While “In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways,” begins the Epistle to the Hebrews, “in these last days, He spoke to us through a Son.” The Star of Bethlehem is the sign that we most commonly associate with the announcement of God’s manifestation to the nations. Even though God has now revealed himself in Christ, He still points to that appearance by myriad means.
That Star was the first of a variety of signs by which God points to the Incarnation, but we are called to a personal encounter with Christ — and that, by itself, tells us there may be as many stars of Bethlehem as there are people.
Graham Greene’s short story, “The Hint of An Explanation,” demonstrates that these stars may take curious forms, and appear in unexpected ways. The tale begins with a chance encounter between two strangers on a long train journey through the English countryside shortly after the end of World War II. Having a compartment to themselves, the fellow travelers strike up a conversation, which is recounted by the first of them, the narrator of the story. Or, I should say, the narrator of one of the stories; because the hint of the explanation is told through a narrative within a narrative, accounting for an epiphany within an epiphany.
The two men found “an enormous range of subjects for discussion,” the narrator explains, leading to, “by an inevitable progression, God,” about which their “views differed . . . profoundly.” He soon realized that he “was speaking to a Catholic, . . . while I was what is loosely called an Agnostic.” He complains to his companion that, while he is “surprised occasionally into belief by . . . extraordinary coincidences,” he is “revolted at the whole notion of . . . a God Who can . . . abandon His creatures to the enormities of Free Will.” [all capitalization sic — Ed.] Reflecting on his experience as a soldier in France during the war, the narrator murmurs, “When you think what God—if there is a God—allows. It’s not merely the physical agonies, but think of the corruption, even of children. . . .”
The second man does not argue with the narrator; nor does he offer any apologetic for his Catholic faith.
Rather, in reference to the corruption of children, he recounts a story from his childhood as an altar server (the narrative within the narrative), about a traumatic encounter with the village baker, Blacker, the only character in the story who is named. Blacker was not a Catholic; indeed, he is animated by his hatred for all things Catholic, leading the second man to wonder, “Can you hate something you don’t believe in?”
Blacker’s hatred of the Church is concentrated on the Eucharist, and his contempt for the notion that the wafer is any different after consecration: “I can bake the things you eat just as well as any Catholic can,” he pronounced, while producing his own version of the communion bread for the boy to taste. Driven by this animosity, Blacker contrives to bribe the child into smuggling out from Mass a consecrated Host, so that Blacker could prove it was no different from before the so-called consecration. “I want to see what your God tastes like,” he taunts the young acolyte. Tempted by the promise of the gift of an electric train, the lad agrees to Blacker’s scheme, and the story unfolds from there.
To give more details about the story would be to spoil it for the reader, who should not assume any particular conclusion from my brief account.
While I have given a synopsis of the “narrative within the narrative,” I have said nothing about the “epiphany within the epiphany,” which, like the first star of Bethlehem, is unexpected. Readers of Greene’s longer fiction will already know that he had a rare gift for communicating the depths of Catholic faith in surprising and unusual ways, often through the least likely protagonists and most surprising plot maneuvers. If you don’t know what I mean, and want to know how it ends, you’ll have to see for yourself.
The story is still in print.
Kenneth Craycraft is an attorney and the James J. Gardner Family Chair of Moral Theology at Mount St. Mary’s Seminary and School of Theology, in Cincinnati.