“Great, little One! Whose all-embracing birth
Lifts Earth to Heaven, stoops Heaven to Earth.”
– Richard Crashaw
When our children were quite small and starry-eyed, I would now and then tell them the story of young Henry, whose mother packed him a little lunch before sending him off to explore a distant and dangerous world. Great adventures awaited him behind every tree and bush. Of course, being four years old, his travels extended only as far as the backyard. The perfect place for a child, come to think of it, eager to take on perils both strange and secure.
And certainly, Mr. G.K. Chesterton would have 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 terror of going abroad combined with all the humane security of coming home again?”
It is the question we must all face, he says, and those who refuse to wrestle with it will never grow up. He puts it in his usual witty way:
How to be at once astonished at the world and yet at home in it? How can this queer cosmic town. . .give us at once the fascination of a strange town and the comfort and honor of being our own town?
Solve that riddle, he predicts, and you’ve satisfied the heart’s deepest desire, which is to lay hold of “the familiar and the unfamiliar which Christendom has rightly named romance.”
And what of this thing Chesterton calls Christendom? How quaint the word sounds to our post-modern ears. And where on earth is it? The trick, you see, is to look beyond the thing, to the God who in becoming a little child (younger even than Henry) gave it birth and bloom. Whose coming among us provides the only real and permanent romance the world has ever known.
It may be that the societal arrangements that arose as a result of God becoming man – Christendom, in other words – are today as dead as the leaves on a cold December day. But God does not die, nor will he go away just because we avert our gaze from the crib where it all began.
It is to God, therefore, that we must first look for certitude and joy. Not some political arrangement, however useful in shoring up a social order where, as Dorothy Day used to say, it becomes easier for men to be good. So, by all means, be grateful to the maintenance of that order, ambitiously begun by a convert emperor back in the fourth century and, yes, labor mightily for its restoration. But give God your allegiance and love.
Meanwhile, the romance about which Chesterton writes, never mind the institutions that crystallized round it, precisely began in a place as unprepossessing as anywhere on the planet. Just ask the three wise men whose peregrinations the poet Eliot describes in his Journey of the Magi: “A cold coming we had of it, / Just the worst time of the year / For a journey, and such a long journey…” And when at last they reach the place – “arriving at evening,” we are told, “not a moment too soon” – amid the cattle and the sheep crowded about a tiny stable at the end of the world, a child is born. “It was (you might say) satisfactory.”
Forget the appearance of the place, the noise and the cold and the dirt surrounding the scene, the seeming unimportance of the characters in the tableau, and fix your mind on the event itself. Does it not provide the perfect conjunction, the absolutely ideal connection between those two things Chesterton insists must be present for a life of “practical romance” to take place?
For real romance to work, he tells us, there has got to be this precise and happy. . .
. . .combination of something that is strange with something that is secure. We need so to view the world as to combine an idea of wonder and an idea of welcome. We need to be happy in this wonderland without once being merely comfortable.
And where else but in Bethlehem does that happen? There is the setting of Incarnation, of an event so immense and far-reaching, so horizon-shattering in its impact, that nothing in nature or history or the human condition will ever be the same again. “Gloomy night embraced the place,” reports Richard Crashaw, that wonderfully gifted poet of the Catholic baroque: “Where the noble Infant lay/The Babe looked up and showed his face;/ In spite of darkness, it was day.
Indeed, it has been day ever since. And the wheels, well, they keep going round and round. St. Joseph will surely testify to that. Why they kept him spinning his whole life. It was the great adventure in which he found himself immersed almost from the start. Only one other person, a maiden girl whose hand he had sought in marriage, was privy to the events that would upend the world.
And so Joseph, awakened by the wonder of an angel bidding him welcome a child whose mother will be his wife, must ensure the safety of both. Who could imagine a summons so beguiling, yet set in circumstances so outwardly banal? In seeing such grace amid so much grit, we get to savor the glory as well.
Only God could tell such a story.