Tuesday 24 December 2019

The Message of Bethlehem is a Message of Hope

CAPE ARGUS - 1939, December 9
For almost two thousand years poets have been making pilgrimage to Bethlehem. In the immortal story of the Babe, Joseph, Mary, the angels, the shepherds, and the wise men, they have found a theme worthy of their genius.
The Cradle and the Cross have inspired more poetry and song than any other phase of Christ’s life and of these two, the Cradle has inspired the more. In most hymnaries more space is given to the incarnation than to the sufferings and death. Not that the latter is less important than the former, but simply because a birth has always been more full of light than a death. In a story so rich in material, poets have had emphasized different aspects of Bethlehem. This has resulted in a very varied and a very rich treasury.
The poverty of Bethlehem has appealed to many poets, and they have made it the theme of their poems. Robert Southwell puts this thought quaintly and beautifully.
The Inns are full, no man will yield This little Pilgrim bed;
But forced is He with silly beasts In crib to shroud His head.
Despise Him not for lying there, First what He is inquire;
An orient pearl is often found In depth of dirty mire.
Weigh not His crib, His wooden dish, Nor beasts that by him feed;
Weigh not His mother’s poor attire, Nor Joseph’s simple weed.

Henry Vaughan, seventeenth century physician and poet, dwells on the same thought, the poverty attendant on the Nativity.
A stable was Thy court, and when
Men turned to beasts; beasts would be men;
They were Thy courtiers; others none;
And their poor manger was Thy throne.
No swaddling silks Thy limbs did fold,
Though Thou couldst turn Thy rags to gold;
No rockers waited on Thy birth,
No cradles stirred, no songs of mirth.
John Mauburn, a sixteenth century poet, expressed a similar thought in Latin verse. Elizabeth Charles has translated it:
Dost Thou in a manger lie.
Who hast all created, Stretching infant hands on high.
Saviour long awaited? If a monarch, where Thy state?
Where Thy court on Thee to wait? Regal purple where?
Here no regal pomp we see.
Nought but need and penury. Why thus cradled here?
Alice Sewall, writing towards the close of the nineteenth century, draws attention to the poverty surrounding the Nativity with a charm that would have done credit to the best of the Elizabethans.
The night was darker than ever before (So dark is sin)
When the Great Love came to the stable door And entered in,
And laid Himself in the breath of the kine, And the warmth of hay,
And whispered to the star to shine, And to break, the day.
Alice Meynell, who lived into the beginning of our own century, sings of the lowliness of Christ’s birth with all that delicacy of spiritual insight which marks so much of her poetry.
No sudden thing of glory and fear Was the Lord’s coming; but the dear
Slow nature’s days followed each other To form the Saviour from His Mother –
One of the children of the year.
While many poets have been drawn by the poverty of Bethlehem, many have been drawn by the peace of Bethlehem. John Milton has interpreted this as only he could have done in his “Ode on the Nativity.”
No war, or Battails sound, was heard the world around,
The idle spear and shield were high up hung;
The hooked Chariot stood Unstained with hostile blood,
The Trumpet spake not to the armed throng.
And Kings sate still with awful eye, As if they surely knew  Their sovran Lord was by.
But peaceful was the night Wherein the Prince of light
His reign of peace upon the earth began;
The Windes with wonder whist, Smoothly the waters kist,
Whispering new joys to the milde ocean, Who now hath quite forgot to rave,
While Birds of Calm sit brooding on the charmed wave.
The poets have felt that the angel’s message of peace was responded to immediately by a strange unwonted peace in Nature.
Here is how Edward Thring expresses it:
Holy night, by thy solemn silence evermore enfoldeth
Angel songs and peace form God on high;
Holy night, thy watchers still with faithful eye beholdeth
Wings that wave, and angel glory nigh,
Lo! Hushed is strife in earth, and air, and sky;
Still thy watchers hear the gladness of the cry.
George MacDonald in his poem “The Sleepless Jesus” wrote:
When first Thou camest to the earth, All sounds of strife were still;
A silence lay about Thy birth, And Thou didst sleep Thy fill.
Frederick Farrar, teacher, preacher and poet of the nineteenth century, also dwelt on the peace of the Nativity:
And the shepherds came to the manger, And gazed on the Holy Child;
And calmly o’er that rude cradle The virgin mother smiled
And the sky in the starlit silence, Seemed full of the angel lay –
“To you in the city of David A Saviour is born today.”
Phillips Brooks opens his well-known hymn with this thought – the peacefulness of the Nativity.
O little town of Bethlehen, How still we see thee lie;
Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
The silent stars go by; How silently, how silently
The wondrous gift is given! So God imparts to human hearts
The blessings of His heaven.
But while many note the poverty of Bethlehem, and many note its peace, others have stressed its promise. They see in the Birth at Bethlehem the dawning of a new word of hopes for mankind. GK Chesterton sings of all that the coming of that Child has meant to the human race.
The thatch on the roof was as golden, Though dusty the straw was and old,
The wind had a peal as of trumpets. Though blowing and barren and cold,
The mother’s hair was a glory Though loosened and torn,
For under the eaves in the gloaming A child was born.
And the rafters of toil still are gilded With the dawn of the star of the heart,
And the wise men draw near in the twilight Who are weary of learning and art.
And the face of the tyrant is darkened, His spirit is torn,
For a new King is enthroned: Yea, the sternest, A child is born.
Bernard Trotter has set this thought of the promise of Bethlehem in a very striking poem.  
A star came out of the East, And a dream came out of the West.
They thought that the Star would set, They dreamed that the Dream was best.
The dream of an Empire’s Vast As the world’s night-bordered hem.
The star of Eternal Love – They met at Bethlehem.
And the Dream became a star, That fell through the night, and died;
But the Star became a dream, Fulfilled through aeons wide.
George MacDonald expresses the idea appealingly in “That Holy Thing.”
They all were looking for a king To slay their foes and lift them high:
Thou cam’st, a little baby thing That mad a woman cry.
O Son of Man, to right my lot Nought but Thy presence can avail;
Yet on the road Thy wheels are nought, Nor on the sea Thy sail!
My how or why Thou wilt not heed, But come down Thou wilt not heed,
But came down Thine own secret stair, That Thou mayst answer all my need,
Yea, every bygone prayer.
And this surely is the message of Bethlehem and Christmas to our baffled and perplexed world – a message of Hope. Our Hope is in the child of all Eternity who was born at Bethlehem. No man or woman can make a pilgrimage to the Manger without turning away again filled with hope. Let all of us, young and old, find time to go in thought and praise to Bethlehem this Christmas, and there be renewed in hope. And all may make the pilgrimage, for, as Honoria Traifle sings:
The path to the stable where lies the Babe, Is wide indeed;
For rich and poor there tread alike, in common need.
The path to the stable is very worn, by countless feet,
From vale and hill, from forest depths and city street.
The path to the stable is very old Yet never overgrown;
A little child could find his way, though all alone.
The path to the stable is known by kings, And beggars too;
And just by folk who love the Babe Like me and you.

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