The Christ Child
( Originally Published 1908 )
And when they were come into the house they saw the young child.-New Testament.
Childhood shows the man, as morning shows the day.-Milton.
The Child is father of the man.-Wordsworth.
Before its full splendor actually arrives, each new day sends forth heralds to announce its coming. While the sun is still eighteen degrees beneath the horizon, a faint flush is seen in the East. Because of their greater power of refraction, when they come in contact with earth's atmosphere, the violet and orange rays first appear. These are followed, in turn, by all those colors which form the beautiful entanglement of the solar spectrum until, at last, the white light of full orbed day is everywhere diffused. For the same reason the milder hues are last to disappear after sunset. In their zeal to announce the coming of their king to each parallel of earth, they run on in advance of their companions ; and, when the gorgeous pageant has passed by, they stay to fling back a final farewell.
Thus, among all festivals consecrated to the affections, Christmas throws promise of its coming farthest into the future and lingers longest in memory after it is gone. Although three of the longest of winter nights still lie between that festival and our hearts, yet signs of its approach are everywhere seen; and, when other winter nights lie between us and its going, in many a heart, young and old, it will still be partly present as a beautiful memory.
To many a heart young and old; for although, in a peculiar way, it is regarded as the possession of children, yet we are always willing and glad to share the treasure with them. Nature is very considerate. For every loss, she makes some reparation. Doubtless there are those among us who miss something in the holiday which once was present. Now some of us do not awaken in the middle of the night and wonder whether the good old man has come with the gifts or fear that he might for-get to come. The fire-place and chimney are not so mysterious as they were the night before Christmas in the old home of long ago. But if this romance is gone, in its stead has come a reality that is no less beautiful. Some, who, on Christmas Day, once only sought pleasure for themselves, now, when the day comes, wish nothing less than happiness for a whole world. Life has become a kind of blessed optimism. To make a few drops of attar of roses whole gardens of flowers are gathered and distilled. But the rich essence, made from quickly fading and perishing blossoms, preserves its fragrance through many years. So, delights be-longing to early days may pass away, while, from their perishing forms, a philosophy of happiness is created that may be carried along through all of life.
Even if this spiritual alchemy were not possible and perished pleasures were not transformed into permanent principles, we could not be indifferent when this festival is present. Joy is contagious. Left alone with memory, one might become sad; but sight of so many expectant and joyous little friends banishes sadness from the heart. It is difficult to live in the past when all around us is a multitude of happy children living in the present and looking toward the radiant future.
Singular tree of life upon which bud and blossom and ripened fruit are all found at one time! Its spring and summer and autumn are intermingled. It is like the tree Eneas found in the forest. Having plucked a golden branch, two white doves flew upward, and immediately another branch sprung from the broken stem. It is thus in life; white doves are always flying upward and the marvelous tree is self-perpetuating. By which is meant that child-hood is always here and hope and gladness forever renew themselves. A Greek Poet asked that his tomb might have an opening to the south so that he could see the birds coming back in the spring. A Persian Poet said: "Let my grave be where the wind will scatter roses upon it." They thought that delight is immortal. Perhaps it is. At least it should be as lasting as life. No one should become too old to share in the happiness of child-hood. We should all keep an opening on one side of our souls to greet the coming of that spring-time. Each Christmas Day may we scatter roses upon the grave of our youth, and, joining hands with the children, be glad in their gladness.
But this is by way of prelude. In beginning to write, another aim was in view. As Christmas-tide, on its ideal side, is dedicated to' sympathy and peace, it seems appropriate to set apart a few minutes of the Sunday lying nearest it to recalling the One in history who, in his philosophy and con-duct, illustrated those divine qualities. Being so largely devoted to childhood, in its practical administration, the study may be confined to the early years of this Friend of man.
The material out of which to construct his biography is very scanty. Neither the place or date of his birth is definitely known. Many scholars think that Nazareth, instead of Bethlehem, was the place; and the time was four years before the beginning of the era which bears his name. The strange stories, once made to do duty as historical events, are now either ignored or recalled only as pleasing legends. The narrative of the Annunciation, of the star shining over the manger cradle, and of shepherds to whom angels came with message of his birth, has passed from history into poetry.
But poetry, no less than history, has its uses. Some things are truths in themselves and some are truths by suggestion. A fable may be as instructive as a fact. A French writer says : "I arrive at poetry through truth, but you may arrive at truth through poetry." ' Polonius tells Reynaldo that he may
"By indirection find directions out."
Thus the marvelous stories suggest a great truth. They point to an exceptional life back of them. Legends never grow around the commonplace. The highest mountain peak is oftenest concealed by clouds; and the greatest names are often encircled in the greatest mystery. When, long afterward, it was seen that a new world-order had come from Palestine, the event was gradually exalted above its plain surroundings. He who was the central motive and inspiration of the event, it was thought must have had a miraculous birth and career.
A brilliant eulogist of Shakespeare says that his birth was not heralded by angels and no star stopped over his cradle. This is intended to be both witty and sarcastic. But the wit and sarcasm lose a part of their point when it is remembered that Jesus did not write his own biography and is in no way responsible for what is told concerning him. Moreover, there is as much known of the childhood of Jesus as of the childhood of Shakespeare. Had he appeared in Asia more than eighteen hundred years ago, instead of Western Europe three hundred years ago, strange legends might have grown around this famous poet. As it is, a semi-darkness shrouds the early years of his life and biographers are not in accord concerning some things. It is not known whether they are actual or legendary. In any case, to exalt Shakespeare, it is not necessary to degrade Jesus. We need not speak slightingly of the Amazon in order to praise the Mississippi. Each is great in its own peculiar way. Shakespeare is to be judged by his poetry, not by stories of his deer-stealing and drinking and his relations to Anne Hathaway and his holding gentlemen's horses at the door of a London theater. In like manner, Jesus should be judged by his philosophy of life and his spiritual influence upon the world, not by the legends that clustered around his name. A true scholarship and broad mind would try to find and express the relationship existing between poetry and religion, and would not speak of him of Stratford or him of Nazareth to the detriment of either.
It is not exactly truth to say that childhood shows the man, but it is true enough for practical use. The day does not always fulfill the promise of the morning; neither is boyhood, in all details, an unerring prophecy of manhood. 'Nevertheless, knowing one, some prevailing characteristics of the other may be inferred. Character is largely predetermined by the structure of the soul. That which made Jesus different from his brothers was not surroundings, for they were the same, but a difference of mental and spiritual possessions. This difference the legends sought to express.
Read in the free way of poetry, those stories are, not only not harmful, but beautiful and useful. Had we not been taught to read them as literal history, there would have been no skepticism concerning them ; and had there been no effort to explain them, there would have been no perplexity. Had we been permitted to read them as we read similar stories in other literature of ,that period, there would never have been any opposition to them. Instead of perplexing, they would have delighted us. No one is disturbed when he reads of the portents attending the birth of Theseus or Romulus, or of the wonderful flame encircling the head of the boy lulius when, with his father, he was fleeing from Troy. These incidents are read as illustrations of facts and not as facts themselves. A similar reading of the Hebrew and Christian Scriptures relieves us of many a perplexity. When there is no cause for it, there is no infidelity.
Artists and poets are often wiser than theologians. They knew how to utilize the stories of the Nativity. They were not for history, but were for illustration and inspiration. Life makes art, but art reacts upon life. Idealizing the child Jesus in painting and poetry made all actual childhood more sacred. It is that which causes us to make children the center of our Christmas gladness. "Kriss Kringle" is an-other form of Christkindlein or Christ-Child. German folk-lore contains many pleasing stories of this gentle Kindlein coming to minister to neglected and unhappy little ones. There is a simple but touching poem by Ruckert, too long to quote in full, but beautiful enough to be carried in memory as a choice treasure. A homeless child, wandering about the streets on Christmas night, saw through windows the brightness and merriment in many homes. Wearied and forlorn, at last it sinks down in the snow and thus murmurs :
"Kristinkle ! Thou, the children's friend,
Then Christkindlein came and told the neglected child that it should have a Christmas tree which would be more brilliant than any it had ever seen. Then,
"The stranger child looks up and sees,
A glorious tree, and stars among
As 'neath the power of a dream
Thus the legends clustering around the Palestine Child are valuable as well as beautiful.
It is significant that once literature did not admit children. It only opened its gates to adults. The classic fields of prose and poetry, with only a few exceptions, reveal nothing but the footprints of kings and heroes and heroines. It is in recent years that the gates have been thrown open to the children. The Evas and Paul Dombeys and Little Neils and Poor foes and Tiny Tims of fiction, and the unnamed little ones in the poems of Mrs. Browning and Lowell and Longfellow and Tennyson and Wordsworth and Jean Ingelow show what a welcome has been given them by those who write and read.
Trying to draw nearer him whose spirit has done so much to soften the heart of the world, let us see something of the surroundings and conditions among which his early years were passed. Looking upon Nazareth, place of his birth, this appears:
"The horizon of the town, itself, is limited; but ascending to the plateau the prospect is splendid. Westward lies Mount Carmel, terminating in an abrupt point where it meets the sea. Through a depression in thé mountains is seen the valley of the Jordan, and from one of the heights, looking to the west-ward the Mediterranean is beheld flashing in the sunlight. In March, the plain over which the traveler approaches is a bright green spangled with flowers. As the path ascends, olive orchards and palm trees break the monotony of yellow, gaunt rocks, while birds of many kinds sing in the branches or flit across the open."
Within this village the home was perhaps a one-story, box-like building containing a single room. The furnishing was as simple as the house. The floor was of earth covered with matting. There were a few rude vessels of clay and a chest that served as table and wardrobe. Outside, a ladder reached to the top of the house, where in summer the family slept. We can easily picture that sensitive and imaginative boy lying there, on a summer night, with upturned face gazing at the great, calm Syrian sky, with its refulgent stars, and wondering over the mystery of it all.
Scenery and circumstance will not explain every-thing. Mean and petty souls may live among mountains and by the sea. Nature is plastic and flowing and adjusts itself to the mould of the mind. To the material it will be material, to the spiritual it will be spiritual. All the children of Nazareth saw the same scenes, but what a difference! Mount Carmel, distant flashing sea, flower-sown plain and star-sown sky coming into the soul of this boy, became something besides mountain and sea and flower and star.
Of course there is a difference in the way a boy and a man regards nature. Experience makes the difference. In mature life, places and all the myriad changing phenomena of the world, become entangled with thought and memory. To manhood the home of childhood seems a sacred spot. The fragrance of a simple flower, that delighted the senses of a child, makes a man's heart tender to the brink of tears. By understanding ourselves in manhood, and remembering what we were in boyhood, we have a key to the life of this youth at Nazareth. Take away the seriousness of manhood and substitute the freedom of childhood; from all things re-move the sober coloring given by
"An eye That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;"
cause the Time-Spirit to throw aside all dark threads and weave only bright hues into the garment of Deity; substitute the jubilant temper of youth, unstained by sin and undismayed by disappointment, for the chastened and sometimes sad temper of age, and we may understand how he was affected by his surroundings. Like every impressible and clear-seeing boy, when in the home or walking in solitude along mountain paths, he would see many things to excite curiosity and make him wonder. With his companions he must have played at weddings and funerals in the market place, for in after life he said : "Ye are like children at play in the market place saying, We have piped unto you and ye have not danced; we have mourned, and ye have not lamented." At other times he may be pictured as turning aside to meditate; growing silent and thoughtful as consciousness unfolded. Such questions as come to every sensitive and introspective youth must have come to him:—
"Those obstinate questionings
With such unanswered and unanswerable questions, what could he, what can any youth do but listen and wonder and wait?
At the age of twelve, with his parents, he went from Nazareth to Jerusalem. In the life of a child such a journey would be a notable event. Three days would be consumed in making it. Crossing the Jordan on the second day, the last night would be passed at Jericho. The next day, winding through the valleys and over the hills and gradually ascending, in the afternoon they would cross Mount Olivet, from whose summit the Holy City, with its walls and palaces and towers and the gold fretted points of the Temple would be seen flashing in the evening sunbeams. Beholding this, the multitude of pilgrims would wave their banners and break forth into this song:
"Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem,
There is a tradition that, in the temple, he asked his elders questions, and, in turn, astonished them with answers to theirs. Then he disappears, and is not seen again for eighteen years. Some think he may, in the meantime, have gone to India and brought thence a part of his later philosophy of the spiritual life. Whether this is true or not, those eighteen missing years of his life are full of meaning. He did not come suddenly to a full rounded soul. He grew, as every youth grows. The Sermon on the ,Mount was not a flower that grew in a single night. His whole life was back of it. The virtue which made people press around him to touch the hem of his garment, his constancy to an ideal, his courage and patience and self-control did not come to him by accident. These things were forged out in the furnace of experience. In childhood his path must have begun to deflect a little from the beaten road on which his companions were walking. As he advanced, more and more it was thrown out of parallel by inner motives growing stronger and more commanding. To the right and ascending it went until it lay, lonely, among spiritual heights forever untrodden by the crowd. To the right and ascending still, until it left earth and mounted among the stars. When it had disappeared his friends began to whisper to each other: "He was more than man!' But all this power must have been germinal in the child.
As to education it was perhaps that of other boys of the time and place. He may be seen in a humble school room with other children, sitting on the floor, droning aloud his lessons until they were committed to memory, just as the traveler in Asia Minor at this day may see. In addition to this was manual training, for every Jewish boy was taught a trade. He learned that of a carpenter. In the school dull, leaden, and dismal was much of the learning. But into the mechanical routine there were irruptions of the imaginative and poetic. There would be talk of the hope of Israel; the dawn of a better era; the coming of a redeemer for the nation. In reading the Talmud, among many dull, they would find such luminous sentences as these:
"Make the best of your childhood."
Oases, these, in a desert and only reached after long journeys over arid wastes. But how they would cheer and refresh the soul of this ardent youth !
Think of Joseph or Mary sitting among the children on the housetop some glorious night when the moon, at full, was rising above, or like a silver sickle was sinking below the horizon and telling this fable :
"A long time ago God made two lights to shine in the firmament as kings. The sun rose first. As a bridegroom comes forth in the morning, as a hero returning from victory, so came he above the horizon. Then the other light looked on with envy and said: "What need of two kings? Why was not I permitted to reign alone?" Then its brightness suddenly faded. It flew from it high in the air and, scattering itself, became the host of stars. Then the moon stood pale as the face of the dead. After a long time it wept. Then it cried out: "Have pity on me, Father of all, have pity on me!" Then an angel came and said : "O thou sad One! because thou hast envied thy brother, henceforth thou wilt shine only by his light and when yonder little earth comes between him and thee thou wilt be in darkness. Yet weep not. Thou shalt be a queen in thy brightness. The tears thou hast shed will be turned into dews to quicken all living things which the hot sunbeams have made to faint." Then she was comforted. There streamed around her a silvery splendor. She became queen of the night and all pay her reverence. But, remembering her sin once every month she hides herself in sorrow and then comes back to soothe all who are distressed; and yet because of her mistake she always mingles a little sadness with her light."
If you have an inquiring and imaginative boy, tell him this fable on a summer night and you may know how it would impress that boy of Nazareth in the long ago.
One of our good poets represents a group of aged doctors in the temple recalling the visit of this youth. Thus one of them :
"I can remember, many years ago,
But even then that bright-eyed school boy, having become a tender and perhaps sad-eyed man, was working out a deathless career and leaving a memory whose fragrance is filling these Christmas days with wonderful sweetness.
In part the Palestine event is being constantly repeated. Childhood is still present and, with up-raised face, is asking questions. Sitting among the little ones, we elders are often astounded at what they say, and wonder into what kind of men and women they will grow. We need not deny the legends concerning the Christ Child. It is better to accept them and, spiritualizing, make them symbols of unceasing history and far-reaching prophecy. Signs and wonders never fail from earth, but come anew with every generation. To the mother heart there is always a divine Annunciation. Angels still chant songs of love and peace. The star that shone in the East never sets. Forever its beams are falling upon lowly cradles in which slumber the world's redeemers.
Sermons By Reed Stuart:
The Christ Child
The Christ Man
The Christ Spirit
The Strait Gate
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