Monday, December 19, 2022

The Voice of Angels


Matthew 1:18-25

Advent 4 / Year A

“We belong to two worlds,” writes Kate Farrell.  “The invisible, hard-to-know eternal one we come from and the noisy, obvious, temporal one all around us.”  Countless numbers of the world’s poems, myths, teachings, and traditions hint at our dual reality.  Take Plato, for example.  He made sense of our nature by saying we first live in the eternal world but then leave it behind when we drink from the Lethe, the river of forgetfulness, prior to being born.  But it is not total forgetfulness, he says, and thus we see human beings from all cultures and conditions and ages trying to find the first world while living in the second.

In the Bible’s story of creation found in the second chapter of Genesis we are told God forms a human out of the dust of the earth, but this person only becomes a living being when God breaths into him the breath of life.  In a theological sense, then, we are dust and breath, physical and spiritual, temporal and eternal, of this world and of another realm, of the earth and of God. 

To be fully alive, fully human, means learning to cultivate both aspects of our nature; learning to embrace both the dust and the breath.  And more than embrace them, learning how to integrate them; to hold both as distinct and complementary parts of our lives.  For many of us, the breath is what we do on Sunday morning – it is church – and the dust is what we do the rest of the week – we work, we go about the business of managing a home, we shop or sail or talk on the phone.  If asked how we connect the two, many might say the breath helps us to be better people, to live moral lives, and to remember God as we live in the world of dust.  And this is not a bad place to start the work of integration, but there is more… much more than this.

In this morning’s reading from the Gospel of Matthew we hear again the story of Jesus’ birth.  Luke’s Gospel tells the story from Mary’s perspective, while Matthew focuses on Joseph’s side of the drama.  Joseph is for us a model of dust and breath, of living both in the temporal realm and the eternal.  We are told he is engaged to be married when he learns his fiancée is pregnant.  The text tells us he is a ‘righteous man,’ an apt description of dust and breath.  The way he integrates the two leads him not to anger, vengeance, or wrath toward Mary, as we might expect, but to a concern for her dignity and welfare.  Thus, he plans to end the engagement quietly. 

At this point the text takes a startling turn.  Joseph falls asleep and begins to dream.  In it, an angel appears to him and reveals to Joseph his fiancée is to bear God’s child, the Savior.  Joseph awakes and the rest of the story, as they say, is history.  He will dream again, learning the child is in danger and so he takes his family and flees to Egypt.  There, after a time, Joseph will dream again and understand it is safe to return. 

If the task of becoming fully human is the task of deepening integration between dust and breath, then Joseph gives us much to ponder.  More than being a ‘good person,’ he hears the voice of angels, discerns the meaning, and acts decisively in accordance with what he perceives.  There is something in Joseph which allows him to bridge the forgetfulness Plato described.  What do you think it is?  I don’t know I can describe it for you, but this I do believe… whatever it is, it is not unique to Joseph.  It is there for each one of us.  Maybe more important than describing the thing Joseph has is searching for it within our own soul, accepting it, and embracing it.

In his poem Evening, the German writer Rainer Maria Rilke pens this wonderful thought:

your life is sometimes a stone in you,

   sometimes a star.

There are times when we sense our life is a stone, temporal, nothing but dust; and there are times, usually brief and fleeting, when we know ourselves to be a star, eternal, wild with the breath of God animating everything about us.

Creativity seems to be one way to ascend as a star.  Writers, artists, musicians, poets, and actors seem to be able to lay hold of the eternal in a way we uncreative types struggle to find.  More and more I find I find the breath of life within me as accept it is already there.  I spent this week pondering when angels speak to me.  I have come to realize the forgetfulness wanes and breath flows and the star rises and the voices speak when I write, when I walk, when I am in the shower (there is something about water, like at baptism, which opens us to God’s Spirit), when I read, when I garden, and when I can sit in church and worship.

And, I recognize angels try to speak to me when I dream.  I remember one vivid dream from some time ago.  I was in the basement of the house where I grew up (and my childhood home is a setting for many of my dreams).  This particular time it felt deep and foreboding.  As I tried to climb the stairs out of the basement the first tread gave way.  The minister from my youth was in the basement, silently watching as I repaired steps.  I woke from my dream with a sense my near future was going to test me and be challenging.  Basements are dark and difficult places.  The way out of the pit I was about to experience would not be easy, but my dream reminded me I know how to fix the stairs.  All those people from my past who have invested so much in me had prepared me for the work ahead.  I carried this dream with me throughout a turbulent season in life.  Without it, I might have been overwhelmed.  With it, I managed to find breath in the midst of dust.

Think about today’s reading.  Isn’t it amazing to realize God’s entire plan of salvation rests on one person paying attention to a dream!  You and I… we are no different from Joseph.  There is a mystery at work in our lives; a mystery from before the world began.  It is the rising star beckoning to us as the stone sinks, it is the eternal reaching out to us in the temporal world, it is the breath giving life to the dust.  When do you hear the voices of angels?