John Bennison Words and Ways | The Way of Battered Hopes and Dreams: Advent IV

The Way of Battered Hopes and Dreams: Advent IV

 

A Commentary for the Fourth Week of an Advent Journey, 2010

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Designated Text

The birth of Yeshua the Mashiah happened in this way.  Miryam his mother was engaged to Yosef, yet before they came together she discovered a child in her womb, placed there by the holy spirit.  Yosef her husband, a just man and loath to expose her, resolved to divorce her secretly.  But as he was making plans, look, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, “Yosef, son of David, do not fear to take Miryam as your wife.  The child engendered in her came from the holy spirit, and she will give birth, and you will name him Yeshua.  For he will save his people from their wrongdoings.”

 All this was done to fulfill the word of God uttered through his prophet Yeshayahu, saying, “Listen.  A young woman will have a child in her womb and give birth to a son, and his name will be Immanuel.”

 When Yosef rose from his dream, he did what the angel of the Lord told him, and he accepted her as his wife, yet he did not know her until after she gave birth, and he called the child the name Yeshua.

 Translation by Willis Barnstone, The Restored New Testament 

 

Prologue

When they heard a knock on the door yesterday, José and Maria hid in their run-down one-bedroom apartment.  Perhaps it was the U.S. Census taker returning, they thought.  That was the only visitor they’d had since last summer; when they’d refused to provide their last names, or any other information.  But in fact, it was their landlord instead, who’d come to demand their past-due December rent one last time.  They were nearly three weeks late, and they already knew eviction was imminent.

Since July, when they’d begun living together, the two teenagers had always managed with summer jobs to scrape up the cash somehow, month after month; so they’d successfully slipped under the radar, once again. In fact, as nearly grown children of illegal immigrants, their whole lives had been a matter of living in the shadows in an East LA barrio.  But now push had come to shove, and whatever hopes and dreams they’d had were fading quickly, as their young lives were becoming more complicated than the two of them were prepared to handle.

Maria had shown promise in high school, and upon graduation had dreamt of a college education one day; while José had always seen his best opportunities for a future life together someday volunteering for military service and a career there.  Then in June, Maria had discovered she was 2-months pregnant, and – truth be told – neither of them knew for sure if José was the father.  Returning home to either one of their families with such a burden was not an option for them. Though uncertain where to turn, all they knew for sure at that moment was that they’d best gather up their few belongings, and flee for their uncertain lives.

It was already dark when they slipped out of the ramshackle apartment building, into the cold December night.  The drizzling rain had finally stopped, and now the clouds were clearing to expose a steel blue sky, studded with a few bright silver stars.  They could hop public transit with what little cash they had, and spend the night riding from one end of the City to the other.  Their hopes and expectations for what kind of future lay ahead for them had shrunk to a handful of hours.

The two huddled together and peered out the window, as the bus lurched away from the corner stop.  They hardly noticed the battered yellow metal newsstand, displaying LA’s Sunday newspaper headline: “Senate defeats the Dream Act, 55-41.”

 

Commentary

In actuality, I have no idea if that was the exact text of the front page of today’s LA TImes, though the facts about what happened yesterday in Washington are now a part of the history books.  And my little December nativity fable is only as true as it is believable to you, my reader.  In my own defense, however, I’d suggest Matthew’s tale is no less incredible.

Officially called the Development, Relief and Education of Alien Minors Act, the acronym DREAM Act was meant to provide undocumented immigrant students who have been living in the U.S. their whole lives a path to citizenship by enlisting in the military or going on to college.  For the last ten years, proponents of such legislation have argued the DREAM would give hundreds of thousands a chance to contribute back to the country that has given so much; and a chance to utilize their hard earned education and talents.

The defeat of this legislation was touted as a resounding victory for those who have denounced the bill as a mass amnesty plan. “This bill is a law that at its fundamental core is a reward for illegal activity,” said Sen. Jeff Sessions (R-Ala.).

That is, the hopes and aspirations of such crooks as Maria and José are the consequence of the criminal activity of their illegal parents. In this nation, it would appear the sins of the fathers and mothers have indeed been visited upon their children, and their children’s children.  And, in this holiday season, it is not only a question of no vacancy in the inn.  It seems there is simply to be no room for José, Maria and their newborn in our midst.

 … it would appear the sins of the fathers and mothers have indeed been visited upon their children, and their children’s children.  And, in this holiday season, it is not only a question of no vacancy in the inn.  It seems there is simply to be no room for José, Maria and their newborn in our midst.

While we never seem to exhaust our capacity to trample on each other’s hopes and dreams, it seems equally clear to me we have difficulty legislating them, as well.  Lord knows we try.

The repeal of the military’s ban on gays openly serving in the military was finally passed on the same day our elected leaders opted to turn away other would-be military volunteers.  But granting so-called amnesty to others that dwell amongst us was tantamount to unprincipled acquiescence, in the eyes of a sufficient number of our nation’s leaders.

It would appear the “American” dream is comprised of as many dreamers as inhabit this land; whether our forebears landed on these shores legally or illegally.  Yet we seem to stumble our way towards the ideals of our founding principles as a nation, wringing our hands and dragging our feet all the way.

 

Context

I express my particular perspective on this hot potato issue of immigration reform in an even larger context, in which we all share a common experience, namely this:  José, Maria, you and I all have our own personal hopes and dreams that are often dashed and smashed in the course of our lives.  For me, it is what makes an Advent journey about fresh hope, expectation and promise a ritual we are willing to undertake over and over again.

You and I have our own personal hopes and dreams that are often dashed and smashed in the course of our lives.  For me, it is what makes an Advent journey about fresh hope, expectation and promise a ritual we are willing to undertake over and over again.

Over the course of this annual sojourn we re-read those well-known passages from Isaiah, describing all the nations and people’s of earth setting course on a common, holy path; ultimately leading to a place as yet unknown to us all, except in our highest hopes and dreams.

And we hear again the story of Johanan the Dipper, willing to lose his head over essentially turning in to the authorities the one who would come among us with such alien and unwelcome notions.

And, I mention it as well, in light of the fable which Matthew’s gospel tradition hands down to us about this no-last-name shadowy figure named Joseph, from a two-bit town in a backwater province of the Empire, who’s engaged to his pregnant virgin bride-to-be.

For, while I can reflect and share with you the grand vision Isaiah describes as the mountain top “house of the Lord,” or Jesus’ alternate vision in parables of what the “reign of God” would be like, I also know the way there is undertaken by each one of us under own steam.

I may share the fundamental view expressed by ML King, that, “ the arc of the universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”  And, at the same time, I suspect each of us will wrestle with our own hopes and dreams; and ask ourselves if we have the gumption to take another step in that direction.

Then it becomes less a matter of the common good, and a lot more personal.  And, if we’ve been around the block a couple times, we have discovered our own hopes and dreams don’t always seem to work out as planned.

Yet, if we are willing to consider the possibility that God is still able to still raise up something worth redeeming out of our dashed hopes and battered dreams, my hunch is we may be more inclined to half-reluctantly whisper the words, “Incline my heart, O Lord.”  For ultimately — we may also come to know and believe — as the heart goes, so goes the will.

Yet, if we are willing to consider the possibility that God is still able to still raise up something worth redeeming out of our dashed hopes and battered dreams, my hunch is we may be more inclined to whisper, “Incline my heart, O Lord.”  For ultimately — we may also come to know and believe — as the heart goes, so goes the will.

After all, we all know how Mary is portrayed, humbly subjugating her will when a baby stirs in the womb, and God has other ideas for her.  In the upside down kind of future God has in mind, the high and mighty will be brought low, and the meek and mild raised up. Mary will sing her Magnificat with the purest of soaring notes, and be highly exalted for her own personal inconvenience and trouble.  But the future stepfather of the child she will bear has a tougher row to hoe.

Despite his near-anonymity, Joseph is not only the patron saint of surrogate nobodies, but the poster boy for whom dashed hopes and battered dreams are left to the uncertainty of a rather reckless faith; trusting there is a redeemable future to a present moment that holds nothing but disappointment and heartache.

I am not one to believe in the inscrutable nature of a divine plan, simply requiring my acceptance of a little misery to prove I can trust all that is good and right will prevail in the end.  At the same time, however, I have come to know and believe that some of the greatest blessings in my life have come my way, not because of me, but in spite of me, my own choosing, or my own hopes and dreams that would have ended up a whole lot differently.

So I think of my younger fictional character, José; and try to imagine him on the dark and empty streets of his uncertain future, by thinking about old Joseph; though we know little more of him than we do José.

The gospel writer tells us Yosef is a decent fellow, righteous, some would say even magnanimous; in the fact that he’s apparently willing to quietly his pregnant fiancé.  In fact, he had “resolved” to do this, Matthew says.

And I can imagine that when Joseph had, in fact, consciously resolved this raging conflict within himself, he must have gone to bed that night, alone — again; but at least with his mind settled.  He must have thought to himself, he’d finally be able to get a good night’s sleep, after days of tossing and turning over the pain of his angry hurt and gnawing suspicions about Mary.  A good night’s sleep would be welcome relief.

But then, there is this startling dream that just may have been more than a fabrication of his own subconscious, or the result of something he ate for dinner the night before.

Perhaps it had come along after a dream of his own, one of escape from the drudgery of his mundane existence, a dead-end job and a bleak future for a Galilean peasant living under strict religious codes of behavior and a brutal and repressive occupation by the only superpower in the world. It may have been a dream that began like his favorite one, filled with sweet promise — like those daydreams he’d often had of Mary.

Contrary to everything else that beset his life, at least there’d been Mary.  Ah, Mary!  She’d been the sum of his hopes and dreams for sons, old age, companionship through the long winter’s night, and maybe even pomegranates in the spring.  Despite all else, she was one promised possession he’d prized above all else; and, though only a woman, he might even honor and cherish.

In fact, only the day before, Joseph had been daydreaming.  It was a typical day for a poor carpenter, working quickly while there was daylight, when the days were short and winter was blackening the sky well before supper.  Hammer, and chisel, and hard olive wood; peg and mortise, table and stool.  His nostrils would fill with the familiar smell of dust and wood chips, as he’d struggle to recall the scent of her hair.

He’d wondered if his rough and callused hands were already too worn to feel how soft the back of her neck would be, when they would one day soon curl up and lie together.  It was only one man’s dream, a peasant’s dream; not much of a dream, by some standards: a length of days, an insignificant life in the scheme of things, a winter sun for warmth, a peasant’s wife, and – if God would grant him such favor – sons.  His own sons.

What kind of father would he be, he would have asked himself, as we all do?  Too strict or gruff, lenient or neglectful, indulgent or loving, or — most likely, a little bit of everything?   It would be blessing enough.

And then, contrary to an ordinary man’s ordinary hopes and dreams, this other intrusive dream and startling vision would rouse and wrest him from his own.  And he would wake with this unwelcome call to take Mary as his wife, cast out his fears, and play the fool.  If he could abandon all his lost hopes and dreams, would he be such a fool for God?

By dawn, a pounding knock on the door would wake him from such an unsettling dream.  A census taker would tell him he’d have to trek to Bethlehem to register his rightful place in this world.

The tradition would quickly go on to push Joseph’s perfunctory role in the nativity story further back into the shadows, where his own dreams would fade.  What of his own hopes and hurts?  The gospels would tell of Mary weeping for her son at the foot of the cross on Calvary.  Would anyone know or care to wonder about Joseph, his absence, or his aching heart?

All we know is what the gospel tradition in Matthew tells us.  Joseph took Mary as his wife, but did not name the child born to him Joe, Jr., as he might have wished.  Instead – and for reasons each of us can only ask and answer for ourselves – he inclines his heart towards something not of his own choosing.  He gives his son the name “God saves,” and leaves it at that, to see what will come of it.

 

Epilogue

No matter how complicated and conditional I try to make it sometimes, faith is as simple a notion as it is a rare gift.  I know it is sometimes borne of dashed hopes, shattered dreams and broken hearts.

But I also know, as the heart goes, so goes the will.  And when the heart can be touched, bending one’s will to an unknown future is as good an expression of faith as I’ve ever come up with myself.

… when the heart can be touched, bending one’s will to an unknown future is as good an expression of faith as I’ve ever come up with myself. 

To look at it, my life could not be more different than that of a first-century Galilean peasant, or an undocumented Hispanic youth pounding the streets of Los Angeles.

But then I look back at the number of Advent journeys I have undertaken thus far, the longing expectation of the one to come, and the course of my own life I never could have imagined in my best hopes or most dreadful dreams.

And I see within it all a long and winding road that not only leads where I would not always have chosen to go; but more than once have encountered along the way a few, who – as if they had been somehow sent – have picked me up and led me home again by another way. This other way of battered hopes and dreams.

O City of the angel’s realm,
how still we see thee lie!

Above thy deep and dreamless sleep
the silent stars go by.

Yet in thy dark streets shineth
the everlasting Light;

The hopes and fears of all the years
are met in thee tonight.

Slight adaptation of the original words! Phillips Brooks, 1867

 

© 2010 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

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This article should only be used or reproduced with proper credit.

 To read more commentaries by John Bennison from the perspective of progressive Christianity and spirituality go to the Words & Ways Archives: <http://173.254.107.125/wordsnways>

7 Comments

  1. Although your José and Maria may be fictional – I am now surrounded by them – in real life. Thanks John for a very meaningful commentary on the Advent story – and bringing it home to today’s reality. I DO SO MISS YOUR SERMONS ON A WEEKLY BASIS!!! Thanks for your commentaries. Have a wonderful Christmas.

  2. Dude, Read your piece; fascinating perspective as always!

  3. Well told. Have often wondered what Mary said to her parents, and their reaction No therapists in those days. Bill

  4. Your parable of undocumented teens makes me pause and reconsider the story of the birth of Jesus. I am so prejudiced against the language of the Bible that its stories usually fall on my deaf ears. So you’ve made this particular story relevant again. And by the way, thanks for sharing Willis Barnstone. I just ordered “The Restored New Testament.”

  5. “Battered hopes and dreams” are the lot of humankind. Only a child looks up at the stars and sees windows into heaven. The rest of us see an immensity beyond our comprehension. We sit by the fire and share old stories that have the strange ability to lift our spirits once again. Fred

  6. “And when the heart can be touched, bending one’s will to an unknown future is as good an expression of faith as I’ve ever come up with…” I like that. – Judy

  7. JB, You have a gift for weaving current events with scripture. Certainly, these messages are a gift to me. Everything else I read and hear is children’s Sunday school in my post-graduate world. Thank you. Stan

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