Joseph her husband, since he was a righteous man, yet unwilling to expose her to shame, decided to divorce her quietly. Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Joseph, son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary your wife into your home. For it is through the Holy Spirit that this child has been conceived in her. She will bear a son and you are to name him Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”Matthew 1:19-21
Matthew’s infancy narrative uniquely features the figure of Joseph at its center. So little is revealed about him, and yet, as we approach the end of Advent and the coming of Christmas, he challenges us to awaken to the Divine presence, activity, and call in our own lives. No matter what our intentions each year, the final days before Christmas inevitably have about them a sense of the hectic and compressed. There never seems to be enough time to do all that must be done in preparation for the coming celebration. So caught do we become in the stress of time as chronological that we forget the very heart of the significance of the Incarnation, that life and so time is also kairos. Kairos, as described by the professor of humanities Mark Lilla, is “the moment in time that breaks through time, reorienting it. In the blink of an eye we experience our time as gift, as miracle.”
In Matthew’s account that we read today, Joseph’s intention, after very serious reflection, is to divorce Mary quietly so that she is not exposed to the shame from being mysteriously pregnant. Joseph is described as “a righteous man,” and, as righteous, he has carefully and caringly determined to do the right thing by every measure both of tradition and compassion. Because the passage is so familiar to us, it is easy for us to cease to be startled by the description that follows: “Such was his intention when, behold, the angel of the Lord appears to him in a dream . . . .” The gospel writer attempts to shake us with the exclamation “Behold!” What is being described is that Joseph’s determined and set path has been disrupted. In the order of chronos, Joseph has made a difficult but wise decision and is to set out on the way forward that such a decision requires. Being “righteous” he knows the way in which he should go. But “in a dream” his life is re-orienting by the breaking through of kairos. He had seen the meaning of Mary’s pregnancy through the lens of custom, tradition, and convention, and, as righteous, knew the way he must go. But it was only “in a dream” that he could come to know the wonder and the gift that this “moment in time” contained, and what it would unexpectedly ask of him.
So, as we live out these final days of preparation for Christmas, we can ask ourselves how much space we have for the unexpected miracle of God’s presence and new and unexpected call. We live by routine and habit. In this way, our life is largely a traditional and conventional one. In our somewhat “anti-traditionalist” culture, we still readily absorb whatever current conventions are pulsating through our society. The conventions of our lives are not only cultural but also personal and biographical. That is, at the deeper levels of our personalities we are most prone to live out with a fair degree of compulsion repetitious behavior. Psychoanalysis has taught us that we are so deeply formed by the formation situations of our early lives that we tend to live them out repeatedly throughout our days. Very early on we learned the meaning of events and situations in our lives, and so we keep acting based on those meanings.
In the Joseph of the gospel, we see an example of one who interprets Mary’s pregnancy in light of his tradition and its customs, and, very wisely and righteously, dialogues that tradition with compassion for Mary. So, his decision to divorce her quietly is, as best as can be determined, the most righteous and compassionate possible way forward. So often our repetitions are far less conscious and carefully thought through than that of Joseph. We presume to know the meaning of the situation and how to act because, for us, it has always been this way. Yet, it is in a dream that Joseph realizes another and startling new possibility, that this child is a gift of God to both Mary and himself, and his life is now to be that of protector and nurturer of this child, a child that he is to take to himself even though it is not his.
There is in this story of Joseph a teaching for all of us about discernment. When we continually pray “Thy kingdom come on earth as it is in heaven,” to what are we committing ourselves? It is to a life that is not tangentially but primarily committed to learning and doing God’s will. To make such a commitment, however, requires of us the humility to recognize that God’s will is not so readily accessible to us. What is readily accessible to us is our tendency to repetition born of convention and transference. Even when we attempt as seriously as Joseph does to make good decisions, there is often a veil between our consciousness and God’s will, which is the true and deepest reality of things. To pray that God’s will be done in us is to pray that our whole life and consciousness be transformed by the purging of our self-will in all of its conscious and unconscious forms.
As with Joseph, our access to God’s visitation as illumination and call requires that we allow ourselves to dream. Dreams are revelatory and integrative in ways that our focal consciousness is not because when we are dreaming the focus and drive of our waking designs are stilled. In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus himself realizes, as he prays that God will save him from his impending suffering and death, that there well may be a ” (Luke 22:42). The revelation of God to Joseph came in a dream because, as good as his intention was, he was so intent on discovering the right way forward. Joseph’s deep concern for Mary and for himself limited the possibilities he was able to envision through his own efforts.
None of us sees the world as it is. Rather, we each operate from our own unique map of reality. This map takes shape over time through our own experiences, our earliest family, religious, and cultural formation, and the ongoing influence of our own times and mores. This is why the teaching of Isaiah is universally true that God’s ways are not our ways and God’s thoughts are not our thoughts. In meditation and prayer, we still the physical, social, and rational-functional dimensions of our personality and awareness so that our transcendent potency can come to the fore. At the level of spirit we can know God’s will. We are a capacity in awe and wonder to be surprised and to perceive and receive the miracle of God’s presence and call. This capacity is what Jesus is referring to when he tells the disciples that “you know the way to the place where I am going” (John 14:4).
We have a great tendency to complicate what we refer to as the contemplative and active dimensions of our call as believers. Perhaps one of the great disservices the church rendered was to create a form of life it called contemplative, thus suggesting that contemplation was a special call or gift for the few. The truth is that contemplation is a requisite disposition for the life of faith of every person. Some months ago I attended a congregational meeting and at its conclusion many voiced how its decisions were clearly the work of the Holy Spirit. I’m afraid I could not so readily concur. It is not true that whatever we do is the work of the Spirit and the will of God. After all of his work to do the righteous thing, Joseph had to abandon himself to the inspiration of his dreams to receive God’s will and so to be able to do it. Be it individually or as a church, we must abandon all that is certain and urgent in us and “dream,” if we are to know God’s will. This “dreaming” is what we call contemplation. It is putting to sleep all that is compulsive and willful in us so that our own spirit, which knows the way we should go, might be heard by us.
When Joseph awakens from his dream, he takes Mary into his house. True contemplation always becomes act, for it is call. God’s will in and for us is not an idea; it is a way of being and a Divine task for the world. It is only in contemplation that we know our true place in the world. Our life is meaningful because it is “for” something at any given moment. Jesus says that we know the way, but most of the time we don’t know that we know it. It is only in meditation and contemplation, in the awakening of our transcendent form potency, that we discover and realize that way.
But we can also get beyond ourselves, if we know how. Andrea Köhler wants to persuade us that learning to wait can open the soul to surprise, to wonder, to what Christian theologians call the kairos, the moment in time that breaks through time, reorienting it. In the blink of an eye we experience our time as gift, as miracle. Just let go, she says, and wander:
That all roads are, in some way, also detours we feel in places like Venice or Lisbon, where most lanes and alleys end at city walls, bridges, or canals. How could we bear life without travel, which reminds us that sometimes we must get lost to get where, without knowing it, we want to be: this piazza, that façade, or that enchanted panorama we wouldn’t have found without making a wrong turn. But roaming is also an end in itself. It follows the distant call of mysterious voices, children playing, the peal of bells of borrowed time. Only one ready to lose himself in the labyrinth enters into the dream that a place dreams of itself …
Wise advice for those who would practice living and being alive.Mark Lilla, foreward to Andrea Köhler,. Passing Time: An Essay on Waiting, pp. 14-16