The Adventurous Lectionary – The Fourth Sunday in Advent – December 18, 2016
Psalm 80:1-7, 17-19
This week I am focusing on Joseph’s Christ-saving dream. While we need not neglect Isaiah’s imaginative vision of a child whose birth will change everything, the Psalmist’s hymn to divine restoration, or Paul’s account of Jesus as the fulfillment of God’s promises, Christmas is on the horizon and with it the surprising accounts of Jesus’ birth.
Today’s Gospel asserts that the future of faith depends on awakening to the nocturnal messages of God through dreams and trusting the non-rational elements of life. God speaks to us through a variety of media, and not just scripture. God moves through every moment of life, providing gentle nudges, insights, and synchronicities that on occasion we notice and shape our lives around. Listening to divine inspiration can be a matter of health and illness, success and failure, and life and death. In the startling account of Joseph’s dream, the Gospel of Matthew implies that the survival of Jesus depends on Joseph’s openness to listening to the wisdom of God, mediated through the unconscious.
A dream can change everything. This is not only good Jungian and Freudian psychology, but the wisdom of the ancients as well as contemporary paranormal studies. All the great wisdom traditions, including the Christian tradition, emerged from mystical experiences. The world is charged with the grandeur of God, as Gerard Manley Hopkins asserts, but the great moments of human life involve seeing that grandeur with heightened consciousness, going beyond the obvious to see the presence of the Holy in everyday life. God is with us in the heights and the depths, the conscious and unconscious, and the obvious and the subtle.
Although the liberal tradition exorcised literalistic interpretations of supernaturalism for good reason, especially as it separated God and the world and promoted a unilateral understanding of divine activity, liberal pastors, theologians, and biblical scholars have often thrown out the baby with the bath water. In so doing, they have severed the church from its mystical beginnings and the ongoing experiences of mystics. Scholars and scholarly pastors often only speak to one another, but have lost credibility with laypersons as a result of their ultra-rationalism and theological deconstructionism. Because no one expects anything extraordinary in worship or prayer our services have become lifeless and one-dimensional.
I am not arguing for a return to biblical literalism or supernatural understandings of God’s movements in the world, but for a recovery of holistic spirituality and theology. The faith of Jesus is more than an ethical lifestyle; it is a way of experiencing life that shapes everything we do. It is a mystical vision, open to the power of prayer, healing touch, mystical experience, and contemplative self-transcendence. (For more on life-transforming Christian spirituality, see Bruce Epperly, Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians and Tending to the Holy: The Practice of the Presence of God in Ministry, written with Katherine Gould Epperly.)
I am grateful to the work of Carl Jung and his followers for their affirmation of the mystical and healing power of dreams. Our unconscious is unpredictable and contains shadow as well as light; it also reflects the Spirit’s movements in “sighs too deep for words.” We need a robust rationalism that is matched equally by a robust mysticism and openness to the wisdom of the unconscious and non-rational elements of experience. The gift of Christmas cannot be sustained by pure rationalism alone; even if we suspend our disbelief for a few moments to enjoy our children’s Christmas pageants, at a spiritual level, we still need shepherds and magi, angelic choirs and life-changing dreams, to discover the deepest meaning of Christmas. These stories may not be factual as presented, but they are nevertheless spiritually true, revealing the incarnation of God in everyday life and across ethnic differences. They proclaim that can God is with us, enlivening and enlightening every aspect of life. The birth of a baby change everything; when a child is born “unto us,” the world is renewed and hope bursts forth.
A few weeks ago, we reflected on the relationship of Jesus and John the Baptist. Today, let’s put ourselves in Joseph’s sandals. His world is turned upside down by the news of Mary’s pregnancy. She must have mustered the courage to tell Joseph, knowing it would likely lead to a relational breakup. Without a doubt, Mary is a heroic figure in her embrace of the baby, the risk of reputation, and willingness to lose everything for the sake of following God’s pathway. Joseph is also a spiritual hero as well.
If you were Joseph, and your significant other reported a pregnancy as a result of a relationship with “another” (be it human or divinity), how would you respond? Would you be as generous as Joseph is reported to be in Matthew’s Gospel? Or, would you want revenge? Would you want to humiliate your significant other?
How would you respond to a nocturnal angelic visitation? Do you think Joseph immediately changed his mind, or did he take time to ruminate about this surprising turn of events? In the biblical tradition, dreams are seen as one way the divine speaks to humankind. If we take this insight seriously, then God is still speaking through dreams and intuitions. Have you ever had a life-changing dream? What new realities have you experienced as a result of insightful dreams?
God’s providence moves through all things, including the unconscious mind. Unconscious wisdom can be brought to consciousness and become a catalyst for changing our conscious values and behaviors. The working class Joseph becomes a spiritual hero, because he – like Mary – says “yes” to God’s call to bring wholeness to earth. Without the faithful risk-taking of Mary and Joseph, would Jesus have ever been born? Would God’s message of Shalom have come to earth?
So with the song of the angels and angelic visitations on the horizon this season, let us open to “more than we can ask or imagine.” Let us go beyond one-dimensional understandings of ourselves and reality to embrace the wondrous world of Christmas – of the birth of a baby, unexpected divine revelations, and holiness around every corner.
Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, and professor in the doctoral program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of forty books, including the recently released The Gospel According to Winnie the Pooh and Becoming Fire: Spiritual Practices for Global Christians along with Process Theology: Embracing Adventure with God.