Returning to Bethlehem
Make your way to Bethlehem, go up to the Child, rock him in your arms, say warm and tender things to him, press him close to your heart…
—I am not talking childish nonsense, I am speaking of love! And love is shown with deeds. In the intimacy of your soul, you can indeed hug him tight.
The Forge, no. 345
It might come as a shock to find out that Advent is more about preparing for the second coming of Christ than for the first. Or better: Advent teaches us that the same attitude we have toward the first coming is the same we will have toward the second. Both the readings and prayers of this season reveal this unmistakable focus: Our purpose is not only to celebrate the past event of the Incarnation, but also to prepare for the second and final coming of Christ the Lord.
The weeks leading up to Christmas are marked by a liturgical restraint that directs our attention not only to the end of a liturgical cycle, but also to the end of all things. There awaits an all-important meeting with One who will ask us to give an accounting of ourselves. We will encounter an Infant, but His infancy points us to a still-future encounter that all of us must prepare for.
Thus the Advent liturgy steeps us in themes of vigilance and judgment—and questions us pointedly: How vigilantly am I awaiting the Lord, now, in my life? Or even more seasonably: Where are we in relation to Bethlehem? We can’t resolve to “run forth to meet Christ with righteous deeds at his coming,” as the opening prayer for the First Sunday of Advent asks, unless we know where we are headed. Might it come as another surprise to find that our destination is a return journey? In this passage, we do not run aimlessly.
Where we are headed during this season is not unknown to us. It is the most familiar place. We know Bethlehem better than any other place on earth, better than the house we grew up in, better than the place where we live now. It is home in a way that our family home wasn’t home and could never be home. At the stable, we know where everything is, who should be there, and we never feel out-of-place among the shepherds and angels. The poverty of the stable is more attractive than any palace or hotel that this world can offer. For children especially, the way to get there is short, easy and simple. No one has to tell a child how to get there or that he belongs there.
As adults, it’s no secret that we might need to hear the fiery warnings of St John the Baptist: “Bear fruit that befits repentance” (Mt 3:8). This is why early on in Advent the Church shakes us up with the Baptist’s urgent preaching: “His winnowing fan is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire,” and “Prepare the way of the Lord. Make straight his paths” (Mt 3:3, 12).
We start out in life on a straight path, but it takes a number of unexpected turns—some of them taken through our own error, others chosen for us. The Church is teaching us that whatever needs to be put right in our lives—whether in thought, word, or action—making it straight will lead us directly to Bethlehem.
However far we are from the cradle, the path has not changed. The fitting fruit of repentance will always be what Jesus says it is: “Amen I say to you, unless you be converted, and become as little children, you shall not enter into the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18:3). Indeed, St Josemaria breaks into thanksgiving over those who “mature in years and experience,” respond to grace “like children, eagerly grasping the chance to convert their lives, even now, into something useful, which would make up for all the times they have gone astray and for all their lost opportunities” (cf. Furrow, no. 179).
If adults cannot enter the kingdom of heaven without turning childlike, much less can they enter the cave at Bethlehem, whose low ceiling will always demand a humble bow, whose divine tenant cannot be esteemed or loved worthily without a further bend of the knee. In becoming simple again like little children we will find our way to our Savior: “Be imitators of God, as beloved children. And walk in love, as Christ loved us” (Eph 5:1-2).
At whatever point we are on our journey, we all have to reckon with our failures to “walk in love, as Christ loved us.” We’re working against a self practiced in any number of unloving habits. Our past attempts to love might reveal a mixture of selfishness and vanity competing with a sincere desire to give ourselves.
But the fact that our efforts do not always produce good fruit pure and simple shouldn’t discourage our efforts to keep on trying. Whether we succeed in disinterested love—or only make it half way—we have still succeeded in pushing on in the right direction. We will make it to Bethlehem because, in spite of our weaknesses, we have trusted in the Infant whose birth sets all things right and makes all things new.
St Josemaria counsels,
If you want to go forward without stumbling or wandering off the path, then all you have to do is walk the road he walked, placing your feet in his footprints and entering into his humble and patient Heart, there to drink from the wellsprings of his commandments and of his love. (Friends of God, no. 128).
If we have lost our way either through negligence or through weakness, the Lord still calls us home, to walk in childlike confidence to find Him where we have always found Him, and where He always awaits us: in the humility and poverty of the stable. In a beautiful and challenging way, Advent prepares us to meet the God who will judge us as an Infant.
And if we prepare ourselves with deeds of love, as St Josemaria advises, then we will take up our Infant-Judge with the warm and tender affection of adult children who have come home and found welcome—not as those who have never failed or strayed, but as those who have rediscovered mercy in the cradle, in the Child who lives to receive the love of wayfarers who find their way home to Him.