Among the leaves of a tenth-century illuminated manuscript in the Medici Library in Rome, Joseph lies dreaming. Hands resting on his stomach, brow creased, Joseph sleeps on a multicolored coverlet. Having just discovered that his fiance Mary is pregnant, Joseph has gone to bed thinking he will “dismiss her quietly,” as Matthew tells us in today’s Gospel reading (Mt. 1.18-25). He will wake up with a different plan altogether.
Coming from the upper corner of this manuscript page, an angel with boots and blue wings hurtles toward the slumbering Joseph. “Shooting towards Joseph like a projectile from heaven,” Sister Wendy Beckett says of the angel; “a spiritual rocket is about to land on his anxious slumbers, and his rational world will deconstruct.”
This vivid and homely depiction of Joseph’s dream, and Sister Wendy’s commentary on it, has me thinking today about the intersections between what we tend to call the real world and the world of the imagination, the realm of dreams and visions and stories. Sr. Wendy reminds us that although Jesus’ birth is marked by signs and wonders, it is rooted in the very real experience of a woman who finds herself pregnant and a man who has to discern how to respond to this.
“The birth of Christ,” Sr. Wendy observes in her commentary on this illumination, “can seem utterly removed from the everyday reality of our own life, elevated into a sacred sphere where all is peace and joy. Not so: Mary is living in a real world, though in her innocence she may not have appreciated the full dimensions of it.” (From Sister Wendy’s Nativity and Life of Christ, 1998.)
This artful depiction of the dreaming Joseph and his dive-bombing angel vividly illuminates the intersection of the real world with the dreaming world. Here in the final days of Advent, it’s a timely image, and a timely story, to ponder.
At this point in the Advent season, we may find ourselves wrestling with the hopes and expectations we carried into the season. Ideas we had about how we would spend these days may not have come to pass. Plans we made to have shopping completed by this point, gifts wrapped and under the tree (or in the mail), Christmas cards sent, decorations hung and radiant, cooking preparations under way—and time for intensely meaningful quiet reflection in the midst of it all—well, that just might not have happened quite the way we’d hoped. The real world—the realm in which people get sick, wars continue, death comes to call, relationships crumble, and women find themselves unexpectedly pregnant—may be impinging heavily on us in this season, and for some folks, there is deep dissonance between the culturally expected cheer of this season and the realities of what this month has brought.
How do we move beyond this dissonance to open ourselves to that deeper place where the real world and the dream world intersect?
The past few days of this Advent season have found me trying to discern my way through some chaos that erupted in my personal ecosystem. I’ve spent a fair chunk of time having conversations in my head with a couple of folks who have me sorely vexed. I’ve been focused on trying to move through the emotional layers toward a reasoned, rational, grounded response. But in contemplating the text that Matthew has given us for today, I find myself wondering, what if there’s some other realm I need to open myself to as I discern my way through this? Beyond the realm of emotion, and beyond the realm of reason—both of which are important realms to pay attention to—might there be an additional source that has some help and wisdom waiting for me?
I imagine that Joseph knew about emotion, that he had some kind of visceral reaction when Mary told him she was pregnant. In response, he drew on reason and rationality to form a plan.
And then, Matthew tells us, Joseph dreamed. And his dream came as an interruption, a disruption to both the emotional and reasoned realms he had been inhabiting and acting from. In that powerful collision between the real world and the dreaming world, so literally depicted in the manuscript in the Medici Library, a new way opened up for Joseph. And for Mary. And for Jesus.
As I continue to discern what role I’m being called to take in the chaos that’s gotten stirred up this week, I’m feeling challenged to carry that image of Joseph. His story, and its placement at this point in the Advent season, feels like an invitation to pay attention to my dreaming world. I’m not referring just to my night dreams; I’m thinking also of other realms where the unconscious bubbles up into my awareness. In my creative work, in my life of prayer and contemplation, in the landscape of my imagination: what wisdom might God be offering in those places? What messages might that realm have to offer, as Joseph discovered in his dreaming sleep?
How have you been experiencing the so-called real world in these Advent days? What hopes and expectations did you carry into this Advent season, and what are your hopes now? Who’s got your ear these days—family, friends, news media, old voices you’ve been carrying around in your head, sorely vexatious people with whom you’re having imaginary conversations—and what are they telling you?
What message do you need to hear? What realms are you listening into? How do you—how do we—cultivate an openness to the place where the real world and the dreaming world intersect and offer us the message that we most need?