“Maybe it was not such a good idea to meet for Christmas Eve,” he thought. The virus still raged. Everyone was told not to fly. He flew anyway. Then there was a nor’easter and his rental car had to plow through the last few miles to Grandmother’s house in Western Massachusetts. The “GPS knows the way to carry the sleigh,” kept running through his mind as the wipers tried to keep up with the downpour. When he finally burst into the house he expected his sister to already be there. Now he was worried she’d never get there at all, even though she was just coming from New York.
There was still a bit of evidence of the funeral meal they’d hosted in August. They had made an incomplete job of cleaning up the house they had inherited — and the caretaker kept it warm, not clean. As he put his gym bag on the dining room table, he looked around and realized he had made an incomplete job of saying goodbye, too. He slowly took in a very empty house, something like the body one sees in a casket at the viewing. The spirit just wasn’t there. This was his first real visit to the past.
The best part of his past, his sister Mary, was yet to arrive. His parents had named their only children, the twins, Joseph and Mary. It was never as funny as people thought it was. And their parents did not think it was funny at all. They lived a very serious life. They had died during one of their mission trips to South America, studying on site so they could translate the Bible into yet another indigenous language. They were in the back of a pick-up, their kids were told. It was too big for the burro track it was on and the cliffside gave way. It took months to retrieve and ship their bodies. Now they were buried — inseparable in death as in life, in the ancient family plot behind Grandmother’s house, now the twins’ house.
Joseph loved the inside of the house. His sister loved the outside, every part of the ten acres. But they were not really sentimental about it. The property felt like a burden for the most part. It mostly reminded them of being teenage sojourners with no place to stay — it had been one of their stops. Their parents had not expected to die, for some reason, since they spent an entire adulthood risking their lives. And they made no provision for their young teens should it happen. The twins were surprised with the bad news by the headmasters of their respective boarding schools. They spent the rest of their teen years going from relative to relative, mostly in New England. Winter breaks were spent with Father’s mother in the big Victorian farmhouse. So Christmas belonged to Grandmother. It was always Grandmother and Grandfather just as he was always Joseph, never Joe, never Joey — and certainly not Jo Jo!
Grandmother attended to propriety, but she was never a very attentive caregiver. The same year as their parents, Grandfather died and she became even more distant. Her last fifteen years were spent deteriorating with her house. It was like her cell membrane dissolved and she merged into indefinition. The men in her life had apparently been in charge of faith, because she realized she did not have any. She did not say anything about it, but the Christmas ornaments were slowly culled of angels and manger scenes and the exiled pieces were replaced with glass balls designed to reflect light without having any meaning of their own. They once found a box of lonely pieces in the attic.
As he waited, Joseph gravitated to his favorite room in the house where he had spent many hours alone — nursing his attachment wounds and avoiding his grievances. The dusty library was all his after Grandfather died. Grandmother barely touched it. He loved the novels, shelves of them.
But the book that probably made the most impact on him was an old hardback he found of not much more than 100 pages called Joseph the Dreamer. It was a short book because it had a small point: We all have a dreamer in us and the two Josephs that figure prominently at the beginning of the Old and New Testaments represent how primary this energy is in us all. Our dreams are the well-evolved capacity in us for spiritual experience. They are the doorway through which everyone can enter into their inner dialogue with God.
In the Bible, both Josephs are on a journey of becoming. They are both led beyond their ordinary sense of self — the sense of “I am;” I am myself, which is just the shoreline of the ocean our true selves. The dreams of the first Joseph lead him away from the shadow his brothers represent and into the darkness of his prison where he wrestles his desires and realizes his capability. Later, when he again meets his brothers, he does not use his power to get even, but teases out their confession and restores their relationship. He realizes he has always been serving a deeper calling than he could see in his pits and prisons and productivity.
The dreams of the second Joseph are often seen as bolts out of the blue given to direct salvation history. No doubt his parents interpreted their own dreams that way. But, chances are, like the little book claims, the second Joseph’s dreams represent a well-developed spiritual capacity, a deep connection to the Spirit. Joseph knows how to listen deeply. He’s not just a reluctant security guard for the Savior.
The second Joseph’s dreams also have an interesting parallel with the first. Like the first Joseph had unusual dreams that made his brothers furious, there is a good possibility that the second Joseph was always a bit more dreamy than most people in Nazareth. Other men were kings and warriors but he was more a magician and lover.
There is a good possibility that his furniture did not sell well because it often had an impractical flourish that made it look odd or look Roman. While other workers held their noses and did the job, he probably liked working on the restoration project of Herod Antipas in Sepphoris because it was the only interesting thing going in Galilee – beautiful new houses needing new furniture and new rooms decorated with elaborate mosaic floors. Sepphoris was a city on a hill to which he walked with his sons, a city which could not be hidden.
His neighbors in more homespun Nazareth were not in the market for imaginative carpentry skills and liked to think their practical, simple tastes were exactly what the Torah prescribed. In truth it was exactly the opposite. Their narrowness revealed their lack of basic self-awareness. Their self-protective legalism revealed their lack of appreciation for the transcendent qualities resident in Moses, whose law was like a veil blocking the view of his face burning like the bush from which God called him. So the second Joseph was a good partner for God in his plan to share the spiritual bounty imprisoned in the fallen creation. Jesus came to bring it all out of the pit, to welcome it back home like a prodigal child who needed to be blessed with a multicolored coat.
When Joseph found his second wife to be with child, he was tempted to let the engagement go and find a way to save her dignity. After all, there was only so far he could afford to stretch the sensibilities of his main sources of income. And one could never know how people might get whipped up into a murderous fury by some angry young man, of which there were many in Galilee. Mary might be sold off as a slave, or worse.
But after years of planing down the bark and imperfections of his soul as he patiently planed his finely imagined furniture, Joseph had a receptive awareness that only needed a whisper in the night to gain his attention. After the angel gently spoke to him in his dream, he shuttered his business, defied his relatives, and ended up in Egypt like the first Joseph, nurturing the Answer to the riddles of life. From that place of shadow an even greater salvation was given as a gift to the new remnant of God’s people, the people who change their minds about who really manages creation.
Joseph loved this book and had read it many times. He hid it high on a shelf where he expected no one would ever look. He climbed up to that shelf now and found it again, just to make sure it was still there. A flood of memory hit him as he held it in his hand. He had just had a dream of his own. In it was a woman a lot like his sister Mary. She was relying on him to reveal things to her since she never remembered her dreams. She attended to him like a companion. He was painstakingly teaching her things and she was taking them all in without fear or jealousy. It was like they were having a spiritual meal together.
In this way, the woman in his dream was much like Mary in the Bible, he thought. She could listen too! As soon as she got a message she understood exactly how it applied and she put it into practical or poetic form. She was always on her donkey visiting an Elizabeth and regularly came up with a Magnificat. His own sister was a bit like this. She could not stand church or silence, almost the opposite of him, since he could hardly stand anything but smoke and prayer. He admired his sister’s pragmatism, the shadowy, turbulent yin to his airy, light yang. Like her namesake in the Bible, Mary was more political, angrier. Her angel was a shining man, Gabriel, while his angels were all women.
Some people think the angel Gabriel oversaw the Galilee territory, and he was the one assigned to contact Joseph like he had Mary. But no one says who appeared to Joseph. It was probably a woman angel. No doubt his parents thought that was impossible since the Bible always talks about angels appearing male, even though angels don’t have the same kind of earth-bound, gender-bound duties as humans. Having been connected his whole life to a Mary, he just couldn’t see it. Joseph needed something more than enough spine to stand up to his brothers who were considering stoning his betrothed. God had always met him in the dreamy places and his companion woman must have carried the word.
Joseph was so deep in memories, dreams and grief, so far away from the library, lost in his thoughts, he was not really present until snow began to fall on the book cover. Mary had gotten up the drive, through the door and clear into the library without startling him until now. He jumped out of the reading chair, looked up at the ceiling before he turned around and saw her ready to shake the rest of the snow off her coat. Before any word was said, she came around his womb of a chair and embraced him. He set the book on the cushion and let the snow melt through his shirt. “My dear brother,” she said.
She let him go, brushed the flakes off her shoulders and shook snow out of her knit cap. “You must put your shoes back on and find your coat. It is already 10:15. The ride up here was a beast and I am surprised I am not dead. I would be if the snow had been any deeper when I fished that woman out of the ditch.”
“You stopped the car?”
“We can talk about that later. We need to get over to village for the vigil.”
“They are having a vigil?”
“This is the middle of nowhere. Wear your mask if you must. We never miss the vigil and, virus or not, I intend to be there.”
“Wasn’t it hard enough just to get to the farm? The road over to the village is no more than a lane. I’m sure it won’t be plowed until the 27th!”
“Then we can walk. We have those snow shoes somewhere. Where do you think they are?”
Joseph stood back and looked at her. She had begun to pick up stray utensils and plates on her way to the kitchen. He followed her to the sink where she began to sort and rinse and admired her bustling. She didn’t want to go to the vigil; she just wanted the dangerous journey. What she liked about the story was Mary traveling to Bethlehem pregnant. She secretly imagined birthing her first child in the barn. “You are amazing, you know,” he said.
She turned off the water and turned to look at him smiling. He smiled too. And then they laughed like only twins can amuse each other.
“I know you don’t want to go,” she said. “But I also know you don’t want to miss the vigil.”
“Let’s create a stable in the barn and you can give birth there.”
“How did you know that? Did one of your angels tell you?”
“She did not need to. It only makes sense.”
“Well. I suppose it will be hard enough to get to the barn, at this point.”
They started in the attic and found the box of repressed figurines and were glad to spot an old advent wreath with some used candles still in the holders. Mary overturned a frame and there were their parents, just married. They decided to let them join in. As a whim, Joseph grabbed a very old stick horse, since an animal needed to give witness.
When they left their inn for the stable the snow had stopped and a cold, round moon gilded the scattering clouds. A noiseless barn owl leapt through the missing board in the hay window door and flew through the light. They both gasped as they watched it move through the silent night in the clouds of their breath. If the nesting were late, they might meet the rest of the family up in the rafters.
There was no need to talk. They got to work like missionaries making do with what was available. An old milk crate could be a manger. A milking stool had been sitting in a corner for decades waiting for its chance to be an altar. The witness horse was propped up between two cinder blocks. Mom and Dad sat facing it on the other side on a block of their own.
Mary sat on the ground, determined to get quite dirty. Joseph lit the candles slowly and deliberately named each one: the hope candle, the peace candle, the joy candle and the love candle. And they waited.
The waiting allowed Mary’s exhaustion to catch up with her and she slowly rolled into Joseph’s shoulder. He put his arm around her as she dozed.
They had not thought about what to do at the appointed time. The rector would ring the bell in the village; maybe they would hear it across the field. They knew the organist would be playing Silent Night and everyone would have a candle. Mary said, “Oh Joseph, we have forgotten the baby! What will we put in the box?”
“Shall I go find a doll?” he asked.
“Oh no, you can’t go anywhere. You are my blanket.”
“Then God will have to provide the baby. If no other way, I can imagine you acting like a baby right here in the barn. Remember when we were about ten years old and I would not let you swing from the loft? Father heard the argument and said we would not be able to come back if we did not get along.”
“I would like a do-over with Father,” she whispered.
“I am glad we had each other when were growing up, especially when Mother and Father died. I felt so left alone. If it were not for you…”
“Maybe that’s it,” she interrupted. “We could claim Joseph and Mary once and for all and let them produce the baby. Our parents and grandparents tended to send the baby into cold storage for much of the year. But we kept welcoming that poor child.”
“I love that,” he laughed. “This gets better all the time. How about if we joined Joseph and Mary in the scene, even became one with them, and swaddled the newborn king ourselves?” He thought, “In some sense it is like I have been here in a dream and God was telling me what was going to be born. It is a whole new day. The earth is clean with snow and somehow we got here.”
They both got up out of their spectator seats on the floor and silently moved beside the manger box and knelt there. Joseph saw the cradle light up. And somehow the word came to him, “Do not be afraid.” He spoke it. “Do not be afraid, Mary.”
She began to sing, “O, holy night! The stars are brightly shining.”
The next morning a hush was still over the house. They did not speak until breakfast, but then they marveled at the parts of themselves they gave to each other in love — and how it all came together in the barn like it came together in the Bible: man and woman, dreamer and doer, past and future, old and new. God was with them like in a dream — candlelight and the mystery of tragic circumstances touched with glory. It was a story of improbable, willful, scared people welcomed into their own birthing process. They could hardly remember it all. They couldn’t be sure if they ever needed to have Christmas Eve in the same way again. It was quite enough for now and surely something else was ready to fly into the moonlight.