Now the birth of Jesus the Messiah took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said,
"Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins."
All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: "Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel," which means, "God is with us."
When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son; and he named him Jesus. (Matthew 1:18-25) [NRSV]
This year, for me, Advent has had an ominous feel to it.
Maybe it was that first reading, in which Jesus warned that "about that day or hour, no one knows." Maybe it was John the Baptist, with his seemingly unbalanced rants. Maybe it's the appearances of these angels, last week to Mary, in person, and now to Joseph in a dream.
Maybe it's just the stresses of the season. It seems to get harder, not easier, each year. The rampant materialism -- last December I thought that one of my friends was going to have a complete breakdown right there in the coffee shop as she described her distressed attempts to avoid all malls and stores effective immediately the day after Thanksgiving. This year, I'm her. The organizational challenges -- children moving around the globe, home from college and gone again, one in France as I write this; college applications in the mail, meaning even more airline angst next winter; parents hours away dealing with a devastatingly serious illness; a job that offers no break until Christmas Eve; a house in chaos in which, nevertheless, 30-plus people will gather for Christmas dinner.
But no -- it's not the tensions inherent in my own little life. There is agitation out there, in the cosmos, well beyond the strains here at home and those pulling our nation and planet apart. And Christmas is the beginning of the church year, the beginning of the annual cycle of trying to identify and address and reconcile those grander movements. For Joseph, they at first appear to dwell in his own little life, just as mine do for me. He's just an ordinary man, a carpenter and an observant Jew, planning to marry the young lady down the road who has turned up pregnant. He's a decent sort of fellow, so he's going to break the engagement quietly, hoping to put a stop to the gossip around the village well before it even begins. Mary will have her own humiliation to deal with, but he won't compund it for either of them.
And then an angel appears, in a dream. What do you believe about your dreams? Joseph probably knew that the other Joseph's dreams turned out to be fairly significant. Israel was saved because of those dreams. When things happen in dreams, at least in the Bible, the tensions of family and home pale in contrast to the strains suddenly illuminated in the world.
My own dreams are fairly confusing and seldom remembered, except in those awful predawn hours when I find myself frantic to get back to sleep so that I can dream up a happier ending than the tortured one that has just awakened me. I wonder if Joseph tried to alter the course of his dream.
If he did, we will never know. In the story as we have it, he wakes up and does what he has been told to do. We don't hear anything about his surprise or his unrest; we are left to imagine that for ourselves.
Did he know, somehow? Did he understand that he had been pulled away from his personal concerns, away from even the concerns of the world as he knew it? His son is to be named Emmanuel, which means "God with us" -- how terrifying is that?
No wonder he woke up. His chances of ordinary fatherhood are gone. No typically tedious arrival for this baby, no simple pleasures of teaching his craft to his son, no anticipation of a son's successes to be enjoyed from the vantage point of old age.
In an essay I read recently, the author's wife prays "for the grace of a normal day."* Looks like that's out for Joseph.
His dream is as ominous as all the other events of Advent. I have never been struck as I have this year by the incongruity between what we as a noisy and acquisitive culutre make of Advent and what the Bible actually says about it. Good things are going to happen, but in a very, very hard way.