F OR years there had been abroad over the earth a whisper that a Deliverer was about to arise: a Deliverer who had been promised from the earliest ages of the world. Some mighty man or king, some sage or conqueror, who would bring back lost justice, goodness, and happiness to the suffering race of men, and begin a reign of everlasting peace.
And the hearts of all whom the whisper reached caught fire at the thought; for who so dull as not to know his own wretchedness, or not see that things around him might be better than they were? Ah! men knew it but too well. Death, sickness, the necessity of labour, labour bestowed in vain, wronged affections, the triumph of might over right, wars and tumults, household divisions, and the thousand other miseries of life, had from year to year in every age unfolded to each man in succession, as he awoke to reason, the strange, sad fact, that some prevailing disorder existed in the world in his own particular day; while at the same time a strong instinct in his soul, told him, that it had not always been so,—would not be so for ever.
So the whisper of a Deliverer stole into all hearts with a promise of better things in store; but, obscure and indefinite, it was interpreted by many minds in as many different ways, according to the bent of different wishes and feelings. Only in one thing all agreed, namely, that at the advent of this Mighty One, sorrow and evil should flee away, and joy and peace be spread over the earth as the waters cover the sea.
A Deliverer!—what should He deliver them from, if not from the death so abhorrent to every instinct of their being; from the grinding sicknesses which made life a burden even to the young; from the toil that kept the strong man back from ease and enjoyment; from the disappointments which racked the tenderest and best emotions of their hearts; from the chains of unjust oppression; from the strife of parties and of tongues; from the weakness of their own souls, which left them a prey to evil imaginations from within and a thousand temptations from without?
Truly such life was but a weariness at the best: and "Oh for a Deliverer!" was the cry that went up from each man's heart as his own particular burden bore him down. Oh that the everlasting doors were lifted up, that the King of Glory might come in, and touch the earth with some magic sceptre, restoring all things to order and joy!
But the name of the Mighty One was to be called "Wonderful, Counsellor, The Mighty God, The Everlasting Father, The Prince of Peace." And the government was to be upon His shoulders, although He was to be a son, and born a child. Where, then, but in palaces could He be expected, or looked for; where but in palaces brought forth and nurtured? Surely, kings must be His nursing fathers and their queens his nursing mothers. Oh happy parents of a happy child!—who great enough, who high enough to be so favoured? Yet the child of these great ones was to be greater and mightier than all, to rule and triumph over all!—A King of kings, a Lord of lords! Well might the longing eyes of hope be fixed on palaces and regal halls! Well might the murmured question arise, "Can this be He?" when the cry of a new-born prince was heard within their walls! What wonder if Sybil and Poet sang, by anticipation of His fame!
But ever as the children of these great ones grew up to manhood, they merged by the common lot of suffering and sin into common men, and hope was darkened: yet though darkened not extinguished—and the Deliverer was still looked for as before.
Some, however, there were who found in the titles "Wonderful, Counsellor," another meaning and another aim. Kingly the Deliverer might be by influence and character, but not necessarily in His human birth. The kingship of man's noblest faculty—Reason—might be at hand, to overthrow all kingships of mere blood; the triumph of mind over material things, the kingship of intellect over brute passion and force.
The poor wise man who saved the city, but had neither thanks nor honour for his pains, was a type of a state of things now at last about to pass away. And the midnight oil had not been wasted, nor the brain racked in vain, if this were so indeed: if the day and hour were at hand when He should be exalted as universal Counsellor, whom wisdom had made fit to rule; He be called Wonderful who was great by the secrets of His mind.
And as Sages and Philosophers meditated on these things, there glowed in their bosoms aspirations which bordered on devotion. And they stretched out supplicating hands to the Unseen Ruler of all, asking that the Wonderful, the Counsellor, might bring them light and truth indeed, and conquer with those arms alone the ignorance and errors of the world.
Oh for the rising of that day, when the real majesty and power of the human mind should be revealed to the ignorant multitude in all its magnificence! Here is the only greatness worth the name! Here the only power fit for universal rule!
But year after year the wise man died as the fool, and his children followed him, and neither among them had the Deliverer arisen, but must be looked for as before.
Again: "Prince of Peace!" mused others. In this, all is comprehended. The conquering spoken of is but the overcoming of all wish for strife; the rule in store, the sovereignty of love, suppressing all desires but that for universal joy.
Ah! surely, when the Deliverer came it would be to make all men happy alike, and pour a healing balsam into every wound! Then would all the old griefs be buried and forgotten, and the soothed minds of contented men trouble themselves no more with struggle and labour.
Oh for the dawning of that morn when each man should be king and kingdom to himself, and the world resound once more to the songs of rejoicing which gladdened the golden age! Had not the Sybils so spoken, and had not the Poet so sung? Then should every man sit under his own vine and his fig-tree, and poor and rich alike cease from the land, for all should be equal and all happy.
But whence should such a Deliverer be looked for—where be expected to arise?—Ah! surely only in some happy spot of Nature, some valley peaceful and beautiful as that of Cashmere, among a race of pastoral simplicity; in some perfect household, where disturbance was never known, and one mind prevailed. Thence alone could come He who would cause the cruel swords of war to be turned into ploughshares, and spears into reapinghooks, and animate and inanimate Nature to join in one general song of joy.
So these looked to the lovely valleys and the quiet nooks of Nature for the magic spot where discord had never entered. But they, too, looked and waited in vain—yet looked and waited on as before, and called upon Nature herself to confirm their hopes.
And the inanimate Earth awoke at last to the consciousness of some great approaching event, and listened to the whisper of deliverance, even as before she had suffered and sunk under the ancient curse. And spring by spring, as she adorned herself in beauty, putting on verdure and flowers, the sense of the Mighty One who was to restore and renovate her lost glories swelled through every pulse. But she could not be troubled with the discordant expectations of men. . . .
"Come as He will," she cried, "as King, as Conqueror, as Sage, as God: thus, thus, thus, in my bloom and beauty, do I make myself meet and ready for His advent; thus, thus, thus am I worthy to receive my Lord and King! When He comes shall not all the hills leap for joy, and the valleys laugh and sing, and the trees of the forest rejoice?
So spring after spring she adorned herself in hope, and, summer after summer, she glowed with longing expectation; but spring and summer fled away and no Deliverer had come. And when the sap must return back again to the roots of trees and plants, and flowers and leaves decay, and a torpor as of death prevail over them for a while, she wept with tears of regret while they took sad leave of each other, but said—
"With a new season there will be hope once more." And Earth echoed the words, but, cold and desolate, she felt no confidence, and showed no signs of hope. Only the Evergreens cheered her up, for said they:
"While better things cannot be had, be contented with us; at any rate, we will remind you of what is to come."
Oh ignorant man and ignorant earth alike! While darkness was over the mind of one, and deadness over the face of the other—when the eyes of the common world were fixed on earthly palaces, and the thoughts of the wise on the fruits of earthly wisdom; yea, when the lovers of pleasure hoped for a Deliverer in scenes of earthly enjoyment—behold, God had chosen "the foolish things of the world to confound the wise; . . . the weak things of the world to confound the things which are mighty; . . . and base things of the world, and things which are despised," had He chosen, "that no flesh should glory in His presence."
Turn aside your eyes from earthly grandeurs, ye prisoners of hope! Put away from your hearts the confidence of human wisdom! Generation after generation had passed away, and the whole world lay yet in wickedness, for "in the wisdom of God, the world by wisdom knew not God;" and not many wise men after the flesh, not many mighty, not many noble, are called by Him.
And then, lo! in the stable of a village inn, where the beasts of the field were wont to take their rest, a weary foot-worn maiden had lain down for shelter and ease, for no other room could be found. And hark to the cry of a new-born babe which rose thence, unnoticed by the busy world without! The first-born of a mother, whose husband earned their bread by daily toil—what mattered this common birth to other men?
Yet—hark to another cry which went up amidst the wailings of the lowly child: a cry of thanksgiving and praise. "Glory be to God in the Highest, and on earth peace, good-will toward men." "Unto you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord!" And they who sang this glad Hosanna were the angels of Heaven!
Oh day of glory and delight! the Deliverer had come at last; the day of redemption was there; but what was the sign whereby the long-expected Mighty One might be known? Had kings at last given birth to Him? Had sages at last found Him?
Nay!—to simple shepherds abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flocks by night, was the news declared, amidst the shining of the glory of the Lord; and the sign whereby He was to be known, was, that He should be found wrapped in swaddling clothes, and lying in a manger.
Oh ignorant man and ignorant earth alike! When the cry of that helpless infant broke forth in the shed of the village inn, who, untaught of Heaven, could have dreamt that at that moment, and thus, the Desire of all nations had come among men?
Yet thus, thus, thus, in the counsels of God it was decreed it should be! Thus at His first coming He should come, an Example to all men.
Aye! thus, thus, thus,—in poverty and lowliness. Thus, thus, thus—while Nature lay torpid and hopeless, and half the world was winter-wrapt in snow. Thus, thus, thus—with healing on His wings, but not the healing they sought for: not a deliverance from death or sorrow, not a freedom from toil or pain, not even a ransom from temptation and sin; but, behold, by the strength and wisdom of God's right hand, and the power of His Holy Spirit, to make men through all these things "more than conquerors."
We strive after signs and wonders, we look for visible manifestations, we long for sensible experiences, and when unanswered we fall back without a hope; but how often, and often, and often, must the lesson of the Advent be repeated. Not always where and how we look for Him does the Divine One make His presence known to ourselves. Not always even when we are hopeful and earnest. Not always when in confidence we cry, "Thus, thus, thus, am I meet to receive my Lord and King," does He come indeed.
Then hang up the holly, the ivy and the yew, over the Christmas snows, as memorials of a hope which human reason could never teach. Not by the glories of summer was the Comforter ushered into the world. In the season of cold and of darkness He came to His own. In the winter and humiliation of our souls, when the robes of earthly righteousness have been laid aside, it may be He will draw near again.
When learning and research cannot find Him, it may be He will reveal Himself to the simple in heart. When the expectations of great men perish, He may come with healing on His wings to the soul of the lowly and meek.