On the Shepherds Finding Our Lord
by St. Bernard of Clairvaux
Saint Bernard of Clairvaux, a Doctor of the Church and the greatest son of the Cistercian Order, lived from 1090 to 1153. His mind and bean were steeped in the Holy Scriptures and his sermons are justly famous for their mystical interpretation of the Bible. The passage which follows is an extract from a beautiful Christmas sermon delivered in the Chapter House at Clairvaux. It is a sermon upon which we can meditate at length to deepen our faith and draw inspiration. St. Bernard is a profound thinker, but his message is simple and has lost none of his urgency over the centuries: Therefore let Mary and Joseph and the Infant be always found in us, that we may live soberly and justly and piously in this world. What a different world we would live in if all mankind would act upon these words.
OBSERVE HOW GREAT is this day's solemnity, for which the day itself is too short and the breadth of the whole earth is too circumscribed. This day encroaches on the night, it anticipates the natural dawn. It fills heaven and earth with its brightness. It fills heaven before it fills the earth. For the night was made light as the day, when in the bitter a new light from heaven shone around the shepherds. And that we might know in what place the joys of this solemnity began to be celebrated, and that it had already been a feast for the angels, immediately there was present a multitude of the heavenly host, sounding forth the Divine praises; and they proclaimed that it should be a day of joy for the people also.
For this reason this night is considered solemn beyond all others, and is spent in psalms and hymns and spiritual canticles. And while we thus keep vigil, we may undoubtedly believe that the heavenly princes unite still in our canticles and even anticipate our psalmody.
See how many altars glitter today
with gold and jewels! Behold how the walls of churches are adorned with
costly hangings! Think you, then, that the angels will turn in preference
towards these things and depart from men in poverty? If so, why did they
choose to appear to the shepherds rather than to the kings of the earth
and the priests of the
Here I recognize and acknowledge in all truth the "great High Priest Jesus, covered with filthy garments" in His Passion, while He contended with the devil. I speak here to those who are versed in the Scriptures, and to whom the prophetical vision of Zachary is not unknown. There we find our Head exalted above our enemies from the very fact that His vesture is changed. Yes, He has put on the stole of beauty, and clothed Himself with light as with a garment. He has given us an example that we also should do as He has done. When the members, following their Head on High, shall form but one body, then they will sing in one spirit: "Thou has cut my sackcloth and has compassed me with gladness."
THE ANGEL SAID: "You will find the Infant wrapped in swaddling-clothes and laid in a manger." And a little later the Evangelist goes on to say: "They came in haste, and they found Mary and Joseph, and the Infant lying in the manger." How is it that the angel mentions only the Infant, since that was not all that the shepherds were to find? Is he recommending humility in the Person of the Sacred Infant? If so, why humility specially? Perhaps because his fellow-angels fell by pride, while by humility he stood firm. Or it may be that humility is thus proclaimed to be a heavenly virtue, because it is that most fittingly exercised towards the Divine Majesty. Humility, however, can never be found alone. It cannot exist as a single vitue, for God gives His grace to the humble. Wherefore the shepherds found Mary and Joseph with the Infant laid in the manger. As humility is the virtue specially exemplified in the infancy of our Saviour, so chastity appears in the Blessed Virgin, and justice is suitably pointed out by the just man Joseph, so named in the Gospel.
We all know that continence and purity are to be observed in regard to the flesh. Justice is the virtue by which we render to everyone what is his due, and it is necessary in our dealings with others. Humility reconciles us with God, makes us subject to Him, and renders us well pleasing in His sight, as the Blessed Virgin testifies. "He has had regard to the humility of his handmaid." So that by impurity we sin against .ourselves; by injustice against our neighbor; by pride and self-exaltation against God. The unchaste man dishonors himself; the unjust man is burdensome to his neighbor; the proud man, as far as in him lies, dishonors God. God has said: "I will not give my glory to another."
The proud soul says: "As you will not give it to me, I will usurp it." Consequently such a one cannot relish the distribution by the angel, of giving "glory to God, and on earth peace to men of good will." The proud man does not worship God, by impiously and faithlessly lifts himself up against Him. What is piety but the worship of God? And who pays true homage to God but the man who is willingly subject to Him? As the eyes of the servant are on the hands of his master, so are the eyes of the just man ever directed towards the Lord his God.
THEREFORE, LET MARY and Vox Joseph and the Infant be always found in us, that we may live soberly and justly and piously in this world. For it is for this purpose that the grace of God our Saviour hath appeared instructing us; and it is by the exercise of the virtues we have mentioned that His glory will appear. The Apostle says: "The grace of God hath appeared to all men, instructing us that, denying impiety and worldly desires, we may live soberly and justly and piously in this world, expecting the blessed hope and coming of the glory of the great God."
In the Little One there hath appeared grace for our instruction, because He will yet be great, as the angel Gabriel foretold. And they whom He, as a Little One, shall have instructed in humility and meekness of heart, He will afterwards exalt and glorify, when He shall come as great and glorious, Jesus Christ, our Lord forever. Amen.