Did you dream last night? You probably did. Most of us spend about two hours a night dreaming, although we may not remember all those dreams when morning comes. A dream can last from five to twenty minutes, and they have the power to amuse, enlighten and even to frighten us. Gao Xingjian, the Chinese playwright, says that dreams are more real than reality itself.
Sometimes a dream feels so real that we awaken disoriented. Sometimes our dreams reach beyond sleep and beyond reality. Often we talk about our deepest desires in terms of dreaming: dream homes, dream jobs, our dreams for the future of the parish and for our families. These wonderful things may feel just out of our reach. And when we say “in your dreams” – we mean that something is so fabulous that a person can only imagine it!
In the Bible, dreams are very important. In scripture, dreaming is a divine gift, and dreams are one way that God speaks to people. Abraham, Jacob and Joseph, the Magi and St Paul all learned the will of God through their dreams. This can be the case in our own lives, although many of us would not say that God spoke to us in a dream last night. Have you ever had a dream that revealed something to you? That sort of dream cannot be explained by neuroscience.
Joseph’s dream in today’s gospel is that sort of dream.
Today, Joseph, who is silent and nearly invisible in the rest of the Christmas story, briefly takes center stage. Many know the story of Mary, the woman who is “full of grace” and who is often pictured next to Jesus. The story of Joseph involves an awkward kind of grace. There is an unexpected and inexplicable pregnancy. Joseph wrestles with his pride, even as he is inclined toward kindness. This is someone else’s child. A public denunciation would not just shame Mary; it could be a sentence of death for unchastity. When the angel says “do not be afraid” to Joseph, it is very clear that God understands the anguish and uncertainty that fill his heart.
This annunciation of the Messiah in Matthew’s gospel has a perspective very different from the version in Luke, when an angel visits Mary. In a dream, God invites Joseph to trust: in his relationship with a woman; in his future as a step-father with a child; in the mystery of God. I wonder whether Joseph awoke from this dream feeling disoriented. I wonder whether this dream undid some of his other dreams of married life, of parenting, even of religion.
Joseph says yes, just as Mary said yes. In this gospel story, Joseph emerges as a surprising instrument of grace. A man of love, he decides to protect Mary, and allows her divine child to be born safely. As I reflect on Joseph, I think of the special grace of being a step-parent or foster parent, lovingly accepting the responsibility for nurturing someone else’s child. This sort of work transcends biology. In the case of Joseph, step-parenting contributed to ensuring the accomplishment of the Incarnation of God.
It was likely not what he had dreamed for his marriage and his life. Joseph fades into the background of the crèche scenes, somewhere between the cow and the ox, with loads of work to do, and in relative invisibility. Surely it took courage to listen to that angel. What a graceful image of biblical manhood this offers us!
Because of Joseph’s dream, and because Joseph took the back seat in the crèche, the dream of God for the transformation and salvation of humanity came true.
Today, as we hear the story of Joseph and his dream, we are invited to consider framing our own dreams in terms of God’s dream and our faith. We are invited to trust: in our relationships in a faith community, in the role each of us has in bringing God’s will to life, and in the mystery of God. Our future unfolds as we promise to nurture a dream that we did not create: a dream of Love, Justice, Welcome. Even when we cannot see what the future holds, even when we have to stand in the back of the crèche, we promise to follow the way of Christ. We are all called to a life of hard and important work for the sake of the son that Mary bore. Sometimes we are asked to stand in the back of the crèche.
We are all called to be surprising instruments of grace, to make God’s dream come true.
And with God’s help, that can be our reality, too.
May it be so!