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Spirituality of the Readings
Fourth Sunday of Advent A
December 18, 2016
John Foley, SJ

A dream changed Joseph’s life—and ours (Gospel). A mere dream, like what you and I have every night.

How trustworthy could this be? And yet the safety of Mary and the child Jesus and that of the whole world depended on it! In this dream, an angel told Joseph that Mary’s pregnancy was from the Holy Spirit of God. Mary had accepted this readily but without really understanding. And the angel said that Joseph should not be afraid of the pregnancy, even though he had not yet even married this woman.

Joseph’s dream was like the face of mother to an infant. It was like the voice of a close friend.
Not be afraid? Everyone could see that Joseph’s fiancé was “in a family way.” USA culture might applaud this fact, as it does when movie stars have children with whomever they please as often as they please. In Biblical culture marriage was a sacred act, a participation in God’s own fidelity, and it seemed that Mary had broken with that fidelity, at least as far as the townspeople could see. The Blessed Mother a public sinner! No wonder Joseph was making arrangements for a “quiet divorce.”

So why in the world would he reverse himself and trust a dream? Do you trust dreams? A friend of mine had one about a kangaroo sitting on the roof in a rocking chair smoking a pipe! Should my friend check the roof for rocking chairs, just in case? No. We take a dream for what it is, a mechanism of our psyche that somehow processes our experience but does not give us literal truth. We do not usually rely on them for life-changing messages.

Why did Joseph? I think the answer has to do with something St. Ignatius of Loyola calls “discernment.”

In general, discernment is an examination of one’s internal reactions (“movements of spirit”), especially when they happen in prayer. There are many different movements, of course, but there is one that may describe Joseph’s dream. Sometimes, rarely, grace is so gently strong that the person praying has an inner assurance that the experience did not come from imagination but from God. Somehow it is something impossible to doubt.

You and I have to be careful not to get carried away by this notion. Probably many of us could convince ourselves that God or an angel spoke to us this morning. We need to “discern” which experiences are from God and which are not. Are they quiet? Do they lead toward God or away? What is the long-term result? A spiritual director could help us sort through such questions.

But I think Joseph’s might have discerned his dream as coming from God. It contained—not a kangaroo, but—a quiet certainty of the presence of God. No doubts followed it, though they would surely seem warranted. Joseph’s dream was like the face of mother to an infant. It was like the voice of a close friend.

Joseph was a good man. He already had a storehouse of trust in God’s love. He did not experience this storehouse as broken into and entered, shattered or pulled to pieces by the dream. Instead the message fit right into the design of Joseph’s life with God and his love of Mary. And so they followed.

What is your internal sense of the Christmas story? Is the birth of God impossible, reserved for children? Or do you find the roots of trust within yourself as Joseph did?

John Foley, SJ

Fr. John Foley, SJ is a composer and scholar at Saint Louis University.
Art by Martin Erspamer, OSB
from Religious Clip Art for the Liturgical Year (A, B, and C).
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