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What is your dream?

December 22, 2013

Gaetano Gandolfi [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

‘Joseph’s Dream’ by Gaetano Gandolfi, c.1790.

A reflection for the 4th Sunday of Advent, year A. The readings are: Isaiah 7:10-14; Psalm 24; Romans 1:1-7 and Matthew 1:18-24.

Thinking about Nelson Mandela the last couple of weeks I was reminded of a quote that I always thought was his, from his 1994 inaugural speech. I knew it was from a poem by Marianne Wilkinson, but I thought Mandela had quoted her: “Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond belief.” Turns out Mandela never said those words or quoted Marianne Wilkinson, still, I find those words so inspiring. And I wonder what is it about some words that they have the power to inspire. Recently I read a blog article that spoke about Martin Luther’s famous 1963 “I have a dream” speech and how inspirational it was. I’ve heard a story that Dr. King had a different speech prepared that day. He had already begun that speech when the Gospel singer Mahalia Jackson, who was sitting close by, yelled at him to “tell them about the dream, Martin.” The rest is history. It was an inspirational speech. The blog article explained that Dr. King could have titled his speech, “I have a complaint”, and God knows he had a lot to complain about, but instead he chose to tell us about the dream. Complaints don’t inspire us. Had he done an “I have a complaint” speech no one would have remembered it. But we remember “I have a dream.” And I guess that’s why I am also inspired by the “our greatest fear” poem.
In fact, just as  I thought “our greatest fear” was used by Mandela, I also thought that in 1963 Martin Luther King had said that part of his dream was that “the lion will lie down with the lamb.” Instead he said, “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” His dream that “one day the lamb and the lion will lie down together” is from a Christmas speech from 1967. He began that speech showing how his “dream” had become a nightmare (there’d been some young black girls murdered in Alabama) – and still, he could have spoken about the nightmare – instead he continued with, “yet I still have a dream.” And those words still inspire. But we know that it’s not only his dream. We’ve been hearing about that dream from the book of Isaiah, every Sunday during Advent. If you go to daily Mass or pray with the daily readings (which I strongly encourage you to do), you’ve heard from Isaiah almost every day of Advent. And Isaiah’s prophecy; his promise; his dream, still inspires us today, 2800 years later. Isaiah had a lot to complain about, but he chooses to tell us about the dream.
[BTW, I think this is why Pope Francis has got the attention of the world. He doesn’t harp on the complaints. Instead he reminds us of the dream: The joy of the Gospel. It’s lesson for those of us whose job is to preach the Gospel. Are we focusing on the dream or are we complaining?”]

King Ahaz in today’s first reading has a lot to complain about. He is not following God’s commands. Ahaz is one of the kings in the long line of kings following David and Solomon. If you remember, after Solomon, the kingdom of Israel was divided into the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern kingdom of Judah. Ahaz is the king of Judah and he is terrified because the Assyrians are invading. Israel (whose capital is Samaria) enters into a coalition with Syria (whose capital is Damascus) in order to defend themselves against the Assyrians (whose capital is Babylon). They want Ahaz in Judah (whose capital is Jerusalem) to join the coalition. Ahaz is terrified and doesn’t trust either of them and instead hedges his bets on forging a pact with the Assyrians. He figures they’re going to get conquered anyway, he might as well make a deal so they don’t kill him. Isaiah, the prophet tells him not to – to not fear Damascus or Samaria, that God is on their side and that he should ask for a sign: Any sign. Ahaz comes up with what seems like a pious reason to “not test God”, but in reality he does not trust God. He has no faith (that’s why Isaiah responds with “is it too little that you weary my God?”). Ahaz would rather make decisions based on pride and fear. Still, Isaiah gives him the sign; “a young woman is with child and shall bear a son, and shall name him Emmanuel.” Because of the Gospel of Matthew, all Christians today take that to be a prophecy about the Messiah. But it to have been a sign for Ahaz it also had to have had meaning at the time. Many scholars believe the statement to have referred primarily to Ahaz’s young wife Abijah who may already have been pregnant with their son Hezekiah. The next lines of the prophecy are that this son will still be a child when the kings of those other kingdoms are gone, and imply that this son will be king, ie, Ahaz has nothing to fear (in fact, Hezekiah does grow up to be the great King Hezekiah of Judah). But Ahaz refuses to focus on the dream and instead focuses on the nightmare; the complaint. He focuses on the fear. He goes on to make a pact with the Assyrians and that is the beginning of the end of Judah.

How often are we like that? We refuse to hold on to the dream and instead hold on to the complaints, to the nightmare and to the fear. How often are we so afraid that we lose faith and trust in God and instead we trust our own devices, and our actions are motivated by pride and fear? God speaks to us through our dreams but we are not listening. Ahaz’s problem is a problem of faith. We have to let the Lord come in (Psalm 24), trust him, no matter what – despite all the crap that’s going on around us and trust that Emmanuel, God is with us.

In contrast, in today’s Gospel, Joseph actually has a dream. God actually speaks to him in his dream. Joseph also had a lot to complain about. His young wife was pregnant and he was not the father. I imagine Joseph having to hold on to that dream throughout his life. He never lived to see the promise fulfilled. And, especially in the beginning, life was not easy: Having to choose to take Mary as his wife despite what everyone else is thinking; having to go on that stupid trip to Bethlehem for that dumb census just so that the Romans could tax them more. And then Mary decides to go into labour and they don’t have a place to stay. And Herod wants to kill the baby and they have to flee to Egypt where they have to live as refugees. “Thanks for making everything so easy, Lord!” (“No wonder you have so few friends if this is how you treat them” complained St. Teresa of Avila to God.) He could have focused on the complaint; but instead, he acts motivated by the dream; by faith and trust in God. In the Gospels, Joseph never says a word; he is a man of action and he is a man who follows his dreams. He always wakes up and follows his dreams.

There’s a song by Martina McBride that I find very inspiring and I thought was based on a poem by Mother Teresa: “The good you do today may be forgotten tomorrow. Do good anyway.” After all the confusion with Nelson Mandela’s and Martin Luther King’s quotes, I had to check to see if Mother Teresa actually said this or if it’s just from the song. Turns out that it’s both. Mother Teresa’s poem is very similar, but here’s what Martina McBride sings:

You can spend your whole life buildin’ something from nothing; one storm can come and blow it all away. Build it anyway.
You can chase a dream that seems so out of reach; and you know it might not ever come your way.
Dream it anyway.
This world’s gone crazy and it’s hard to believe that tomorrow will be better than today. Believe it anyway.
You can love someone with all your heart for all the right reasons and in a moment they can choose to walk away. Love ‘em anyway.
You can pour your soul out singin’ a song you believe in and tomorrow they’ll forget you ever sang.
Sing it anyway.
God is great but sometimes life ain’t good. And when I pray, it doesn’t always turn out like I think it should. But I do it anyway. I do it anyway.

Life is hard; that’s a guarantee. But God is with us; that’s also a guarantee – that’s the promise of Advent. We have to believe in the dream. We have to have faith and hope. We have to let God speak to us in our dreams.

What are your dreams? Are you going to be like Ahaz and hold on to the fear or are you going to be like Joseph and hold on to the dream? But don’t just dream; in the morning, get up and do.

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From → English, Reflections

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