My friend Diane is one of the most logical, practical, and organized people I know. She’s kind of like a petite version of Mr. Spock in almost every aspect of her personality. Her house is always tidy. She is a faithful Catholic parishioner and Eucharistic minister and I can always count on her to pray for my deepest concerns. She is Italian and her meals are always mouth-watering. She was a kindergarten teacher, and she worked hard to instill good behavior and teach her students all the things they needed to learn in kindergarten. She is one of my best friends because she always gives practical, logical, and compassionate advice.
But there’s one little thing about her that always seemed truly incongruent between my faith tradition and hers. And it comes out in regard to Joseph, the earthly father of Jesus. It seems like superstition to me and totally out of character, but in Diane’s family, when someone wants to sell a house, they bury a little statue of Joseph upside down in the yard of the house they want to sell.
I was reminded of that this week, after her dad, Iggy died, and her mom moved to South Carolina to be closer to family. So, they were going to sell her parent’s house and the statue was about to be buried upside down again.
So, when I read this week’s lectionary reading I thought a little more about Joseph or I should call him St. Joseph. Our bible passage says he was a “righteous” man.” And what a position he was put in when he found out that Mary was pregnant before they had even lived together. Mary could have been severely punished or killed for that offense, and he loved her, so he made a plan to quietly dismiss her.
But God had other plans and sent him a dream. In the dream an angel told him not to be afraid, but to marry anyway. The angel said the baby would be a boy, and he was to name him Jesus. And astoundingly, the angel said that this baby would save people from their sins and that this had been prophesied in the Holy Scripture which said, “Look, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they she’ll name him “Emmanuel” which means, “God is with us.”
Joseph listened to this dream and took Mary as his wife. It’s quite a story.
And how Joseph got associated with selling houses, I don’t know, except that he was a carpenter, he may have built or repaired houses. But more importantly, he was a good father, who listened to a dream from God, and in doing so saved his family.
Interestingly this dream is one of five dreams in Matthew’s birth narrative. In Matthew 2:12, the magi are warned in a dream not to report to Herod; In Mathew 2:13 Joseph is warned in a dream to take Jesus and Mary out of Bethlehem to escape Herod’s slaughter of the male children of Bethlehem; In Matthew 2:19 Joseph is informed about Herod’s death; in Matthew 2:22, Joseph is sent to Galilee by a dream, which explains how Jesus end up being associated with Nazareth, which has not been mentioned in the story so far. How interesting, that this seemingly practical carpenter is a listener to dreams and that those dreams come from God.
And so, Joseph is on center stage on this fourth Sunday of Advent. He joins other pillars of the faith, Abraham and Zechariah, in receiving angelic information about impending fatherhood. Joseph is central to today’s lectionary reading, but we see him as a peripheral figure in the grand scheme of things. Relative to Mary and the apostles, we don’t sing much about him. We rarely see him in art, and when we do, he is rarely alone; he is usually accompanied by Mary and or Jesus. Compared to his wife, Joseph has received much less attention.
Lauren Winner writes, “Like the rest of the church, I do not think of Joseph very often, but I thought of him a few months ago when binge watching the BBC show Call the Midwife. The third episode of season one depicted an expectant father who was over the moon about his wife’s pregnancy— and who did not bat an eye when the newborn’s skin color made clear that the child had, in fact, been conceived in an adulterous liaison. The TV husband took one look at the baby, pronounced him the most beautiful child ever, and took him into is heart and his family without missing a beat. This was in a way, a secularists picture of Joseph; in fact, the TV husband did not have reason to believe that his adoptive fathering was key to the salvation of the world.”
There is something amazing about those situations where a man or woman takes on the task of raising another person’s child. Joseph could have spurned Mary and her son. When we encounter similarly complex family formation in our own families, we may think them scandalous and be impressed by the maturity and open heartedness of the adoptive parent.
The Joseph story poses the challenge to exceed our cultural and ethical norms and to pursue a course of action that is extremely generous. Joseph was supposed to behave ethically and “dismiss Mary quietly” but instead he protected her reputation because he was called by God to a greater good despite the implication of shame to himself.
And so, the Joseph story asks us to consider whether we have the opportunity to be more like Joseph. Can we be a little bolder in our good deeds even when it may be a little riskier to our pride, our reputations?
And if Joseph models an ethics of excessive goodness for us, he also models spiritual maturity. Joseph heard God in his dreams and those dreams kept his family safe providing a model of compassionate and proactive parenthood
In our day, of course, psychologists say that you can’t count on dreams to guide your life, some of those dreams might be nightmares. But many people do find a wisdom in their dreams that is lacking in their everyday lives. We don’t know what purpose dreams serve, but it might be important to pay attention, to pray over our dreams and what they reflect is going on in our lives.
The dark days of December can be a wonderful time to sit with Joseph and be a bit more attentive to the ways, in dreams or in our waking lives, that God is calling to us. Of course, that attention is risky: if we listen for god, we might actually hear from God. Robert Gnuse says, God uses dreams as a tool to direct “human action…often changing the natural direction initially undertaken by people” (“Dream Genre in the Matthean Infancy Narratives,” November Testamentum 32,no.2, (1990):119.) Who among us is as willing as Joseph to receive a word that fundamentally alters the direction of our lives? Joseph probably had other dreams about how his marriage would begin. But he was willing to give up those dreams because he loved Mary and listened to God.
The Joseph story invites us to think anew about how we respond to Emmanuel, the God who is with us, in the scriptures we just read, in our prayers, in our worship, and even sometimes in our dreams. And as to burying the statue of Joseph, in the house you have to sell, well it has always worked for my friend, Diane. Please pray with me.
Lord, let us listen to you in whatever way you come to us.
Help us to do the compassionate thing, even when we don’t understand why things are the way they are.
Walk with us through times of confusion and fear.
Help us to build our houses on the foundation of your love.
Thank you for the dreams of Joseph that made a way for Jesus to come into the world as our savior and in whose name we pray. Amen