Our Christmas tree still blinks in the window, though most of our neighbors have taken down all signs of Christmas. Our nativity remains on the front lawn, too, and will until after the Feast of the Epiphany.
Each year it seems we struggle harder to “keep Christmas” amid the marketeering that now characterizes what most Americans experience simply as “the holidays.” Is it any wonder that this blessed season, overshadowed by commercial preparations, leaves some of us harried and spiritually vacant?
We are invited by the liturgical rhythm to make an interior Christmas pilgrimage, beginning with Advent and following the Holy Family all the way to the Adoration of the Magi. That first Christmas was not simply a Roman command to travel from Nazareth to Bethlehem for Caesar’s census; for the Holy Family, it was an interior journey of faith in God, in His promises and His providence.
We have listened to the story yearly; we know by heart each verse of the Gospel. And yet, do we identify with Mary and Joseph’s struggle to trust in the cosmic promise that the Divine Word, the Son of God, would enter history to be born of a humble maid? And if it were truly God’s will, why was there no room at the inn? Why was there no advance party to prepare a grand way for the Holy Child?
The human couple discovered God’s plan in the doing of His of will. It is part of their journey of faith that — somehow, despite appearances — they learned that God was going before them. It is this interior journey of trust that one makes when going on pilgrimage.
Pilgrimages are an ancient form of devotion to some manifestation of God’s providence. Among the more famous pilgrimage sites for Catholics are Jerusalem and Bethlehem, Santiago de Compostela, Lourdes, Fatima. Each represents a unique place and moment in history when God revealed His work to those with the faith to “see.” This seeing with the eyes of faith is part of the pilgrimage experience — that is, one makes a physical journey in hopes of touching and experiencing the temporal place where heaven entered our world. But it is never the physical contact alone that true pilgrims seek. Rather, that physical reality reflects what the heart already knows: Only those who believe will see heaven at work.
In 1873, the Sisters of Loretto used their personal inheritances to build a chapel to complement their school for girls in Santa Fe (“Holy Faith”), New Mexico. Their new gothic chapel was patterned on Sainte Chapelle in Paris, but the architect for their project was shot to death before the chapel was completed. It’s unclear whether the architect simply omitted a staircase to the choir loft or the builders made an error. Either way, the sisters labored over their problem: How can a staircase be built that will fit into the chapel where apparently no space was designed for it?
Over the years, legends grew as to how the lovely stairs were built, and who the mysterious builder might have been. The story has the familiar elements of a fairy tale. The most famous version of the legend is that the good sisters called in builders from near and far who hung their heads in despair: “No, Mother Superior, a stairwell such as the one you require cannot be built without injury to the chapel itself.” Desperate to complete the chapel, the sisters resolved to make a novena to St. Joseph, the Master Carpenter.
On the ninth day, a poor man and his burro arrived in Santa Fe. The man offered to build the stairs to the choir. In the still of the night, the mysterious carpenter finished what one popular history describes as a stairway that
confounds architects, engineers and master craftsmen. It makes over two complete 360-degree turns, stands 20 feet tall and has no center support. It rests solely on its base and against the choir loft. The risers of the 33 steps are all of the same height. Made of an apparently extinct wood species, it was constructed with only square wooden pegs without glue or nails.
Alternate versions of the legend recount how the sisters tried to pay the man who would not accept payment, or that one morning the stairs were completed, but the carpenter has disappeared. Pious believers are content to accept that the carpenter was St. Joseph himself, and that the stairs follow a heavenly design.
Since the CBS television movie The Staircase aired in 1998, there have been numerous attempts to discredit the “miraculous” staircase. It is made without nails, but this was not uncommon, say the skeptics. And while the wood used for its steps is not native to the area, the species is not extinct; meanwhile, the staircase itself was so unsafe that rails were added years later . . . And so it goes, until many of the legend’s claims are skewered.
Yet in the debunking fervor, the real providence of God is missed by those who have no faith to see what is clearly in front of them. How can one gaze on the astonishing stairwell and not know that it is a superabundant provision in response to fervent prayer? There was an actual, logistical problem; the problem was not simply solved, but solved with the incredible work of a carpenter’s art. That art is the message.
For pilgrims willing to look for God, His providence is clearly seen in this chapel, and at other revered sites. One might as well say that Joseph and Mary experienced nothing unusual when the Magi arrived in Bethlehem with coffers of valuables that provided the means for the Holy Family to escape to Egypt in advance of Herod’s murderous rage.