The Dream of St. Joseph

Fourth Sunday of Advent (A)

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During Advent we look for the coming of Christ in two directions. We look ahead, toward His coming in the future, at the end of time. This coming is emphasized more at the beginning of Advent. But we also look back, remembering His coming in the past, at the Incarnation. Here at the end of Advent, as we approach the great Christmas feast, it is this coming of Christ in history that receives the greater focus.

It is easy for us to take the great mystery of the Incarnation for granted. We forget how radical a thing it truly is, the Creator entering into creation, because it happened in such a humble way. Our God did not burst forth into the world in a great flaming chariot. He came as a baby, born of a woman, born in a manger; an event heralded by angels but noticed only by a few shepherds.

Our God chose a mother, Mary, who bore Him in her womb and nursed Him at her breast. She assented to be the Mother of God after being visited by the angel Gabriel at the annunciation. She, a virgin betrothed to a man named Joseph, gave her fiat, her “yes,” to do God’s will and bear His Son. “Let it be done unto me according to your word” (Lk 1:38).

But what of Joseph? What must this have seemed like to him? He was a just man, as described in our gospel reading, concerned with doing what is right. He is betrothed to Mary, but has not yet taken her into his home. He finds Mary pregnant. He must have assumed that she had been with another. He must also have known this was not at all something Mary would do. He must have struggled deeply with this seeming contradiction. He must have brought the matter to prayer.

The gospel tells us that whatever else, Joseph did not desire to bring shame to Mary, and so resolved to divorce her quietly, without bringing her before the court. But before this can happen, Joseph has a dream. An angel appears to him and says:

“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.”

What on earth must Joseph have thought about this message? Imagine yourself in his position. Would you have dismissed it as merely a dream, or recognized it as a message from God? Would you have had the courage to follow the angel’s command? Pope Benedict XVI meditates upon this encounter in his book, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives.  The Holy Father writes:

Whereas the angel “came” to Mary (Lk 1:28), he merely appears to Joseph in a dream — admittedly a dream that is real and reveals what is real. Once again this shows us an essential quality of the figure of St. Joseph: his capacity to perceive the divine and his ability to discern. Only a man who is inwardly watchful for the divine, only someone with a real sensitivity for God and His ways, can receive God’s message in this way… The message conveyed to Joseph is overwhelming, and it demands extraordinarily courageous faith. Can it be that God has really spoken, that what Joseph was told in the dream was the truth–a truth so far surpassing anything he could have foreseen? Can it be that God has acted in this way toward a human creature? Can it be that God has now launched a new history with men?  

Our position now is not that different from Joseph’s in this gospel reading. We, too, hear a message that is beyond anything we might dare to hope. We, too, must choose whether and how to respond to this message.

Joseph received God’s word through a messenger, and so we receive His word through messengers–ministers in the Church, the bishops, priests, deacons and lay faithful who have passed this word down to us. We, like Joseph, must discern how we will receive this message, and what response it demands of us.

Joseph was given a task; to take Mary into his home and be a faithful husband to her and a father to her child. But Joseph was also given an invitation to participate in the great mystery of God. Pope Benedict XVI notes that the words spoken to Joseph by the angel — “Do not be afraid” — are the same words spoken by the angel to Mary at the annunciation. “By means of this same exhortation from the angel,” the Holy Father writes, “Joseph is now drawn into the mystery of God’s incarnation.’

We also have a task. We also have an invitation. We also are being drawn into this great mystery. May we, like Joseph, be inwardly watchful, and learn to be sensitive to the ways of God. May we, like Joseph, be open to God’s message. And may we, like Joseph, possess the courage to receive Mary and her Son into our homes and into our hearts.

St. Joseph, patron of the Universal Church, pray for us that we may have faith such as yours, to discern Gods will for us and to accept Christ into our hearts without fear. Amen.