One of the most mysterious and perplexing aspects of our mental life occurs not when we are awake, but when we are asleep. All of us dream dreams, sometimes vivid, sometimes barely remembered. Some are pleasant and some are terrifying. All, however, have an enigmatic and elusive quality that both fascinates and baffles us. Because of their strange imagery and sequencing, it can be hard to make any sense of them at all. Indeed, for as long as we have dreamt dreams, thinkers have pondered and debated their meaning and origin. Sigmund Freud famously argued that dreams often reveal drives and desires that we are not fully aware of in conscious life, but nevertheless shape our thoughts and behaviors in a subconscious manner.
A former student of Freud and a giant of modern psychology in his own right, Carl Jung departed from his teacher in arguing that dreams put us in contact with a primordial realm of symbols and archetypes that are common to humanity as a whole. This “collective unconscious” serves as the shared wellspring for the strikingly similar mythologies of different peoples and cultures around the world: the struggle between light and darkness, the hero’s journey, and so on and so forth. In this understanding of dreams, we are transported out of the narrow bounds of ordinary life and into a realm of cosmic consequence.
Both of these perspectives help us to understand why the Lord chose to appeal to St. Joseph through a dream, and what He desires to teach us through that most consequential vision of the night.
In Matthew’s description of how Joseph responds to the discovery that Mary is with child by the Holy Spirit, the evangelist highlights Joseph’s love of righteousness and compassion for Mary. These, we are meant to understand, are the conscious reasons for his decision to divorce Mary quietly. However, the dream message from the angel of the Lord reveals to Joseph that another, subconscious motivation is at work in his decision: fear. Deep in Joseph’s heart, hidden from him until the angel unearths it, is dread. It is the dread of coming too close to a holiness that has suddenly and disruptively entered his life in Mary. It is the same fear that caused Joseph’s ancestor, Ahaz, to shrink from answering the Lord’s invitation to name a great sign for the salvation of the people of Judah.
The angel is not content simply to reveal to Joseph his ultimate motivations and correct them. No, the angel then communicates the high destiny to which Joseph is called. He is meant to draw close the great sign that Ahaz refused, to be a part of it, to guard it and cherish it. He is meant to take Mary into his home. This is where the world of myth and symbol, the stuff of Jungian dreams, becomes fact and history. Joseph could not handle this mind-blowing message in waking life. So, the angel chose the gentle medium of dreams to expand the range of Joseph’s righteous, compassionate, yet fearful mind to embrace the full meaning of his entirely unique vocation as the Guardian of Christ and Husband of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
We too labor under the barely perceived fear of being caught up out of our ordinary lives and into high and holy strangeness. We also shrink from coming too close to the Lord, dreading to ask too much of Him by such intimacy like Ahaz. The angel’s dream-message to Joseph, therefore, is a message to us as well. We are not to be afraid. We are invited into the great sign. We are meant to take the Holy Family into our homes and know their nearness this Christmas.