Just in time for celebrating the Nativity of our Lord, here's the sixth and final installment of what I'm calling "The Doctrine of Bethlehem" taken from Pr. Berthold von Schenk, in his book The Presence: An Approach to the Holy Communion (1945). I hope that these readings from von Schenk have helped you prepare to celebrate the mystery of our Lord's Incarnation, especially as we experience it - indeed all of Bethlehem - at the Altar. I know they have helped me!
Here's Part 6, continuing and concluding Chapter III:
It is Christmas. The Gospel states “And it came to pass that a decree, etc.” The preacher gives his message. The sacred vessels are being prepared. Then these words are prayed: “This is My Body.” Now what do you see, bread and wine? Yes! and more! These are only the veil. It is now the true Body and Blood of our Lord. Remember the Spiritual Body. If we have the eyes of faith we see the Babe in Mary’s lap, not as it was then in the state of humiliation, limited to space, but glorified, triumphant, through His Resurrection Body.
An awful mystery is here
To challenge faith and waken fear;
The Saviour comes in food divine,
Concealed in earthly bread and wine.
In consecrated wine and bread
No eye perceives the mystery dread,
But Jesus’ words are strong and clear;
My Body and My Blood are here.
We come to Church on Christmas and we have the right to ask: Where is He? In Bethlehem, is the answer. But where is Bethlehem? Thank God that we can be directed. We are as sure of it as the angel was. We must believe this: The Babe wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger…then wrapped in Mary’s arms, now wrapped in bread and wine.
Communion is the bulwark of our faith in Bethlehem and in the Incarnation of our Lord. Every time we receive the Communion we confess to the faith that this little Babe is Mary’s Son and God’s Son. And we know that to those who kneel at the Communion rail, the fact of Bethlehem becomes a reality in a very special manner. The faithful communicant will never question the Virgin Birth; he will never doubt that the Christ-Child is true God and man, for there He is—the same—yesterday, today, and forever.
Therefore, the Holy Sacrament is the bulwark of our faith and doctrines, rather than any elaborate system of doctrine apart from it. If we neglect this truth, then the deadly fifth column starts its dreadful work in our midst, weakening gradually but surely our real defences [sic]. The Holy Sacrament is the battleground of the very belief in the Deity of Christ. At the Altar there can be no rationalism. At the Altar all shadow of doubt disappears and Christmas means something real, for through it we are linked to Bethlehem.
What is Christmas to most people? Candles, lighted trees, carols, presents, happy faces. How touching! How beautiful! Isn’t Christmas lovely? With some, it is a little more. How they love to hear the story of a young peasant maid who came to Bethlehem, who, finding no room in the inn, gives birth to her first child in a stable. With reverence they listen to the Christmas sermon as the preacher begins to rationalize on Christmas. But this must leave us unsatisfied. We feel in our inner selves that Christmas must be more than this. And it is. Christmas must be experienced. The shepherds experienced Christmas. There they found the Christ-Child and made know abroad what they had heard and seen. Through the Communion, we too have a sure way to appreciate the Manger-Child.
You may say: Are you not materializing God? Is there not something almost superstitious about it? Indeed not. We are following very biblical lines. God is worshipped through the finite body, and is approached through this finite channel because the world is built on that law, because we are made in that fashion. Unless we have a great truth focused to a point where we can grasp it, it is unreal, hypothetical, theoretical. Our Christmas must be based not only upon an historical fact, but it must be a vibrant truth, a reality, an experience. And this truth becomes a reality in the Communion. At the Altar we fling the challenge to the world. We say: Man has not been made for money, or wage-slavery, or mere pleasure or passion; man was not made to be a machine. Man has been made to be God’s own, made in the image of Eternity. And this is not the vague dream of a mystic. It sprang into realization at Bethlehem and is brought down to us today at the Altar.
It is Christmas. Have you found the way to Bethlehem? It is important to make straight the pathway of the Lord into your hearts. That duty is now done. Now take your pilgrim-staff and your gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh. You will not have to stop off at Jerusalem to inquire the way. The Altar is your Star. There you will find Bethlehem.
Bethlehem means “house of bread.” Indeed, “bread of life,” “staff of life.” You will come, then, as the shepherds came. You will kneel as they did in adoration. And if your vision of faith is clear enough, you will see at the Altar not merely bread and wine, but the Christ-Child, the Word made flesh. After Christmas? You will do the same as did the Wise Men. They went home by another way, not by way of Jerusalem. You will go another way, the way of the new life. And with the shepherds you will also make known abroad all that you have seen and realized. The confession—“Who for us men and for our salvation came down from Heaven and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary and was made man,” will be more than a vague truth, more than an historical event. Christmas will be an experience. You will truly understand the truth of the angelic words: “They shall call His Name Immanuel, which is, being interpreted, God with us,” aye, Immanuel—at the Altar.