Matthew 2:1-12 – Epiphany* of the Lord – for Friday*, January 6
“Because they were warned in a dream not to return to Herod, they went back to their own country by another route . . .” (Matthew 2:12)
Mary, however, received a formal visit from Gabriel to discuss a divine future.
Those wandering, follow-the-star wise guys fitfully dreamed of Herod’s schemes.
The shepherds experienced a starlight symphony, hillside seats for an angelic orchestra.
Dreams distinguished Matthew and Luke’s unique accounts of the nativity. Matthew waited for the participants to settle into sleep. Everybody seemed to have eyes wide open in Luke. Indeed, in Luke, there were no dreams. But Matthew, from start to finish, from the first anxious thoughts of Jesus’ impending birth to the holy family’s return from Egypt, sleeper’s sleep and dreamer’s dream.
I have no idea if my dreaming is “average.” My odd, early morning habits—I rise around 4am to begin writing—may thwart potential dreams. And yet I recall some dreams, especially ones that recurred with startling similarities. For years—decades!—I dreamed about a glitch with college graduation. Did I finish my degree? I’d awake unsettled, as if living a lie. When younger, I regularly dreamed of flying. Airborne dreams, I’ve read, are common. Common or not, I enjoyed mine. Unlike waking with the dread of deceit, my winged memories provided uplifting feelings.
Dreams can be sexual, symbolic, graphic, and ephemeral. We fall and never hit the ground. We walk through rooms that later, awake and with eyes as wide open as Luke’s Mary, make us feel like we’ve been in that place before.
I’m usually disappointed with dreams in fiction. Real dreams are elusive and unbidden. Real dreams are like light fading at day’s end. Suddenly gone, at most you remember a feeling or one perplexing moment (like, who was that person chasing me?). But when a novelist or screenwriter creates a dream for a main character, I cringe. As someone who writes fiction, I know the best writing comes after numerous revisions. Every scrap of dialog between Romeo and Juliet or each word that visualizes Scout Finch’s Maycomb, Alabama is a by-product of intense and intentional effort. Using a dream for insight into a character, or to confuse or inform the reader, seems a cheat. Details in fictional dreams are too, well, detailed, and too easily recalled. (There are exceptions. I think the dream ending 1972’s Deliverance is a powerful cinematic moment. As the character Ed Gentry jerks awake, I sensed his life of unending guilt. He’s trapped by the past.)
In general, aren’t films dream-like? Is that why they’re so popular? Is that why they can touch us so deeply? Philosopher Susanne Langer wrote, “Cinema is ‘like’ dream in the mode of its presentation: it creates a virtual present, an order of direct apparition.” Of course she wrote those words in the 1940s, long before the video game Warcraft became a movie or any film that M. Night Shyamalan has made since The Sixth Sense.
Those of us in the Baby Boomer generation know the raw, transformative power of wide-awake dreamers. Martin Luther King Jr. will forever be revered for his “I Have A Dream” sermon. Bobby Kennedy famously declared, “There are those that look at things the way they are, and ask why? I dream of things that never were, and ask why not?” I’ve heard part or all of King’s speech many times, but it still makes my hair stand on end. I never liked Bobby Kennedy as a politician, but that quote above deeply resonates with who I am as a citizen and person of faith.
Dreams abound. They scare with adult nightmares and embarrass with adolescent nocturnal emissions. Wasn’t Eden a lost dream? Wasn’t Moses’ promised land of milk and honey, especially in the twentieth year of the forty years of wilderness wandering, an impossible dream?
The last we read of Jesus’ fleeting childhood and youth in Matthew included a dream. Joseph sleeps and dreams of Nazareth and, it would seem, when he awakes, Jesus is full-grown. Isn’t it like that for parents? Suddenly, as if a dream, a child once wearing diapers heads off for university or work or the military.
Today I think of Matthew’s Magi and their dreaming ways. If we’re honest about their place in the mythology of Jesus’ beginnings, their arrival occurs several years after Jesus’ birth. They never met the shepherds; they know nothing of Joseph and Mary’s first tender (and probably terrified) gaze at their newborn. But arrive they do, giver of gifts, travelers from afar, to pay homage. They’d met old Herod and, though the story doesn’t say, maybe they believed him when the crafty ruler claimed to also want to pay homage. All of this is to say that the Magi, like you and me, had their fair share of dull-witted and aha! moments. They were unknowingly duped by the powerful and brought to their worshipful knees by the weak.
Then the Magi slept. I imagine a restless night. Like Joseph, they were nudged by a dream with warnings. For the most part, the Christmas story with a new child, and new parents, concluded with their dream. The Magi awoke with a choice: what will they do now?
The old is passing. The new beckons.
Thomas Jefferson said, “I like dreams of the future better than the history of the past.” As someone who only rarely dreams at night, and as someone inspired by others’ waking dreams, Jefferson’s words are a central, essential truth of this day called Epiphany. Dreams reveal a new way to go home.
What route—for this new year, with a new and oddly divisive president, and in the neighborhood where I live and work—will I choose as I depart the lessons of this season’s Bethlehem?
* For my weekly reflection, I decided to embrace Friday’s day of Epiphany and ignore Sunday’s first week after Christmas. Maybe I was eager to get past the holidays?