God’s Holy Dream
Fourth Sunday of Advent (A) | Fr Timothy Radcliffe asks: Do we dare get caught up the adventure of God’s holy dream, of a love beyond all imagining?
What are your dreams? We are all supposed to realise our dreams. If you potter around the web, a lot of these seem to include going to Australia, bungy jumping, or becoming a celebrity. There is, of course, the American dream, that anyone can become very rich.
No doubt Joseph the carpenter had his dreams. Perhaps of having lots of sons who would all be successful carpenters, or furnishing Herod’s palaces. But all these were dashed by his holy dream, in which he is commanded by an angel to take Mary, his pregnant fiancée, and marry her and raise her child as his own. This dream sunk all the little private dreams he might have had.
There is nothing wrong with us wanting to realise our dreams. But these dreams are all rather small and petty compared with Joseph’s dream, which is about being caught up in the infinite mystery of God’s love for all of humanity. Few of us are likely to have dreams of angels commanded us to do alarming things. But Joseph’s dream is God’s dream for us all. It is of the child who will save all people, who is Emmanuel, God with all of us.
So the question is this: Do we want to be stuck in our small private dreams, or do we dare get caught up the adventure of God’s holy dream, of a love beyond all imagining. We may be blocked by simply not desiring enough. God says to Ahaz in the first reading, ‘Ask for any sign you want, absolutely anything’. But he does not dare to. He pretends that he does not want to bother God. ‘Far be it from me to tempt the Lord’. It is like someone who is offered Paradise opting for a week on the Costa del Sol.
The little private dream is about what you can achieve. The Tiny Buddha website says: Never give up on your dreams: ‘If you work hard enough and do all of the necessary planning, you can achieve any goal that you set yourself.’ Joseph’s dream is of pure gift. It is realised in a child who offers us everything, for free. Also, the small private dreams are for what we know and understand: lots of money, winning Strictly Come Dancing or whatever. These are knowable ambitions. We see other people who have achieved them.
Joseph’s holy dream is for what passes all our understanding. It is a love which is beyond our grasp. It apparently involves disaster. His nice respectable life must be lost. He must marry a woman pregnant with a child not his own. He will take upon himself shame. And the child will be a disgrace to his parents, hanging around with prostitutes and coming to a dreadful end. It sounds more like a nightmare than a good dream. But actually it is the most wonderful story of love. But it takes time to see this.
Herbert McCabe OP called love a ‘growing word.’ When you are a baby, love means your mother giving you food when you scream. As you grow up you learn that it may mean her sometimes not offering you her breast and even doing awful things like leaving you at school. Love can sometimes look like rejection. Ultimately it looks like a cross with a dead man hanging on it.
At Christmas we are invited to trust the Lord who only longs for our utter happiness, even if he seems to go about it in an odd way. This is the holy obedience that Paul talked about in the second reading. It is not just doing what you are told. It is being led into the mystery, step by step.
Finally, the little private dream often makes promises that are frankly untrue. The American Dream says: ‘You can be anything you want. You just have to believe in yourself’ But this is not so. I cannot do anything. I could never run a four minute mile because I have the wrong sort of body. And I could never be the Provincial bursar, because I have the wrong sort of mind. It offers an illusory escape from limitations. It is a phoney infinity, as if we are raw material which 3 D printers can turn into anything.
But in God’s holy dream, we are accepted as we are: limited, weak, foolish, mortal. In Jesus God has embraced us in our limitations, and offers us everything. The English Jesuit poet, Gerard Manley Hopkins wrote: ‘I am all at once what Christ is, | since he was what I am, and This Jack, joke, poor potsherd, | patch, matchwood, immortal diamond, Is immortal diamond’.