Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise: When as his mother Mary was espoused to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Ghost. Then Joseph her husband, being a just man, and not willing to make her a public example, was minded to put her away privily. But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name Jesus: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, 'Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us'.
Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name Jesus. Matthew 1:18-25 (KJV)
In his dream, Joseph is carving a cradle. He’s cut and joined it already, dovetailed so precisely that it might almost be a single block of wood, planed and sanded it soft as baby’s skin. He’s now carving the headboard with lilies and Rose of Sharon to ensure that the infant sleeping there will dream of sweetness and good things.
But he can’t bear to look into the cradle as he does so, for fear of what he’ll see there, and so he must carve almost by feel; he cuts himself while finishing the last lily, a sudden bite of pain that sends him glancing down out of reflex. And when he does, there’s no baby there but an ugly cuckoo chick that drinks the blood as it drips from his hand.
His heart hurts too, but that’s probably from the knife resting gently between his ribs.
“Peace,” someone says, and Joseph looks up from the cradle and into a face like the sun at full noon. “Be not in anguish, Joseph, son of Jacob, son of Matthan, for Mary has not betrayed you.”
“Has she not,” Joseph cries, and does not know whether he means it as plea or accusation.
“I am the mouthpiece of the LORD,” the angel says. “It is by His hand that she is with child.” And Joseph bows his head in humility and deep despair, for he cannot understand.
“Peace,” the angel says again, like a mother comforting her child’s tears, and reaches its glowing hand to the knife. At his touch the blade burns into nothing but fine ash, and Joseph’s heart—oh, he had already forgot the absence of pain, but it strikes him now like a second blow.
“Look now into the cradle,” the angel says, and Joseph obeys, for his fear has also been melted away. A white dove rests there now, wings outstretched, holding a lily flower. “Name the child Joshua,” the angel says, and Joseph sees a great wall torn asunder, people cast down to the grim earth and raised again in glorious white, a biting serpent trod underfoot, an endless sea of people singing of victory and peace and an ending of all wrongs—and a hundred other scenes until he can bear it no longer and must hide his face in his bloodied hands. But even then he cannot shut out the image of a man both utterly ordinary and yet unfathomably other, a being made of eternal light who yet bleeds as Joseph himself does even now.
“Mary will remain my wife,” he breathes, a wonder and a joy, such as can scarce be contained.
“And all manner of things will be well,” the angel says, but when Joseph looks up the room is dark except around the windows and doors, where the false dawn filters almost imperceptibly through every crack.
There’s a small sweaty body pressed close against his side; Benjamin, his youngest brother, has once again crept out of the crowded children’s bed and into the relative comfort of Joseph’s solitary cot. Usually he’d send the boy back to save him from their mother’s scolding, but this morning he just curls an arm more closely around his brother’s shoulders and stares up at the slowly-brightening ceiling.
He’ll still need to visit Mary’s father once the sun is up, but for a very different reason than what he’d planned the night before.