Advent Art: The Dream of Joseph, by Rembrandt
By Br Joseph Bailham, O.P. | Br Joseph reflects on the importance of St Joseph for the season of Advent.
The person of St Joseph is not generally the focus of a great deal of attention during this Advent and Christmas period, though admittedly he receives a great deal more attention now in the Mass readings than at any other time of the liturgical year!
There a few paintings around which depict St Joseph dreaming, a trait characteristic of him, but also of the Patriarch Joseph in the Old Testament. Having taken the name Joseph in religion, I have always felt somewhat obliged to embrace the yoke of this particular charism of sleeping and dreaming!
Unlike my dreaming, the dreams of St Joseph in Scripture are far more poignant. In the Gospel of Matthew we have four mentioned: in the first, ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to him… and said, “Joseph, son David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the One conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit;’ the second, when ‘an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream [and said], “Get up!… Take the Child and His mother and flee to Egypt… for Herod is going to search for the Child to kill Him;’ the third, when he is told to go back to the Land of Israel for Herod was now dead; and fourthly, being afraid to go back to the Land of Israel after he learned that the son of Herod, Archelaus, was now reigning in Judea, he was warned in a dream to withdraw to Galilee.
St Joseph is presented as the earthly guardian of Our Lord and Blessed Mother. In the Litany of St Joseph, he is referred to as ‘Head of the Holy Family,’ ‘Chaste Guardian of the Virgin,’ and, ‘Diligent Protector of Christ.’ His headship is intimately bound up with his guardianship of Our Lord and Lady. This is reflected in the dreams that St Joseph has: protecting and guarding Our Lord and Lady are at the heart.
I have a soft spot for St Joseph because he was much like us: he did not have two natures like Our Lord, nor was he immaculately conceived like Our Lady. But he was a just person, a good person, a holy person, all the things we can be if we but cooperate with God’s grace.
Paintings of St Joseph dreaming vary slightly, sometimes with Our Lady and the Christ child in the background, and other times just Our Lady alone (presumably representing the initial dream of taking Mary as his spouse). But when I look at these paintings of St Joseph dreaming, I often let my imagination run a little free and imagine what else he might be contemplating. Maybe he is pondering on the reality of what he has entered or is about to enter into: this rather unusual and wonderful family set-up. Maybe he is contemplating the weight of responsibility on his shoulders, and how he will best live up to his newfound vocation. What I see in these depictions of St Joseph dreaming is his pondering and meditating on the mystery before him, and its implications for his conduct in life. In this regard, I think he is a great model for us, especially in this season of Advent. Maybe like St Joseph, we can stop, close our eyes, and just ponder of the mystery before us, that the Eternal God has visited us; he has taken to himself a human nature and become incarnate as a child, born of a woman, in order to save us from our sins. Like St Joseph, we can ponder on the significance of this event for our own lives and conduct. What does this all ask of us?
We might do well at this holy time of the year to ask St Joseph to pray for us, that we, like him, may be able to protect and safeguard Our Lord and Lady. Of course, we have no need to protect them from historical Herod, but we do need to carve out a place in our hearts for them both, to be that inn with doors wide open. We need to protect their place in our lives from those ‘spiritual Herods’ which seek so often to kill them, to push them both out our view, offering us alternative and apparently easier paths in life, or things which inevitably fall short of what God actually offers us.
Joseph most just, most chaste, most prudent, most strong, most obedient, most faithful, pray for us in this holy season, and help us to ponder on the significance of the Incarnation of your foster son, Our Lord Jesus, and help us to be, like you, guardians of Our Lord and Lady in our own lives and in the wider world today.
MORE ON: ADVENT
Other posts from the series:
- Introduction: Expectation and Promise, by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Awaiting the New Kingdom, by Br Vincent Antony Löning, O.P.
- William Holman Hunt, The Light of the World, by Br Bede Mullens, O.P.
- Pieter Bruegel, Landscape with the Flight into Egypt, by Br Gabriel Theis, O.P.
- Alexander Ivanov, The Angel Gabriel Appearing to Zechariah, by Br Albert Elias Robertson, O.P.
- Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, The Little Prince, by Br Pablo Rodríguez Jordá, O.P.