When our children were very young—full of beans and wonder—I would often tell them the story of young Henry, whose mother had wisely packed him a sandwich and apple before sending him and his little dog off to explore a distant and dangerous world. His travels took them as far as the backyard where, encircled by adventures both strange and sedate, the doughty traveler sat down to eat his lunch.
Mr. G.K. Chesterton would have heartily approved. “What could be more delightful,” he asks in Orthodoxy, that great barnburner of a book, “than to have in the same few minutes all the fascinating terrors of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
It is the question we were born to face. Indeed, Chesterton wrote his book to try and find an answer to that very question. “How can we contrive to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this world give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town?” Solve that one, he says, and you’ve satisfied a very deep drive within the human heart, which is at once to lay hold of “this double spiritual need, the need for that mixture of the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.”
It was the precise predicament, by the way, that possessed that fabled English yachtsman who, as Chesterton explains on the very first page of his book, “slightly miscalculated his course and discovered England under the impression that it was a new island in the South Seas.” And lest the reader think the man was an idiot, Chesterton is quick to point out that it was the best possible mistake to have made. “What could be more glorious,” he exclaims, “than to brace one’s self up to discover New South Wales and then realize, with a gush of happy tears, that it was really Old South Wales.”
Wasn’t this exactly the sort of romance in which dear Saint Joseph found himself immersed? Awakened in the middle of the night by the wonder of an angel bidding him to welcome a strange child, who has suddenly come into this world to secure a kingdom for his heavenly father—what possible summons could there be greater or more amazing than that? “Do not be afraid,” he is told, “to take Mary your wife into your home,” even as her mysterious pregnancy has moved him to make an end of their home. “For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
What an icebreaker! Who wouldn’t crack under the pressure of an injunction as portentous as that? And what does the simple carpenter man do? On waking the next morning, we are matter-of-factly told by Matthew in his gospel, “he did as the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took his wife into his home” (1:18:24).
To ensure the safety of each, in other words, Joseph must make provision for both. Such an extraordinary invitation! And, if true, try and imagine a mere mortal being given such a mission. To harbor the Lord of history, no less, in one’s own home. Entrusted with the Son of God, and his divine Mother, could there be a domestic arrangement more sacredly terrifying?
And yet the whole thing is set down in circumstances so outwardly ordinary that it quite strains credulity to think that it is all for the sake of giving God space in which to grow as an actual human being. That amid the familiar scenes of first century Palestine, set against the usual contingencies of hunger and cold, suffering and death, the Uncreated Absolute decides to pitch his tent. It makes me think of a long-ago conversation between Luigi Giussani and his great friend Enrico Manfredini, when the two of them were rushing down the stairs, late for chapel. Something happened along the way, says Giussani, that caused him to shudder. “All at once, Manfredini took me by the arm and stopped me; I don’t know, but I looked him in the face and he said these exact words to me… ‘To think that God became man is something out of this world!’ Then I walked on and he went ahead of me. The heart of that classmate of mine was full of emotion at the greatest announcement that ever rang out in this world.”
And, really, what could be greater? If the world were to have been vouchsafed a message like that, a communication so stupendous, would that not change everything? And while his friend races down the stairs, faster than before, the young Giussani shouts after him, “It is something out of this world, in this world!”
It is as if God were to say, first to Mary, then to Joseph, and then, finally, to each of us: “Look here, my children; if you’re willing to see the grace in all this grit—which, by the way, is the only way you’ll ever succeed in getting the glory—then why not get busy and take me in? You won’t regret it. In fact, never was a tale told by anyone as tremendous, as stupefying, as the one I am about to tell you. A story, in fact, in which I, the divine teller of the tale, appear as both hero and victim. Stay tuned…”
Only God could tell a story like that.
Mechtilde of Hackeborn, who lived a thousand years ago in a Benedictine monastery, where the sound of her voice chanting praise to God was so lovely that all who listened called her “the nightingale of Christ,” once heard these astonishing words from Jesus: “I tell you the truth that I am very pleased when men trustingly expect great things from me.”
Like the news that God chose to live among us and will never leave us alone. That in stooping so low, he wishes to raise us up to share a life of limitless joy and peace and unceasing love.
Behold, says Chesterton, “the impossible things that are.”
Editor’s note: The image above titled “The Dream of St. Joseph” was likely painted by Giovanni Battista Paggi in the seventeenth century.