Matthew 1:18-25 – The 4th Sunday of Advent – for December 22, 2013
“But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream…” (Matthew 1:20)
And I remember all my children in their first moments, for what man doesn’t want to be a father? What man doesn’t want sons to grow and prosper? What man doesn’t want to give daughters away to good men who’ll care for their families?
When younger, so very long ago, I had dreams. Doesn’t everyone? I daydreamed of accumulating wealth, owning land, for my neighbors to call me “Sir” and seek my advice. But I also admit to the nighttime dreams. Don’t all men dream of women? Being pleased, and pleasing. Being wanted. Being desired. And then the woman arrives, when you know in your bones you want to spend the rest of your life with her, and the dreams of trivial lust transform into tender love.
She comes to me now. My angel. Carefully, she places the bowl of thin soup on the nightstand. She lights the lamp and soon four weak flames flicker. I know she seeks to give me her most encouraging thoughts, but I also sense the unavoidable truth reflected in her eyes. We both know I’m closer to the end than the beginning.
Steam swirls and rises from the bowl. The soup is all I can eat now. She lifts the bowl to my lips, positioning it so the crack James made when he dropped the dish years ago won’t pinch my flesh. We couldn’t throw the bowl away. How can you throw anything away that reminds you of your children?
“I had a dream,” I say.
“Tell me,” she says.
The flames caress her face with a golden hue; she’s as beautiful as when I first gazed at her. But look at me. How much I’ve changed. Now they only call me carpenter in the past tense. Once I could hoist freshly cut planks onto my worktable or shoulder two overflowing satchels of nails to a job site. Now I can’t even lift myself out of bed. I am old and wrinkled and useless.
“Tell me,” she repeats, while feeding me a dribble of soup. “I want to hear about your dream.”
She cleans me up.
“Tell me,” she urges. “Your dream.”
Tears form in my eyes, pools of love, and ponds of memories.
“It wasn’t really a dream,” I whisper. “I awoke, I think it was last night, or maybe the night before, but it was so cold and–”
“I would have brought another blanket. You should have told me.”
I look at her now. “I didn’t want to disturb you.”
Nodding, she wipes the tears flowing down my cheeks with the sleeve of her robe. I shift, sitting up in the bed. I cup my hands. She rests the bowl in my overlapping palms.
“Do you remember just after we first met?”
“I was going to leave you.”
She wipes more of my tears.
“It would have been the honorable thing. The righteous act.” I shivered, grateful to hold the warm bowl of soup. And how blessed I was to have her sweet body press against mine as she waited for me to speak again.
“As a lay in bed, I decided I’d done only two good things in life. One was to marry you, and the other was to trust that dream that helped me understand the first child you carried was not ours to have, but ours to share.”
“It’s like that with all children,” she said.
“But with him, with–”
“I know.” She smiled. “Tell me more.” She took the bowl from my shaking hands, placing it beside the ceramic lamp.
And so I did tell her. In the soft, quiet night, with four flames flickering, I told her the stories she already knew, about the journeys we took together, the fears we shared as one, the hopes we claimed as a family. Of raising children, and believing—on the best days—that the children were helping to raise us, that they gave us a sense of life and purpose. All we wanted was to be good parents. How much I enjoyed talking of those gone by days, when we possessed so little and needed only each other.
On I talked until I couldn’t. After a long pause, after more shivers, I asked, “Have you heard from him? Will he be coming home to Nazareth?”
Her eyes glistened. Did she cry? Was it a trick of the light?
“He was home yesterday,” she whispered.
“I don’t remember that.”
“He was a good boy.”
“We love them all, but he was our first.”
I couldn’t think of what else to say. In the amber flames, her face glowed, as if adding to rather than reflecting the light. She looked exactly like the woman I’d foolishly and blessedly married when she was so young and I was so old.
Finally I managed, “Would you lie beside me until I sleep?”
* * *
Mary nested beside Joseph, lying as close as she could while the only man she’d ever known slumbered. She watched, memorizing every change in his face. The furrowed brows relaxed. The breathing slowed. His wrinkles smoothed. In the flames, as they flickered on into the cold night, she imagined his beard shifting from gray to brown. His hand, lightly on her hip, seemed as strong as it once was, when he raised his children onto his shoulders. She pictured Jesus and James, giggling and wiggling, held aloft, their father beaming, contagious laughter echoing in their home.
She snuggled beside the one whose dreams she trusted.
Anyone can dream, Mary pondered, as Joseph’s breaths softened and slowed. But to dream, and then to act on those dreams was what made Joseph . . . well, it was what made him Joseph. He trusted God, in the harsh present and in the hopeful future. Joseph the carpenter—her carpenter—built more than doorframes and sturdy windows and strong roofs. He built a home, helped create a family.
Yesterday, though Joseph could no longer remember any day’s yesterday, his first-born came to say farewell. But as Jesus broke bread with his father, each sharing only a nibble, he’d never really said a goodbye.
She treasured the boy’s last words to the one he had called father.
“I love you forever. You were the one who named me, Abba. And your name, and what you taught me, will always guide my heart.”
How she wished Joseph could remember yesterday’s words or hugs or shared bread. But wishes, she knew, didn’t matter.
Now did matter. She pressed against the only one she had ever loved. He was husband. Father. Friend. Lover. Dreamer.
The flames flickered through what seemed the longest, darkest night of the year.
Dawn came. Her eyes opened. His did not. For the first time in her life, Mary was alone.
And yet, never alone, for Joseph’s dreams live on and on and on.