December 2018 / January 2019 - Vol. 101

manger in
                  shadow of the cross

Jesus Christ – the Firstborn of Creation

by Fulton J. Sheen

The Lord to be born of Mary is the only Person in the world Who ever had a prehistory; a prehistory to be studied not in the primeval slime and jungles, but in the bosom of the Eternal Father. Though He appeared as the Cave Man in Bethlehem, since He was born in a stable hewn out of rock, His beginning in time as man was without beginning as God in the agelessness of eternity. Only progressively did He reveal His Divinity; and this was not because He grew in the consciousness of Divinity; it was due rather to His intent to be slow in revealing the purpose of His coming.

St. John at the beginning of his Gospel relates His prehistory as the Son of God:
In the beginning was the Word,
And the Word was with God;
 And the Word was God.
The same was in the beginning with God.
All things were made by Him,
And without Him was made nothing that was made.
JOHN 1:1–3
“In the beginning was the Word.” Whatever there is in the world, is made according to the thought of God, for all things postulate thought. Every bird, every flower, every tree was made according to an idea existing in the Divine Mind. Greek philosophers held that thought was abstract. Now, the Thought or Word of God is revealed as Personal. Wisdom is vested in Personality. Prior to His earthly existence, Jesus Christ is eternally God, the Wisdom, the Thought of the Father. In His earthly existence, He is that Thought or Word of God speaking to men. The words of men pass away when they have been conceived and uttered, but the Word of God is eternally uttered and can never cease from utterance. By His Word, the Eternal Father presses all that He understands, all that He knows. As the mind holds converse with itself by its own thought, and sees and knows the world by means of this thought, so does the Father see Himself, as in a mirror, in the Person of His Word. Finite intelligence needs many words in order to express ideas; but God speaks once and for all within Himself—one single Word which reaches the abyss of all things that are known and can be known. In that Word of God are hidden all the treasures of wisdom, all the secrets of sciences, all the designs of the arts, all the knowledge of mankind. But this knowledge, compared to the Word, is only the feeblest broken syllable.

In the agelessness of eternity, the Word was with God. But there was a moment in time when He had not come forth from the Godhead, as there is a moment when a thought in the mind of man is not yet uttered. As the sun is never without its beam, so the Father is never without His Son; and as the thinker is not without a thought, so in an infinite degree, the Divine Mind is never without His Word. God did not spend the everlasting ages in sublime solitary activity. He had a Word with Him equal to Himself.
All things were made by Him,
And without Him was made nothing that was made.
In Him was life and the life was the light of men.
And the light shineth in darkness;
And the darkness did not comprehend it.
JOHN 1:3–5
Everything in space and time exists because of the creative Power of God. Matter is not eternal; the universe has an intelligent Personality back of it, an Architect, a Builder, and a Sustainer. Creation is the work of God. The sculptor works on marble, the painter on canvas, the machinist on matter, but none of them can create. They bring existing things into new combinations, but nothing else. Creation belongs to God alone.

God writes His name on the soul of every man. Reason and conscience are the God within us in the natural order. The Fathers of the early Church were wont to speak of the wisdom of Plato and Aristotle as the unconscious Christ within us. Men are like so many books issuing from the Divine press, and if nothing else be written on them, at least the name of the Author is indissolubly engraved on the title page. God is like the watermark on paper, which may be written over without ever being obscured.

Caesar Augustus, the master bookkeeper of the world, sat in his palace by the Tiber. Before him was stretched a map labeled Orbis Terrarum, Imperium Romanum. He was about to issue an order for a census of the world; for all the nations of the civilized world were subject to Rome. There was only one capital in this world: Rome; only one official language: Latin; only one ruler: Caesar. To every outpost, to every satrap and governor, the order went out: every Roman subject must be enrolled in his own city. On the fringe of the Empire, in the little village of Nazareth, soldiers tacked up on walls the order for all the citizens to register in the towns of their family origins.

Joseph, the builder, an obscure descendant of the great King David, was obliged by that very fact to register in Bethlehem, the city of David. In accordance with the edict, Mary and Joseph set out from the village of Nazareth for the village of Bethlehem, which lies about five miles on the other side of Jerusalem. Five hundred years earlier the prophet Micheas had prophesied concerning that little village:
And thou, Bethlehem, of the land of Judah,
Art far from the least among the princes of Judah,
 For out of thee will arise a leader who is to be
The shepherd of My people Israel.
Joseph was full of expectancy as he entered the city of his family, and was quite convinced that he would have no difficulty in finding lodgings for Mary, particularly on account of her condition. Joseph went from house to house only to find each one crowded. He searched in vain for a place where He, to Whom heaven and earth belonged, might be born. Could it be that the Creator would not find a home in creation? Up a steep hill Joseph climbed to a faint light which swung on a rope across a doorway. This would be the village inn. There, above all other places, he would surely find shelter. There was room in the inn for the soldiers of Rome who had brutally subjugated the Jewish people; there was room for the daughters of the rich merchants of the East; there was room for those clothed in soft garments, who lived in the houses of the king; in fact, there was room for anyone who had a coin to give the innkeeper; but there was no room for Him Who came to be the Inn of every homeless heart in the world. When finally the scrolls of history are completed down to the last words in time, the saddest line of all will be: 'There was no room in the inn.'

Out to the hillside to a stable cave, where shepherds sometimes drove their flocks in time of storm, Joseph and Mary went at last for shelter. There, in a place of peace in the lonely abandonment of a cold windswept cave; there, under the floor of the world, He Who is born without a mother in heaven, is born without a father on earth.

Of every other child that is born into the world, friends can say that it resembles his mother. This was the first instance in time that anyone could say that the mother resembled the Child. This is the beautiful paradox of the Child Who made His mother; the mother, too, was only a child. It was also the first time in the history of this world that anyone could ever think of heaven as being anywhere else than “somewhere up there” when the Child was in her arms, Mary now looked down to Heaven.

In the filthiest place in the world, a stable, Purity was born. He, Who was later to be slaughtered by men acting as beasts, was born among beasts. He, Who would call Himself the “living Bread descended from Heaven,” was laid in a manger, literally, a place to eat. Centuries before, the Jews had worshiped the golden calf, and the Greeks, the ass. Men bowed down before them as before God. The ox and the ass now were present to make their innocent reparation, bowing down before their God.

There was no room in the inn, but there was room in the stable. The inn is the gathering place of public opinion, the focal point of the world’s moods, the rendezvous of the worldly, the rallying place of the popular and the successful. But the stable is a place for the outcasts, the ignored, the forgotten. The world might have expected the Son of God to be born—if He was to be born at all—in an inn. A stable would be the last place in the world where one would have looked for Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.

No worldly mind would ever have suspected that He Who could make the sun warm the earth would one day have need of an ox and an ass to warm Him with their breath; that He Who, in the language of Scriptures, could stop the the turning about of Arcturus would have his birthplace dictated by an imperial census; that He, Who clothed the fields with grass, would Himself be naked; that He, from Whose hands came planets and worlds, would one day have tiny arms that were not long enough to touch the huge heads of the cattle; that the feet which trod the everlasting hills would one day be too weak to walk; that the Eternal Word  would be dumb; that Omnipotence would be wrapped in swaddling-clothes;that Salvation would lie in a manger; that the bird which built the nest would be hatched therein—no one would ever have suspected that God coming to this earth would ever be so helpless. And that is precisely why so many miss Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.

If the artist is at home in his studio because the paintings are the creation of his own mind; if the sculptor is at home among his statues because they are the work of his own hands; if the husbandman is at home among his vines because he planted them; and if the father is at home among his children because they are his own, then surely, argues the world, He Who made the world should be at home in it. He should come into it as an artist into his studio, and as a father into his home; but, for the Creator to come among His creatures and be ignored by them; for God to come among His own and not be received by His own; for God to be homeless at home—that could only mean one thing to the worldly mind: the Babe could not have been God at all. And that is just why it missed Him. Divinity is always where one least expects to find it.

The Son of God made man was invited to enter His own world through a back door. Exiled from the earth, He was born under the earth, in a sense, the first Cave Man in recorded history. There He shook the earth to its very foundations. Because He was born in a cave, all who wish to see Him must stoop. To stoop is the mark of humility. The proud refuse to stoop and, therefore, they miss Divinity. Those, however, who bend their egos and enter, find that they are not in a cave at all, but in a new universe where sits a Babe on His mother’s lap, with the world poised on His fingers.

The manger and the Cross thus stand at the two extremities of the Savior’s life! He accepted the manger because there was no room in the inn; He accepted the Cross because men said, “We will not have this Man for our king.” Disowned upon entering, rejected upon leaving, He was laid in a stranger’s stable at the beginning, and a stranger’s grave at the end. An ox and an ass surrounded His crib at Bethlehem; two thieves were to flank His Cross on Calvary.  He was wrapped in swaddling-clothes in His tomb -- clothes symbolic of the limitations imposed on His Divinity when He took a human form.
This is the sign by which you are to know him;
you will find a child still in swaddling-clothes;
lying in a manger.
Luke 2:12
He was already bearing His Cross—the only cross a Babe could bear, a cross of poverty, exile and limitation. His sacrificial intent already shone forth in the message the angels sang to the hills of Bethlehem:
This day, in the city of David,
A Savior has been born for you,
The Lord Christ Himself.
LUKE 2:11

Covetousness was already being challenged by His poverty, while pride was confronted with the humiliation of a stable. The swathing of Divine power, which needs to accept no bounds, is often too great a tax upon minds which think only of power. They cannot grasp the idea of Divine condescension, or of the “rich man becoming poor that through His poverty, we might be rich.” Men shall have no greater sign of Divinity than the absence of power as they expect it—the spectacle of a Babe Who said He would come in the clouds of heaven, now being wrapped in the cloths of earth.

He, Whom the angels call the “Son of the most High,” descended into the red dust from which we all were born, to be one with weak, fallen man in all things, save sin. And it is the swaddling clothes which constitute His “sign.” If He Who is Omnipotence had come with thunderbolts, there would have been no sign. There is no sign unless something happens contrary to nature. The brightness of the sun is no sign, but an eclipse is. He said that on the last day, His coming would be heralded by “signs in the sun,” perhaps an extinction of light. At Bethlehem the Divine Son went into an eclipse, so that only the humble of spirit might recognize Him.

Only two classes of people found the Babe: the shepherds and the Wise Men; the simple and the learned; those who knew that they knew nothing, and those who knew that they did not know everything. He is never seen by the man of one book; never by the man who thinks he knows. Not even God can tell the proud anything! Only the humble can find God! As Caryll Houselander put it, “Bethlehem is the inscape of Calvary, just as the snowflake is the inscape of the universe.' This same idea was expressed by the poet who said that if he knew the flower in a crannied wall in all its details, he would know 'what God and man is'. Scientists tell us that the atom comprehends within itself the mystery of the solar system.

It was not so much that his birth cast a shadow on His life, and thus led to His death; it was rather that the Cross was there from the beginning, and it cast its shadow backward to His birth. Ordinary mortals go from the known to the unknown submitting themselves to forces beyond their control; hence we can speak of their “tragedies.” But He went from the known to the known, from the reason for His coming, namely, to be “Jesus” or “Savior,” to the fulfillment of His coming, namely, the death on the Cross. Hence, there was no tragedy in His life; for, tragedy implies the unforeseeable, the uncontrollable, and the fatalistic. Modern life is tragic when there is spiritual darkness and unredeemable guilt. But for the Christ Child there were no uncontrollable forces; no submission to fatalistic chains from which there could be no escape; but there was an “inscape”—the microcosmic manger summarizing, like an atom, the macrocosmic Cross on Golgotha.

In His First Advent, He took the name of Jesus, or “Savior” it will only be in His Second Advent that He will take the name of “Judge.” Jesus was not a name He had before He assumed a human nature; it properly refers to that which was united to His Divinity, not that which existed from all eternity. Some say “Jesus taught” as they would say “Plato taught,” never once thinking that His name means “Savior from sin.” Once He received this name, Calvary became completely a part of Him. The Shadow of the Cross that fell on His cradle also covered His naming. This was “His Father’s business” everything else would be incidental to it.

“The Word became Flesh.” The Divine Nature, which was pure and holy, entered as a renovating principle into the corrupted line of Adam’s race, without being affected by corruption. Through the Virgin Birth, Jesus Christ became operative in human history without being subject to the evil in it.

And the Word was made flesh,
and came to dwell among us;
and we have sight of his glory,
glory such as belongs to
the Father's only-begotten Son,
full of grace and truth.
John 1:14
Bethlehem became a link between heaven and earth; God and man met here and looked each other in the face. In the taking of human flesh, the Father prepared it, the Spirit formed it, and the Son assumed it. He Who had a temporal generation in time. He Who had His birth in Bethlehem came to be born in the hearts of men. For, what would it profit if He was born a thousand times in Bethlehem unless He was born again in man?
But all those who did welcome Him,
He empowered to become the children of God.
JOHN 1:12
Now man need not hide from God as Adam did; for He can be seen through Christ’s human nature. Christ did not gain one perfection more by becoming man, nor did He lose anything of what He possessed as God. There was the Almightiness of God in the movement of His arm, the Infinite Love of God in the beatings of His human heart and the Unmeasured Compassion of God to sinners in His eyes. God is now manifest in the flesh; this is what is called the Incarnation. The whole range of the Divine attributes of power and goodness, justice, love, beauty, were in Him. And when Our Divine Lord acted and spoke, God in His perfect nature became manifest to those who saw Him and heard Him and touched Him. As He told Philip later on:
Whoever has seen Me has seen the Father.
 JOHN 14:9
No man can love anything unless he can get his arms around it, and the cosmos is too big and too bulky. But once God became a Babe and was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, men could say, “This is Emmanuel, this is God with us.” By His reaching down to frail human nature and lifting it up to the incomparable prerogative of union with Himself, human nature became dignified. So real was this union that all of His acts and words, all of His agonies and tears, all of His thoughts and reasonings, resolves and emotions, while being properly human, were at the same time the acts and words, agonies and tears, thoughts and reasonings, resolves and emotions of the Eternal Son of God.

What men call the Incarnation is but the union of two natures, the Divine and the human in a single Person Who governs both. This is not difficult to understand; for what is man but a sample, at an immeasurably lower level, of a union of two totally different substances, one material and the other immaterial, one the body, the other the soul, under the regency of a single human personality? What is more remote from one another than powers and capacities of flesh and spirit? Antecedent to their unity, how difficult it would be ever to conceive of a moment when body and soul would be united in a single personality. That they are so united is an experience clear to every mortal. And yet it is an experience at which man does not marvel because of its familiarity.

God, Who brings together body and soul into one human personality, notwithstanding their difference of nature, could surely bring about the union of a human body and a human soul with His Divinity under the control of His Eternal Person. This is what is meant by the passage:
And the Word was made flesh,
And came to dwell among us.
JOHN 1:14
The Person which assumed human nature was not created, as is the case of all other persons. His Person was the pre-existent Word or Logos. His human nature, on the other hand, was derived from the miraculous conception by Mary, in which the Divine overshadowing of the Spirit and the human Fiat or the consent of a woman, were most beautifully blended. This is the beginning of a new humanity out of the material of the fallen race. When the Word became flesh, it did not mean that any change took place in the Divine Word. The Word of God proceeding forth did not leave the Father’s side. What happened was not so much the conversion of the Godhead into flesh, as the taking of a manhood into God.

There was continuity with the fallen race of man through the manhood taken from Mary; there is discontinuity through the fact that the Person of Christ is the pre-existent Logos. Christ thus literally becomes the second Adam, the Man through whom the human race starts all over. His teaching centered on the incorporation of human natures to Him, after the manner in which the human nature that He took from Mary was united to the Eternal Word.

It is hard for a human being to understand the humility that was involved in the Word becoming flesh. Imagine, if it were possible, a human person divesting himself of his body, and then sending his soul into the body of a serpent. A double humiliation would follow: first, accepting the limitations of a serpentine organism, knowing all the while his mind was superior, and that fangs could not adequately articulate thoughts no serpent ever possessed. The second humiliation would be to be forced as a result of this 'emptying of self' to live in the companionship of serpents. But all this is nothing compared to the emptying of God, by which He took on the form of man and accepted the limitations of humanity, such as hunger and persecution; not trivial either was it for the Wisdom of ~God to condemn Himself to association with poor fishermen who knew so little. But this humiliation which began in Bethlehem when He was conceived in the Virgin Mary was only the first of many to counteract the pride of man, until the final humiliation of death on the Cross. If there were no Cross, there would have been no crib; if there had been no nails, there would have been no straw. But He could not teach the lesson of the Cross as payment for sin; He had to take it. God the Father did not spare His Son -- so much did He love mankind. That was the secret wrapped in waddling-bands.

The name “Jesus” was a fairly common one among the Jews. In the original Hebrew, it was “Josue.” The angel told Joseph that Mary would:
Bear a son, whom thou shalt call Jesus,
For He is to save His people from their sins.
This first indication of the nature of His mission on earth does not mention His teaching; for the teaching would be ineffective, unless there was first salvation.

He was given another name at the same time, the name “Emmanuel.”
Behold, the virgin shall be with child,
And shall bear a son,
And they shall call Him Emmanuel,
(which means God with us).
This name was taken from the prophecy of Isaiah and it assured something besides a Divine presence; together with the name “Jesus,” it meant a Divine presence which delivers and saves. The angel also told Mary:
And behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb,
And shalt bear a son,
and shalt call Him Jesus.
He shall be great, and men will know Him for the Son of the Most High;
The Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David,
and he shall reign over the house of Jacob eternally;
His kingdom shall never have an end.
Luke 1:31-33
The title "Son of the Most High" was the very one that was given to the Redeemer by the evil spirit which possessed the youth in the land of the Gerasenes. The fallen angel thus confessed Him to be what the unfallen angel said He was:
Why dost thou meddle with me, Jesus
Son of the Most High God?
MARK 5:7
The salvation that is promised by the name “Jesus” is not a social salvation, but rather a spiritual one. He would not save people necessarily from their poverty, but he would save them from their sins. To destroy sin is to uproot the first causes of poverty. The name “Jesus” brought back the memory of their great leader, who had brought them out of Israel to rest in the promised land. The fact that He was prefigured by Josue indicates that He had the soldierly qualities necessary for the final victory over evil, which would come from the glad acceptance of suffering, unwavering courage, resoluteness of will and unshakable devotion to the Father’s mandate.

The people enslaved under the Roman yoke were seeking deliverance; hence they felt that any prophetic fulfillment of the ancient Josue would have something to do with politics. Later on, the people would ask Him when He was going to deliver them from the power of Caesar. But here, at the very beginning of His life, the Divine Soldier affirmed through an angel that He had come to conquer a greater enemy than Caesar. They must still render to Caesar the things that were Caesar’s; His mission was to deliver them from a far greater bondage, namely, that of sin. All through His life people would continue to materialize the concept of salvation, thinking that deliverance was to be interpreted only in terms of the political. The name 'Jesus' or Saviour was not given to Him after He had wrought salvation, but at the very moment He was conceived in the womb of His mother. The foundation of His salvation was from eternity and not from time.

[This article is excerpted from Life in Christ, chapter 2, Copyright 1958 by Fulton Sheen, and first published in Great Britain 1959 for Peter Davies Ltd by The Windmill Press Ltd, Kingswood, Surrey.]

Archbishop Fulton J. Sheen (1895-1979) was an American theologian and bishop, first in New York City and then in Rochester, New York. He became well-known for his preaching, especially on television and radio. He hosted the night-time radio program The Catholic Hour for twenty years (1930–1950) before moving to television and presenting a weekly program called, Life Is Worth Living. The show ran from 1951 until 1957, drawing as many as 30 million people on a weekly basis. He wrote 73 books and numerous articles and columns. Mother Theresa of Calcutta always kept a copy of Sheen’s book, Life of Christ, with her wherever she traveled for daily reflection and meditation.
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