Throughout my life, I have been graced to listen to others describe their dreams which generally fall into two categories. At one level, our dreams have the capacity to fill us with great anxiety or even fear. At still another level, our dreams may bring us comfort and consolation, especially those in which loved ones who have recently or long passed seem very much alive and assure us that “all will be well.” In my own case, I’ve not only shared my dreams with close family and friends, but have also explored them with spiritual directors. On almost every occasion, they’ve advised me to not discount them, but rather to pray about the messages they may contain.
In our culture, a most famous dream is depicted in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. Written in December 1843, Ebeneezer Scrooge is visited by his former business partner, Jacob Marley, who is now a ghost destined to wander the earth with heavy chains affixed around him. The chains are a constant reminder to him of his greed and selfishness in life. If you remember the story, beginning at the stroke of midnight, Scrooge is visited by three ghosts: The Ghost of Christmas Past; The Ghost of Christmas Present; and The Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come. After these haunting experiences, Ebeneezer Scrooge emerges on Christmas morning as a changed man. With joy and love now planted deeply in his heart, his new outlook is one of kindness, generosity, and compassion to all that he encounters. For Ebeneezer Scrooge, his ghostly dreams appear at an intersection in his life. There, he is offered and accepts a unique opportunity to review his past decisions and ponder the future. In the end, he gratefully accepts a new path that leads him toward eternal life.
On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, Matthew’s Gospel (1:18-24) seems to also carry this theme of sleep and dreams. We are told that an angel of the Lord appears to St. Joseph and informs him to not be afraid to take Mary into his home. But let’s not go there just yet. Instead, let us explore the scene leading up to the angelic visit. Perhaps the French poet, Paul Claudel, describes it best:
“This screeching of plane and saw; it is Joseph in his workshop: the crack of raw lumber, the ring of a broken vase; Mary is there. Morning, noon, and evening they pray together; sometimes they sing; they eat from the same plate at the same table; they divide the chores between them…
And one day, suddenly…Mary and Joseph look at each other; he guesses the truth, and she sees that he has guessed. She says nothing, and he says nothing. And her husband Joseph, being a just man…, resolved to send her away quietly.”
With this realization, Joseph found himself at an intersection. The question that must have continuously echoed within his humble body surely must have been: How can this be? How can this be? And with no answer, he began (at least in his mind) to set in motion a course of action that any just man would follow. Aware of the public remedy provided him in the Book of Deuteronomy (22:23-27), Joseph instead decides to not subject Mary to public disgrace. While contemplating this, one can imagine the anguish he must have felt.
But then, in a dream, Joseph encounters an angelic visitor and is given both an explanation and mission:
“Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”
Having contemplated the divine mission given him by an angel, Joseph placed his trust in God and, with Mary, began the procession to that manger in Bethlehem that eternally resounds Emmanuel! God is with us!
With Christmas just a few days away, may the same be said about us? Throughout Advent, we have heard Jesus caution us regarding the need to be prepared when the Son of Man comes. We’ve heard John the Baptist call us to repentance and to follow the One who makes all things new. At every intersection and crossroad of our lives, have we relied upon God’s help to choose the path that will lead us closer to Him? Like St. Joseph, have we listened to and trusted in the graces that God has sent us? Are we open to the call that He has placed upon our hearts?
In A Christmas Carol, a small boy (Tiny Tim) captures the way we should feel as the birth of our Savior nears: “God bless us, everyone!” For indeed, He has.