By Michael Tessman
Matthew’s story of the birth and infancy of Jesus includes five dreams. Joseph has four of the dreams; the Magi have the fifth.
In his first dream (1:20) an angel speaks to Joseph in words that echo down to us: “Don’t be afraid!” Joseph was caught between a rock and hard place: the public disgrace of a pregnancy out of wedlock and the pain of divorcing Mary privately. He did what the angel commanded him, willing to face public scorn.
In Joseph’s second dream (2:13) God foretells that King Herod intends to kill Jesus, and instructs him to take his family and flee to Egypt for safety. Why Egypt, you may ask?
The political ironies of the flight to Egypt are truly remarkable, especially at a time in history when issues about refugees and their resettlement face our nation and world. The Son of God’s parents flee as refugees to a foreign country that is Israel’s sworn enemy, having oppressed the Hebrew people for more than 400 years (Ex. 12:40). The very place where Pharaoh had once unleashed an infanticide against the Israelite children (Ex. 1:6-22) becomes a refuge for Jesus.
A few years later (2:19), in Joseph’s third dream, God instructs him that since Herod has died, the peripatetic family can now return to Judea. Yet upon learning that Herod’s son Archelaus now reigns, Joseph rightly fears for their lives. In a fourth dream (2:22), God instructs him to move his family yet again, this time to Nazareth of Galilee.
Four of these five dreams warn of Herod’s plans to kill Jesus, all before Jesus is 2. Why does Jesus’ birth announcement include such overt, ominous political overtones about a clash between a Roman governor and a harmless peasant baby? Might it have something to do with power becoming vulnerable?
A longtime friend of mine has written an authoritative book on dreams. I would love to get his understanding on this, not to mention that of Sigmund Freud, whose Interpretation of Dreams caused a revolution in 1900.
Scripture has a way of looping back on itself, so it should be no surprise that John the Divine revisits Matthew’s “dream themes” in the final book of the New Testament.
The 12th chapter of the Revelation to John is a birth narrative that you will never hear read at Christmas services nor see illustrated on a Christmas card. It should be. It graphically illuminates all other narratives of the confrontation between Jesus and the cosmic spiritual/political forces, symbolized by Herod’s effort to kill him off as a child. In contrast with the bucolic imagery of the baby in a manger by Matthew and Luke, John the Divine’s birth announcement explodes with apocalyptic imagery worthy of a painting by Hieronymus Bosch.
A woman is crying out in labor pains as she gives birth to “a son, a male child, who will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” An enormous red dragon stands in front of her, waiting to devour the child the moment he is born. The earliest Christians may well have cast the Roman Empire as the beast, an incarnation of human tyranny rather than divine love.
What had Rome done to deserve this outrageous imagery and opprobrium? Didn’t Rome give us highways and aqueducts, a language and architecture, the rule of law and the Pax Romana?
To be sure, yet Romans also martyred Jews and Christians and made claims that Caesar, the Roman emperor, was divine, taking titles like “son of God” and “Lord.”
Both Joseph’s earthly dreams about Herod and John’s cosmic imagery of a savage dragon provoke a question: Who is the ultimate lord and king? Is the Roman Caesar lord and god, or is the babe of Bethlehem? Is the good news” that of any nation’s political power? Or is the good news love, incarnate only in Christ and in those who choose his lordship?
Centuries before Rome came to power the Psalmist cried: “Come and save us!” Political power, whether in ancient Rome or present-day America, is only one of many false gods offering a “gospel of salvation.” Consumerism promises fulfillment, yet alienates us from one another and ourselves. The propaganda of the marketplace tries to captivate us into its own narrative. The alternative gods we bow down to are endless: sex without love, wealth without generosity, work without a sense of purpose, and knowledge without wisdom.
Years ago, priest and peace activist Daniel Berrigan repudiated false gods in his poem Credo:
I can only tell you what I believe;
I cannot be saved by foreign policies.
I cannot be saved by the sexual revolution.
I cannot be saved by the gross national product.
I cannot be saved by nuclear deterrents.
I cannot be saved by aldermen, priests, artists,
plumbers, city planners, social engineers,
nor by the Vatican, nor by the World Buddhist Association,
nor by Hitler, nor by Joan of Arc,
nor by angels and archangels, nor by powers and dominions.
I can be saved only by Jesus Christ.
This is a clear and contemporary “statement of faith” for our times. When I substitute my idols for some of Berrigan’s examples, it brings home how much I need this salvation. The 12th Chapter of Revelation is happening before my eyes.
The Rev. Michael Tessman is director of Alpha & Omega Ministries in Wakefield, Rhode Island.
Image: “Flight into Egypt” by Giotto, via Wikimedia Commons