Image: Rembrandt (1645) – Joseph’s Dream In The Stable In Bethlehem
Around this time of year those who have all their ducks in a row tend to send out Christmas cards or letters to family and friends. Well, in our household we do not have any ducks, and even if we did it is doubtful that they would all be in a row… so, instead we often aim to send out some sort of Epiphany or Valentine’s card and call it a win. I, for one, very much enjoy receiving photographs of young families and old friends, especially when they are accompanied by a letter catching up on the goings-on of another year gone by.
Without fail, these types of cards and letters contain snapshots of life’s highs, while mostly avoiding the lows. “Young Sally graduated from high school this year” one might read. But nothing of Sally’s struggle to get into college. “Old Billy finally retired this year” reads another, but nowhere do we hear about corporate downsizing and his lack of choice in the matter.
While dreaming of a nostalgic white Christmas, we wish for the days to be merry and bright, not fearful and uncertain. Suffice it to say, however, that Matthew’s version of the Christmas story is much more dire than one filled with snowflakes and sleigh bells. Accusations of infidelity and divorce are hardly the stuff of Christmas cards and holiday cheer. They are, however, very much a part of the Gospel according to Matthew. Now, I know that none of you ever have drama amongst your family and friends, but drama is exactly what you’ll find here in the opening paragraphs of Matthew’s birth narratives.
Upon closer inspection it’s worth noting that some modern translations somewhat soften the blow of Mary and Joseph’s predicament. When it says that they were engaged, it does not merely mean that Joseph dropped down on one knee and popped the question like on one of those Kay Jewelers commercials. To be betrothed or promised, for all intents and purposes, meant that Mary and Joseph were already married – bound by honor – but had yet to move in together. They had made their promises, but had yet to celebrate and consummate their marriage.
And again, when the text says that Joseph, upon discovering that Mary was pregnant, intended to “dismiss her quietly,” what it really means is that he planned to divorce himself from her. But, then again, “dismiss” sounds a lot nicer than “divorce.”
Alleged infidelity, divorce, and public shame. How’s that for holiday drama? And this is how God is going to save the world?
But it is precisely into the midst of such turmoil that God comes to deliver us. “Do not be afraid,” says the angelic messenger to Joseph, “the Holy Spirit is surely at work here.” Remember the promise of the prophets: Immanuel – God is with you. You shall name the child Jesus (Yeshua – ישוע), for the child Mary will deliver will in turn deliver all humanity.
Amid Mary and Joseph’s worst fears, there is a spark of hope and faith is kindled. Faith in God, faith in one another, and faith this horrible scenario might yet be redeemed. Miraculously this nascent, fragile family is transformed into the Holy Family, a microcosm of God’s love for the world.
As we reflect on this remarkable change of events, we would do well to remember that the transformation from fear to trust requires a different way of looking at the world. In short, it requires us to dream.
Joseph was not able to make peace with Mary’s perplexing pregnancy by means of ordinary human rationale. Weighing the pros and cons – should he or should he not stick with her – left him with no good alternatives. He was not able to reason his way through this quandary. And in all likelihood Joseph finally gave himself over to the exhaustion of his turmoil and fell asleep.
In the biblical tradition God often speaks in visions and dreams. The prophets, Mary, Joseph, Peter, Paul, and John (among others) were all recipients of a vision from God. Whether awake or asleep, it matters not. What is required is an inner disposition that is ready to say “yes” to God despite our deepest fears. When we finally slow down enough to be still we find ourselves in a moment of passivity in which we can receive from God good news that addresses all that seems so wrong with the world.
“Yes, the way of God’s love turns our world upside down,” says our Presiding Bishop Michael Curry. “But that’s really right side up. And in that way, the nightmare of this world will be transfigured into the very dream of God for humanity and all creation.”
In this way Joseph’s worst nightmare is transformed into God’s dream. Having fallen asleep disillusioned, he then awakes full of wonder and awe.
I will tell you that I, not unlike Joseph, sometimes seek to dismiss the very things that God might be using to bring about my salvation: uncomfortable truths or awkward relationships. Helpings of humble pie, when I must learn to swallow my pride. Times when I avoid silence, afraid of what intimacy with God might reveal. I stare hopelessly, for far too long, at all that is wrong with the world, distracted from the dream that only God can help me see.
Whatever your nightmare may be…know that there is a different way of dreaming. When God comes near fear cannot help but be transformed into trust. When God comes near despair melts away and hope is suddenly reimagined. When God comes near we cannot help but dream.
The Rev’d Bradley J. Landry
St. Paul’s – San Antonio
Advent 4c (2016)