Project Canterbury

Some Defects in English Religion and Other Sermons

By John Neville Figgis

London: Robert Scott, 1917.
Milwaukee: The Young Churchman, 1917.



Bethlehem: The Helplessness of Love

"In a manger." S. LUKE ii. 7.

THE insight of the Catholic Church, in other words the collective insight of Christian men and women of many generations, treats the facts of our Lord's life as so many mysteries. This is true not only of the unusual events, but even of those incidents that seem ordinary. Masters of the spiritual life would have us use them as topics for meditation, trying in every way to realize and imagine their significance. They are right. Mysteries, indeed, are the common occurrences of man's life from the cradle to the grave. Each holds within it a revelation. Wonders in himself and in the world encounter the common man, as he goeth forth to his work and to his labour until the evening. Not love alone, but all life is sacramental: it is a symbol of that greater than itself.

Beyond this, in a special sense it is true that the facts of our Lord's life are mysteries. They [67/68] are the revelation of perfect Love. Through the study of them we shall learn something of what it means. That study needs prayer and humility more than force of mind or learning. Not that these are to be despised. We need them. Yet they are not all, nor even the greater part. The intellectual method is external, analytic, rapid. The spiritual is brooding, gradual, reflective. By sympathy we practise, and then think, and then live as it were, the scenes we seek to realize, until we are one with them.

To this end the first need is that we should be simple. Jesus of Nazareth was simple. Some would make of this a reproach. Fancy, they say, making a God out of One Who spoke no word of art or science! He was not even imbued with the culture of His day, which was in some places considerable. How inferior in this regard He is to Cicero or Seneca or Plotinus, a little later, whom some just now seem to put in the place of Christ! Yet even this charge can be met. Jesus Christ is, even in the worldly sense, the most potent force the artistic interests of man have ever experienced. Certain notes of tenderness and sympathy are only present in works where the Spirit of Christ has been potent. Even Oscar Wilde hailed Him as the first romantic, because He bade men "consider the lilies."

In Lent we try to pray better, if we are not [68/69] among those dignified Church officials who employ pagan satirists to throw scorn on Christian prayer. So it shall be the mystery of the simple heart that we seek to penetrate. War has made many weary of all that is artificial. Even in religion the elaborateness of the highly civilized mind seems too self-conscious. We need the elemental, the heart of religion, not the clothes with which men drape it. That heart of religion is Jesus. Let us pray to Him, that He may give us light.

"In the manger." How familiar! From childhood we knew the scene. Very early nowadays can a boy or girl win delight from the dancing angels of Botticelli. Yet no pictures say all. What strange weakness is here! How utter the helplessness of the Love-child of a Universe! Yet the power therein concealed is terrific. Even from an outside standpoint that baby made more difference to human life than any other single event.

To many this helplessness is an obstacle. Some would like to believe, but they dare not. Can the Word of God have been uttered in this mean way? Shall we worship as Divine a Being Who at one stage of His earthly life was the picture of impotence: Who had to grow and to learn? The setting of God under the Eucharistic symbols offers far less difficulty. It is easier to conceive [69/70] the Divine as hidden under the material forms of bread and wine, than it is to believe Him present in a child's consciousness. Self-limitation is the last word of Omnipotence. Many of us still find it hard to credit.

This difficulty comes of our fondness for mechanical standards. If God be, as we claim that He is, Love, then His manifestation must always have as its condition that love which is His nature. For this end our Lord came. God's wisdom we learn in many ways: so, too, His power. But Jesus of Nazareth speaks in the still small voice of His love. That is why we revere the Babe of Bethlehem.

He was bound to be helpless. Love cannot be love unless it gives up power. Even in creation this is so. Love sets itself limits. It is the essence of love to seek a response. That response must come from free spirits or it is no response. You cannot talk of the action of a machine, however delicate, as a loving response to love. If God be Love, He will create those free to love Him. If they are free to give, they must also be free to withhold love. When such withholding is done on a large scale, its evil fruit will be terrific. This we are seeing now.

People ask why God allows the war? Or how can He be either loving or powerful in face of what we see? Yet man having made the [70/71] use which he has of his freedom, the wonder is, not that God allows the war, but that He ever allows anything else. War does but give the opportunity to see the true meaning of passions which are disguised under the mask of civilization. Often the passion of greed and envy and pride is worse in peace, for it is less easily seen. What are we to think of the conditions of our industrial life, our slums and crowded cities, the withholding from many of all human personal interest in great concerns of which they are the making, cut-throat competition, fraudulent advertisements, company-promoting, that world of constant activities of which the representatives are Jay Gould at one end and a doss-house at the other? Are these things so beautiful that we are to give up belief in God, because for once He lets us see evil for what it is, gives us a straight course, and shows to men as in a mirror the inevitable ruin of a world which has turned its back on love? Some people talk as though the world had been a Garden of Eden until hell was let loose in this conflict. Believe me, it is far more probable that we are going through a salutary purgation, as Tennyson and Ruskin saw sixty years ago in the Crimean War. We have the record in "Maud," and in the last pages of vol. iii. of Modern Painters.

The difficulties which this war makes for faith [71/72] are due to two misconceptions. (1) The confusion of suffering with moral evil. This causes men to wonder how a God Who is Love can allow such horrors. Such horrors are, however, eminently congruous with the facts of human history. What annoys people is to find that modern enlightenment is no more proof against organized cruelty than was the Catholic Faith in the Middle Ages. Neither the facts of life as we have to live it, nor the philosophy of the Cross tends to any such view. They show that suffering is an element in all rich existences: that it is a condition in every kind of growth, bodily, intellectual, spiritual; that it is in the form of sacrifice a sine qua non for the full realization of love: and that it is often the sacrament of the highest graces. We must beware, indeed, of attributing to it any automatic or certain effect for good. All we can say is that it is often used to that end, and no advance of any kind is possible which does not presuppose suffering of some kind. This is well worked out in a little book, Pain and Gladness, by a sister in an English community: and also by Mr. T. J. Hardy in two articles recently published in the Church Times. (2) There is the notion that God, while making man free, ought to have also made him a slave: or at least, that He ought for ever to be interfering to hinder the consequences [72/73] of human selfishness. Why should God, if man be taught what it is to love, not allow him now and then to learn by experience what are the natural fruits of the opposite?

Errors about God come from thinking of Him as other than He is. Calvin, for instance, argued thus from the abstract idea of God's omnipotence and ignored His love. He arrived logically at the notion of God's creating the vast majority of the human race simply for the pleasure of putting them to eternal torment. Other difficulties come from thinking of Him as mere wisdom, and arranging the world on a diagrammatic scheme. But if God be Love, He will want free spirits who can love Him. Being free, some will refuse. The world is no longer an absolute unit. We have, instead, the dear untidy universe we know, with its luxuriant wilderness of strange ways, and not the Dutch garden trimmed and clipped which some formalists would like to make it. If instead of a God Who is Love, you had an all-powerful motor at the back of beyond, then you might do without ill, but you would also do without good, for there would be no moral values: you might do without warfare, but you could have no peace, for there could be no inner personal life. Every piece of the world would be up to sample, and the whole would be dead.

[74] Further, not only was Jesus helpless in the manger, He was dependent. How are we to worship one like that? Because that is what He is like: and what Love is like. It is strange. Love has to show itself dependent, or it cannot be love. How often must a mother pretend she is dependent on a child's help, merely out of love and to awaken zeal! It is hard always to be helped. For this is a shock to pride. To give help is an act of grace. We are proud of it: our sense of power is enhanced. The crib and the manger gather round them all that feeling of possession in one who is weak, that pathos of the petite.

Jesus is ours not merely because He is Divine and our Saviour, but because we can see Him at one time being done for by others. Not too great to be helped is a title to fame: the mark of greatness as distinct from the merely grandiose which must always strut. Were our own Prince of Wales older, and therefore a general or field-marshal, do you think the soldiers would feel towards him quite as they do now? Jesus in the manger shows God's tenderness, and calls forth ours, as in that poem of Francis Thompson:

Little Jesus, wast Thou shy
Once and just as small as I?

Benevolence, the will to our amelioration, [74/75] might have been shown otherwise: but the purely domestic note of Christianity belongs to this manger story. Some one said once to me, "Why didn't God become incarnate as ruler? That is the hardest job." Supposing He had, what then? All the world over the governing classes would find their account in Him. He would come in the class of Marcus Aurelius, or be read like the memoirs of Napoleon. Could He have been a comrade for the common man? Had He, again, come as a philosopher or an artist, He would have been captured by the Intelligenzia: others would hardly be allowed even to admire Him. The Apostles failed to drive away the mothers and the children who sought Him: but He Himself would have done so had He come in this way. Love must reveal itself in a life. Power or Wisdom can be expressed in single acts or sayings. Life to man is no life, unless it includes the weakness of childhood as well as the fixedness of maturer years.

Love, once more, is helpless because it is naked. We do not hear of Jesus as a property-owner. He was not of that class which secures special treatment on any public occasion. Love strips a man of his armour. It increases our sensibility and deprives us of our weapons of defence. That is why it is so easy to hurt any one who loves you. Scorn can be repaid in kind, and coldness [75/76] with contempt, where we ourselves do not love. But where we do, these things hurt. Jesus came in the way which left Him naked to the shafts of selfishness.

In all these respects Bethlehem bears its help to us. The impotence of Love therein presented, so far from being an argument against the revelation, is evidence of its reality. For ourselves let us learn this lesson. If we would follow in the ways of the Master, we too must be prepared for a like destiny. Often we shall be unable to use the power we possess. Often must we put ourselves in a position where we seem bereft of our natural resources. Often will it seem so easy to conquer, if we will only use the right means. Yet that means is the bowing down to Satan, which was to be the condition of our Lord's earthly dominion. God give to us a like power to resist!

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