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Reading Myself in Joseph’s Story

I can count on one hand the number of times Joseph—husband of Mary, carpenter, angel-dreamer, step-father of God—is mentioned in the Bible. What do we do with a biblical character who is so little mentioned, but who is so obviously important? We could study his lineage, make sure he satisfies all the prophetic requirements to be “parent” of the Messiah. We could find the literary parallels between this Joseph and the Old Testament dreamer. Once we’ve exhausted the ways of analyzing and exegeting Joseph’s story, what are we left with? Mostly mystery.

Yet it is as we encounter Mystery, as we read between and through the lines, that we find our richest treasures. We face our own unknowing; questions flock to us like redwing blackbirds to cattails, their wordless lyrics filling the half-light with glory. In this place of humble openness, we encounter the Living Word who springs off pages and rouses our souls with questions that shake us, challenge, comfort, and make way for transformation.

This way of reading scripture—not with an analytical mind, but rather a spacious welcome—is often called Lectio Divina or “sacred reading,” and it has been practiced for centuries. It is an approach to scripture that places the reader not in the role of interpreter, but interpreted. Certainly there is value to reading the Bible critically, thoughtfully. But if we stop there, we miss so much— perhaps even the real grit and power that its authors and Author intended.

Any Adventist worth his or her salt could tell you what scripture is good for: teaching, reproof, correction and instruction in righteousness (2 Timothy 3:16). Lectio Divina is about just that—allowing our sacred text to truly guide us, not only to heady knowledge, but through a life-changing, transformative process. A wise proverb from the 12 Step community reads: “You do not think your way into a new way of living; you live your way into a new way of thinking.” Lectio Divina’s four stages, lectio meditatio, oratio andcontemplatio, are surrendered, open ways of being where there is the most possibility for healing and growth.

In preparation for a day on which Christians following the traditional liturgical calendar will be thinking of Joseph (March 19), it seems fitting to remember him now with a slow sacred reading of his story. With a cup of rooibos steaming within reach and my body nestled in my favorite orange wingback, I settle into the lectionary’s Gospel text for March 19.

Lectio (reading): I read slowly, savoring the full impact of each word in my mouth—the feel of consonants against teeth and lips, the spaciousness of vowels. I listen for a special word or phrase, attending to my heart and gut response to some small whisper from God in this passage.

The Birth of Jesus the Messiah – Matthew 1:18-25 (NLT)

“This is how Jesus the Messiah was born. His mother, Mary, was engaged to be married to Joseph. But before the marriage took place, while she was still a virgin, she became pregnant through the power of the Holy Spirit. Joseph, her fiancé, was a good man and did not want to disgrace her publicly, so he decided to break the engagementquietly.

As he considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream. ‘Joseph, son of David,’ the angel said, ‘do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife. For the child within her was conceived by the Holy Spirit. And she will have a son, and you are to name him Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.’

All of this occurred to fulfill the Lord’s message through his prophet:

            ‘Look! The virgin will conceive a child! 

She will give birth to a son, 

and they will call him Immanuel, which means “God is with us.”’

When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded and took Mary as his wife. But he did not have sexual relations with her until her son was born. And Joseph named him Jesus.”

“Woke Up”

Meditatio (meditation): I hold these two words, “woke up,” gently, repeating them, memorizing them, letting them sink deeply into my being. I feel the harsh urgency of k and p. I allow the words to stir and reveal things in me—feelings of lethargy and reluctance, a niggle of fear. A memory from childhood of being in the backseat of the car just parked at home late at night, pretending to be asleep so Daddy would carry me inside. The caramel sweetness of waking up from a beautiful dream. The longing to live wide awake, aware of angels and secret, ridiculous truths.

“Woke up.” I play with the words: Joelle woke up. Joelle’s sleeping feet woke up and tingled, stung. Joelle woke up and lived her life, did what her soul-dreams challenged her to do. My inner voice rises at the end of each sentence, forming a question rather than a statement. Joelle woke up? Wonder, possibility.

Oratio(prayer): As the words tumble through my consciousness (and even wriggle their way into subconsciousness), I offer them intentionally back to God, who first offered them to me. I invite God to participate as Living Word and to touch my frightened place, to give energy and momentum to my desire, to change me. God, Mystery, engages in a wordless dialogue with my heart and mind, asking, “Who are you, Joelle? What are you really afraid of? Can you, could you, dare to live your dream? And who am I? What might I be dreaming for you?” Gradually my grip on these strong feelings, memories, and thoughts loosen as I know myself to be entirely welcome in God’s gaze. So does the gift of the two words.

Contemplatio(contemplation): Rest. Silence. Thoughts quiet as I sit, still in my orange chair, with inner eyes softly noticing God’s presence. I gently return to an awareness of Presence if thoughts or sensations return….

After many moments of this quiet fullness, long after the silence has grown uncomfortable and the matter of comfort has become irrelevant, I widen my attention to my body, the room, the sounds of the city. I remember those potent words, “woke up,” the things they stirred, and how they might fit into my active, practical world. What would it look like for Joelle to wake up?

When Joseph woke up, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded. When Joelle woke up, she did brave and marvelous deeds. She faced her inordinate need for approval. She chose to spend more time doing what made her feel truly alive. She tackled mundane and annoying tasks with her full consciousness, fully awake….

This practice of Lectio Divina is scary business. If done in a posture of unqualified surrender, it’s dangerous. Things will change. They may not become easier, wealthier, or safer, but they will always become better. The potential of surrender is limitless.

What if we, like Joseph, were to practice “sacred reading” with our dreams—meditating, praying and contemplating something that followed us from sleep into waking world? Or with the rest of life: our daily interactions with others, our habitual reactions, the colors and textures of workplace and home? How about texts in addition to the Bible? What if we let fiction, film, music, and the news interpret us, reveal us to ourselves? By doing so, we might just discover that God’s ever-present Mystery imbues every aspect of our lives.

For Joseph, God was as close as his pillow. He was okay with Mystery, with taking an angel’s word for it. He allowed his encounters with God to flow into his wakeful, human life. For Joseph, the line between God’s life and his was thin.

As we remember Jesus’ foster father in the days to come, I invite you to revisit this passage or another moment in Joseph’s story to find for yourself how Joseph’s experience with God can speak to yours. But only if you’re ready to encounter the Question that may ask too much—or all—of you.


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