Be a dreamer this Advent

I have one of those weight-lifter art books that nobody really reads. You know, the kind you get one of the kids to help you drag off the bookshelf onto the coffee table when company is coming over. Well, in this tome is a picture of a painting by a 15th-century painter, Domenico Ghirlandaio, titled Adoration of the Shepherds. It’s a nativity painting in which the whole world is coming to adore the newborn Christ child. Seriously, this painting looks like it could have been inspired by the crowds at LAX the day before Thanksgiving. And every one of the throng is focused on Jesus. Everyone, that is, except Joseph. (Click on the image for a larger view.)

Joseph is oblivious to the commotion, gazing far off into the distant sky, looking, in fact, in the opposite direction of his adopted son. He is depicted as an elderly man, and, when I saw the painting, I thought he’d already slipped off into dotage.

We know from Matthew’s gospel that Joseph is a man of dreams. And we know that a guy who dreams up the kind of stuff Matthew tells us about—angels appearing right and left with life-changing exhortations like flee to Egypt—isn’t a guy who only has three or four dreams in a lifetime. This guy lives in a dream.

How did Joseph get to be saintly? After all, when he found out Mary was pregnant, he planned to divorce her (Mt 1:19). Not shocking, but also not what you’d expect from a saint. It was his dreams that changed him. Because he was a dreamer, he was able to welcome Mary into his home and into his heart.

I took another look at the picture. In Ghirlandaio’s painting, Joseph is not an addled old man. He is a man of purpose. His hand rests firmly on a sarcophagus that serves as the Christ-child’s crib in the painting and a foreshadowing of his fate. That is to say, Joseph is grounded in the paschal mystery. With that foundation, he looks to the sky, far off in the distance, focused on what everyone else is too busy to see.

The challenge that Advent poses for us is to dream. And to teach our children to dream. But what are we to dream of? Joseph teaches us: A messenger of God, bearing good news.

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  1. What a beautiful reflection! I think it’s a challenge to dream, when our society is always insisting on everything being practical, purposeful, and productive. Yet the best things we produce come from that creative space within, where we can dream.

    Having just finished meeting a lot of deadlines, I am enjoying (for the first time in a long time) an Advent in which there is time for reflection. This picture will help me to do that. Thanks, Nick!

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