The birth of the King of kings

by Cristiana de Magistris 

The truly pacific King, the Prince of Peace, the One who was to teach peace during His life and leave it as an inheritance after His Death and Resurrection, wanted His birth to be preceded by a period of universal peace, which the world enjoyed under the reign of Augustus. “If we look at history,” St Jerome notes, “we find that discord dominated all over the world until the year 28 of Caesar Augustus. With the birth of the Lord, however, all wars ceased”. And on that blessed and long-awaited day, the first day of the new era, the emperor, Augustus did not imagine that the census registries would be inscribed with a name greater than his; he was unaware that a Child born in a stable would establish a kingdom more vast than his immense empire, and that, finally, humanity, released from the tyranny of the Caesars, would date its glorious splendour no longer from the birth of Rome, but from the birth of that poor Infant. Let us therefore celebrate this day — the day that God, Creator of time, has made — the birth in time of the Word begotten from eternity. While the world was immersed in the darkness of ignorance and gratification, the Saviour came into the world, in the solitude and silence of a small village in Judea, ignored and rejected by those He came to save.

The Messiah had been promised repeatedly in the Old Testament, with the name “Saviour” (Is 19:20; Zech 9:9). But he had been foretold above all as “King”. From Genesis, which contains the prophecy of the patriarch, Jacob (49:8), to Nathan’s prophecy to King David, when the the future messiah-king was announced (1 Chr 17:11-14); from the Psalms, which repeatedly celebrate the Lord’s kingship (Ps 2:71 and 109), to the prophet Isaiah, who foretells the birth of the Prince of Peace, whose dominion will have no end (Is 9:2, 5-6); from Jeremiah, who proclaims the new messianic times (Jer 23:5), to Micah, who determines the birthplace of the awaited king (Mic 5:1-3), to Daniel, who foretells the conferral of universal sovereignty upon the Messiah: “his dominion is an everlasting dominion, which shall not pass away, and his kingdom one that shall not be destroyed” (Dn 7:13-14). 

Therefore, the Child of Bethlehem, whom we adore in the arms of the Virgin Mother, wrapped in humble swaddling clothes, is a king; indeed he is the King of kings, the universal King. The Jews scattered throughout the earth were persuaded that a king was to be born from Judea and take possession of the world. They were right to await a king; wrong in thinking of him as a political liberator. In fact, he came not to free his people from Roman slavery, but to destroy sin and to establish a kingdom — not political and temporal, but spiritual and eternal — which “will have no end”. Though the world, immersed in darkness, did not understand the sovereign royalty of the little Child of Bethlehem, heaven bore witness to this with two events that the Gospels have taken care to hand down to us in the minutest detail: the Lord revealed himself to the shepherds — through an angel; and to the Magi —through a star: while the earth stood silent, the celestial spirits and the stars announced the greatness of the newborn King. Hidden in a stable, His coming is proclaimed from heaven. An angel announces to the shepherds: “Be not afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which will come to all the people; for to you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, who is Christ the Lord. And this will be a sign for you: you will find a babe wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger” (Lk 2:10-12). “Christ” refers to the awaited Messiah, while “Lord” refers to the divine King of Israel. “How admirable is the contrast…” Martini comments, “between the humiliations of the Word made flesh and the miracles of entirely divine grandeur, which shine in the midst of the same humiliations! He is born in a stable, placed in a manger, but fills everything around Him with celestial light: He is announced by the angel to the shepherds, has at His service the heavenly hosts, who recognise and glorify Him as their God and Lord”. He is therefore a divine King who hides himself under the trappings of a little child, amid the most unheard-of humiliations of a human birth without splendour and without glory. But the testimony of the Magi, who reach Jerusalem guided by a star, begins to lift the veil of mystery, proclaiming, with a question full of holy candour, the kingship and divinity of the One they anxiously seek: “Where is he who has been born king of the Jews? For we have seen his star in the East, and have come to worship him” (Mt 2:1-2).      

These sages had departed from the Far East to seek none other than the king of the Jews. Very likely, they had learned of the Old Testament prophecies through the Jewish exiles, and the theophanic star had led them to Him Whom they understood to be quite different from the kings of the earth. “Very appropriately,” says Cornelius a Lapide, “a star guided the Magi to Christ, the King of kings, since the star, with its resplendent rays, has the appearance of a royal crown, and therefore is the emblem of the king and of his kingdom”. Herod was troubled at the coming of the Magi, but needlessly so. “Why do you fear, Herod,” writes one pious author, “hearing about another kingship? The kingdom of Christ has nothing in common with yours. Your palace could not contain this Child; and this Infant, master of the world, is not contented with your power, He Who will reign over all the earth. Ah, cursed are those who tremble before the cradle of this Child: what will they do before the judge’s tribunal? And if they fear a king whose reign is not now of this world, what will they do in the terrible day when he comes to destroy kings in his wrath?”

When they came to Bethlehem, following the star, the Magi found themselves admiring a spectacle of arcane beauty, far removed from the majesty and elegance of Herod’s palace. But in their eyes, full of faith and love, the stable appeared a palace, the cradle a throne, and that Child a king. They did not see, writes St Leo the Great, a God in his power, who commanded demons and raised the dead; they saw a sweet and peaceful child on his mother’s lap; not a sign of greatness around Him, but many signs of abasement; because the whole life of this Lord, Who conquered the world and hell, began with humility and was consumed in humility; and the courage of suffering was not lacking in that Child any more than the sweetness of childhood that accompanied the man-God. And the Magi adored him: they prostrated themselves on the ground, according to Oriental custom, and recognised as their King and Saviour that little helpless Child, wrapped in swaddling clothes, in the arms of His Mother. But the faith of the Magi went far beyond what they saw with the eyes of the flesh. They had understood that He was the agnum dominatorem terrae prophesied by Isaiah (16:1): a lamb who, for all His meekness, would reign over the earth, to whom they offered their gifts: gold as for a king, incense as for God, and myrrh as for a mortal man. 

If our devotion swoons before the Child of Bethlehem, abased for us to the point of taking our weak nature in the incalculable humiliations of Bethlehem, our faith sees in that Divine Infant, not a king, but the King of kings, Who from His cradle, between the ox and the donkey, rules the world, gives existence to His Mother, governs the stars, commands the angels, subdues the demons, permits evil, sustains His elect and nourishes His crucifiers. He is King — no less in the poor stable than in the Empyrean Heaven at the right hand of the Father. And if we sing our most sincere Christmas hymns to that Child; if we intone the immortal “From Starry Skies Thou Comest” at the side of the manger, amid tears of emotion; then our faith, full of fervour, carries us beyond that human landscape and, opening the heavens to us, brings us to praise the glory of the One Who — in Bethlehem, just as in Heaven — reigns supreme forever and ever: Christus vincit, Christus regnat, Christus imperat