From “The Birth of God,” by Olov Hartman (1906-1982)
“Do not fear to take Mary your wife. . . .” How can a man have God in the house without being afraid? Just think of lying awake at night, hearing your wife breathe, and knowing that the world’s heart is beating in her womb! The angel was fearsome, but in the presence of him who lay under Mary’s heart the angels covered their eyes. “Joseph, son of David, do not fear.”
It is this nearness which we have made into a mere detail in our Christmas observance. For his nearness in the gospel is not a pretty picture; it is a nearness equally as earthy and manifest as in Bethlehem or Nazareth. A word on our lips, bread on our table, wine in our flasks. But the angels do not dare look upon him, the worlds quake at his name. Immanuel! What would happen if all those for whom he is a beautiful legend, a sentimental condiment at Christmas, discovered his true identity?
Our text contains a mystery which elicits both a smile and some fear: The Almighty desired Joseph’s protection. He lit the stars over Joseph’s house, but Joseph had to provide him with a refuge in that house. From this distant God came angels enough to cause Herod’s entire army to grow faint; yet they say that Joseph must flee to Egypt for safety, for the government is out to get the child who is David’s son.
We know little about Joseph’s thought; we know him best by what he did. . . . the Joseph of the Bible took Mary along first of all to Bethlehem, then to Egypt, and from Egypt back to Israel. Could even a refugee family in our time make such a wilderness journey without an excess of strength and determination? So the texts for today refer not only to Mary, the mother, the church. They also speak of Joseph, the descendant of a king, a man of skillful hands, of firm will, of indomitable powers, a guide through unknown lands. The fact that God is with us is not, therefore, just a salubrious concept for those who think we are dealing here with a pretty idea or childish dream. It summons us to the defense of the gospel.