of Bethlehem there is, inseparable, the shadow of the cross of Calvary. “Behind the wood of the manger of Bethlehem,” said Pius XII in 1943, “rises giant the salutary wood of the Cross.” We cannot separate these two mysteries. That delightful and enchanting Child was born to die for our sins. When we approach the crib, let us remember this, and then Christmas will be a true Christmas.