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Pilgrim, priest and ponderer. European living in North East England. Retired parish priest, theological educator, cathedral precentor and dean.

Sunday, 22 December 2013

Joseph in the Dark: intimations and announcements

Among the people who walked in darkness was Joseph. He knew the bewilderment of the dark when paths were obscured, the secrets the night hours held. He had dreams. We know it was night because the text says that ‘Joseph awoke from sleep’. If your name is Joseph, it is assumed that you have Important Dreams. In these two opening chapters of St Matthew, he dreams no fewer than three times. Like his namesake in Genesis, these dreams not only touch the core of his personal life but the direction of history itself. By doing three times what the angel says, he makes sure that Jesus is born into a family that can care for him, and is kept safe from the dangers that threaten the Infant King.

There is a whole mystical theology in this story of darkness and dreaming. Ancient wisdom was right to prize dreams. We should learn from it. We don’t pay nearly enough attention to what happens when we let go of rationality and intellect, and allow ourselves to be opened up to new dimensions of awareness and the Spirit’s work in our unconscious selves. The great French poet and mystic Charles Péguy addresses the night as a friend who shrouds us ‘in silence and shadow and in healthy forgetfulness of the mortal anxiety of the day’. Self-abandonment in the journey into God is a risky path to take. But the teachers and writers of all the world’s spiritual traditions tell us that if we are to know God, there has to be a process of ‘unknowing’, letting go of all that we can understand and name, in order to cross the thresholds of new and unknown horizons.

That is why faith is faith. We can expect to be unsettled when we leave the safety of harbour and strike out across the wide ocean of faith where knowledge stops short. So Joseph has our sympathy. To be faced with the news that his betrothed is carrying a child that is not his will have shaken him to the core. In a long, dramatic poem by W. H. Auden, A Christmas Oratorio, there is a section called ‘The Temptation of St Joseph’. Auden has the chorus question Joseph, articulating the argument raging inside him.

Joseph, you have heard
What Mary says occurred;
Yes, it may be so. Is it likely?

Mary may be pure
But, Joseph, are you sure?
How is one to tell?
Suppose, for instance…Well.

Joseph swings this way and that? Like Abraham going into a far country, tormented by the thought that God is commanding him to bind his beloved son Isaac for sacrifice, this is a terrible dilemma: divorce her and let honour be saved, or believe somehow that God might be in this however absurd it seems?

Maybe, maybe not.
But, Joseph, you know what
Your world, of course, will say
About you anyway.’

What matters for annunciations is what we do next. ‘Joseph did as the angel of the Lord commanded him; he took Mary as his wife.’ It says commanded but if Joseph is at all like us, that word conceals the complex, twisting path towards knowing what is required. In the scriptures, patriarchs and prophets, seers and apostles are told to do things, go places, pluck up and destroy, build and plant. It is the story of the Messiah himself from the temptations of the wilderness to the ordeal of Gethsemane.

And human experience tells us that it is our story too. Not simply in the big decisions of life where we long for illumination, for unmistakeable clarity about the direction of travel: whom shall we partner or marry? what will our life’s work be? where shall we live? what shall we believe? what values will shape and guide us?  In a thousand lesser ways, which sometimes turn out not to be lesser, we find we are baffled, 'in the dark as we say' not so much through the absence of annunciations as how to recognise them when they come, and how to test and trust them. Anyone who has taken up what we call a vocation to ministry in the church or to the religious life, or to a role in a caring profession such as healthcare, education or social support understands something of this language of discernment as we call it. But we should not privilege some forms of human activity over others. If we believe that all of human life matters to God, then it follows that we can all expect to be faced by annunciations that have the potential to change our lives, as they did Joseph’s. And even if we did not know at the time that it was such an intimation from another world, we shall probably know it with hindsight, and tell a story about how we said either ‘yes’ or ‘no’ to what the angel said.

A fine poem by Denise Levertov, 'The Annunciation', captures this exactly.
Aren’t there annunciations
of one sort or another in most lives?
Some unwillingly undertake great destinies, 

enact them in sullen pride,

More often those moments

when roads of light and storm
open from darkness in a man or woman,

are turned away from
in dread, in a wave of weakness, in despair

and with relief.
Ordinary lives continue.

God does not smite them.
But the gates close, the pathway vanishes.
So the question for each of us must be: how can we re-tune our ears to listen better, anoint our eyes to see with greater insight, prepare our hearts to say ‘yes’ by recognising God’s time when it comes. That time may come Moses-like as earthquake, wind or fire though more often it is the still small voice that it was for Elijah, or the whisper of the angel of both agony and ecstasy who visited Joseph and Mary. It may come through the scriptures or in the eucharist; it may come through our prayers or our dreams, in the silence of remote places or by listening and talking to those who know us and love us.

It’s never easy. If the annunciation stories we hear before Christmas tell us anything, they reveal just how difficult it is to discern the voice of God calling to us amid the babble of noises off that distract and confuse us. Often we get it wrong, or find reasons for not paying attention or throw up every obstacle we can to turn in another direction: ‘I am only a child’; ‘I am a man of unclean lips’; ‘how can this be, for I am a virgin?’; ‘let this cup pass from me’. If we turn away, God does not smite us, or stop loving us; but a door closes. But have the confidence that providence gives us, and learn to listen to and trust our instincts, and things miraculously shift within us. We walked in darkness but begin to see a light. We sense a destiny, and that opens our mouths to say yes, however tentatively. A door opens that no-one can shut. We know he is Immanuel, God with us.

In this season of Advent, we ask ourselves once more: how will the birth of a Child touch us this year? What new insight will Christmas bring? And if the Infant should knock at the door not just begging our shelter but some new work that only we can do, what then? It could be a disconcerting Christmas, but more wonderful too. I’ve quoted Sidney Lysaght’s sonnet 'The Penalty of Love' before but it haunts me at this time of year. Let me end with it.

He wakes desires you never may forget.
He shows you stars you never saw before,
He makes you share with him, for evermore,

The burden of the world's divine regret.
How wise you were to open not! and yet 
How poor if you should turn him from the door.

Durham Cathedral
22 December 2013 (Advent IV)  Matthew 1.18-25

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