Sunday, December 19, 2010

Inception, St. Joseph and the Dream of God

The Dream of St. Joseph
by Philippe de Champaigne, is dispalyed at the National Gallery in London.

(Fourth Sunday of Advent; This homily was given on 19 December, 2010 at the American College of the Immaculate Conception in Leuven, Belgium; See Matthew 1:18-24)

One of the big blockbuster films of this past summer, and a movie that is right now at the top of the charts for DVD sales, is the movie Inception. It is a very well written and compelling film filled with great special effects and intense drama. The characters in that film have the ability to go deep into the dream world of the people around them, extracting secrets from their subconscious and sometimes even inserting ideas—hence the name inception—that have the power to change lives.

Of course, as intriguing as the movie is, at its very foundation it is fiction. Certainly we cannot delve into the subconscious minds of those around us and enter into their dreams against their will. But nonetheless, in the Gospel this weekend we are shown not a fiction but the fact of the inner life of St. Joseph, husband of Mary. We are given an insight and a glimpse into his dream world, and in that place nothing less than our eternal salvation is at stake. We sit on the razor’s edge of St. Joseph’s dream, waiting breathlessly for his reaction to the angel’s voice…but we will come back to that in a moment…

For starters, St. Joseph is not the first dreamer we encounter in the Scriptures. In fact, he is named for one of the great Old Testament dreamers, Joseph the Patriarch. We encounter that Joseph towards the end of the Book of Genesis. He is only a teenager the first time we meet him, and he is dreaming about his brothers, arrayed before him and bowing before their younger brother. That dream is followed by another in which the sun and the moon and eleven stars of the sky are arranged before him; his father and mother, as well as his brothers, bowing in fealty to Joseph (see Genesis 37:5-20).

All too eagerly, and perhaps even imprudently, Joseph shares these dreams with his brothers, who immediately take offense at him. They decide at first that this “master dreamer” (Genesis 37:19) needs a dose of reality, and conclude that he should die; later they change their minds and sell him off into slavery instead. “After all,” they reason, “he is our brother” (Genesis 37:27). Thank heavens for small favors!

We are all familiar with the rest of the story. Joseph gets taken into Egypt where he suffers many hardships and is even thrown unjustly into prison. But soon Pharaoh himself has a vision that perplexes him and so he sends for Joseph, who is renown even in the land of Egypt as an interpreter of dreams. Joseph, with the help of God, unlocks the mystery of Pharaoh’s dream and saves not only Egypt, but the surrounding countries, as well, from famine and destruction. His brothers, true to his prophesy, indeed come and bow before him, even before they realize that he has graciously become their savior.

It is a compelling and beautiful story which reveals God’s power and ability to save us even in spite of our own human frailties and sins. But truth be told, when Joseph’s brothers mock him as “master dreamer,” they could not have been further from the truth. In fact, in all the Scriptures there is only one Master Dreamer, and that is God. His master dream comes to be revealed to us not at the end of the Book of Genesis, but at its inception.

In the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis we are given God’s dream for the human family. It is a dream in which the man and the woman live together in a mutual relationship of love and freedom. There is harmony and peace between them, and that same harmonic relationship exists between them and the rest of the created world. There is a just and peaceful accord between all of creation and God, who wills to walk with the man and the woman in the cool of the evening, content simply to spend time with them (see Genesis 3:8).

Of course, very quickly that dream is shattered; God’s dream for the human family is broken into a thousand pieces after what we come to understand as Original Sin enters the picture. Although we understand the truths of that mythic tale in a way different from our historical reality, nonetheless we see that broken dream played out over and over again in our everyday lives. Perhaps we ourselves, or those we know and love, are in the midst of that very brokenness:

Broken dreams…broken lives…broken promises…broken relationships…and the list goes on and on.

One of the great tragedies today is that so many people experience this brokenness and simply give up on the dream all together. They conclude that peace and harmony in this world is simply not possible and they cease to even try. That is a very sad thing. But even worse is the reality that many in this post-modern world have given up on even the hope for happiness and peace beyond this life. They have given up on even the possibility of an eternal life in which God will set things right and give us “far more than all we ask or imagine” (see Ephesians 3:20).

It is such a paradox because deep within our hearts we long for nothing else than this eternal dream of God; we desire nothing greater than the restoration of this harmony and peace deep within us, and spreading out to all of the relationships of our lives. We cannot help but to dream!

And so thanks be to God that He has revealed to us in the Scriptures this weekend and in the midst of our Catholic faith that He has no intention of ever giving up on that dream! No matter what happens, and no matter how many times we break away from His plan for our lives, God is relentless in making this dream a reality for us.

He so longs for its fulfillment that He is willing, even desirous, to come right into our brokenness, to become broken Himself on the wood of the cross, so that we can be healed and have the hope of an eternal life with Him. He desires to become one like us so that we can become more and more completely like Him. That is the hope we eagerly wait for in this Advent season and it is the plan of God revealed to us in the Scriptures. But that plan this weekend is almost derailed at its inception by none other than St. Joseph!

It is not because St. Joseph is selfish and wants to do his own thing, like Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. No, it is because St. Joseph was a good and righteous man of God and because he had a dream for his life. St. Joseph, like almost all righteous Jews of his time, would have had a dream for marriage and a family, to raise up faithful children of Israel. Suddenly that dream is shattered as Joseph comes to learn that this woman, who by all appearances is so holy, so pure, so perfect…is suddenly so pregnant! And he knows that he is not the father. His dream was broken and we are told in the Gospel this weekend that he had decided to divorce her quietly; he was going to separate himself from Mary and her Child. Immediately the angel of God intervenes and makes it clear, No, Joseph! That is not the right move!

His plan and dream for life was a good one, a holy one even, but it was simply not sufficient. The angel is essentially telling him, You have to dream a whole lot bigger, Joseph, because God is going to do something in your life beyond your wildest imagination. He has a dream greater than you could possibly foresee, and you are an intimate part of that dream.

St. Joseph, for his part, does not miss a beat. We are told that as soon as he awoke he did what the angel had instructed him. In a moment he was able to place his own dreams aside and to broaden his vision to the eternal dream of God. This Fourth Sunday of Advent, are you and I able to do the same?

We all have dreams and hopes for the future; we all have plans and desires that we hope will come to pass. But so many times we hold onto those dreams with both hands and fail to see that God often desires something more, something greater “than all we ask or imagine” (Ephesians 3:20).

Are we willing to broaden our vision to the master dream of God, to His great desire for our eternal happiness, and let everything else in our lives conform to that dream? We must be willing and even eager not only to conform ourselves to that dream, not only to surrender ourselves to it, but to love it! Only there will we have the true freedom to let go of our own plans and to find the greatest desires of our hearts fulfilled in Him.

This Advent, may we find the courage to dream bigger than ever before and seek the inspiration that comes from God Himself and His Son, Jesus Christ, because this is the season, above every other season of the year, when dreams come true.