When reading the Bible, I’ve occasionally been stopped in my tracks by a passage that I had previously read — or read over — without grasping its meaning. The same thing can occur with a Christmas carol, even one as familiar as “Silent Night,” I’ve discovered.
It was the end of the third stanza that grabbed my attention last Christmas: “Jesus, Lord, at thy birth.” To the extent I had thought about it at all, I had tended to connect Jesus’ lordship more with his mature years when he embarked upon his ministry. His baptism, his miracles, his transfiguration — there we see his divinity. Or so I thought.
But Jesus’ lordship wasn’t something that he “grew into” or that was conferred on him by the Father at some point in his adulthood. It was there at his birth in the Bethlehem stable.
From the beginning
That process began with the Annunciation, when the angel Gabriel told Mary that she would conceive in a miraculous way when the Holy Spirit would came upon her “and the power of the Most High will overshadow you” (Lk 1:35).
The Greek word translated “overshadow” is episkiasei, which describes a cloud-like visitation of God upon the earth. The word is used in describing the Transfiguration of Jesus on the mountain, when a cloud descended from which the voice of God was heard. In the Exodus story, God led the children of Israel out of Egypt in a cloud by day.
Among Christian mysteries, the Incarnation is in a class by itself, defying any rational explanation. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The gospel accounts understand the virginal conception of Jesus as a divine work that surpasses all human understanding and possibility ...” (No. 497).
With admirable brevity, the Catechism provides as good a description of the physical process that was involved as we are likely to get: “The Holy Spirit, ‘the Lord, the giver of Life,’ is sent to sanctify the womb of the Virgin Mary and divinely fecundate it, causing her to conceive the eternal Son of the Father in a humanity drawn from her own” (No. 485).
Among the many glories of the Incarnation, those of Mary make clear why the Catholic Church (along with the Orthodox bodies) fulfills Mary’s prophecy that “all ages (will) call me blessed” (Lk 1:48). As we shall see, there is also a compelling pro-life message to be found in these passages of Scripture.
The Infant of Prague
We are all familiar with the “baby Jesus” that we place in the crib every Christmas after we break out the crèches in our homes and churches. As he grows, his Church hails him as the Child (or Infant) Jesus, statues of whom grace Catholic churches throughout the world.
The most famous statue, however, and the model for all others, is to be found in Prague in the Czech Republic, the center of the cult of the Child Jesus. (The word “cult” in the Catholic sense denotes a special devotion, such as to a saint or relic or, as in this case, a statue.)
The origin of the Prague statue is uncertain, but by the early 17th century it was well established as an object of special veneration and pilgrimages.
Answered prayers and miraculous healings are associated with the Infant of Prague, especially for expectant mothers.
The annual feast of the Infant Jesus, which includes a solemn procession through the streets of Prague, occurs every May.
Several saints had a special love for the Child Jesus, including Francis of Assisi, Teresa of Avila, Anthony of Padua and Thérèse of the Child Jesus.
The statue was said to have once been in the possession of St. Teresa, which would square with its reputed Spanish origin. St. Thérèse was so devoted to the Child Jesus that she had a copy of the Prague statue installed in the Carmelite novitiate in Lisieux, France.
The Prague statue, which is enshrined in the Church of Our Lady Victorious in the old section of the city, stands approximately 19 inches tall and wears a jeweled crown and royal robes, worthy of a depiction of the young King of kings and Lord of lords. The boy appears to be around 3 or 4 years of age.
The statue is made of wood coated with wax. The right hand is raised in blessing, while the left holds a globe to which a cross is affixed, a symbol of Christ’s sovereignty over the world (not to mention the entire universe). The statue’s clothing is changed periodically to reflect the colors of the liturgical year. The Church has set aside January in honor of the Child Jesus.
In America, the National Shrine of the Child Jesus of Prague is located in St. Wenceslaus Church in the small town of Prague, Oklahoma.
The ‘lost years’
Jesus’ childhood and early manhood constitute the “lost years” of his life. The only glimpses we get of him are shortly after his birth, when he is dedicated to the Lord and, much later, when his worried parents discover him in the temple. These are the years when Jesus, in the words of the Catechism, “remained hidden in the silence of an ordinary life” (No. 534).
The very absence of information about his young life may well have contributed to the rise of the cult of the Child Jesus. Even though little is known of this time, it was considered important that his young lordship be recognized and even venerated. Just because the Gospels are silent regarding this period doesn’t mean those years weren’t significant.
Among the crowds in Bethlehem at the time of the imperial census, only Mary and Joseph perceived what a momentous event had occurred with Jesus’s birth.
But word soon spread, thanks to the angelic host, and shepherds came to pay him homage. Later, the Wise Men from the East arrived. Simeon and Anna in the temple also recognized Mary’s son as the Messiah.
But the baby Jesus had his enemies as well, a list that would grow as he began his ministry. When King Herod heard that the “king of the Jews” had been born, he put in motion a plan to murder him. The slaughter of the Holy Innocents was the horrific result. They are considered to be the first martyrs of the Church.
As for the daily life of the Child Jesus, we can only wonder and speculate. Was he easy to raise? Was he difficult at times? How did he (and his mother) handle the “terrible twos?” Did he have playmates in Nazareth?
It’s likely that Jesus went through all the normal stages of growing up, experiencing the good and the not-so-good, just like any other child in first-century Palestine. Although Jesus was divine, he was also true man, and that meant his experience — with the exception of sin — would have been common to mankind in general.
Lord before birth
When Josef Mohr, who wrote the words to “Silent Night,” proclaimed Jesus to be Lord at his birth, he was absolutely right. But there’s more to the story: Jesus’s incarnate lordship predated his birth by nine months.
The Catechism makes that point by stating that Jesus was the Christ “from the beginning of his human existence” (No. 486). Since the Catholic Church teaches the scientific truth that life begins at conception, that means divinity was conceived in Mary’s womb at the very moment the Holy Spirit “came upon” her.
The Church Fathers, grasping the profound significance of all this, saw Mary as the living Ark of the Covenant. Under the old covenant, the ark, which occupied the Holy of Holies in both the tabernacle and later the temple, was the place where God met with his people. It was Israel’s most sacred possession.
St. Athanasius hailed Mary, “O noble Virgin. ... clothed with purity instead of gold! You are the ark in which is found the golden vessel containing the true manna ... the flesh in which divinity resides.”
Advent and Christmas are the appropriate times to meditate on the deep mysteries of the Incarnation. May the Child Jesus and his Blessed Mother be your guides.
F. Douglas Kneibert writes from Missouri.