Per Chance to Dream

December 19, 2010

Clay Nelson

Advent 4     
Matthew 1:18-25


It was a few days before Christmas. A woman woke up one morning and told her husband, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" "Oh," her husband replied, "you'll know the day after tomorrow."


The next morning, she turned to her husband again and said the same thing, "I just dreamed that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And her husband said, "You'll know tomorrow."


On the third morning, the woman woke up and smiled at her husband, "I just dreamed again that you gave me a pearl necklace for Christmas. What do you think this dream means?" And he smiled back, "You'll know tonight."


That evening, the man came home with a small package and presented it to his wife. She was delighted. She opened it gently. And when she did, she found-a book! It was entitled, "The Meaning of Dreams".


I think it is safe to say that our dreams fascinate us. It is one activity that transcends all human differences. We all dream, even those of us who don’t remember them. It transcends not just human differences, but species as well. I know my canine mate Zorro dreams, which makes me wonder if the fantail and tui dream as well? How about field mice and rabbits? How about insects? Does the weta have nightmares of being naked in church like I do?


While our dreams sometimes seem deranged, they apparently keep us mentally well. People deprived of dreaming for lengthy periods begin to exhibit mental illness. Their sense of reality becomes impaired.


Yet dreams themselves can often disturb our sense of reality. Have you ever awaken from a dream, and then realized that this is not real awakening, but that you are still within a dream. These dreams within a dream raise the question: do we live in reality, or in a dream of reality? Is the real hidden behind a dreamlike apparent reality? The Taoist philosopher of the Fourth Century BCE, Zhuangzi, once described such a dream:


Once Zhuangzi dreamt he was a butterfly, a butterfly flitting and fluttering around, happy with himself and doing as he pleased. He didn't know he was Zhuangzi. Suddenly he woke up and there he was, solid and unmistakable Zhuangzi. But he didn't know if he was Zhuangzi who had dreamt he was a butterfly, or a butterfly dreaming he was Zhuangzi. [i]


Douglas Adams, author of A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, put it more succinctly: “He felt that his whole life was some kind of dream and he sometimes wondered whose it was and whether they were enjoying it.”


Such dreams are an invitation to consider the nature of reality. Such experiences encourage us to contemplate the deep structure of the universe and perhaps where to find the divine in it. As we do, Zhuangzi reminds us in another teaching that our lives are limited, but knowledge is limitless. [ii] There are things we cannot grasp or understand. Thus we live with mystery, with limited knowing. Every night, our dreams tease us with the limits of our knowing, inviting us to a place of mystery and humility. But on occasion they provide us with the gift of new creative insight or new wisdom. Niels Bohr, the founder of quantum mechanics, was given the critical insight of discrete quantum levels in a dream. He dreamed of horses in a horserace, having to stay in their tracks. [iii] Albert Einstein had a dream about travel at relativistic speeds, leading to his theory of relativity. His dream was about what the stars would look like, while sledding at high speeds. [iv]


Sometimes the gift of dreams is not just new insight but a call to action.


After World War I, in a time of increasing British oppression in India, Mahatma Gandhi was a relatively new participant in the efforts for independence. He and other leaders met to plan opposition to the Rowlatt Bill, which was the continuation of wartime martial law into peacetime. Violent protests had broken out, and Gandhi's appeals for non-violent action were ignored. During this meeting over several days, Gandhi had a dream, which he describes in his autobiography:


“Towards the small hours of the morning I woke up somewhat earlier than usual. I was still in the twilight condition between sleep and consciousness when suddenly the idea broke on me – it was as if in a dream. … we should call upon the country to observe a general hartal [a day of fasting]. … Let all the people of India, … suspend their business on that day and observe the day as one of fasting and prayer.” [v]


We know how that dream played out in reality. The country was shut down by this interfaith fast, essentially a strike, and the Rowlatt Bill was repealed. Moreover, this action launched Gandhi as a leader in the fight for independence for India. We also know such dreams inspire others to dream. Gandhi’s dream led Martin Luther King, Jr. to dream of equality for black Americans obtained through nonviolent resistance.


Anthony de Mello once noted that the shortest distance between our humanity and the truth is a story. Today’s Gospel is one such story. I have a fondness for the story of Joseph’s dream – and not just because it was the biblical underpinning of last year’s Christmas billboard. It hints at truths we sometimes only glimpse in our dreams. They are the kind of truths that have the capacity to transform us. Sometimes they transform the world as well.


Today’s story is not historical. Its deeper truths get lost when taken literally. The truth it speaks of is not the nature of Mary’s conception. It’s truth lies in the scandal revealed. Not Mary’s scandal – Joseph’s. Joseph is a dreamer, like his namesake, Jacob’s son, the one who provoked sibling envy with his coat of many colours and saved Egypt and his family from famine through his dreams. Not so coincidentally, later in Matthew, Mary’s Joseph will save his family from Herod with a dream to go to Egypt. 


Joseph is a dreamlike figure. He never has a spoken part in the story and disappears entirely from the Matthew and Luke after the birth narratives. He doesn’t show up at all in Mark and John. His story is a literary device that sets the stage for the scandalous life and death of the child to be born.


In my imagination Joseph has a voice. Mary has just told him she is with child by preposterous means. “I am a cuckold,” he laments. He considers his options. “It being a man’s world, I should publicly denounce her for her betrayal. Of course she and the baby will be stoned to death. Sad, but that’s the law. But if I do what is righteous I will be the laughingstock of the village. I’m already snickered at for taking a child bride. “Am I up to the task?’ they tease. No, a better option is to just break off the engagement without explanation. But of course the reason will be evident soon enough. Oh what to do, perhaps I should sleep on it.” 


The importance of the dream that follows is not so much its content but that it moves Joseph to violate the norms of his culture through a loving act. It teases him with knowledge beyond his own experience. It gives him insight into the mystery and nature of the divine. Because of it he chooses to defy societal standards and the purity laws of his faith and humble himself. He puts divine justice first and protects Mary and her unborn child. If he hadn’t, Matthew’s Gospel would have been quite short and we wouldn’t be here anticipating the child’s birth one more time. If he hadn’t stoning unmarried pregnant girls might still be considered righteous. If he hadn’t followed his dream we might not know that it takes courage to reflect divine love. It often causes a scandal. May we all have dreams of a scandalous Christmas and may they all come true.




[ii] Burton Watson, Chuang Tzu: Basic Writings, 1996. p. 46.


[iii] Jeremy Taylor, Where pigs fly and water runs uphill: using dreams to tap the wisdom of the unconscious, 1992, p. 30.


[iv] ibid, p. 31.


[v] Gandhi, An autobiography: the story of my experiments with truth, 1957, p. 459.

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