In the Gospel reading for today, we hear the story of Joseph, his dream, and his choice to remain with Mary and be a father to this child. Joseph’s fidelity to Mary is a kind of a model of God’s fidelity to us, but he chooses that faithful accompaniment of Mary and Jesus without God’s omniscience. He chooses it from a human place of doubt, uncertainty, and the “messiness” of ordinary life. Joseph doesn’t really know what it means to remain with Mary, and his initial impulse is to follow common social convention in what would have looked like an honorable action from the outside: to leave Mary and to do it in a quiet way where no one could malign him or his virtue, either. After all, she was apparently pregnant with another man’s child. He could have left her and yet by doing so quietly, still appeared to be pious, good, upright—and according to every human convention, he would have been honorable in doing it quietly.
But instead he has a dream, and the dream changes everything. Joseph’s dream is an experience of the thinning of the veil between heaven and earth. Joseph not only learns what he is missioned to do, but he also has an experience that parallels Mary’s encounter with the angel. Like Mary, who has a lot to ponder in her heart about all that the angel said and all that is to occur, Joseph’s dream probably left him with more questions than answers. Yet he is willing to follow God’s lead and to listen to what the dream tells him.
The Incarnation is about God’s coming to be among us, and Joseph’s dream is a kind of prefiguring of the coming of Jesus, insofar as the dream also is a case of God breaking into his own world to make sense of and to redeem the situation in which he finds himself, which is again—setting aside the Christmas pageant narrative version of the story for a moment—a complete mess. Joseph is pushed out of his tendency toward quietness and pious virtue into a landscape that is far more complicated—into a long journey into Bethlehem, later a flight into Egypt, and the even more challenging terrain of a relationship with Mary and Jesus. The journey with them will be full of complications, and it is unclear exactly what Joseph’s part in the story will be. But meanwhile,he has a dream, and the dream leads him to trust in God and in whatever God will bring to him. That is our invitation as we anticipate Christmas, too: to pray, to trust in God, and to place ourselves into the divine and human narrative relying not so much on our own virtue as on God’s lead. Where will God take us next?
*Rembrandt’s Dream of St Joseph