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. 19Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. 20But 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. 21She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’ 22All this took place to fulfill what had been spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 ‘Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel’, which means, ‘God is with us.’ 24When Joseph awoke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took her as his wife, 25but had no marital relations with her until she had borne a son;* and he named him Jesus.
We've been traveling through Advent discussing a threefold approach to compassion, adapted from Joyce Rupp's book, Boundless Compassion; Awareness, Attitude, and Action. And we saw through the character of John the Baptist and last week of Mary, two characters who held an awareness of the christ within, claimed an attitude of compassion, which led them to action.
Today we meet Joseph- and I've always thought as much as Mary was the God bearer and much admired by some of us, Joseph is one of those often overlooked or at least downplayed characters. From the beginning, we want him to do what's right. We see his situation from 2000+ years out, and our expectation, because we so adore Mary, is that he will do what God expects him to do, marry Mary, instead of dismissing her- we want him to do the right thing, darnit!
He meets our expectations of course- he comes through for us- he saves Mary from being stoned to death, and gives Jesus a carpenter's trade. Of course he does. He's a nice guy. Even before the life altering dream, he had planned to dismiss Mary quietly instead of subjecting her to the consequences of being pregnant outside of marriage- he's a "just" man, says the text, which in the greek means he was both kind, AND followed the law. Following the law to a just, Jewish, man meant he had no choice under the law but to do anything but dismiss her. But the angel visits him in a dream and tells him to not only marry Mary, but that the child she carries is the very one the prophets have spoken of; the one 'just, Jews' have been waiting for- Emmanuel, God with us... and so Joseph wakes up, he now holds an awareness of the Christ within and the suffering around, and adopts an attitude of compassion-he will be open to the leading of the Spirit despite scandal, despite breaking the law, he will also magnify the Lord, and rejoice in God, and that drives him to act- "and he took Mary as his wife. says the scripture. Go Joseph!
It's amazing really. Joseph exemplifies the hero- the one who listened to the voice of God and acts accordingly, despite the consequences. He is what we all hope to be- someone who gets up from an encounter with the divine and walks forward in faith- knowing we are walking in the will of God.
And remember, the voice of God came to Joseph in a dream. A dream! So I just have one question then- What kind of a dream would you have to have that, when you woke up, you completely changed your life plan, went against the rules of your faith, subjected your family to ridicule, in order to do what the voice of God was telling you to do? How do you get to the place, as Joseph did, where you recognize you've just had an encounter with the divine!
Dream experts and most psychologists would say that our dreams are our subconscious working out things that we need to address in our daily lives. I believe that's why Matthew goes to the trouble of telling us that Joseph was a just man. His faith was something he took seriously. But doing what was right to the letter of the law didn't mesh with what that same law expressed- to love others as you love yourself- to love God first and have no other God's before God in practice meant loving God's people as God loves. So he must have been conflicted about what he was about to do to Mary- even in the best case scenario, his dismissal of Mary would mean devastation, marginalization, exclusion, and pain.
Perhaps he had prayed about it, or turned to scripture, or simply remembered the stories of his faith that he learned as a child- "I've loved you with an everlasting love," "before you were in the womb, I knew you,' and other illustrations of God's inclusion and compassion. Perhaps he remembered the self descriptive words God spoke when passing by in front of Moses, “The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness, mercy, and truth; who keeps lovingkindness and mercy for thousands of generations, who forgives iniquity, transgression and sin;” (Exodus 34:5-6)
Despite the black and white appearance of the law, Joseph knew God as a God of compassion, a God of grace, of mercy, of inclusion- and because he held that view of God as truth, was able through his dream to reinforce his awareness of the Christ within. He was able to see that the angel or messenger of his dream was indeed a divine encounter- because he believed that he and all humanity, hold the divine within ourselves- that we are created and made in God's image- the divine Christ is part of us... and that awareness of the Divine Presence dispelled any confusion or turmoil over what to do next.
He woke from his dream seeing Mary, seeing the baby she carried, seeing himself in and through he light of God. Thomas Kelly writes in A Testament of Devotion: In the experience of the Divine Presence that which flows over the ocean of darkness is an infinite ocean of light and love. In the Eternal all people become seen in a new way. We enfold them in our love, and we and they are enfolded together within the great Love of God as we know it in Christ. . . . They aren’t just masses of struggling beings, furthering or thwarting our ambitions, or, in far larger numbers, utterly alien to and insulated from us. We become identified with them and suffer when they suffer and rejoice when they rejoice. One might almost say we become cosmic mothers, tenderly caring for all.
So my question for us then becomes not what kind of a dream do we have to have to wake up and alter our lives- but rather, how many dreams, how many encounters, how many struggles do we have to have with our divine selves in order to change our lives?
Rupp, Joyce. Boundless Compassion (pp. 105-106). Ave Maria Press. Kindle Edition. Matthew opens his gospel with a boring geneology of 42 males and 4 females.