Joseph's Dreamtime

Sometimes dreaming has negative connotations, but dreams
and imagination are important considerations in Ignatian tradition.


By Fr Ross Jones SJ, Rector of St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point 

On 19 March this year, the Lenten readings were interrupted for a day as we celebrated the Feast of St Joseph, spouse of Mary and foster father of Jesus. 
Joseph, in fact, is accorded two feast days throughout the year. The March feast was the original, before the rise of Communism and its influence in the twentieth century. The Communist Party machine had instituted May Day (observed on 1 May) as the international celebration of the workers. To counter this influence, in 1955 Pope Pius XII instituted the Feast of St Joseph the Worker to be celebrated on the same day. The Church is well versed in political strategies! 

By all accounts Joseph was a good, wise and just man. A carpenter by trade, he probably taught the young Jesus the skills of his craft. Joseph being an artisan or builder probably meant that Jesus’ upbringing was comfortable enough. 
Many of the early images of Joseph portray him as quite an elderly-looking, grey-haired man. Invariably he is depicted carrying a lily, the symbol of purity. Such representations were created to underscore and protect the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity. But contemporary representations show him to be more youthful. If Mary was betrothed at the age of fourteen or fifteen, there is no reason to suspect that Joseph was any more than a few years older than her. 
Matthew’s Gospel presents us with the recurring theme of “Joseph the Dreamer”. Sometimes dreaming has negative connotations – a person who is not in the real world, who is “off with the fairies”. But in our Ignatian tradition, dreams and imagination are to be important considerations. Ignatius underscored this strongly. Not every insight comes from the logical, rational mind. 
We are told that Joseph had three dreams where he was instructed by an angel. The first was to take Mary as his wife, even though she was with child and they had not yet come to live together. The Gospel says he did not want to expose her to any public humiliation – such a man of character and virtue. 
The second was after the birth of Jesus when Joseph was warned of King Herod’s attempt to kill the child. So he took his family to safety and fled to Egypt. There are many present-day images of Joseph, Mary and Jesus on their flight into Egypt where artists have cast them as modern-day refugees and asylum seekers. They have been adopted as patrons and intercessors by people who share a similar plight. 
A third dream came after a number of years in exile. The angel told Joseph it was safe to return to their homeland. Joseph led them back to normal family life. With Mary, he saw to it that Jesus “grew in wisdom and stature, and in favour with God and others”, as the text says. 
So what do we make of all this dreaming and those angelic messengers? Well, of course, we could take the story literally. God is quite capable of conveying his word to us by any means or medium, including angels. In fact, our very word angel comes from the Greek, meaning “messenger”. 
But “dreaming” might also mean that Joseph was a reflective man. He was one to step back and take time to make choices. For big decisions especially, to sift through the reasons, to read the signs of the times, perhaps to take advice. To be of a discerning disposition, as we might say, and not rush to judgement. If so, that makes him a fine role model and patron for our day. 
In March, when I celebrated Joseph’s feast day with Year 3 students, I shared the life of Joseph with the boys with a presentation of images. I teased out what “a dreamer” might mean, as just elaborated. At the end of these Masses, we always have a quiz before the dismissal. I ask, “What did you learn?” or “What do you remember?” 
The usual responses came: “He was a carpenter”; “He adopted Jesus”; “He was wise”.   

Then one boy suggested, “He was a dreamer.”  

Ah, good, I thought!  

“And what do you think that might mean?” I asked the lad.  

He paused a moment, then said, “I guess he slept a lot.” 
Out of the mouths of babes!

This article was originally published in a recent edition of ‘The Gonzagan’ newsletter for St Aloysius’ College, Milsons Point. 

Banner image: Oil painting of St Joseph cradling the infant Jesus was created in AI, using Canva’s Magic Media app.