Books, articles, sermons and blogs
online, based on the Writings of Emanuel Swedenborg
In Swaddling Clothes, Lying in a Manger
by Rev. Douglas Taylor
The overriding purpose for which the Lord created for Himself a human nature by means of the virgin mother Mary, was that He might be more closely present to men on earth and thus set up a new church which would willingly receive the blessings of heaven which He is eternally offering. But before a new church could be initiated upon earth, before the Lord's will could be done on earth, it had first to be done in heaven, that is, in the spiritual world. And in the spiritual world at that time, as well as in the church on earth, there was confusion and disorder. Because the church on earth at that time - the Jewish Church - had departed from teaching the Word in its purity and had superadded its own ideas, interpretations, and traditions, therefore there were more and more men and women coming into the spiritual world in states of evil and falsity, or at best, ignorance and indifference. These states were like a cloud of obscurity interposed between the church in heaven and the church on earth. The small remnant of the good and the faithful were in danger of being suffocated by the sphere of evil and falsity. Divine intervention was imperative.
The only way in which the Lord could restore the spiritual world to a state of order, and at the same time communicate with men on earth and raise up a new church among them, was for Him to create for Himself a human nature and thus become physically present before the very senses of mankind. By means of this human nature derived from an earthly mother, the Lord could also summon the sphere of evil that emanated from the hells. He could be tempted while dwelling in this human part of Him, whereas He could never have been tempted before the incarnation, being then completely the Divine.
By means of His victories in states of temptation, the Lord achieved two desired and desirable results. As He successfully repelled the societies of hell which were continually and daily attacking Him through the frailties and obscurities of His maternal human nature, the Lord pushed back those invading infernal societies and put them in their proper places, thus restoring the whole spiritual world to a state of order and so rescuing the good from the suffocating sphere of evil. In this way also the remnant of the good were saved or redeemed, and the way was cleared for the setting up of a new church on earth.
At the same time the Lord made His human Divine, or, in other words, He replaced the human from Mary with a new Human, called the Divine Human, and from this He was able to communicate with mankind. This result was achieved because each infernal society repelled and subjugated, meant one more human tendency to evil that was expelled from the human nature from Mary. As each evil was expelled, a Divine good from the Divine soul within flowed in and took its place, until at length the Lord's human was made completely Divine, one with the Father or the Divine Soul that dwelt within. This process, by which the Lord's Human became the Divine Human, is known as the glorification. Hence we have the teaching of the Writings that the Lord's work of redemption and the glorification of His Human are two distinct processes, though both were achieved at the same time by means of His victories in temptation. It is the Lord's final victory that we celebrate at Easter Time, when we remember the complete fulfillment of the prophecy given in Isaiah that the Child born and the Son given would be called: "Wonderful, Counselor, the Mighty God, the Everlasting Father, the Prince of Peace" (Is. 9: 6).
It is good for us to recall these victories that are implied in the coming of the Lord on earth, and as we do so we should realize that at Christmas time we are commemorating only the beginning of the Lord's work of redemption. His subjugation of the hells and restoration of them to order, His setting up of a new heaven, and a new church on earth did not become facts until the end of the Lord's life on earth. Hence the great joy that is to be associated with Easter. Hence also the Lord's exhortation to the disciples at the Last Supper, "Be of good cheer; I have overcome the world" (John 16: 33).
At the birth of the Lord the joy was largely the joy of hope restored. It was joy that arose from the hope of redemption. It was potential. The Lord in His human was then only potentially the Savior and Redeemer. Still there was something of real and actual joy. The tidings of great joy consisted then in the fact that the Lord had indeed kept His promise. The prophecies of His eventual coming were actually fulfilled, and this is what caused the profound rejoicing of, for example, Simeon and Anna the prophetess, when the Lord was presented in the temple forty days after His birth. They, together with all the remnant of the good in Israel, blessed the coming of the Lord for two reasons: first, because the Lord had actually come, in fulfillment of the ancient prophecies of His Word; and secondly, because this advent was itself a prophecy of greater things to come.
In speaking of the Lord's work of redemption wrought at this His advent in the flesh, the Writings give the additional teaching that just as the Lord accomplished a general redemption for the whole human race, so at the present day He accomplishes a particular redemption for every one who desires it, desires it strongly enough to implore the Lord for help.
This gives us another way of looking at the story of the Lord's birth. Instead of regarding it only as the coming of the Lord into the world, we think of it then as the coming of the Lord into our own mind, our own little world, in which dwell qualities and characteristics represented by such characters in the Word as Mary and Joseph, Elizabeth and Zacharias, John the Baptist, the shepherds, the wise men, also Herod and his destructive soldiers. These are all characteristics or qualities of the mind that either aid the coming of the Lord into it, or else hinder and oppose it.
When, however, the Christmas story is thus applied to the regeneration of man's mind, what is to be understood by the Lord as an infant? What takes place in the mind to which the historical fact of the Lord's birth on earth corresponds? What is the quality whose advent into the mind is heralded with such joy because it is recognized as a savior? It is that quality that is known as innocence. Innocence, or a willingness to be led by the Lord, is what is represented by the coming of the Lord as an infant. In the Word, babes and infants always stand for this quality of innocence.
Innocence does not mean a lack of guilt. As used in the Writings, the term means a willingness to be led by the Lord and to do His bidding. It comes from a Latin word that means doing no harm, and refers, of course, to doing no harm to the Lord, thus to wishing to do His will. The coming of this willingness into the mind is a moment of great rejoicing, for it has been promised of old, and it looks forward to greater things. Innocence grows up into love to the Lord or celestial love, and in this view, the whole life of the Lord depicts the growth of innocence, which through temptations and opposition, eventually becomes the greatest love of which human beings are capable, that is, love to the Lord, the fulfillment of the first and great commandment.
This innocence, or willingness to follow the Lord in all things, does not have an earthly father. It is created by the Lord, the Heavenly Father. It is not from anything in ourselves that we create in our minds this tender, trusting innocence. It is conceived of the Most High and born of the pure virginal affection of truth. Nor does this good of innocence suddenly appear unannounced in the mind, any more than the Lord appeared unannounced and unexpected. There must be a preparation. John the Baptist must go before and prepare the way of the Lord.
John represents the teaching of the sense of the letter of the Word with regard to repentance or amendment of life. Unless the idea of repentance and its importance to spiritual life is conceived in the mind, and the actual practice of repentance is brought forth, there can be no birth of innocence. John the Baptist, or repentance according to a literal understanding of the Word, does indeed prepare the way for the entrance of genuine innocence into the mind, but the two are not the same. The natural kind of repentance represented by John has something of the natural man about it. It has a natural father. Although its birth is greeted with some astonishment and wonder, it is not a supernatural birth. It is not the coming of the Lord.
This we can see if we pause a moment to consider further what kind of repentance is meant by John. It is natural repentance, the kind of amendment of life that is associated with a belief in the mere sense of the letter of the Word. The prevailing idea presented by the literal Word is that we ought to repent for the sake of reward and to avoid punishment in the after life. If a man repents from these motives, as indeed he does in the beginning, his repentance is merely natural. He is not acting from a wish to follow the Lord as much as from a wish to save himself from harm or punishment. This natural kind of repentance, coming from a literal understanding of the Word, is meant by John the Baptist; but still this is the voice of one crying in the wilderness and preparing a highway for the coming of the Lord. It is a very necessary state of preparation.
This natural kind of repentance springs from feelings of reverence for the Word in its literal sense, and an interest in its teachings. Zacharias stands for the deep-seated, though inarticulate, reverence for the stories of the Word, while Elizabeth, the mother, stands for the natural affection of truth, or, an interest in the Word in its literal sense.
There is another kindred affection in the mind, the spiritual affection of truth, which is related to the merely natural affection of truth, just as the virgin Mary was a cousin to Elizabeth. Let us recall that the affection of truth means a change of state in the mind, a change brought about by the truth. It is the way the truth affects us that is called the affection of truth. If the truth has no effect upon us at all, then we are not in the affection of truth. If the truth affects us, makes some change in us, then we are in the affection of truth. But this affection can be of two kinds, depending upon the love in us that is affected. If the truth affects us only naturally, that is, out of worldly or natural considerations, then we are in the natural affection of truth. If it touches us spiritually, that is, if we are moved by the truth of the Word because of even a little consideration for the Lord and for the neighbor, if we are looking towards living the life of religion for its own sake, then we are in the spiritual affection of truth, and this is the virgin Mary, pure and undefiled. Elizabeth, her cousin is the natural affection of truth, which produces only a natural kind of repentance, while the spiritual affection of truth is destined to produce innocence itself.
In this view of the Christmas story, the annunciation, or announcement to Mary, about the forthcoming birth of the Lord, represents a fleeting perception deep within the mind, a fleeting, momentary perception of the source of innocence, and of the way it is to be born in the mind. Immediately following this there comes into the mind the first conception of the way innocence is to be produced. The true path of life, the way the Lord would have us live, is conceived in the understanding, and in due season will come forth as a living thing.
Before this can come to pass, however, there must be a thorough, rigorous and well-organized self-examination. It is one thing to know how we should live, and quite another thing to bring this knowledge forth to life. The truths of the Word simply cannot be applied to life unless there is a regular, calm, and orderly self-examination. This kind of examination is aptly portrayed in the story of the enrollment decreed by Caesar Augustus, for it was an enrollment, not a taxation as erroneously translated in the Authorized Version of the Word. The Roman ruler wished to know the extent of his domain, by which is meant, spiritually speaking, that the natural mind is to be completely examined in a state of calm external order, as indeed was the case in the Roman world. "All the world should be enrolled" (verse 1). Every affection and thought had to present itself in its own city, according to its parentage. Every affection and thought in the natural mind must stand up and be numbered.
As a result of this orderly self-examination, the spiritual affection of truth is brought into an understanding of the spiritual or internal meaning of the Word. Mary is brought, apparently by chance, to Bethlehem. Bethlehem, we are told in the Writings, stands for the Word in its internal meaning. Here the representation is that when the mind has been affected by the truth for spiritual reasons, when there has been a full conception of what the Lord intends us to do, when the spiritual import of the commandments is seen and acknowledged, or, in other words, when man has come into something of the internal or spiritual meaning of the Word, when he has attained the state represented by Bethlehem, the city of David, then can be brought forth innocence, the spiritual wish to do the Lord's will. Only in Bethlehem, only in the state of mind where the Divine purpose or intention behind or within the literal commandments is seen, only here can the desire or willingness to live according to that Divine intent be brought to life. This is the coming of the Lord into the mind. This is the advent of the Lord, so long awaited, so long prayed for-the birth of a strong wish to do the Lord's will simply because it is the Lord's will, simply because it is what the Lord, in His love and wisdom and mercy, intends to be the order of life for human beings. In this joyous new state, evils are shunned simply because they are against the Lord, not, as hitherto, because they might bring punishment down upon our heads in this life or in the next.
Like every newborn life, this wish to live according to Divine order, needs protection. It is said that the babe was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger. Swaddling clothes, being the first and most general wrappings for the protection of the newborn body, stand for the first and most general wrappings for the protection of the newborn spiritual mind, that is to say, the most general commandments of the Word, for example, the Ten Commandments. When the spiritual affection of truth has brought forth innocence into the mind and life, then such general, all-embracing truths as those of the Ten Commandments, are seen in spiritual light, no longer in merely natural light. Their use is seen. Their power to protect is acknowledged. So it is that the firstborn son, the good of innocence, is to be wrapped in the swaddling clothes of general principles of life; otherwise it will perish. Our wish to be led by the Lord will indeed perish unless protected by such general all enveloping things as the Ten Commandments.
The manger signifies doctrine from the Word, teaching from the Word. It has this signification because of its use. A manger is used for feeding horses, and horses, wherever they are mentioned in the Word, signify the understanding of the Word, or the Word understood by man. This is nowhere more clear than in the Book of Revelation, chapter nineteen, where the white horse appears, whose rider is called explicitly, the Word of God. The human understanding of the Word is like a horse that bears its rider, the Word of God, into all the regions and states of the mind. Our understanding of the Word can only be fed and nourished by going to the teaching of the Word, the principles of life that are taught in the Word, even as horses are fed by going to the manger.
In this manger, this teaching of the Word, the frail and tender wish to follow the Lord finds rest, finds a resting place. Think of the spiritual tragedy that would ensue if a man, who had reached the stage of perceiving the inner purpose of the commandments, who had even begun to live according to his wish to serve the Lord, nevertheless neglected to keep up the study of the teachings of the Word, neglected to provide a resting place for his incipient innocence!
The study of the Word and its teachings is the only resting place for the affection of truth and for innocence itself. That is why it is said that there was no room for them in the inn. An inn where people lodge and rest in the night means, in the Word, a place of instruction, for instruction is needed in the night-time of obscurity. But this inn was a Jewish inn, and as such stood for instruction in the Jewish Church, which was about to perish, for its instruction had become entirely worldly and in the lowest degree natural. It is this kind of merely worldly instruction that is to be understood by the inn, when the subject is the regeneration of the human mind. "There was no room for them in the inn."
There is never room for innocence, the desire to be led by the Lord, in the places of instruction provided by the world, and worldly loves. The world, and the love of the world in us, is never interested in the good of innocence or concerned for its welfare. "There is no room in the inn." All the worldly instruction that there is, all the teachings of secular books and magazines and worldly institutions, simply cannot provide a resting place for innocence. How easy it is to lodge snugly in the inn, while the Son of Man hath not where to lay His head!
But when the babe is wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger, then the shepherds and the wise men come to worship and pay homage. The shepherds keeping watch over their flocks by night, are remains of good, good affections hidden away in the deepest recesses of the natural mind. They are aroused at the coming of the Lord and come into His presence. The wise men from the east, from a distant land, are whatever truths remain from instruction in childhood and youth, the remembrance of Bible stories and precepts, culled and recalled from the distant past. These also come and offer their gifts for the welfare of innocence.
It is indeed a beautiful story, even regarded as a part of history. But it is beautiful because in addition to being true in itself, it is also descriptive and representative of a beautiful state of mind-the birth of innocence into the mind. First states always are most affecting, mainly because they are prophetic of things to come; and the first time that man is conscious of a wish, a resolution, to co-operate with the Lord in His purposes, that is a time when indeed his mind thrills to an exciting, though momentary, perception of good tidings of great joy, and he looks forward eagerly to the time when there shall be throughout his whole mind "glory to God in the highest," and consequently, "peace on earth, goodwill toward men."
Let it be repeated that this is, for all its joy, only the beginning. Innocence, our wish and willingness to be led by the Lord, has to grow in stature and in wisdom; it has to be tried and sorely tested by temptations, before it finally becomes celestial love, or love to the Lord. Without the tender good of innocence, no man can be saved from his inherited selfishness, but innocence is not itself the whole of regeneration, any more than the birth of the Lord was the whole of redemption. The wish to follow the Lord must be acted upon daily, that is, in every state of mind. Let us by all means taste the blessed hope inherent in beginning states, but let us at this season also be mindful of the Lord's later words: "He that shall endure unto the end, the same shall be saved" (Matt. 24: 13). "Be thou faithful unto death, and I will give thee a crown of life" (Rev. 2: 10).
-New Church Life 1974;84:497-504