Advent week III, 2010
By the Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson
Isn’t it all about the submission of Mary, the virgin Mother of our Lord? Why pay any attention at all to her hapless husband, Joseph?
Righteous Joseph discovers that his intended is pregnant. In Joseph’s time, this wasn’t just a disgrace – it was essentially a capital crime. Putting Mary away quietly was not an act of cowardice, but an act of mercy.
But then Joseph has — A dream! Not a talking, burning bush, like Moses. Not the temple filling up with smoke and six-winged cherubim, like Isaiah. Not a prophet showing up and pouring a bottle of oil on his head, like David. Just a dream.
An angel of the Lord appears in a dream and says, don’t be afraid to go ahead with the wedding – despite the scandal, the broken dreams, the whispers and insults. But, what about this baby?
The angel goes on: The child Mary has conceived is from the Holy Spirit. Joseph doesn’t ask (as we often do): What the dickens does that mean? Twenty centuries later, respectable theologians are all over the place about precisely what that means. Whether you have a first century or a twenty-first century understanding of where babies come from, the angel’s comments leave a lot of unanswered questions.
All Joseph (and we) can really know is that the Holy Spirit is on the move, like the Holy Spirit moved over the chaotic waters before creation, and now there is life where a minute ago there was nothing. It makes perfect sense, doesn’t it, that the God of all creation, who spoke the world out of formlessness and into life, now speaks in a realm we only vaguely understand and over which we have no control – the swirling, chaotic world of dreams?
The angel continues: Joseph, you are going to name this the child. That ancient right of fatherhood will be preserved for you. His name is Joshua – Jesus – the one who saves. For he will save his people from their sins. But his origin is so mysterious – Who are his people?
This is at the heart of Joseph’s story and Joseph’s submission. This is why the marriage must take place: The savior, the promised one, will be a son of the house of David by adoption. God and a woman will bring him into the world. Joseph will bring him into the dreams of Israel. Through this adoption, Israel is called into the dream of God. God’s dream is bigger than Torah. It is bigger than the prophets. It is bigger than the Temple. God’s dream isn’t limited by the DNA of David. It isn’t limited by patriarchy. It isn’t limited to the things science or angels can describe. It is not limited to the rational waking world. And it is certainly not limited to our dreams.
Joseph cannot know yet that this savior is not just the one anointed to rule Israel, as outrageous as that must have seemed. He cannot know that this Emmanuel means God is with ALL of us, all humanity. Joseph cannot know that a new creation, a new Israel, a new covenant, a new reality beyond science and beyond dreams is forming inside the girl down the road. Without needing to know all that, Joseph submits to the dream of God and releases his own dream that the children of his marriage bed – of his own body – might carry the future of Israel, for this new dream of God’s.
Joseph, the practical, humble, compassionate man, a man who worked with his hands and kept his nose clean, stakes his whole life, his whole ancestral legacy as a descendant of David, on this dream. Joseph’s submission, like Mary’s, paves the way for a savior who will save Israel from the sin of believing in their own dream, instead of in God’s dream.
This Advent, do not be afraid to step out of your dreams into God’s dream. Do not be afraid to bring those dreams into the daylight. Do not be afraid to look for God outside social convention and outside correct religious interpretation of these wild and dreamy texts. Be like Joseph. Be strong enough to submit to God’s dream.
The Rev. Jennifer Brooke-Davidson is assistant rector at St. Stephen’s Episcopal Church, Wimberley. Reach her at Jenniferb@ststeve.org.