Please write a thousand word essay on one of the following:
- I have a dream.
- Dream job.
If you’re a fan of television’s Grey’s Anatomy, maybe you’d pick the first and delve into pop culture and the longevity of a medical melodrama. Or perhaps your essay would highlight Martin Luther King Jr.’s transformational 1963 speech in the shadow of the Washington Monument. Then again, you might respond personally, sharing about the ideal career you have now or aspire to claim in the future. Depending on your view of President Obama or Trump, you might instead write about the politically-charged Development, Relief, and Education for Alien Minors Act.
Dreams die young. What a dreamboat. Dream a little dream of me. Dream Team.
Philosopher Joseph Campbell declared, “Myths are public dreams, dreams are private myths.” Back in the 1960s, Bobby Kennedy made this George Bernard Shaw comment famous: “You see things; and you say, ‘Why?’ But I dream things that never were; and I say, ‘Why not?’”
We are dreamers, yes?
The Biblical witness contains well-known dreamers. Jacob, head resting on rock, dreamed of heaven. Joseph interpreted Pharaoh’s dreams. With Daniel, compared to all the rest of the Bible, dreams are strewn about that book’s chapters so frequently you’d think the word was found in a supermarket’s ten-for-a-dollar sale.
But in the New Testament, with one exception, only Matthew dreams. Search Mark, Luke, and John and no one has sleep disturbed. Read anything by Paul (or Paul’s surrogates) and never once does he awake to remember a nighttime revelation.
The exception? Early in the Acts of the Apostles (Acts 2:17), Peter quoted Joel about old men dreaming. But that’s “cheating,” isn’t it? Joel was, after all, located in the Old Testament.
Only Matthew dreams. And mostly in the New Testament’s first Gospel, only Joseph dreams. Of course, I don’t mean the Joseph who helped Pharaoh discern his dreams nightmares. No, I speak of Mary’s betrothed. In Luke, of course, Gabriel visited the dreamless Mary. She had face time with a divine messenger. But Matthew’s Joseph, anxious and conflicted, shuts his eyes at night. When he greets the day’s new light, Joseph remembers.
Other than Joseph, only two others have dreams in Matthew.
With Jesus’ cross looming, Pilate’s wife awakened and sought her husband to tell him of her anguished thoughts (Matthew 27:19). “Have nothing to do with that innocent man,” she urgently whispered to Pilate. Her warning will be ignored. It is also a warning that defined the experience of Matthew’s other dreamers: the Magi. In Matthew, the travelers from the east shared a cautionary nudge while fitfully slumbering. With their gifts already strewn about the feet of Mary and Joseph and the child, they rise to remember a night message imploring them to return home “by another road.”
Beware of Herod’s scheming!
Unlike Pilate’s wife, the warning was heeded by the Magi.
I am not much for dreams. Maybe it’s my strange schedule. I typically rise at 4am, rarely remembering any dreams. Does my early morning habit thwart their work? Maybe. And I rarely like novels where a character’s dreaming explains a past or future course of action or reveals a crucial clue. The oft-quoted adage for writers is “show, don’t tell.” Which is to say that readers prefer action: dialog that matters or scenes where the hero’s hard work pays off. In fiction, dreams can be a storyteller’s lazy crutch.
And yet, though I think of the Christmas stories mostly as sacred fiction, I don’t see Matthew’s unique use of dreams as an easy way to tell a story. We don’t prepare for sleep by scheduling sexual fantasies, video game-like adventures, or divine conversations when later resting on our fluffy pillows. Whether warnings or blessings, dreams arise, unbidden and odd, unexpected and colorful (or black-and-white). We don’t and can’t plan them.
I have no idea why Matthew chose the dreamer’s path while Mark, Luke, and John did not. I suppose if Gospel dreams were commonplace, if Jesus’ actions or the Pharisee’s reactions were continuously underscored by nighttime revelations, I’d grow bored. I’d wish they would show and not tell. I’d believe the Gospel writers to be lazy and unreliable.
But only Matthew dreams.
And I pay attention. Every Gospel writer, and every believer from first to twenty-first century, struggles to personally embrace and publicly proclaim the Holy longing. Sharing faith can so easily seem a fool’s effort, like explaining Einstein’s theories to an infant or reading Dostoyevsky to a geranium. Still we try. Try we must.
Jesus, divinely foolish, frequently shared simple, homespun tales. Better than dreams, yes? But how casually I’ll read his parables of forgiveness or justice or neighborliness, convincing myself that the Nazarene’s referring to someone else. Or, clever fellow, I read the parable and emphasize its historical context rather than how it’s—here and now—a distressing “mirror” exposing my me-first agenda.
Nothing that strives to explain faith, stories or dreams or personal experience, is easy to tell or be told.
Are dreams divine whispers? Holy clues? Spiritual scribblings? Sacred gifs? What I “know” is this. Matthew chose to have Joseph, the Magi, and Pilate’s wife dream. I believe Matthew was claiming this good news was often beyond our control, arriving as an unbidden, unsettling opportunity and responsibility.
Were those dreams Matthew’s way to explain the inexplicable?
Were those dreams Matthew’s wake-up call for believers?
Old and young, we dream, awakening to a world (then and now) that desperately needs love.
Image – Dream of the Magi (1260-75) – Baptistery of St. John, Florence.