When you see the manger scenes this Christmas, remember Joseph who accepted his dreams and the will of God.
By James B. Simpson
During Advent we think often of a great storm-of-the-soul experienced by a Jewish girl in Palestine long ago when she learned she was to be the mother of the Messiah. The man to whom she was engaged to be married, Joseph by name, perhaps experienced no less storm-of-the-soul when he also learned of that extraordinary situation. Whatever his original reactions may have been of anger, frustration, or bewilderment, the story recounted in St. Matthew’s Gospel presents him as a decent, considerate person — a man of principle who wanted to save her “from exposure” — that is, embarrassment and scandal — and therefore “desired to have the marriage contract set aside quietly.”
It is then that an angel appears to him in a dream. While Joseph sleeps, the angel gives him a six-fold message: (1) Do not be afraid. (2) The Holy Spirit is the father of Mary’s child. (3) The baby will be a boy (which is more advance information than ordinary fathers have). (4) The name of the boy is to be Jesus. (5) The meaning of such a name is “Savior” and it is chosen because the child’s destiny is “to save his people from their sins.” Finally, the angel tells Joseph that what is happening to Mary is in fulfillment of what had been forecast years before — namely, that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son and he shall be called Emmanuel, a name which means ‘God is with us.'”
As this story has been told over and over again, as Christmas comes and goes, Mary has been held up to us as an example of perfect obedience to the Lord’s will for her. Yet we see that Joseph is every bit as obedient, faithful and trusting because, as the Scripture puts it, “rising from sleep, Joseph did as the angel had directed him.” In other words, he did not have the marriage contract put aside but instead with great restraint and personal discipline he proceeded with their life together. And finally, Joseph followed the angel’s direction and named the child Jesus.
That everything happened just as the angel said it would must have left Joseph with great faith in dreams and angels. Hence he may not have been too surprised when an angel again appeared to him “in a dream” and warned him to “take the young child and his mother and flee into Egypt,” the beginning of the drama in which the infant Christ was saved from the wicked King Herod’s desire to kill all the infants born under or near the glorious star of Bethlehem.
These two dreams experienced by Joseph — the one before and the one after the birth of Jesus — are among the first recounted in the New Testament but they place the husband of Mary in a long line with great figures of the Old Testament whose dream life was dominated by the Lord.
The first dream reported in the Bible is found all the way back in the Book of Genesis. In it, one of the great old Jewish patriarchs, Jacob, sees “a ladder set up on the earth and the top of it reached to heaven; and behold, the angels of God were ascending and descending on it. . .” It is this scene of awesome beauty — angels ascending and descending — that God chooses for his announcement to Jacob that his destiny is to be the father of many nations of God-fearing people. The lasting impressiveness of that dream is what prompted Jacob’s reaction when he awakens. “Surely the Lord is in this place and I did not know it,” he declares. “… How awesome is this place. This is none other than the house of God and this is the gate of heaven.”
In these eloquent phrases we experience our initial introduction to man’s capacity to dream. As the books of the Bible unfold, we learn that dreams do not always contain bright promises. Sometimes they trouble our sleep with symbolic warnings of fearsome events.
Job, for instance, who was a man of many troubles, moodily recalls fitful nights of unrest. He reproaches God thus: “When I say, my bed will comfort me, my couch will ease my’ complaint, then thou dost scare me with dreams and terrify me with visions …” Later on, Elihu talking to Job about dreams, says, “For God speaks in one way, and in two, though man does not perceive it. In a dream, in a vision of the night, when deep sleep falls upon men, while they slumber on their beds, then he opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed, and cut off pride from man. He keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.”
What all of this may mean is a reaffirmation of God’s power to speak to us through our subconscious minds while we are retreated from the world in our daily round of sleep. We see God accomplishing a great deal through messages that he gives to men in their dreams — the start of the House of Jacob, the preparation for the birth of Christ, the protection of the Christ Child from earthly harm, and at least twice in the dreams of St. Paul.
Those interested in psychiatry and psychoanalysis are naturally interested in dreams; however, the same people often concur that telling one’s dreams is a crashing bore. There is too much already out on the surface —part of the consciousness of life — to want to spend much time trying to make sense out of dreams. And yet, there is something vital about dreams — they are trying to tell us something — and when we discover the exalted place that dreams hold in biblical literature, including the New Testament, we are more convinced than ever that the ability to dream can put us as closely in touch with the unseen forces that guide our lives as can our ability to see, smell, hear, touch and taste.
Do you remember your very first dream? Do you recall how it seemed so real to you that you could believe it and, when you awoke, how you tried to tell your parents about it and they explained, “That was a dream!”
One child saw in his sleep a small purse for coins. It was brown leather with a picture of a castle printed on it. But instead of being full of coins it was full of spinach — perhaps a symbol for money. Three or four years old at the time, sleeping on a screened-in porch, he had a vivid impression of that brown-leather coin purse and spinach. When he awoke, it was gone. He looked all over the bed and under the bed but the purse had disappeared. He rushed into the room where the family was having breakfast and said he knew he had a coin purse full of spinach but he couldn’t find it anywhere.
“Why, you’ve had a dream!” they said. “That was a dream!” At the time he didn’t understand the meaning of the word — such a strange word “dream” — but he, did sense that there was a power of imagining things that he wished were true. As life went on, he found it was possible to dream things that we hoped were not true. Only gradually, did he perceive the energy of the mind, taking over while we are asleep, to imagine pleasantries and absurdities, happinesses, and tragedy.
As Job’s friend puts it, “God opens the ears of men and terrifies them with warnings, that he may turn man aside from his deed, and cut off pride from man. He keeps back his soul from the pit, his life from perishing by the sword.”
It is as if there are two selves — which, indeed, there are — our conscious self and our unconscious — that send us messages through our dream life. These two forces, like the two persons in each of us, are well described in one of Longfellow’s poems: ”
Ships that pass in the night and speak each to the other in passing,
Only a signal shows and a distant voice in the darkness;
So on the ocean of life we pass and speak one to another,
Only a look and a voice; then darkness again and a silence.”
Another 19th century writer, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, sums up the ability of dreams to give us some of the insights that the biblical fathers experienced. “Often do the signs of great events stride on before the events,” Coleridge writes, “and in today always walks tomorrow.”
There is more that Coleridge says that seems to put a very positive interpretation of the worth of dreams, “A dwarf sees farther than the giant when he has the giant’s shoulder to mount on.” In other words, we are dwarfs in our knowledge of the future, but we can perceive some of it if we stand on the shoulders of our dreams. They have so much to tell us, whether they be dim perceptions of the future or the classic American dream of success and happiness.
If we realize our conflicts about life, about what we accept and what we resist accepting, we can obtain a good perspective on how we are going to react to whatever is in store for us in Christmastide and in 1977.
One researcher believes people dream in order to remain sane during their waking hours or, as he puts it, “Dreaming permits each and every one of us to be quietly and safely insane every night of our lives.” Dreams are bizarre and unbelievable. They may be God’s way of giving us fantasies that compensate for the hard realities of life. The fact is that everything that we do, including dreaming, is a part of what our Creator has given us the faculty to do and therefore it is blessed in his sight.
So look well to your dreams, lay them out before God in your prayers, ask him to help you interpret their hidden messages — and remember that as the spiritual quality deepens in your waking life so will the serene, peaceful quality of your dreams. And when you see manger scenes this Christmas, reproductions of the Holy Family at Bethlehem so long ago — on greeting cards, in great paintings, in shop windows, or on church lawns on Christmas Eve — when you see the Nativity scene, look to Joseph who dreamed and in accepting his dream, accepted the will of
God. Look to Joseph who made sense out of the troubled sleep that preceded the first Christmas. Joseph is often the forgotten, faceless man in the whole cast of Christmas, yet, with the babe of Bethlehem, he has his own message of acceptance, faith — and transcendent glory!