What are we willing to risk in our encounter with God? When we read the Gospel for this Sunday, Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus, we already know how the story ends. Like little children with a bedtime story we know by heart we’re eager to chime in with “and they lived happily ever after.” But to read the story this way is to take away both its power and its subversive application to our lives.
We forget that Joseph didn’t know how the story would turn out. He hadn’t seen the end of this movie when he had a strange dream. What Joseph had was a fiancé who was pregnant before they had been together. Here is where we tend to be oblivious or squeamish. Joseph faced a fiancé pregnant by someone other than himself. He would have assumed that he had been cuckolded. Whether today or two thousand years ago Joseph’s position would have been one of pain, shame and confusion. As a just and righteous man he didn’t want to cause any more pain than had already been afflicted so a quiet divorce would have been the only way to salvage some shred of dignity enabling both he and Mary to go on with their lives. The alternative would have been to allow Mary to be stoned for adultery.
But then, in the midst of the turmoil Joseph has a dream. This is where we like to skip ahead. Of course he will understand that the dream is of God, of course he will take Mary as his wife, of course the child born will be the Son of God. But was anything certain in those first sleep addled moments when Joseph awoke and wondered what on earth he had just dreamed?
There would have been very little risk for Joseph if he had done as most of us would have, shake his head and think “what a strange dream” and sink back into the pain of his knowledge of Mary’s pregnancy. God had sent an invitation, an invitation that entailed enormous risk for Joseph. Today or two thousand years ago the sudden, strange, incomprehensible messages of God call us to give up our well planned future. Joseph’s future would have entailed a painful divorce and sense of betrayal if he had ignored the dream. But to listen to the dream would have entailed entry into an unknown land.
If we listen to the strange, whispered invitations of God we will risk the unknown, the incomprehensible. No one would have blamed Joseph for thinking his dream was a chimera, a reassuring hope obscuring the difficult reality. Indeed how would most of us react when a friend comes to us, ready to take a huge risk based on a dream that they insist is from God?
But to listen to God is to walk blindfolded on an unknown road. For Joseph it meant facing shame and derision from those who had not heard the news, the dreams or the angels that only we know come from God. For those of us who are Benedictine it means taking the risk of committing ourselves to a way of life that makes little sense in world. Inside or outside the monastery we risk saying that there is nothing more important than to seek God. We commit ourselves to a way of life, a set of values at odds with our predominant culture. If we listen, truly listen and respond to the odd dreams, stirrings and angels that whisper, we will walk down an unknown road.
For Benedictines this risk is echoed in Benedict’s chapter on incorporation of new monastics into the community. In chapter 58 of the Rule of Benedict he describes the process whereby the new, idealist seeker comes to the monastery. Full of hope, the newcomer has probably already given up a tremendous amount to arrive at the door of this house of God. And there, instead of a warm welcome acknowledging the call and the risk to show up on the doorstep of a monastery, Benedict says the newcomer should be left for several days knocking on the door.
Benedict is saying: do you know the risk of responding to this invitation from God? Do you know the risk of entering monastic life where your life will no longer be your own but will belong to God? Benedict says: listen, are you going into this journey with full awareness, with your eyes open? The Rule requires a long period of transition, of formation in this new monastic way. When the probation is finally over and the new monastic is to be received into the community there is a final symbolic process to remind the new member of the risk of listening to God.
The new monastic writes out lifetime promises of stability, obedience and fidelity to the monastic way of life and places the document on the altar. In this action the risk is both symbolized and made real. The monastic profession of one individual is united on the altar of Christ’s sacrifice. The action says are you willing to follow Christ in obedience and sacrifice? Are you willing to take the risk? Can you give up your comfortable, complacent life and walk the unknown road of transformation, taking on Christ in this journey that requires the cross before the resurrection?
But now it is Advent, the time of coming, the time of new birth. With birth everything will change but we stand at a crossroads, will this birth happen in our lives? Will we take the risk of the entry of God in our lives? We make the choice every day. Listen: in strange dreams, in the whispers of angels, in odd and unexpected corners of our lives God is inviting us to risk, to travel an unknown road. Are you listening?