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Sunday 18 December 2016 - Fourth Sunday of Advent

Jesus was born of Mary, the betrothed of Joseph, a son of David

Four candles on Advent wreathI recall watching an episode of ‘The Bill’, an English police drama. The episode centred round an ‘honour killing’. A woman had deserted her abusive, alcoholic husband. So, in accordance with the customs of her Indian clan, she was murdered. She had dishonoured the family of the husband. She was killed for bringing shame on her husband and his family. Mary was also in a shameful situation, so far as Nazareth was concerned. She had fallen pregnant before she was taken by Joseph as his wife in the fullest sense. Under Jewish law, she could be stoned to death. This is where the extraordinary character of Joseph comes through. We have to get the sequence in our heads.

Before Joseph had a clue about divine intervention in Mary’s pregnancy, he decided upon a merciful and compassionate course of action: to break the marriage contract quietly and discreetly and to allow Mary to get on with her life as best she could. Joseph did not ignore the situation, but he had an exceptional large-heartedness, so that he preserved a future for Mary even though she had apparently wronged him. Joseph did that, and then something extraordinary happened. What happened? Joseph slept that night in a way which allowed God to reach into his dreaming state. If he had gone to sleep that night in the turmoil of a vengeful frame of mind, such that Mary would get ‘her just desserts’, that ‘the punishment would fit the crime’ against his honour, he would not have been ready to have the deepest levels of his consciousness stirred in the way God wanted.

We all know that in our waking hours we are so focussed, so blinkered, so frenetic that our minds are rarely receptive to God’s prompting. The windows of perception are opened when the eyes are closed in sleep. In the deep sleep of a just and good man, Joseph was enlightened as to the divine dimension of Mary’s pregnancy. Of course, there are many aspects to that dimension, but the one which this Gospel passage helps us focus on is that God was breaking through the patriarchal structures of that society and had acted as creatively as on the first day of creation. The old cycle of human history, literally generation after generation was being broken. Something utterly new had happened. Joseph received that intuition in his deep sleep. You and I are just as likely to receive an intuition as to God’s plan for us in the depths of sleep: who we really are, who we are destined to be, where we ‘fit in’ to God’s plan for transforming the whole of creation.

We have to prepare ourselves by not going to sleep with vengeful hearts, especially not to defend an artificial sense of our own honour. Then we have a chance of receiving those divinely inspired insights. When we get them, these instructive moments in our sleep, what can we do when we wake up? We can dismiss them as the fantasy of slumber. Or we can do what Joseph did: get up and do what is needed to fulfil the message. [In his case, to take care of Mary as his wife and to make sure the baby was called ‘Jesus’.] So, Mary had great cause to thank Joseph for being such a large-hearted man. We have cause to thank Joseph for showing what dreams can be made of. Tonight might be the night!

Fr Michael Tate