Courageous Discipleship in Advent

by | Nov 30, 2023

When Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. Her husband Joseph, being a righteous man and unwilling to expose her to public disgrace, planned to dismiss her quietly. But just when he had resolved to do this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream . . .
Matthew 1:18-20

Now Advent begins, this brief and beautiful Christian season with its invitation amid the heartache of this world for us to cast our gaze toward the day when God “will wipe every tear, and death will be no more.” (Revelation 21:3-4) Yet perhaps because that promised future is so beyond our imaginings, Advent also hearkens back, as we will pray this Sunday, to when “in this mortal life God came to visit us in great humility.”

As followers of Jesus, we live our mortal lives in between past and future, in the only time we’ve been given. The spiritual practices associated with Advent help ground us where we are now, for they are about attentiveness–paying attention, watching for how God might come to us, or, like an unborn child, is already here in ways we cannot as yet see.

I love the biblical stories associated with Advent, for each person chosen to take part in the great miracle of Jesus’ birth is a study in courage. Elizabeth and Zechariah, the elderly couple who give birth to John, the one who will prepare the way for Jesus. Mary, the young woman who consents to bearing the Christ Child. Joseph, her betrothed, who accepts the baby to be born as his own. The wise ones from a distant land who begin a long journey, following a distant star. Each receives a divine message that no one else hears; still, they decide to trust it enough to walk by its light.

I find myself particularly drawn to Joseph this year, the man who will raise Jesus as his son. We know so little about him, yet he is an icon of matter-of-fact faithfulness. Surely devastated by the news of Mary’s pregnancy, in kindness he resolves to break off their engagement quietly. But when an angel speaks to him in a dream, he changes his mind. According to the Gospel of Matthew, an angel would come to Joseph on three separate occasions, and each time he would rise and do as the angel instructed.

Like us, Joseph can only glimpse the larger purpose of what’s being asked of him. All he knows is that he and Mary are to parent the child whose existence evokes fear among the most powerful in the land. He receives bits of insight through his dreams, just enough for him to do the next, most necessary thing to protect his family.

Joseph’s example of trust and courage is an encouragement for us, as we pray for clarity and guidance. I also love the idea of God speaking to us in our dreams, that luminous place of consciousness we cannot control or fully understand.

Our sleeping dreams are such a mystery–confusing, at times frightening, yet often so wonderful we reluctantly wake from them. My 92-year-old mother reports having the most vivid dreams now, filled with memories of her childhood and family members who have long since died. She wakes from them filled with joy, and longing for home.

Our waking dreams are equally mysterious. They hold the losses we grieve, the desires of our hearts, and all that we hesitate to say out loud. My spiritual director, a Jesuit priest, encourages me to know my heart’s desire and offer my dreams to God. While their fulfillment is not promised, the fact that they are mine matters to God.

This Advent, I wonder if courageous discipleship might involve taking our dreams seriously. I wonder how God might speak through them, with words of encouragement, consolation, or, as in the case of Joseph, explicit instruction. What might it look like for us to offer our dreams to God, listen for whatever bits of insight and instruction we receive, and trust enough to take the next step in faith?

In preparation for our diocesan conversations about courageous discipleship, I’ve been reading the works of the Rev. Sam Wells, vicar of St. Martins-in-the Fields Anglican Church. St. Martin’s introductory course to the Christian faith, Being With is one we plan to highlight for EDOW congregations. I came across an article Wells wrote entitled The Better Part of Faith. The entire article is worth your Advent reading, but for today I leave you with these hopeful words that harken back to Joseph’s steadfast faith:

When we think faith is all about belief, we beat ourselves up for not being able to hold together all the mysteries and contradictions and far-fetched ideas. But that’s not what Christianity is really about. The Christian faith is really about trust . . . It’s about facing the unknown and seeing Jesus turn around, offer us his hand, and say, “We’re going to walk across the unknown together.” 

May God bless us in our dreams and give us the courage to walk with Jesus toward what lies ahead.