Gospel Reflection for the 4th Sunday of Advent, December 18th By Fr Brian Maher OMI
The Aboriginal peoples of Australia are recognised as being one of the oldest cultures in the world. For them all of creation was ‘dreamed’ into existence. It is called the “Dreamtime” and is the foundation of their rich spiritual beliefs and culture.
Indeed, ‘dreaming’ is central to all cultures of the world. It is the drawing back of the thin curtain between this world and the next, and the way the Spirits use to communicate with mortals. Whether in Egypt, Greece, Rome, India, China, Africa, Europe or the Americas, the power of dreams is recognised and acknowledged.
In the Bible, God frequently speaks to his people through dreams. Joseph, a slave in Egypt, is saved and goes on to lead his people when God, in a dream, tells him how to interpret the Pharaoh’s own dream as meaning the coming of famine to their land. Jacob, Solomon, Daniel, the Wise Men and even Pilate’s wife are spoken to by God in dreams. We should not be surprised then when, in today’s Gospel, God tells Joseph in a dream of his own role in the Christmas story.
Joseph is, in many ways, the lost person of the Gospels. After the birth of Jesus, he all but disappears completely, Mary being pictured alone in the later key moments of Jesus’ life – his first miracle, his death, his resurrection and appearances.
Yet, when Jesus called God ‘Father’, and referred to him using the informal ‘Dad or Daddy’, it can only be because of his relationship with his earthly father, Joseph. Like any child growing up, Jesus learned of love, peace, joy, forgiveness, patience and respect, from looking at his parents, and later, his peers. Everything we know of Jesus’ life as an adult shouts to us of the love he received as a child, maturing in his family home.
That it was a dream which told Joseph of his calling is completely within Biblical tradition and there is no reason at all to doubt that God would use such a method to communicate directly with him.
However, when I allow my imagination to guide my prayer, another scenario arises which, for me, speaks far more loudly of Joseph’s extraordinary courage and prayer in facing the situation in which he found himself. Let me share it, while not, in any way seeking to undermine the simple and wonderful truth of the Gospel telling of the story.
Suppose for a second, that the account of the dream is a metaphor for a longer journey Joseph was called to make from doubt to acceptance of his calling.
The story told in today’s Gospel is quite open and honest about the doubts Joseph had at the beginning. Being “a man of honour and wanting to spare her publicity, he made up his mind to divorce her informally.” Here, we are invited into the awful anxiety and worry of a compassionate and caring man discovering that the woman he loves is pregnant. It is a beautifully human and touching recounting of his situation, wanting with all his heart to do the right and honourable thing, while knowing that, with Mary pregnant, he cannot possibly go forward with a marriage which would have lost its basis of trust. It is a situation as old as time and as modern as today; one Matthew’s original readers would have understood as clearly as we, today, can understand it.
It is at this moment that God intervenes in a dream to assure Joseph that all is well, that Mary has conceived by the Holy Spirit and he need have no fears about taking her as his wife. We are told that he did what the angel had told him to do and immediately took Mary as his wife. End of story.
But, just for a moment, imagine that the dream speaks of a longer and more difficult journey for both Joseph and Mary.
Imagine two young people in love with one another, faced with an incredible and extraordinary dilemma.
Firstly, imagine Mary, who knows that she has been asked to take on a role in history which no other person has ever been asked to do. She does not understand herself the magnitude of her ‘Yes’ to God, and now she must face its immediate implications. The man she loves and is engaged to cannot accept the truth of her story and decides he must, in conscience, break his relationship with her. Just imagine the pain and loneliness she faces in this situation.
But Joseph loves her and is her husband-to-be. Their relationship until then was one of trust, love and loyalty to one another. Surely, this gentle and loving woman would not betray him in this way? Imagine days, and maybe weeks, of talking, questioning, reflecting and perhaps arguing with one another. Imagine their ‘alone’ times where fear, anxiety and worry were a constant, and, no doubt, where many tears were shed.
That both Mary and Joseph are people of prayer and faith there is no doubt. They are both aware of God’s ways and of God’s promises to his chosen people. The only incidences of Jesus’ early life we are told about take place in and around the Temple where both Mary and Joseph ensured that Jesus learned about God.
Joseph, there can be no doubt, wanted to believe Mary and wanted to be true to her. Just as we are told of Mary’s prayer during this time (her great Magnificat), I have no doubt that Joseph, too, prayed that he might understand and accept what Mary was telling him.
Slowly, while they made this awful journey of worry together, God did speak to Joseph, maybe not in one simple dream, but gradually, in his heart, he came to see that, incredible as it was, Mary was telling the truth; that she had conceived by the Holy Spirit; that their love for one another was real and true, and that Joseph could believe her and join her in the amazing story that was beginning for them.
There are even times, in prayer, when I like to imagine Mary’s visit to Elizabeth taking place during this time of worry and anxiety. I imagine Joseph maybe coming to see her there, telling her that he believed in her, accepting that she had been called to serve God in a unique and inconceivable way and assuring her that he would accompany her from that moment on. Imagine the relief and joy of Mary at hearing this.
The above is, maybe, no more than my own dream. If so, I am content and at peace with it. The Joseph I meet in my dream is a deeply spiritual, loving and compassionate man. He fought and conquered his demons of doubt and uncertainty, joining Mary, his wife, in her ‘Yes’ to God. He is a man of faith and of extraordinary courage, modelling for the child Jesus the meaning of ‘Abba’ Father.
At the end of the day, whether Joseph’s acceptance of Mary as his wife and Jesus as his foster-son came about by one simple dream or by a slightly longer, but no less spiritual, journey to belief doesn’t really matter.
What does matter is that Joseph fully and willingly accepted his responsibility and said his own ‘Yes’ to God. He supported Mary, became a father to Jesus, providing and caring for them and truly becoming what we know as the “Holy Family” of Nazareth. For that we owe Joseph a huge debt of gratitude.
We all dream, and God speaks to us through our dreams just as he does through our lives. Our dreams are sacred to us. As the Irish poet, W.B. Yeats said of the person he loved:
“I have spread my dreams under your feet; Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.”
If you have any comments, questions or thoughts on this scripture reflection, please feel welcome to email me at email@example.com
|Gospel Fourth Sunday of Advent 2022
How Jesus Christ came to be born
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