CHAPTER IV. ST. JOSEPH AT BETHLEHEM.
'Ascendit Joseph a Galiltca in civitatem David, quas vocatur Bethlehem, ut pronteretur cum Maria.' Luc. ii. 4.
There is hardly a greater trial of faith than that of a Catholic, redolent of graces, and exulting in the grace of the Sacraments, who is called by his position to mingle in the common aifairs of life. It is so hard to remember that his position, whatever it may be, -is the only one in all the universe of God which is fitted for his salvation, and for the duties of which alone he is responsible; his attention is so apt to be diverted from this, and his judgment is so apt to decide according to another standard than that of God. And thus St. Joseph had just been intrusted with the greatest of mysteries and the greatest of offices. There was no alteration in his outward life ; he was a carpenter and the husband of Mary, and the decrees of Csesar obliged them by the laws of the conqueror to go up to their native town for a registration appointed by the imperial command. But Joseph knew that Almighty God suffers the course of things to proceed by ordinary rules, and that in obeying lawful authority he not only accomplished his own salvation, but concurred in the designs of God concerning His divine Son; those designs round which all the laws of creation hang, and to which they tend. Instead of attempting to fathom the depth of the mysteries intrusted to him, and the way in which they were to be accomplished, he committed his imperfect faculties and all that they could teach him to the guidance of that simple intuitive faith which is the gift of God. He did not say, like Naaman, 'I thought he would come out and recover the leper;' he acted without expecting fresh revelations, according to the habitual practice of his several virtues. Thus his obedience led him to receive as a manifestation of the will of God the command of Augustus that all the world should be taxed. The Eomans were heathens as well as conquerors; they were the enemies of God's chosen people, and of the land of promise. Their emperor was, in vice and infidelity, the last of all the heathen who seemed likely to carry out the designs of God; yet Joseph, who had heard the will of God from the mouth of an angel, obeyed the orders of this foreigner and stranger, and went up to Bethlehem with Mary his espoused wife. Spiritual writers tell us that we should listen for a divine command or message in all that surrounds us—in the breeze and the silent sunshine, in the voices of the birds and beasts, and in all that is done or said, however casual it may seem. Who knows but the unconscious child may bear a message, as in the election of St. Ambrose? nay, the voices of anger and scorn and cruelty, the threat and the command, may teach us, if we will hear their lesson. And so Joseph, who had been ready to obey the law of God when it seemed to require the most painful of sacrifices, was as prompt to obey when the painful command was given through a heathen emperor. He knew that the powers that are, are ordained of God; and though he had grieved like his countrymen at the encroachments of the Eomans, and that at the time when the sceptre was to depart from Shiloh, yet he had so accustomed himself to look upon his civil duties as a part of his duty towards God, that he hesitated not a moment to depart for Bethlehem, a journey of more than twenty leagues, though the condition of Mary, and the winter, which even in that delicious climate is inclement, might seem to exempt him from obeying so oppressive an edict. It seemed, says Bossuet, as if the Nativity took place at Bethlehem because the emperor commanded that their names should be enrolled there. But Caesar unconsciously executed the commands of God, by attesting in the public records of the empire, that Christ was bom in Bethlehem, the birthplace of his ancestor David.
There are no traditions of this first journey, though it must have been a painful one; for our Blessed Lady was too young and delicate to bear the long wintry way, when there were storms of wind and rain, when the vines were gathered, and the olives shaken from the tawny trees. They must have sorrowed as they passed Samaria, which rises above the wooded hills with a circlet of towers and palaces, surmounted by that unhallowed temple which led away from Jerusalem ten tribes to worship after their own way upon Mount Gerizzim. They might speak of their ancestor David as they passed the mountains of Gilboa; and as they passed the defiles in the lofty mountains of Ephraim, they might speak of Jacob and Joseph at Shichem, the city of refuge, and of Shiloh, where the ark first rested before it was placed in the temple of Solomon; of Samuel and Saul in Gilgal, and of Elijah at Bethel. They passed Eama, where the voice of mourning was so soon afterwards to be heard; and passed through the valleys and the lofty forests till they saw the naked mountains of Benjamin, with their deep clefts; for though the portions once given to the tribes had passed into other hands, and the boundaries had been removed by successive revolutions and conquests, still the memory of David's city remained amid the wreck, and Joseph and Mary took the road to Bethlehem, the abode of their great ancestor. They saw the glorious city of Jerusalem like a diadem on the mountains, the theatre of mysteries and miracles; they passed below the Tower of David on Mount Sion, and saw afar off the sepulchres of the kings and the grotto of Jeremiah. But they turned not aside from the road to Bethlehem; that road since trodden by so many pilgrims, who describe the little town as seated on the utmost ridge of a hill, in a happy soil, and with a most delicate prospect over green valleys and sloping vineyards. They could see afar off, as they travelled slowly and wearily, the gardens of Solomon, in which he took such delight, and where he planted trees of all kinds and made ponds of water (EccL ii. 5, 6), and which he describes (Canticles iv. 12) as the mystical garden enclosed, a fountain sealed up, the type of the Blessed Virgin herself. Unnoticed in the crowd, they ascended the long steep street of Bethlehem, where the scattered families of the tribe were now collected by the same imperious edict. The city of David could give them neither rest nor shelter; and the unconscious multitudes passed by, while they, the models of all who lead an interior life, were silently walking with God.
They were rejected from the inn at Bethlehem; we read of no others who suffered this humiliation. They were of royal descent, yet poor, and this excites the scorn of the multitude. Much more would they meet with insult from the Eoman official, who despised their nation as conquered and as impious—for the religion of the Jews was the only one not tolerated at Eome. Their names and birth must have been registered with indifference; others of the same race might be rich, might even excite the jealousy of Herod—for on another occasion all those of the house of David were massacred by the emperor—but these were beneath his notice. Yet these few words of registration were great in the eyes of God and His angels; what an era did they mark in the world's history! If the registration of a royal name is great among men; if the names of saints are glorious as they occur day after day in the Eoman calendar; what must be that name of Mary, inscribed in the Eoman office as about to be the Mother of God, and Joseph having the office of registering her name! Joseph and Mary, rejected from human habitations, sought the cave still visited by pilgrims; but the poor shelter of the ox and ass has been adorned with the wealth of St. Helena, and is enclosed in a church of marble. There saints and pilgrims have worshipped ever since, and there St. Jerome dwelt, that he might receive its holy inspirations while translating the Scriptures. We know all this; but Joseph had to lead Mary into the neglected cave, the dark image of those human hearts where He still is born and received by men duller and more ignorant than brute beasts. And there in silence and obscurity, while all the pomp and bustle of the world went on outside, Joseph was the sole human witness to the Nativity of our Lord.
'Impleti sunt dies.' Luc. i.
The great event of Joseph's life was the birth of Jesus. How entirely was he lost in contemplation as the moment approached, and while he sought through Bethlehem for a retreat to receive the Lord of the universe! How did he grieve at seeing that He came unto His own, and His own received Him not! He understood something of the agony which that Divine Heart began to suffer at the sight of the ingratitude of man, and His own unrequited love. But he could say, like Jesus, 'Father, not my will, but Thine be done.' They were driven from Bethlehem, and wandered till they found shelter in a cave; and then, while grief and joy were mingled in inconceivable harmony, he began to prepare for the Nativity. He cleanses the manger; he touches with care the crib which is to be the object of veneration to all future ages, and which, cased in silver, yet is priceless in comparison with the gold and jewels which surround it. He lays in it a little straw, to form the bed of the King of Angels. He arranges a resting-place for the Queen of Heaven. He had perhaps a scanty fare to offer her; he was worn out with the fatigues of that harassing day; but there are moments when the soul is so lost in the things of God, that it is unconscious of what nature suffers; and thus must it have been with the one witness of the Nativity. He must have been prepared by many and great graces to understand as no others could understand the mystery of mysteries.
That very night he was to see Him whom Abraham and all the prophets had seen under a veil in the distant future, and he was to take into his arms Him whom the heavens cannot contain. But the words we use when we speak of the contemplations of St. Joseph are but as the babbling of an infant; yet if they make us think more of that mystery, and more of St. Joseph's greatness, they will not have been said in vain. The night advanced, and at midnight Mary brought forth her first-born Son, and wrapped Him in swaddling clothes, and laid Him in a manger. No other words but those of Holy Scripture can relate this great event. Joseph adores the Eternal Wisdom veiled in the silence of an infant, to confound the pride of human intellect; the Omnipotent bound in swaddling clothes, to shame the independence of man's presumptuous will; the King of Heaven reposing on a little straw, to teach the luxurious world the emptiness of its possessions.
"What secrets does Joseph discover in all this? How did he read that lesson of truth—the vanity of all that men seek after, the greatness of what they despise? How amiable are poverty, contempt, and pain to his enlightened eyes! how willingly does he embrace the lot which links him to his Lord! He prizes his despised condition above the kingdoms of the world, and would not change it with the most glorious of sovereigns. He turns to the Holy Child, he thinks of the love which brought Him down from His throne of glory, and he is lost in the contemplation of God's love for sinful and ungrateful man. And that Divine Infant will call him father, and he may even now take into his arms his God. What a thrill must have passed over his whole being, when he pressed to his bosom his Divine Saviour ! and yet we also, the lowliest of the Church's children, may conceive it partly, since we too receive within our vsry hearts that same God in the moment of Communion. But what a difference! Why have we not Joseph's heart, Joseph's sanctity, Joseph's love? Why can we not worship our Creator like him, with all the capacity of our being, with all the grace which God would give us if we would not refuse it? How ardently must Joseph have offered himself to the service of his Creator, and dedicated his whole life, his every action, his labours, his anxieties, and sufferings! And we in our measure can do the same : we are more unworthy, nay, there is sin and malice; but we can give all we have, and Joseph could give no more. Joseph must have understood that the new-born King was the sole redemption of mankind, and that it was God who had made him 'coadjutor in the work of redemption,' as St. Bernard says, and 'who willed that he should be present at the birth of Christ, that he might bear witness to the testimony of the angels, and that of the shepherds and the Magi.'
And now that the days were fulfilled, the carpenter of Nazareth, the husband of Mary, beheld the fulfilment of the whole chain of prophecy from Adam to holy Simeon. His faith wavered not, though the second Adam was born, not a perfect man like the first Adam, but a child, with all the weakness and wants of infancy. Such must be the birth of all His followers, as little children: 'Except a man be born again, he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.' 'Behold, I make all things new.' This was our Lord's teaching; but the Jews understood it not; they sought Him while He was in the midst of them; but Joseph beheld His birth, in faith. We know not to what extent the immensity of redemption was revealed to him; perhaps his human nature might then have sunk, like that of the Apostles before the Comforter was sent. Now we know that God had made a new creation, a second Adam, more excellent than the first, and the Father of a more excellent race; 'for as in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive.' We, born of this spiritual parentage, know little of its dignity. Perhaps he knew it all, and he was silent. The inspired writers tell us not what he knew and felt. O blessed saint! safe in the presence of God, and so full of faith that he required not knowledge. If his faith had failed, it must have been recorded; but the silence of Holy Scripture proves that he filled his high office —the guardian of Mary, the reputed father of Christ. But Joseph did understand the mystery; his soul was supernaturally strengthened by extraordinary graces, and could bear a light which no other could have borne and lived; and if Moses, who spent forty days in the mountain conversing with God, shone so resplendent that none could bear to look at him, what must have, been the light that inundated the soul of Joseph when he paid his first act of adoration to the Incarnate God! Bossuet makes some reflections on the sign given to the shepherds that they would find the Child lying in a manger. This was what Isaias had said: 'Unto us a Child is born and a Son given (Is. ix. 6). God the mighty, Father of the world to come, the Prince of peace.' Perhaps Joseph understood the mystery of poverty—that He sought not the riches of this world, but the treasure in heaven, and that the manger was a fit cradle for Him who came to His own, and His own received Him not; a fit cradle for Him who said, 'The foxes have holes, and the birds of the air nests, but the Son of man hath not where to lay His head' (Matt. viii. 20). Men were unworthy, and He made His abode with the ox and ass. The manger was the throne of His poverty, and there all the angels of God worshipped him; and doubtless His Mother and His adopted father adored Him, as his brethren and parents worshipped the patriarch Joseph. But Joseph was poor, and he, if any man, could realise the dignity of His poverty. All religious aim at detachment and abstinence; but who can say with Jesus, ' The prince of this world has nothing in me'? Who does not feel the bondage which chains us to the earth, the pride of the eyes, if not the lust of the flesh, and the pride of life? Our Lord, through His whole preaching, had taught that His kingdom is not of this world; yet one of the last questions asked by His apostles was about the time when the kingdom would be restored to Judah. Yet He was born a king; and so those who are His people must be born of water and of the Holy Spirit, in the bosom of their Immaculate Mother the Church. Nicodemus did not understand this mystery; nor could Joseph from the study of the Jewish Scriptures. What he knew and what he understood was from above, and we are not told the time nor the extent of his inspirations. We are only told that he acted when his office required.
'Et pastores erant vigilantes.' Luc. ii. 8.
It was not enough that the birth of the Incarnate God should be known to two holy souls; the good tidings must be told to 'men of good-will;' and it was to shepherds that the angels first announced the coming of the Great Shepherd. These shepherds were keeping watch over their flocks by night, they were keeping by turns the night-watches on the mountains above Bethlehem ; and pilgrims still see the place where they lived, and the grassy hills where their flocks were pastured. They watched against the midnight thieves and prowling wolves, in that silence in which it is always awful to be alone, while all the world is at rest; and in the face of the heavens perhaps the aurora or some mysterious meteor lit up the darkness, or the lightning which seems to open the very depths of the firmament. No one has been benighted on the open mountains without feeling that he stands in the presence of God. They watched as those who in the spiritual life wait and hope for heavenly things. So Habacuc watched till the Lord answered; so the Psalmist desired more than those who watch for morning; so must all watch, for we know not the hour of the Lord's coming. So do those watch who know not when the thief may come to rob them of their treasure; and thus the shepherds watched, faithful in small things, and ready to receive greater things. They were not sunk in sleep, nor satisfied with riches; they kept their senses in subjection, and their minds were open to knowledge; and they beheld a light, a light unmistakable, shining from one end of the heaven to the other, a heavenly light; and they heard angels jubilant, adoring God,' Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good-will.' They heard from one glorious angel the 'Evangelium,' the message sent to men, 'To you is born this day, in the city of David, a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord of all.' They were to know Him by the swaddling clothes and the manger. They found Mary and Joseph and the Babe, and departed in the fulness of their joy. Joseph then was there, and they must have told him the whole. What must he have thought of this stupendous confirmation of his faith! He had beheld the mysterious event, and as a man he must have beheld it with that half consciousness in which we witness what we know, but cannot comprehend. But these were shepherds, poor men, more uneducated than himself, who had heard and seen the things of heaven. They were gone back, satisfied with having once seen their Saviour. Joseph was to abide with Christ and dwell in His house for ever; he was to see His face and hear His words, to be, as it were, in continual communion with Him; and while all wondered, and Mary kept all these words, pondering them in her heart, Joseph must have meditated in silence while he beheld her, as Correggio has represented her, in adoration of her God. 'Adoravit quern genuit' is the motto of that beautiful picture, in which he has delineated her inspired features and joined hands, while she kneels before her Child, thus embodying by his art the mixture of human with divine love. Joseph saw all this, though none has recorded it. The shepherds had come in rejoicing to have found their Saviour, and soon after the Magi adored him with royal homage; but none spoke or wrote of Joseph. 'Sicut jumentum in conspectu tuo.' Only his name is mentioned as being present, and as hearing the word spoken by the shepherds concerning the Child. All that heard it wondered, and he among the rest.