Fellow Passengers: This week’s Primary Passage (Matthew 1:18-2:12) transports me to the ancient Lycian (Turkish) port city of Myra, 4th century A.D., where the wonder-working Bishop, Saint Nicholas, is performing act after act of tender mercy and kindness. Today, December 6, is the traditional feast day for this saint in the Catholic church, and stories abound of his compassion, like the time he secretly gave purses filled with gold to the impoverished father of three marriageable daughters, providing the dowries that would save the young women from a life of prostitution. Of course, the whole world now knows this saint and sees his impersonators in every mall, with children on his lap, feeding the consumerism frenzy of the season. Here’s something I only recently learned about Saint Nick, though: he is the patron saint of those unjustly imprisoned. Perhaps Nicholas had a special place in his heart for prisoners because he himself was unjustly imprisoned during the era of Christian persecution by the Roman emperor Dioletian, before Constantine ended the persecution and freed the prisoners. Following his release, during Constantine’s reign, Nicholas heard of three men who had been sentenced to death by a corrupt governor, and he intervened, miraculously staying the hand of the executioner and forcing the governor to admit their innocence. Later, three imperial officers who witnessed this were themselves imprisoned and sentenced to death, on false charges. They prayed for God to use Nicholas to perform the same miracle for them. That night, Nicholas appeared in a dream to the Emperor, threatening him if he didn’t release these three men. Constantine awoke, sent for the men, and upon learning of their prayer, released them. He then sent word to Nicholas, asking him not to threaten him anymore, but instead to pray for world peace.
I couldn’t help but think of this story when I read today’s passage, in which dreams play a significant role in preventing a great injustice. Joseph’s betrothed, Mary has been found with child, and the law is clear. She should be punished – the letter of the Mosaic law calls for death in these cases, although by the time Joseph and Mary came on the scene, it appears that the rabbis and priests had “softened” the punishment to banishment and public humiliation. It took a Saint Nicholas-like intervention by an angel invading the dream world of Joseph to stay this punishment and release Mary and her unborn son from what some might consider a fate worse than death. What strikes me in these stories is the fantastic power of the dreams. For a Roman Emperor to commute the sentences for three death row inmates because a far-away holy man troubled his sleep is incredible. For a first century carpenter to go against the mosaic law because he received an angelic visit in a dream, with a message telling him that his pregnant fiance’s child was actually fathered by the Holy Spirit and would grow up to be a Savior, is even more incredible. Later in the passage, we have another example, as a group of wise astrologers from the east follow a star, but don’t follow strict order given them by the King, because they had a dream warning them not to.
If you Google “interpreting dreams,” the first web site that pops up is Dream Moods, which says, You are entering the mysterious and fascinating world of dreams, where the rules of reality do not apply. That is so true for these stories of Nicholas and Joseph and Mary. Our world’s rules of reality do not include good news for unwed women great with child or release for the prisoners. I’ll be going to the local jail this evening for a weekly Bible study with a small group of inmates, and they will confirm that the rules of reality do not include mercy triumphing over judgment. But as people of faith, the rules of reality don’t always apply. In the mysterious and fascinating world of our dreams, we pray and work for a day when the pregnant poor will have good news, when the prisoners will be released, and when the sleep of the powerful will be haunted by angels and saints, warning and threatening them until mercy reigns.
As always, your feedback and comments are welcome.